What I Learned on My Vacation (or Thoughts on Being a Travel Writer)

Nomadic Matt having a happy time with a silly hat on his cruise“Isn’t your life a vacation?” people asked me before my cruise. “You’re always traveling!”

Yes, I’m always traveling, but it’s not a vacation—travel for me is work. It’s fun work and I’d rather be a travel blogger than back at my old cubicle job, but it’s still work. All these blog posts and wonderful tips don’t come naturally. I hunt everything out, do research, and follow up so visitors to this site have the information they need to travel the world cheaper, better, and longer.

Back when I was just a simple backpacker, I had nothing to do and all the time to do it. Everyday was Saturday. Now, that’s not the case. I remember when I was writing my book in Cambodia. Friends would say to me, “Let’s go get crazy tonight,” and I would say, “I can’t, I have a Skype meeting in the morning!”

That’s the real truth about travel writing: it’s not a vacation, it’s a job. Just like any other job. Most people imagine me in far-off places doing wonderful things, going on crazy adventures, and jet-setting to exotic locations. And, sure, that happens. But so does the side you don’t see on the blog: sitting in my room for days doing work, fixing HTML errors, working on books, writing blogs, having Skype meetings, and answering emails. (On a good day, it only takes me two hours to answer all the questions I get!) No one thinks about all the back-end stuff that goes on, and sometimes it feels like there’s more of that than actual travel.

Last week, I went on vacation because I needed a break from work. I needed to relax, forget about everything, and hit the reset button.

My vacation taught me a lot. First, I realized that the old adage about your body taking a week to relax is completely true. It took me six days at sea before I finally stopped thinking about work. (It didn’t help that Royal Caribbean gave me free WiFi, which meant I was still checking Twitter, email, and Facebook.)

At one of the many conferences I attended recently, someone asked me if I thought I would still be doing this in 10 years. My immediate answer was, “I hope not.” And then I went on to qualify it as if I had to justify my answer.

While on this cruise, I had a lot of time to think about my knee-jerk reaction to that question.

And as I thought about it, I realized what’s been bothering me about blogging lately: this website has become more work than fun. My second realization was that somewhere along the line, travel had become a job. I never really wanted this to be a job. I just wanted a way to make money to travel more. Back in 2008, I wanted to know what could keep me traveling the world. Being a travel writer!

Nomadic Matt drinking on his cruise vacationNow, I love traveling and enjoy this blogging thing more than I’ve enjoyed doing anything else, but the sudden realization that your passion has become a job can be a shock. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve come to realize just how much of a job this website is. My travels are completely different than they were when I used to be a simple backpacker. On the one hand, I love what I do and the people I meet. But on the other, I not-so-secretly wish I could go back to a time before this blog when every day was Saturday and I could do whatever I wanted.

What my vacation really taught me was that as a travel blogger, it’s so easy to become consumed by your blog that you can sometimes miss the forest through the trees. As a blogger, you’re always connected, there are always emails to answer, you begin to look at your trips through the blog posts they can become, and, before you know it, your life becomes your blog and your blog becomes your life.

And when that happens, you get burnt out, and, like in any other job, you lose your fire for it. You don’t hate it, but it’s now “work.”

And then the light bulb in my head came on: I need to take more vacations. I need to take more trips offline and trips that won’t make it on this blog. Not all my travels can be about this blog. Some just need to be for me…and only me.

While I was gone, my blog didn’t explode. My readers didn’t all hit unsubscribe. The world didn’t end. No email came that required an immediate response. My life wasn’t over!

Over the last year, I’ve let this blog become my life instead of it just being part of my life. It’s so easy to be connected that I (and I think many other bloggers) forget that we can disconnect and everything will be alright.

So, I thank my recent vacation for reminding me of a truth I’d forgotten:

We should work to live, not live to work.

  1. Derek H.

    Great article and even better epiphany. You should definitely take some more time to just focus on resting and gaining perspective. We’ll be here when you get back.

    This all reminds me of a NYTimes article called “The ‘Busy’ Trap” that posted while you were gone: “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

  2. Chanse

    Great post and realization.
    Yes, it is all work, but you are the foundation for many peoples ambitions. I, for example, am working my way to being a travel writer, and doing this same type of thing. If it wasn’t for your books and blog, i would still have so much searching to do. But now that i can plan accordingly, things are easier.

    Keep it up, your the best dude

  3. Tech glitch so sorry if this is a duplicate comment….

    Glad to hear you came to the realization. Unfortunately when you’re so passionate about your job and overwork yourself burn out is inevitable. This scares the bee gee geez outta me! I would hate to burn out to the point of hating what I do! Like any job, we need balance too. Balance is key and sometimes we need to take a vacation every once in a while for ourselves, offline and to be completely unplugged!

  4. This post definitely shows up that even when you think someone’s got it all, no one is ever really, absolutely satisfied with his or her life’s share… it’s what happens with almost any hobby which becomes successful: if it really takes off and you end up actually getting paid for what you love to do, sooner or later it will start turning itself into a job. Which is actually the greatest thing that could happen to anyone (honestly, who wouldn’t prefer to follow their heart and make a good living at it instead of settling for a meaningless, enslaving, inane cubicle job?)

    However, it is very important to keep this always in perspective. Even the things that spark your greatest passions can become dull and repetitive once they turn themselves into your day-to-day living. That’s life as it is. Fortunately there are millions of different things, hobbies and interests we can try when we need to unplug from our jobs so when we come back, we do it with a much-needed renewed perspective in life. At least that’s how I see it. :)

  5. Because of my work, the blog, and my life, I burn the candle at both ends all the time. I’ve hit that burn out stage often – it happens every few months. Getting back into life and enjoying things again gave me the perspective I needed and I went right back to the blog when I was done.

    Anyone who thinks this is just a vacation doesn’t understand. You go on a trip, even a day outing or for a hike (as I’ve done a few times), and I take notes and photos and spends hours writing, editing photos, and then doing videos when I am done. This really does take a lot of time and your body and mind need the break.

    In the last couple of years, I’ve been sick more than I normally am. Why? My body gets tired and forces me to slow down. Maybe I should listen to what I’ve been telling people and your own experiences – take that break, slow down, find balance, and everything will be OK.

  6. I know that experience!!

    My wife had to be pregnant and need a ‘final proper holiday’ before our lives were changed forever, for me to experience a real, fully paid-for, no slipping away to cover something, holiday.

    At first I felt guilty/un-comfortable about just sitting on a Greek beach.

    By the end of the week I totally realised what I had been missing…. and what it *is*, that we write about for all those travellers who follow in our wake.

  7. Erin

    Have you ever considered having a staff writer or two? I follow the blog “Get Rich Slowly” and JD rarely posts his own material anymore. I’m not saying you’d have to disappear, but maybe you could take part of the load off by having a couple of people working for you. Just a thought :-)

  8. Everyone dreams of turning their hobby into their job, but most don’t realize that by doing that the fun wear off or at least turn into a routine.

    I have been travelling professional for 10+ years, mostly as a tour leader, and everyone I meet think it’s heaven. It’s not, but it allows me to do what I love most: travel for fun when I’m not travel for work.

    Now I run the travel inspiration website Globe Spots which I hopefully only need to do when I feel like it 😉

  9. I’ve been thinking to quit my full time job and then work part time while dedicating most of my time for my website. But what you’re writing about is exactly my concern. I’ve been wondering, whether I’m gonna be tired with my travel & blogging hobby when it’s become work.

  10. I hear what you’re saying. Several times I’ve taken a fun hobby and tried to make money at it only to discover it then becomes a job with burnout to follow. Now I’m trying to split my love for travel to half the year and work the other half at the Park Ranger job I love while still trying to keep up with the blog on an almost daily basis. Will see how this works out. Thanks for all your marvelous tips.

  11. Danielle Withrow

    Thanks for this great post. I’m planning on traveling at least 6 months out of the year starting next year when I “leave the marketplace” or retire as some call it. I’m working on my website “Questions of Travel” and am very excited. After 43 years of working (which included alot of travel) – you have made me realize that I don’t want my website/blogging to become my work! Thanks for helping me keep my future travel blog in perspective even before I start.

    And do take more vacations so you don’t get burned out. I subcribe to about 50+ travel blogs so I can get a feel for the “industry” – you’re one of the best!

  12. Thanks for the insight. As someone just starting out I look at all you guys with such envy at times. It’s great to see that it’s not all silver lining. And good tips to keep in mind for the future. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I appreciate the truthfulness of this post — It’s refreshing to hear someone talk bluntly about their job. You should definitely take more vacations :) Would a vacation for a travel writer be simply staying home? I like Erin’s idea of a staff writer, maybe that would help you feel less pressured about the blog?

  14. I feel you Matt. So many people think it’s so awesome that I can work from the road doing freelance graphic/web design and travel indefinitely… but what they don’t realize is often I wish I didn’t have the responsibility to have to stay in my room for hours on end working to meet a deadline or forgoing some really fun adventure with another traveler I just met up with.

    It’s about creating a balance and I’m not sure I’ve fully figured it out myself.

  15. I agree with Erin – tweak your blog a bit and get others to do some of the work. You may have only just realized that it’s all become work but I think some of your posts lately have had that exact hidden message. You just needed the time to find it for yourself.

  16. I completely understand what you are saying and the lessons you learned while on your cruise will help me too! It’s hard when folks back home always think your whole life is a vacation when really we have things to do. It is time consuming to plan trips, do research, make images, process images, write about them, and do all the social networking.

    But I am glad you discovered that if you take a bit of time off your readers don’t all unsubscribe. It’s what I’ve been afraid of lately when I want to slow it down a bit but I’m afraid I will loose all the momentum I have built up over the past year.

  17. Hi Matt, It is great to hear that you have taken some time out. Everyone needs a holiday.

    One of the other blogs I read is The Simple Dollar, and the author had a similar issue to you and recently made a significant change to how he managed his blog, to reduce his workload and focus on the important stuff. I suggest you might want to read some of his work to see if you can get ideas to reduce your workload.

  18. I have to remind myself daily that I’m working to live, rather than living to work. That way, when I do leave work, I can focus on doing something fun. Life should be enjoyable.

  19. Elmer Cruz

    I like your realization that we work to live not live to work! I believe that our jobs is something we do but it shouldn’t define who we are. I guess it really becomes difficult if what you love doing suddenly becomes your bread and butter. You’re right it loses the novelty of the experience and you are suddenly on the hunt for interesting articles to write about.

    Next time you feel like taking a break look up scuba diving in Tubbataha in the Philippines. You live aboard for 5 days with no Internet and cell sites and all you think about is diving, eating and getting totally wasted!

  20. Great blog post. I feel I am suffering from the opposite problem as a travel writer franticly scribbling my thoughts in China. While I may have lived life through my blog before, the Chinese Great Firewall has torn me away from my blog. If you need a vacation Matt, mayhaps a trip to North Korea…….

  21. Ryan Brown

    Hey Matt,
    Glad you finally got a chance to kick back, relax, an let all worries drift away to the wind for a week!

    I completely understand where you are coming from with this article. Though my blog is millions of miles away from being as popular as yours, it still became an extreme obsession. It also sapped my traveling, meeting friends, ad going out to do fun things to a halt. Instead of grabbing some beers or relaxing on a beach, I was in somewhere that had wifi for 8-10hrs a day!

    Before I knew it my back was killin me, my wrist and elbows ached all of the time, and I had let the essence of my trip fall away to typed articles, blog numbers, and tweets.

    I just took a month away from my blog when I moved back from New Zealand recently to get adjusted, take a break, and also rediscover my passion for travel and writing again.

    Like you, I always try to work to live, not live to work, and I’m glad you are back in the swing of things as well.

    Enjoy Stockholm mate!

  22. Yes, this sounds familiar! Used to be I’d just pitch one or 2 publications before a trip, and if an assignment came through, I’d know just which parts of the travel were “work.” When my husband and I developed our website, we thought again that since we’re so niche to “regional food,” we were smartly limiting ourselves in amount of work that needed to be done per trip. And then we realized the full scope of the marketing/SEO/press/outreach/social media/promotions/blog posts etc etc we’d actually signed up for!

    I think that balance is the right word here, and as you’ve likewise figured out, you have to take some trips that are more for you than your audience. You have to pick and choose, compartmentalize a bit. We swap trips between popular food/travel destinations–Oaxaca, New Orleans, London–and those much less so–Sierra Leone, Colombia–because sometimes we just want to travel. Of course we’ll still cover the local foods anywhere we go, but the point is, every other trip or so we go somewhere that’s rewarding for US. And breaks are very important, even just a day or two here and there. Good luck with the new outlook!

  23. awesome article Matt–struck a chord with me as I love my travel job and business more than anything but always need to remember why I started it in the first place!

  24. Sorry to read it has become a chore but of course I understand why.

    When I went on my first press trip I was amazed by the other travel writers who travel pretty much constantly on press trips.

    That’s definitely no fun, especially because you are then obliged to write commercial style posts – unless you’re writing for someone who understands that the less commercial and more personal stories will probably be way more popular. Even worse most freelancers are under pressure not only to write the stories but to sell them.

    My personal dream is that someone just gives me and my family flights to [insert exotic location] along with $x spending money and says have a blast, we’d love if you write a few blog posts about us. I’m sure I’d over deliver (that’s a problem I have) but at least I wouldn’t feel obliged to do the stuff they expect me to do or tweet constantly so I can’t really enjoy the experience.

    As for you. I’d say enjoy your success. Have fun with your travels and just post when you feel like it. It’s so true, your readers will still be here no matter how irregular you are in your publishing schedule.

    Maybe it’s time to hire an assistant to take care of the two hours of emails a day and knock that back by 25%?

    And charge more so you can work less – You’re worth it:)

  25. That is so true Matt, remember to take some time out for yourself otherwise you will burn yourself out from both ends of the candle!
    You are loved by millions, your blog isnt going to go down hill if you aren’t here posting every day!You have built something amazing, take some time for yourself once in a while!

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