Making money online to fund a travel lifestyle is typically the biggest challenge for aspiring digital nomads. While the idea of starting a travel blog to fund your adventure sounds very appealing, reality is that you will need savings or another source of income to get you started. Even highly successful travel bloggers typically supplement their incomes from multiple websites or other freelance work. Dani and Jessica of GlobeTrotterGirls offer some great advice on how to find your first freelancing gigs and their experiences traveling the world in this interview. There is no easy path to online riches, but people like Dani and Jessica are proving that a travel lifestyle is possible with some hard work and focus.
Please tell us about your backgrounds?
We are Dani and Jessica, a German-American couple who met in Germany in 2006. Jessica was living in Germany at the time teaching English, and I was about to move to England to finish my degree in International Business there. Luckily, Jessica also had planned to move there to do a Master’s in Media and Culture Studies, so we ended up landing in England within a week of each other. We saw that as a sign of fate, and kept our relationship going despite the long distance (I was in the north and Jess in the south of the country) and then moved to London together. I worked as a Recruitment Consultant for the financial services sector, and Jess did PR for the national tourism board.
Please tell us about your travels?
After slaving away in our corporate jobs for a few years we were both miserable and decided we needed a change. Jess had already gone freelance working as a writer and I was about to change companies, when we semi-spontaneously decided to travel the world instead. Jess was able to work from anywhere already, and I had scored a big freelance project from my former boss, which meant a secure income for a few months. We started our trip in the U.S., followed by nine months in Mexico and Central America, a couple of months in Europe before heading back over the pond to Canada, where we spent last summer. We decided to explore South East Asia after a month-long road trip through the U.S. and a month in Jessica’s hometown Chicago. By then, we had already figured out that this nomadic lifestyle suited us and that we wanted to keep going as long as possible. We spent the last 8 months in South East Asia and India and after a month-long house-sit in the U.S. last month, we are now house-sitting on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast for two months before heading to South America.
Is a travel lifestyle as glamorous as people think?
The travel lifestyle is definitely more glamorous than our previous 9-5 (which in reality were 8-7) office jobs. However, it is a high-energy lifestyle that can be physically and emotionally draining, plus a lot of self-discipline to actually get work done and not be out sightseeing or laying on the beach all day. We also started to find it tiring to change hotels / guesthouses every few days, which is why we’re slowing down considerably now after two hectic and fast-paced years. We sometimes feel like we have less ‘downtime’ than before we became digital nomads – when you work for yourself, it is hard to ever stop working. Then there is maintaining our website and exploring the destinations we stop in, and fitting in time to research and plan our next steps. When people hear what we’re doing, we are usually told ‘how lucky we are’, but most of them don’t realize how much we actually sacrifice: we gave up our apartment, we don’t own anything but what’s in our backpacks, and we don’t have a place to go back to. Even though we love the freedom, having no stability is a major trade-off.
For some people, this lifestyle is more about location independence, but we take the actual travel aspect seriously to share with our readers – which means finding off-the-beaten path spots, booking into great hotels, making sure to find the best transportation alternative, etc. All that said, we still prefer working over 12 hours on a gorgeous beach in Cambodia for ourselves to working in an office for someone else any day!
Have you had any major troubles on your travels?
In our first year as full-time travelers we were pretty lucky and didn’t have any major troubles. If anything, Jess seems to be the most unlucky. She had a bout with Dengue in Belize, a woman cut through her bag on a bus in Guatemala but luckily she discovered it before the woman could steal anything. We both got majorly scammed in Bangkok last fall. It took us months until our pride was restored, and we have been extra careful ever since. Another troublesome moment was when Jess got rammed by a cow in India a couple of months ago. She was laid up and immobile for a few weeks, and even though nothing was broken there was some serious bruising and muscle tears.
Has being a gay couple been an issue in your travels?
Being a gay couple has never really been an issue, but it made for many awkward moments when receptionists give us a room with twin beds even though we had reserved a double room beforehand. We always have to decide if we want to go through the trouble of asking for a double bed instead and getting awkward looks or just live with it. If we are in countries like Belize or Malaysia, where homosexuality is still illegal, we usually step ‘back into the closet’ to avoid any trouble.
How do you earn an income now?
I am still lucky enough to get the occasional freelance project in a very well-paying field, but we are moving more and more towards earning money with our own businesses…Our main website is profitable through advertising, and we run a couple of niche sites that also contribute to that income stream, but we also freelance for several clients in the field that we grew into through Globetrottergirls: handling Social Media accounts or blog writing for companies, etc. We have been meaning to put out at least one eBook in the near future, but didn’t want to feel the pressure to just get one out there like many others have done. Jess is also about to launch a separate business in the next couple of months related to her experience of navigating life as a seriously serial expat.
Is travel blogging still a good business model?
I think first of all it depends on whether the blog has to support a single individual, a couple or an entire team. For single travelers, advertising can be plenty lucrative enough to cover the cost of travel, but we know many people who can only make that work in developing countries where the cost of living is lower.
A travel blog can be an additional source of income though, or better yet an excellent branding platform, which can lead into bigger and better expertise-led gigs. If someone wants to make money exclusively by blogging, then creating a network of several blogs is probably the best way to earn a quality income. Better still would be to create useful products or services to sell through the blog, such as eBooks, consulting services, speaking engagements, etc.
Even for those just looking to supplement their income while traveling, we think it is important for travel bloggers to realize that it takes a while before advertisers see your site as a viable platform and until you get comfortable asking for competitive rates, you may get hoodwinked into accepting low ad rates as well. I would recommend starting off with some savings to hold you over until the blog makes enough money to fully pay for your trip.
How do you find your freelance writing and photography work?
We were both in the fortunate position to have steady freelance projects from our former employers in the UK but we have also used websites for freelance gigs like PeoplePerHour and eLance.com. The money I earn from my photographs is minimal though and I have given up on the idea of making a living off it – it has become rather a hobby than an income stream and I mainly use our website to showcase my photos.
What advice can you offer aspiring travel writers and photographers?
Like many aspiring travel writers, Jess started off by writing for free for several publications in return for exposure and references. It took her a while to build up a paying client base and our advice would be to build up a reliable client base before pursuing a location-independent lifestyle. Competition is fierce and the money is not great. Jess earned a much better income from corporate clients than from travel writing gigs and even some top travel publications. Some publications request or even require artwork (photography) to accompany the piece, and insist that they don’t have extra budget for images. For me, without a background in photography it is much harder to sell my photos. There are so many travel photographers out there today, and a good percentage are very talented, so it is hard to stand out selling individual images to publications.
Please tell us about your house-sitting experiences?
We started to actively look for house-sitting gigs as soon as we started our trip. We knew that we’d want to stop for a couple of weeks or even a couple of months from time to time and house-sits are perfect for that. You have a ‘home’ for a while including a comfortable bedroom, a fully equipped kitchen and adorable pets to take care of – all things that we are missing tremendously on the road. And after a few weeks of staying in mediocre guest houses it always feels great to stay in a nice house.
We have house-sat in Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Canada, the U.S., Germany and in Mexico so far, and we found all these house-sits through either housecarers.com or mindmyhouse.com. We get daily email notifications and apply for the ones that appeal to us. We also had offers to house-sit in Venezuela,Sweden, Guatemala, Bangkok, San Francisco and Australia but we had to turn them down because of other commitments.
Do you have any advice for others considering house-sitting?
The more you house-sit and the more references you get (provided they are good), the more interesting your profile is to homeowners. We always recommend house-sitting for friends or family first so that you have a reference when you sign up for these sites and pay the membership fee. One great thing about being nomads is that we are truly location independent. This means that we can accept a house-sit wherever they are available. One of our first house-sits brought us to Tucson, a city we had no intention of visiting but it was close enough to the route of our 2010 U.S. South West road trip so we took it. It turned out to be one of our best times in the past two years. We loved the homeowners, the dog, the house and the pool – and we just recently did a second house-sit there this past June for another month, two years later!
How long do you plan to continue your travel lifestyle?
We have no idea how much longer we’ll be traveling for – a year ago, we might have answered ‘we’ll travel for four years’ but since we’ve started, we are constantly adding new places to our travel wish list. Plus, we love the minimalist lifestyle – we are not keen on having to pay bills again and all the other responsibilities that come with having an apartment/car/payments. We are thinking about severely slowing down though in a couple of years – spending three months at a time in places like Lisbon, Berlin, Paris, Rome and Istanbul. We both haven’t lived in our respective hometowns & home countries for many years though, and I think if we ever stop traveling (at least full-time), we’ll live as expats somewhere again, the way we did at the start, in London.