Controversial Travel Lessons We Should All Learn from COVID-19

COVID-19, travel and travel blogging.

Hey stranger!

Like many other travel bloggers, I’ve been keeping a pretty low profile as of late.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that at the end of February I wrapped up an eight-month, around-the-world trip.  Serendipitously, when I booked the time off work way back in 2015, I managed to schedule my return flight to Canada just in time to beat the canceled flights, closed borders and, yes, contagious illnesses.

I’ve now been home for almost three months.  I definitely need to blog about the last part of my trip (I believe I was able to publish my January update, but never got around to telling you about February) and about the lessons I learned from being on the road for eight months, but I’ve had something else on my mind for the past week or two: what COVID-19 has taught us about travel and travel blogging. Some of my opinions might be a bit unpopular, but I do stand by what I’m about to say. 

In particular, I want to draw my “regular readers”‘ (or, people who don’t have their own travel blogs’) attention to a few things about the travel and travel blogging industries, so you can make smarter choices with your time, money and mental energy.

Lesson #1 – The line between travel bloggers and travel sellers is increasingly blurry.

I have a disclosure statement in my sidebar, but I know it doesn’t always show on mobile.  To make it clear, I have no ads on this site and no sponsored content.  Some outbound links to Booking.com, Amazon and World Nomads are affiliate links.  I used all three of those companies as a consumer and traveler before I became an affiliate.

What you don’t see on that disclosure statement is that I make less than 1% of my annual income from this blog.  I am a professional with a six-figure day job, and blogging is a hobby.  Often, affiliate links just help me better identify what my readers are interested in, rather than being a significant income stream.  Although I can track outgoing links without being an affiliate, I can’t see where you book, or what you buy, without the affiliate account.  Having that information helps me recommend more things that you’re likely to enjoy.  There’s very little incentive for me to recommend a hotel, product or insurance policy that I don’t actually use, as I get more enjoyment from writing and engaging with my readers than I do from making sales.

On the other hand, a lot of travel bloggers rely on their blogs as their only income source.  They might make money in different ways, including through affiliate links, ads, sponsored content and social media posts, but ultimately, it all comes down to their blogs and social media accounts getting consistent traffic and converting their audience into consumers.  With most travel off the table, these bloggers have seen their income streams dry up almost completely, and that is awful, but it is also leading to behavior that I see as disingenuous at best, and unscrupulous at worse.

influencer tiles

Over the past two months I’ve seen a huge increase in travel bloggers pushing out impersonal, “clickbait” content that doesn’t offer any new insight or add any value for their readers.  As a reader, I’m so disappointed when a blog I love churns out content that lacks the voice, the care, the experience and the insight of a blogger that I know has something really unique to offer.  Why do they do this?  In hopes of getting more eyes on their sites and thus, more advertising income.

Similarly, I’m seeing way more bloggers sharing useless shopping guides, often with huge lists of products they haven’t even tried themselves, because they’re desperate to make an affiliate sale.  While I understand that it’s scary to see your income disappear and that it’s hard for many self-employed people to access financial aid, I am deeply concerned by travel bloggers who are not being fully honest about what they’re writing or selling, and why, and I’m also annoyed when someone thinks I’ll just mindlessly buy whatever junk they recommend.

Finally, I’ve also observed some bloggers promote specific brands in hopes of developing a future business relationship, or rekindling one that has expired.  In these cases, there is no immediate benefit to making an Instagram post that says, “Hotel XYZ had the most stunning rooms and the most indulgent breakfast buffet”, but if you scroll back through their history to last summer you’ll see they received a complimentary stay there (something that should have been disclosed in the latest post) and they are likely gunning for another free stay when travel restrictions are lifted.

On that note, I would encourage you, as a reader, to be a critical consumer of travel blogs (including this one!).  Ask yourself what benefit you’re getting from the blogs you read, and recognize the value that you bring to the equation as a reader of these blogs.  Your views and clicks are a source of income for many travel bloggers – don’t support the ones who exploit that relationship.

Lesson #2 – Being shockingly wrong, controversial or offensive is a business strategy.

(Yes, I see the irony in calling my own post controversial, but I hope you’ll see the difference!)

Algorithms are crazy things, and they can rarely differentiate between good publicity and bad publicity.  For some bloggers with declining page views, affiliate sales and corporate sponsorships, “being a dumbass” is actually a way to make money.

As the first COVID-19 travel advisories began, as countries started to talk about closing their borders, and as the service industry started closing its doors, some travel bloggers with little more than a high school education decided that their blogging experience made them infectious disease experts too.

Thinking back to March, one blogger was recommending that her readers continue to travel, despite existing travel advisories, and also recommended that her readers use their own individual health in the moment as the deciding factor, rather than consider the health of the people around them.  She specifically talked about how travel was becoming cheaper and the death rates were relatively low (and mostly affecting old people, so who cares, I guess?).

Of course, this cavalier attitude towards the health of others became a talking point for travelers, other bloggers and the wider media, and she got all sorts of attention, including people checking out her blog (who’s the wacko?) and opportunities to promote her brand on television.  As soon as the eyes were on her, she claimed to have developed Coronavirus herself and then advised that all her readers stop traveling.  I hope the entire thing was a publicity stunt, because if she was actually so stupid and heartless as to say, “A few old people might die, but at least you’ll get a cheap holiday!” then that is a million times worse.

stupid-people

Now we’re in mid-May and I’m seeing a different strategy: formerly-normal travel bloggers sharing racist right-wing conspiracies about COVID-19 being an Obama plot or part of Huawei’s plan to take over the world using 5G technology.  Again, there are only two options here.  First, they might be complete idiots.  And if that’s true, would you really want to take any travel advice from them?  Second, they might not be idiots, but instead they are so desperate for comments and replies (aka “engagement”) on social media that they’ll share things they don’t believe in.  After all, if 100 people engage with a hateful tweet, even by posting “you’re stupid” as a reply, Twitter’s algorithm is more likely to show their other content to those same users later.  In that case, is it really a behavior you want to support?

I know it’s hard to say goodbye to bloggers that we’ve known for a long time, and who have helped us in the past, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.  If someone whose content you encounter is spreading hate, conspiracies or inaccurate medical advice, don’t engage with that content, even to call them out.  Block them and move on to people whose content makes the word a better place.

Lesson #3 – Now is the time to see how that company you were thinking about using would respond in a time of crisis.

It’s no secret that my first organized group tour was awful.  In summary, it was disorganized, we didn’t follow the itinerary, there was no big-picture oversight and there was no freedom.  It’s about six months later and I can now also add that the company in question deleted my review – and all the other negative reviews – from their Facebook page.  Is that the kind of company that you would want to travel with?

I’m neither an epidemiologist nor a soothsayer, so I can’t say if we’ll ever experience another COVID-19-style travel crisis in our lifetimes.  What I can say, though, is that if you were thinking about handing over a large amount of money to one company in the future, now is the ideal time to see how that company will respond if a crisis impacts your purchase.

The company that let me down on my own tour – G Adventures – continues to disappoint their customers.  Although hundreds of their tours have not gone ahead as scheduled, the company is refusing to admit the tours are cancelled.  Instead, they are calling the tours “suspended” and denying customers refunds.  In some places (including my own country, Canada) this is maybe legal but definitely shitty, while in other places, like the United Kingdom, this is outright illegal.  In particular, I found this tweet from an elderly customer heartbreaking:

If you’ve been considering a major travel-related purchase in the future, have a quick skim of social media (especially Twitter) to see how that airline, resort or tour provider has been handling this crisis.

I can’t speak specifically to G Adventures’ financial position, but I can say that a company who can afford to issue refunds without fighting their customers is probably in a strong enough financial position to weather this crisis and other emergent situations.

I can also say that a company who refunds customers quickly and accurately will probably behave in an ethical way when you’re their future customer.

A company that is keeping its customers money while not delivering products or services, and using COVID-19 as a cover, isn’t going to suddenly be all sunshine and rainbows when this is over.  As they say, a leopard never changes its spots.

Lesson #4 – If you can’t afford to get home in an emergency, you can’t afford to take that trip.

hitchhiking is not a plan

Yes, I said it.  And it’s not being “holier-than-thou”, it’s common sense.  Although I travel a lot now, there were many years when I didn’t travel at all, because it wasn’t a smart financial decision based on where I was in my life.  And ever since I took my first trip, I have always chosen destinations, durations and activities that fit within a budget that included an emergency fund.

I know that travel is fun and exciting and you want to do everything that you possibly can while you’re away, but going into a trip with a budget so tight that you can’t afford emergency return airfare is an absolutely terrible idea.  You can’t rely on your travel insurance to cover the cost of getting home in case of an emergency, and even if they do cover the cost, they often make you pay first and then reimburse you when you get back.  It is essential that you always have enough money in your bank account to get home safely.  (And no, hitchhiking home doesn’t count as a plan!)

If you’re worried that your travel budget doesn’t leave you with a safety net, consider changing your destination (for example, I often choose Eastern Europe over Western Europe, because it’s so much more affordable), shortening the duration of your trip or spending more nights in hostels than hotels.  If that still doesn’t leave you with enough money to book a last-minute flight home, earn some more money before you go: do some freelance work, pick up a part-time seasonal job or consider renting out your place on Airbnb while you’re away.  Do something to take responsibility for your own safety and security.

Lesson #5 – The road to your sofa was lined with palm trees, penguins, pagodas and piña coladas.

(Let’s see if my theme supports the “ñ” symbol.)

I have traveled every summer since 2012.  It’s now mid-May and I am sitting here, alone, looking at my entirely-blank “1001 Places to See Before You Die” calendar (the irony runs deep), wondering what I’m going to in July and August when I’m forced to take my annual seven weeks’ vacation.  I’ve never had to occupy myself within the confines of my hometown (and my home!) for such a long period of time, and it’s already a suffocating feeling.

But I need to remember that it’s only suffocating because I have been so lucky in the past.  I know adults who have never left our province, and I’ve met people all over the world who can never travel internationally because their home countries have weak currencies, or because of gender expectations, or because of complex visa restrictions.  Who am I to complain about spending six months on my sofa after:

Chernobyl Two-Day Tour - The Duga Radar System

… spending the night in Chernobyl?

Scuba Dive with Manta Rays from Nusa Lembongan or Nusa Ceningan

… and scuba diving with giant manta rays?

Galleria San Federico - Torino, Italia

… and living in Italy?

View from the Breakfast Terrace at the Hotel Bukhara Family Inn in Istanbul

… and eating breakfast with a view of the Bosphorus?

Elephants in Addo National Park

… and getting stuck in a South African traffic jam?

In fact, I’m trying to focus on all the amazing experiences that brought me here today.  On Twitter, I’ve started the #LifeofTravel hashtag to document all of the amazing travel experiences that, before COVID-19, I had kind of taken for granted. Going back through my old photos from trips dating as far back as 2004 has been really eye-opening, and it feels lovely to remember those early trips where everything, from a sign in Arabic script to an equestrian statue, felt new and exciting.  Feel free to join in with your own #LifeofTravel story! 

I know that some of my readers were in the midst of planning their first-ever trip, and I feel awful for you.  I also know that a lot of my readers were planning another kind of “first” – a honeymoon, a semester abroad, a solo trip – and I also understand your sadness.

At the same time, if you’re reading this, you’re alive, and that puts you (and me!) ahead of more than 314,000 other people who have died from Coronavirus.

I’ll sit on my crappy old sofa (I really need a new sofa!) and watch another mindless YouTube video if it means that I don’t inadvertently pass the virus on to someone who may not survive.

I will cook my own food, and wear my old pajamas to Zoom meetings, and use half a tank of gas every ten weeks, and all the money I save will go straight into my travel fund, so that when travel is safe for everyone I can make the most of my first post-COVID trip.

I will not put my hobby, or my blog, ahead of someone else’s life.  And you can hold me to that.

As cities, region and countries around the world tighten and loosen their COVID-19 travel restrictions, and as we see travel-related industries begin to reach out to customers once again, what are your thoughts on the interplay between travel blogging, travel and COVID-19?  Let me know below!

Looking for future travel inspiration?

I recommend reading my monthly trip reports (start here with Month #1), my recommendations for travel before you turn thirty and after you turn thirty, and, obviously, the world’s best day-drinking destinations.

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