So, what exactly is it like to be a “travel blogger” today?


The New York Times attempts to answer this question, looking at the rapidly changing world of bloggers and how they interact with their readers and their sponsors and the conclusions they’ve drawn are quite interesting. And, while the miles & points blogger community is somewhat different from the travel blogger community, there are also some significant overlaps between the groups as well.

Travel bloggers tend to be independent-minded and passionate about their areas of interest. The best of them also tend to be on the cutting edge of the travel world, making them a valuable resource for readers frustrated with out-of-date guidebooks and what is often a morass of user reviews on sites like TripAdvisor. But they also face unique challenges; for one, they have to be not just their own editors in chief, but also their own directors of marketing and Web developers. And, ideally, they need to stay objective despite all the sponsorships.

Sunset over the Indian Ocean
Sunset over the Indian Ocean as seen from Western Australia

One underlying theme of the story seems to be about how the travel bloggers manage to fund their trips. Apparently most have not yet discovered the payouts associated with credit card referrals and so they look for other means to pay their way, mostly through sponsored trips. And that raises interesting challenges.

The recent TBEX conference in Toronto, with its rah-rah keynote speeches and panels on “Content Strategy” and “The Intersection of Marketing and Blogging,” made one thing clear: those waters are increasingly murky.

Nowhere was this more evident than the popular speed-dating sessions. Bloggers signed up for eight-minute sessions with 138 sponsors. …

Amid the scrum was Michelle Holmes…who went on about 20 speed dates in all, which led to a handful of follow-up conversations with marketers and a couple of probable sponsored trips. It put her one step closer to her goal: “to be able to balance a work-slash-writing career without selling my soul.”

So apparently the way to success is not necessarily to actually profit from the content produced; it is more about reducing costs by getting other people to pay for the trips. And still to maintain an independent view while doing so. How do you balance pitching a tourism board on the value you can bring to them while also remaining objective and independent? If you only get to see the itinerary that the hosts put together for you is that sufficiently immersive and complete to form opinions on the destination?

This is the part I find most perplexing. If you’re aggressively trying to pitch companies to pay for your travels can you really remain independent in the content produced? And, moreover, can the stories told actually have real value to others? Not surprisingly some of the bloggers interviewed in the piece note that the sponsored trips appear to result in more “junk content” being produced.

One aspect of the story which gives it credibility in my mind is that the author actually talked with a number of the bloggers rather than just guessing at how the market is evolving. The people quoted are names I recognize (some I know in real life; others I’ve interacted with online for some time) which, to me, makes the story more “real.”

When the bloggers are describing their approach to travel more like a marketing organization than as a traveler, is it really what you would want to read and trust as guidance in your personal travel decisions?

Mr. Jenkins believes that there are three phases of “creating buzz” for any travel blogging experience: announcing a campaign (often with a specific Twitter hashtag) before a trip, sending out Twitter messages and Instagram photos during the trip (again, with a consistent hashtag), and only then, after a trip has concluded, putting up blog posts.

At the end of the day I still find myself wondering just what bits of the content I’m reading online can or should be trusted. Is a review based on a sponsored trip the same as one where the traveler is paying out of their own pocket? What happens when the author is focused on the publicity of their stories and delivering a “buzz” to their sponsor so that they can score the next big trip? Is it possible to explain to a reader what they can expect at a destination when the local tourism board won’t be calling ahead to every venue to ensure that the experience is top-notch?

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

23 Comments

  1. Very revealing article…….gives you rationale why we see so many articles about the Far East and so few about Europe………sponsored versus unsponsored……but that’s ok…..just hit the delete button……..

  2. Thanks Seth for this great write up, it’s certainly food for thought especially when one ponders the perceived ‘neutrality’ or ‘unbiased’ opinion of a blogger. A lot of people take issue with the ‘purity’ of a blogger’s content as just trying to avoid any sponsored writing because the blogger simply wrote about the benefits/perks of a product/service or a liked destination. To me, is an issue that will never be settled. And if you don’t like what you read or ‘perceive’ that the writer sold their soul to the devil, then don’t bother readying that blog anymore, simply put – case closed!

  3. Great article. This is why I take your input much more seriously than some of the other BoardingArea bloggers who recently decided to constantly push referrals. There’s nothing wrong in being sponsored if there is a balance. Unfortunately for many bloggers on this site things became too focused on sponsorships and $$$$

  4. This article is one reason why I don’t feel so bad about credit card affiliate marketing. I know it can still be done poorly or badly, but earning money through advertising and referrals means that I get to decide how I use it and what I want to write about (you could argue there’s still bias if I were to write too much about a particular card in my effort to earn referrals).

    But at least when I visit a destination, I’m there because I want to be and not because it’s the only place that was willing to offer me a free trip.

  5. Good food for thought. As I’ve started using a blog simply as an easy way to privately share our trip photos and stories with family members across the country, I wonder if one day I’d like to do something along those lines more seriously as a “semi-hobby” once I retire. I had just read about the TBEX conference somewhere, actually.

    Personally I think it’s hard to be objective when being sponsored on a trip; or at least, hard for me to take what the traveler says seriously. I generally won’t follow writers or bloggers who do get regularly comped. The way I see it, I can easily find the CVBs, hotel and attraction websites, etc. for most places myself. So I can see their one-side attractive photos, writeups, etc. What I value from the online travel world is independent reviews from people who just chose a destination for their own personal reasons.

    I find non-sponsored writers tend to educate me more about off-the-beaten track destinations, or sights. Again, I can find more than enough info about London, Hawaii, Aruba, Hong Kong, etc. on my own!

    BoardingArea has too many folks that either are comped or seem to let affiliate marketing or ad needs drive their choices. You’re one of the exceptions, and hope you always will be!

  6. “Apparently most have not yet discovered the payouts associated with credit card referrals and so they look for other means to pay their way”

    So do you see a difference between trusting a trip review that was sponsored vs a credit card review by somebody with related affiliated links? I’m not sure I see it.

    At least with trip reviews if you rate them poorly you mostly likely didn’t plan to go to there again anyway (or wanting anything from them again). When reviewing an affiliated credit card you may be affecting an ongoing relationship that you would most likely like to keep.

    1. No matter how good we think we are or how smart we think we are we can always get smarter and get better………and I certainly had rather those discussions be on places I want to go. Seeing a review with a connection on China Air or Royal Jordanian to an island that takes a couple of days to get to and a couple of days to return from is absolutely sponsored 9 times out of 10 and is a waste of a working human’s time (or 99 out of 100 normal working human beings)…….discussing the best spots on the French Riviera which would be quite useful is almost NEVER reviewed………not sure if the bloggers are intimidated by the Riviera or just refuse to write about anything that they aren’t sponsored on……….but if you look at surveys of where people want to go it is France first……….there should be a flood of bloggers reviewing D-Day 7-th anniversary trips but there are none………no it’s take my Mom to Easter Island? Please?

  7. It is a worrying trend. My http://www.bugadvisor.com blog only has a small readership so I’ve never been offered anything. I also tend to fund all my own travel rather than travel on business (Dubai, Germany and Romania being the exceptions so far). I guess if I was ever offered a free trip/hotel/flight etc I would probably accept it and then start the subsequent review with a disclaimer that described what had been provided. I’d like to hope that my review wouldn’t be influenced by the freebie, but equally I would worry that by not being anonymous, I was treated better than the average guest. As for blog.wandr.me, it seems to have become a closed shop – they have a ‘become a blogger’ link and submit your site details dialog, but nobody ever replies to this (bit rude I think) – has anyone managed to become a new boardingarea blogger recently?

    1. Paul: They’re been reading their own press releases and don’t think they need any help……..

  8. @Scottrick: Yes, if you are earning cash otherwise then you can choose where to spend the money and where to visit so you don’t need to chase comp’d trips. But you also identify the CC conundrum. It is, IMO, horribly overdone these days to a level well beyond what is reasonable to keep even the most casual reader well-informed about what options they have. Combine that with the number of cards which are good but not covered by bloggers – one recently admitted that they chose not to discuss the IHG card because there was no commission offered – and the grass isn’t all that much greener.

    @Carl P: The difference I see (alluded to just above) is that I feel more comfortable taking advice when I know someone has a real investment in their version of the experience. That line was really meant to point out that if the travel bloggers wanted a better way to fund their travels there are options out there, especially if they really can influence the public like they claim to for CVBs and such.

    @JustSaying: I’m not sure which stories/bloggers/posts you’re reading where you think all the trips are comp’d so I cannot really speak to that. But I’m 99% certain that all the IPC reports recently came from people getting in on the $1000 biz fare, not comps. As for writing about the French Riveria, that is not interesting to me. I have no idea if my readers would find it interesting or not, but I don’t so I won’t be writing about it any time soon. Of course, should a mistake fare to NCE show up I reserve the right to change my mind. 😉

    If you want to read about trips to France there are many out there. The miles & points community – and I was quite clear in the original post that there are some overlaps but I do believe it is mostly different from the “travel bloggers” discussed in the NYT piece – happens to often clump in to similar travel patterns because there are certain experiences which are considered to be the “best” by members of that community. It is niche writing to a target. The average American looking to visit France may not realize that there are more exotic, further flung destinations available or they might not care. But my experience talking with hundreds of people at conferences and such is that most treat Paris as a weekend trip, not a “trip of a lifetime” and so the bar is raised for where to go and what to do. Oh, and in the past few weeks there have been a number of trip reports about Paris hotels.

    @Paul: Last I heard Boarding Area was not actively taking on new blogs but I don’t pay much attention on that front as it doesn’t really affect me so much personally. To your point about disclosure and bias, that’s where things get murky to me as well. I have a trip coming up in a few weeks where the airfare and overnight hotel are comp’d. It is a trip I’m taking for another publication (not this blog) so I won’t be writing about it here but I will be writing about it. I know that disclosure will be provided in the story and I intend to remain objective. We’ll see what ultimately comes from it. In that case the airline approached the publication with the offer and my schedule meant I was the writer assigned the piece.

    1. Traveling to where there is a mistake fare occurs or where the airline pays for the trip versus once a year FC aspirational trips to top EU locations sums up the difference in our interests……but from sifting thru all the blog white noiser I have figured how to stay 8 days in London at the Conrad free and 6 days in Paris at the Vendome free but Normandy I am going to have to pay for so I can stand on the ground my father-in-law took 70 years ago……..so assistance in getting the miles A LOT thru credit card advice…….where to stay and what to see virtually nothing as I am not intereseted in the over promoted under traveled sites……..

      1. If you don’t like the destinations covered then it is probably time to find a different group of writers, JustSaying. It isn’t that there is no content on Normandy out there, it is that you are looking in the wrong place. Still, as you note, you got information on how to get 14 nights free in two major European cities. I’d say there is probably some value there to you, even if they don’t talk much about Normandy.

        @Liz, no forgiveness needed. 🙂 He’s not my cup of tea when it comes to content but you are correct in his policies and where the funding comes from.

  9. Forgive me for saying so, but this is why the only travel website I think is totally reliable is JoeSentMe.com. It has no ads of any kind and a strict (and totally public) stance on links and such: http://member.biztravelife.com/cyber.htm#POLICY It is also why I happily fork over $69 for membership. I trust what it says because I know that my bucks, not an airline or hotel, funds the operation. This is not to disparage any other site. But I like knowing what influences and who controls the information I am reading.

  10. There seems to be a perception that only travel bloggers take sponsored trips. I don’t believe that’s entirely true. In 2009, I was the only travel blogger of the five writers invited on a press trip. Obviously, the others were wrote for print publications. I was the only writer of the bunch that disclosed the sponsored travel in my articles.

    1. I don’t think that the history of FAM trips is all that hidden, Sheila, though certainly some are more up front about disclosure than others. Just because others are doing it doesn’t necessarily make it right though.

  11. Fascinating follow up to a surprisingly good article. I have not been approached to be sponsored, not sure how I will react if some agency wants to send me to Maldives lol

  12. I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and lack of professional objectivity tends to be self-evident. If a blogger gushes about a destination, hotel, cruise ship, etc. and won’t shut up about it on Twitter or Facebook, it’s pretty obvious that the blogger hasn’t learned the difference between editorial and advertorial. (Then again, some travel bloggers are in the business of producing advertorial, and sponsored “blogger trips” often have different objectives and expectations than “press trips” do.)

    1. I think this is ultimately the difference, Durant. If providing the trip is conditional upon producing a certain amount or type of content that crosses the line of editorial control IMO. And far too many do. FAM trips used to be much more focused but without the expectations of public content so much IMO. Things have certainly changed.

      1. There seems to be a distinction these days between “press trips” and “blogger trips.” The latter are often more about promotion than journalism. Example: A while back, I received a “blogger trip” invitation from a major tourist office that expected participants to team up and supply content for the tourist office’s Web site.

        Mind you, some hosts may blur the lines between “press trips” and “blogger trips” because they don’t know any better, or because the marketing people have taken the reins from the PR people and made stupid decisions. Not too many months ago, the now-defunct Travelllll.com wrote about an airline-sponsored trip to the Middle East where–after arriving at the destination–the participants discovered they were part of a reality show that was being filmed for public broadcast. Some of the British and other European journalists on the trip contacted their editors and were told to come home. Thanks to a stupid decision by the airline’s PR or marketing people, the airline didn’t endear itself to the media, and a number of journalists wasted their time.

  13. Remaining objective is tough for many who write, especially when sponsors get involved. As the former owner of a small newspaper we often got sponsors to help defray the costs of investigating certain news stories. The sponsor always wants the story to be written to suit whatever his/her objective is, not whatever the truth is.

    In many cases a potential sponsor would approach us, demanding we write a “hit” piece on a competitor or to suit some political agenda. We always had to turn these requests down and instead offer to write copy for paid advertisements. And even some of these we had to turn down because we could not knowingly allow an advertiser to publish something we knew was not true.

    I always had sponsors sign releases which stated that whatever story comes out of the investigation would reflect the truth no matter where it lies. The language prohibited the sponsor from suing us when the results of an investigation into a story turned out to be something other than what they wanted.

  14. I personally think that the credibility of boardingarea as a whole is severely affected by the constant flow of credit card focused posts (the number of posts for a 5,000 miles incremental bonus on the SPG card was sickening). A factor that makes it more complicated in my mind is not knowing the quantum of the referral bonus (I am willing to gift $5 to somebody who provides valuable advice. If the referral is in the hundreds I am simply going to stop reading everything related to credit cards), and the difference between credit card providers (e.g. I want to know if AmEx pays more than Chase).

    1. I can offer two bits of thought on your comment, Ben, but not complete insight:

      1) The classification of most Boarding Area bloggers as travel bloggers is one I heartily disagree with. Being crazy about miles & points is not the same thing. At all.

      2) It is well more than $5/cc application approved. At least an order of magnitude, even for the less generous cards. The numbers vary a bit based on the relationship and other factors but assuming that each approval is north of $100 wouldn’t be too unreasonable, especially for Chase and AmEx products.

  15. Thanks for the reply and the valuable insight.
    Just wanted to clarify point 1. I am not characterizing BoardingArea bloggers as travel bloggers. I am simply observing that there are days when I enter the website and 95% of posts talk about the latest cannot-miss credit card offer, all making the same points about how amazing it is. I do believe all is done in good faith, and I am sure people can find hundreds of ways to rationalize it, but clearly incentives influence behavior (how many actually amazing offers have you seen over the last year?).
    Do I blame them? Definitely not, if I started to write a blog, and noticed I have a following, the temptation to make some money from the hobby would be extremely strong, following the old wisdom “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t [I]?”
    It is at time useful, I do not churn credit cards because I have an excellent but young credit history, but if I did it would be good to have perspectives on all bloggers on what they would get.At the same time, I would trust you 100% as you are a) knowledgeable and b) unconflicted. I would discount a lot all the conflicted advise because disclosing the conflict is very different from being transparent.
    Provocative idea: let’s ask boarding area bloggers to share annual financials, with total revenues and split of referrals vs. ads.

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