Documenting your travels online? Read this first – the essential do’s and dont’s for producing a compelling, fun travel blog
The winner of the Lonely Planet’s 2009 Best Travelogue award, Tom Fewins, is candid about the success of his blog, World in Slow Motion.
“I was a bit cynical about the whole thing, really,” he says. “I always thought that [blogging] was a bit self-regarding, actually, and thought, ‘who on earth would want to read about our trip apart from maybe family and a few friends?’”
Tom and his girlfriend, now fianc?e, Lara, set up World in Slow Motion in May 2008, to capture their flight-free round the world trip.
“When we got thinking about it more we thought part of the reason for our trip, and going without flying, was so that we could try and inspire a few other people,” says Fewins. “We put all the information on the website so people could have a go at it themselves.”
Tom and Lara are now writing a book about their travels, and while you might not replicate their success, a well-written blog can serve as a record of your travels, an inspiration to other travellers, and, with some luck, a money spinner.
Setting up a blog
The first thing to decide is how your blog will work. You can set one up for free at Google’s www.blogger.com, or www.wordpress.com; the obvious advantage being that the nuts and bolts are safely hidden from view. All you need to do is enter a few details and you’re away.
There’s no arguing with the popularity of these sites – WordPress claims to have eight million blogs and 200 million readers per day, while Google claims 270,000 words are entered into Blogger.com every minute.
For the technically-inclined, setting up a blog with its own domain name (www.mygreattravelblog.com, for instance), is the way to go. Not only does the domain name distinguish your blog, but buying hosting with a company such as Go Daddy.com allows you more flexibility than a free service. You can keep your photos on your own servers, and for the truly committed, host your own videos. The customisations you can make are limited only by your technical chops.
Expect to pay around £40 a year for a hosted website and a .com domain name.
How to get online abroad
Do you need to take a laptop on your round the world trip? The drawbacks are obvious: laptops combine the unwanted traits of value, fragility and nickability all in one, easy to lose package. It’s not like there are many places on Earth that don’t have internet caf?s with their own PCs, either: I’ve updated my blog, www.sorryforthegroupemail.com, from other people’s computers in Ulaan Bataar in Mongolia, Hat Yai in Thailand and Tapachula, Mexico, and can verify that internet caf?s are at least as common as pictures of Jordan in Heat.
But so are wireless networks, and having a laptop means you won’t be frantically tapping out notes on a borrowed (possibly malfunctioning) computer in an internet caf? while you wait for your bus.
The Lonely Planet’s Innovation Ecosystem manager Matthew Cashmore says the proliferation of wi-fi hotspots is changing travel blogging worldwide. “Local caf?s know they need to provide power points for mini-pcs and digital cameras as well as the basic utility of internet access,” he says. “Independent travellers are carrying an increasing amount of tech.”
With reasonably powerful netbooks starting at around £200, bringing a laptop with you also means you can write big chunks of your blog without internet access, then upload it in one go. Some blog software, such as WordPress, allows you to stagger the publication of your posts, allowing you to write ten entries and release them over a period of a few weeks.
What to write in your blog
With your blog set up and your equipment packed, you can get on with the far more important – and enjoyable – job of filling your blog. The ground rules for a travel blog are the same as for any other genre: your writing should be entertaining, detailed, and you should update your blog a few times a week to make sure people keep coming to check it.
That leaves you with the question of what to write. Your friends and family will want to know you’re alive and well; the wider world will be more interested in finding out where you are, what it’s like, and how you got there.
The trick is balancing the two. “A blog set up to keep family and friends [entertained] doesn’t make interesting reading for anyone else,” says Cashmore. “There’s a balance of content that you need to achieve.”
Luckily, good examples abound. The award-winning World in Slow Motion is a work of simple beauty: a pair of travellers take a year out and spend a year travelling around the world via “61 trains, 78 buses, 18 boats and 34 cars.” It’s a great example of what you can achieve without spending a lot of money – it runs on Blogger and its pictures are hosted on Flickr.
But, for a glimpse at what you should be aspiring to, the intimidatingly good Two Guys Around the World won the Lonely Planet’s overall award for best travel blog. Not content with a custom-designed blog and hosting, Two Guys Around the World follows Sam Powers and William Reinhard’s attempt to circle the globe for under ten thousand dollars.
The site features custom artwork, photography and even HD video. If you’ve got the resources – and a no-fear approach to carrying expensive gear – this is what your blog should look like.
Travel blogging do’s and don’ts
Do be honest. Travelling – especially for long periods – can be difficult. Exhausting, expensive, frustrating: some people experience all of these things before they’ve even boarded the plane. But don’t hide your annoyances from your readers: you’ll seem more human if you admit them.
Do update frequently. Try to update your blog a few times a week to make sure people keep coming back. Some blog systems allow you to write several blog posts at once and schedule them for release over the period of a few weeks.
Do count on bad internet connections. Wireless networks can be found in virtually every country on Earth; how well they work is another matter. Better to have blog posts written and pictures resized so you can seize five minutes of good internet speed and get plenty done with it.
Do be specific. People will arrive at your blog having entered all sorts of things into internet search engines. So when you name a hotel and write it off as “awful”, be precise: were there cockroaches, unhelpful staff or giant spiders? If there were all three, try to take a picture before you leg it.
Do be aware of the law. When writing off that horrible hotel, bear in mind libel law applies to you just like it does to a professional journalist and stick to facts you can prove.
Don’t ignore your readers. Part of a blog’s charm is that people can leave comments at the end of a post. If someone leaves one, reply. Try to answer their questions or address their concerns – anything that gives the impression you’re listening to your readers.
Don’t expect to get rich. Be realistic about why you’re starting your blog: if it’s because you want to retire at 40 you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Draping your site with ads and affiliate links – where you get a commission if someone buys something from a commercial site – will only put readers off. Put a few ads on the page and write your blog for the love of it.