Christopher Higgins is a travel blogger and amateur photographer at https://thetravellingwriter.co.uk/. After suffering a debilitating workplace sickness, he has worked hard to overcome disability and inject his love of travel into writing across many genres and become a travel blogger. He is currently studying for an MLitt Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
Want to know a secret? When I was young, I never wanted to travel. I was an introverted homebody who thought holidays were for staying home and working on my novel. I wanted to be a teacher for the holidays, just until I became a famous novelist (this is the worst possible reason to get into teaching). So how did I end up where I am today?
How I Overcame A Workplace Sickness to Become a Travel Blogger?
I fell in love with travel the way I fell in love with my wife – hard, fast, and with too much collateral damage to count. We lived in two different countries, so the two are inexplicably linked. We met on the internet back when online communities were small, and you actually believed the people you met there were friends. She was in Toronto, Canada, and I was in Sydney, Australia. She chatted to me while she was at work, and I stayed up all night chatting to her before trying to drag myself to early morning university classes. By the end of my first semester, I was burned out and decided to see her. I never came back.
The trip involved flying into Vancouver and then taking the train around the United States before reaching Toronto. It was my first real taste of travel, and I loved it. I stayed in cheap hostels across the country, got rained on so hard in San Francisco that my passport became water damaged, met a lot of interesting people, and got to the top of the World Trade Center one year before the towers tragically came down. That left a lasting impression. Things don’t last forever. See them while you can.
Incidentally, that has become a theme over the course of my travels. A rope bridge in Vancouver was closed a year after I crossed the gorge it spanned. The Azure Window in Malta collapsed a year after my visit. Covid-19 temporarily shut down the tourism industry entirely the year I started a travel blog. I’m considering contacting tourist boards to see if they’ll pay me not to visit.
At this point, a travel blog was the furthest thing from my mind. You need money for that, and mine was being pumped into the immigration process. Canadians will tell you (or at least, they told me) that they have a very loose immigration system. That they pretty much let anyone in and being from another Commonwealth country makes it a mere formality. This is false. I lost years to an immigration system that didn’t think ‘I have a girlfriend’ is a good enough reason to enter the country. There were appeals, a marriage, more appeals, then a soft approval that granted me a work visa while they sorted out the rest.
I got a job in a warehouse and started putting out applications to go back to University – this time to be a doctor (inactivity had made me ambitious). Of course, that wasn’t to be. I fell off a ladder, broke my dominant arm in six places, shortened the bone, and impeded nerve function. Four surgeries later, and I’m still not right. It was this sickness that would shape the decisions that led me to where I am today.
Fast forward another decade. I moved to the United Kingdom, and my most recent surgery had me feeling pretty good. Lifting was still out of the question, and repetitive movement touched and went (still is). At 35, I was faced with the dilemma of type but unable to find a job because I had to work at my own pace to manage my pain. Freelance writing seemed my best option.
I enrolled in a BA in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Full-time education is not the easiest for a mature student, but it’s possible to have the right support structure. One of my classmates was a taxi driver who had to work shifts around class time and write poetry in the car between fares. Others were able to scrape by on student loans. I was lucky. Financially, we were in a position where my student loan was just extra money, and my wife insisted I spend it on travel.
I took a lot of weekend city breaks, and I took notes wherever I went. I learned to write short pieces of prose around my experiences. One of my first tutors was Horatio Clare, a great travel writer in his own right. The idea of becoming a travel writer was born.
At around this time, something weird happened. One of my wife’s relatives died, and his possessions were divided between his living relatives. The strange part was that not a single person who benefitted from his death actually knew who he was. A distant cousin that absolutely nobody seemed to have met but who had owned a house, invested well, and died fairly comfortably in his sleep. The money was enough for the two of us to take a dream trip to Egypt. 30 days in sun and sand, and history that had always fascinated me (early in our relationship, the wife and I visited the Royal Ontario Museum, and I showed off by interpreting some reliefs for her. We had a tour group following us around by the time we were finished). I took a course in photography at the Open University in preparation for the trip. I felt confident I would be able to turn it into a book.
I couldn’t. Publishers want a hook—some personal connection to the place or an angle that only you can explore. I had none of these things, but I still had my notebooks and two cameras filled with pictures. It took me a while longer to decide to transfer everything I had done into blog form.
The internet is a wonderful thing. It means that anyone can find a platform to publish their stories, blogs, advice, and opinions. It also means that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. I paid for my own premium hosting, but you can go for a free WordPress account or whatever suits you best. There are countless travel blogs out there, so now we get to the technical stuff and advice.
First, you need a niche. Something that helps you stand out from the crowd. You can specialize in luxury travel or backpacking, or go everywhere by boat. You can travel with a pet, or with kids, or solo. That’s the obvious stuff, and there will still be a lot of competition for those slots. If you’re a foodie or, better yet, a chef, you can specialize in different countries’ culinary tours. A good photographer can supplement their blogs with amazing photos. You get the idea. I’m an okay photographer. Good enough that I can stock my blog with my own photos and ignore any copyright headaches, but not good enough that I’ll be selling my work to magazines. My niche was as a writer. It is probably not the most original niche, but I rely on my storytelling skills and the lessons I learned during my degree to present essay-like blog posts that convey a sense of what it’s like to visit a place. It sets me apart from the various bloggers writing listicles and clickbait.
Second, you need readers, and that means social media. I found Twitter to be my best advertising platform, as there is a very supportive community that wants to follow other bloggers in exchange for their own follows and even trade comments. Facebook is mandatory but doesn’t drive traffic in my experience, and Instagram has been a waste of time except when traveling. I can’t compete with the bikini-clad influencers that are out there. Remember that followers do not equal readers. Most of the people who follow you have no interest in what you’re promoting. They just want you to follow them. You’ll figure out who your real followers are by interacting with them. Still, after you get a few thousand followers, you’ll begin attracting people organically, as long as you post regularly. Set up an email subscriber list, too. If someone signs up, they really do want to read your work.
Then there’s SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). I’ll call this point 2B. Basically, if you want to show up on search engines, you have to make sure those search engines can pick out you’re there. They do this by searching keywords. So think about what your readers might be searching for. If I’m writing a travel blog about Egypt, it helps if every blog post has the words ‘travel’ and ‘Egypt’ as many times as possible. Then you customize. On a post about a train trip from Cairo to Luxor, I sprinkled in words, ‘train,’ ‘Cairo,’ ‘Luxor,’ ‘cheap,’ ‘budget,’ and ‘sustainable’ so that I could reach people who wanted to know about sustainable or budget travel. It can be annoying, but it’s how you get out there. I’ll mention Pinterest here, too. It could have gone into social media, but it works because people who search for the Pyramids can find my Pinterest pins and click my photos to be directed to my blog. I haven’t mastered it yet, but it’s a compelling way to drive blog traffic.
Thirdly, we’ll talk monetization. Let me be clear. If you start a travel blog, you will lose money. Unless you have a huge number of readers, people aren’t going to offer you free flights or hotel stays. They’ll be annoyed with you for the asking. Travel is expensive, and if you can break even, you’re doing well. Bloggers make money in a few ways, though. They can host ads. This works if you have high traffic but can be a bit annoying for your readers. There’s the sponsored content route, where somebody pays you to write something good. Still, you have to disclose that’s what you’re doing, so it works more for lifestyle bloggers plugging makeup than it does for travel bloggers (although hiking equipment companies might be interested if you have a high enough readership). Most people make money through affiliate marketing instead. That’s where you sign up for a program that issues you with a code. You link to their website through this coded link, and you get a commission from people who buy something after being referred through you. It’s a good system, especially for the company, which only pays you if they get sales. It means they don’t have to bother paying for sponsored content. If you get the traffic, you can make a steady income this way, but it does mean writing many listicles and superficial content, making it difficult to stand out from the crowd. It doesn’t sit well with my storytelling approach, so I don’t do it (although I write the occasional list if nothing remarkable happened at a place I visited). I’m looking into Ko-fi as a way to accept donations and crowd-fund my blog going forward.
You may have figured out that, unlike most of the stories here, mine isn’t a success story so much as it is a story-in-progress. Let me give you something a bit more hopeful. I’m still in full-time education, studying an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, so this is still a part-time hobby. And I might not be making money from it directly, but it has opened doors. I don’t ask for things when I travel, but I find ways to mention that I’m a blogger casually. This doesn’t get me upgrades (although I wouldn’t turn them down), but it usually gets people to read the blog. Hotels and resorts follow me on social media. They sometimes retweet the things they are mentioned in. Some have offered me freelance copywriting work, similar to sponsored content. I get interviews with people and behind-the-scenes access in some places. Doors have opened for me, personally and professionally, through my blog. They can open for you too.