Why Working In Travel Makes Me Want to Bash My Head Against a Wall Sometimes

Nomadic Matt holding his head in frustration over his jobOver the years, I’ve tried to turn myself into a more professional journalist, writing longer and more detailed guides on how to travel on a budget. Blogging may be the cool, new thing, but I think bloggers can still learn a lot from traditional journalists. These articles I write usually turn out to be a big success, but they take a lot of work: I fact-check, talk to people, spend hours running numbers, and even obtain quotes. I’ll usually work on one of these articles for a month before I put it on the site. (A lot of that is because I’m traveling instead of behind my computer, but it still takes a lot of effort to write a 3,000 word research-based article.)

Take, for example, what would have been my latest article on how using airline miles to book hotels is a kickass money-saving deal. I was putting the finishing touches on what I had hoped would become a cornerstone article for my website when I went to update some of the numbers, only to find out that the airlines have changed their rules and now this deal is no longer a deal at all. Instead, it’s a rip-off.

Just like that, hours upon hours of work were wasted. My excitement over sharing this deal was gone, replaced by frustration.

And this story highlights one of the shitty aspects of working in the travel industry.

Trying to keep up with all the deals, loopholes, rewards systems, etc., is a giant pain in my ass. You think you get confused trying to figure it all out? Try doing this for a living. I’ve spent entire nights running calculations, figuring out point values, and determining which websites are the best for this or that. There’s nothing like spending a Friday night comparing 20 different flight search engines.

And just when you think you have it figured out, the rules change and you have to start over again.

I fully understand why casual travelers get so confused and give up looking for deals and just go to Expedia, book a trip, and take the easy road. With so many programs and websites to choose from, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated.

Unless you’re a junkie like me, your idea of a fun night is not sitting in front of the computer for six hours trying to find a cheap flight. That’s why you read travel guides and blogs like mine—you want someone who’s spent the time doing the research to cut through that crap and tell you how to save time and money.

It’s like finance. I love it. I find it incredibly interesting, but I don’t really want to spend hours sorting through IRA programs and mutual funds. I defer to the experts like JD Roth and My Money Blog to tell me this stuff.

This frustration is why you see very little “travel hacking” on my website. The rules for reward programs change so frequently that it’s a full-time job keeping up with them (See The Points Guy or Boarding Area for people who devote their time to doing so). Tips on traveling London on the cheap aren’t going to change on the whim of some executive. Airline and hotel pricing do.

The price of a hostel is the price of a hostel. The train or bus? No hidden prices. It costs X, Y or Z depending on your class and time of travel.

Yet I can search for a flight on 11 different websites and get 11 different prices. Same thing goes with hotels. And hotels get even more complicated when you factor in bidding sites like Hotwire and Priceline.

It’s a whole bunch of ridiculousness.

I’m ranting here because I spent so long working on an article and was super excited about sharing this deal, only to see it fizzle away. I guess if I had to turn this rant into some meaningful advice it’s this:

If you feel lost and frustrated over confusing and changing rules and too many booking sites, don’t worry—even the professionals feel like throwing the computer on the ground sometimes. The rules are like a labyrinth designed by one evil, sadistic person.

And when you find a good deal or some great loophole, take advantage of it. Don’t wait. Don’t think. Just do it. Found a super cheap flight to London? Go to London. Has a hotel error turned up a cheap resort in St. Lucia? Go grab the sunscreen and head over! The longer you wait, the less likely that deal will be around.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that travel deals vanish in the blink of an eye.

  1. I agree that the frequent changes of price in the travel industry, a system called yield management, makes writing about it now very difficult. I think the best bet for most people is to decide how much they can spend on a trip to their preferred destination, book as far ahead as possible and then forget about it. Otherwise, you can drive yourself crazy.
    Those of us who like to write about budget travel have a harder time now than when I started in the 1980, writing a column for The Globe and Mail.. But the big publishers have largely abandoned the field, so it’s up to us to do what we can to help people travel well at moderate cost.
    Incidentally, bus and train prices are not fixed either, at least not in Canada. Megabus and Via Rail change their prices frequently, again based on a yield management system.

  2. Jay

    Being persistent and spending a couple extra hours searching for that discounted flight definitely pays off. Using some of your tips I read in your articles I found a round trip flight Boston to Santorini for $740 a few weeks ago. I jumped on it right away and that fare was gone almost right after I purchased. My friend who didn’t put the time in wound up paying over $1200 for the same ticket. I leave on Saturday with an extra $500 to blow on ouzo! (I don’t even know if I can drink that much in 10 days)

    Thanks again for a great blog!

  3. I say know your criteria for a flight, or hotel, or resort etc and, once the criteria are met, jump on it! Sure you might get it a little bit cheaper if you search, and search, and search but it could also be that the original deal is gone by the time you get back to it. Good advice!!

  4. Hear hear. Trying to find cheap flights via online search engines always feels like some kind of mysterious voodoo magic. I’ve spent chunks of my life trying to find that “perfect deal”, which always seems to be just a click away. I wish there was a simpler way, because sacrificing a goat and reading it’s entrails is really starting to grate…

  5. Frustrating for sure, but think of these things…
    If you had a “real” job you would be behind a desk all the time and perhaps never travel. Also, there is a point where the “deal” is not indeed a deal because time is money. You could have written many more articles instead of wasting time chasing the elusive bargain. It’s always a balancing act and I try to never fall off the trapeze!

  6. Amen! Trying to get a good travel deal takes up so much time I sometimes wonder if it’s even worth the hassle.

    In other related news, did you hear about the El Al pricing mistake which allowed NYC residents to book super cheap flights to Israel? Kind of a nice story b/c El Al is honoring the tickets!

    • Colleen

      Not at all surprised that El Al is honoring those tickets. They are one of the world’s great airlines. I always use them as my first pick in the region. Also, you are the least likely to be hijacked while on one of their flights since every plane has ‘carrying’ undercover agents on board.

  7. I recently made a trip to London from Portsmouth via coach in the UK. They are far cheaper (about 1/5) of the price of a train and take a similar time scale.

    The 2 main companies are National Express and Greyhound. A bit of back and forth and trying to get student discount (which is only for those booking 7 days in advance) ended with me discovering the cheapest way (for the day/time I wanted to go) was to go there via greyhound and come back via national express.

    The problem came with me spending so much time (about an hour!) trying to work out how cheap it was. When I went to pay for greyhound, I timed out, and had to refresh resulting in the price going up by £2! Frustrating is certainly the word, as I ended up paying what I would have an hour ago by just booking it and not spending an hour trying to save £2.

    To rub salt into the would I didn’t realise there is 3 coach stations at London victoria, so when I was waiting for my bus back, I of course was at the wrong station (I went to where the greyhounds go and ‘some’ national express. Meaning I had to amend my booking (which cost more than the original bus took to book) and lose another hour waiting for the next bus.

    So lesson learnt: restrict the time spend on finding deals, as it’s really not worth the hassle trying to save money as chances are you’ll end up wasting not only money, but time too.

    I feel your pain.

  8. In planning a trip to Europe next year with my niece who is graduating from high school (my graduation present to her). I was looking at flights going out of San Francisco into Dublin and then out of Rome back to San Francisco for around $1,300 – $1,400 a piece. So as soon as I found one that came by way of email for around $887 a piece for what I needed I jumped on it right away and booked the flights for us. I have definitely learned from past experience that if a price is great then you need to book it right away cause it won’t be there for long. Looked recently and the flights that I got for $887 are now back up to $1,300.

  9. and I thought I was working hard enough for my website ..LOL
    Hang in there, Matt. I love what you’ve been doing
    Maybe you can go out to a movie this Friday night for a change :)

  10. Sounds exhausting! I appreciate what you do, and it’s obvious that you spend a long time making good content. I can’t even imagine how frustrated I’d be if I found out rules changed and deals became rip-offs. On a different note, Chris Guillebeau just put out a very helpful and timely frequent flier post on his blog.

  11. Hey Matt,

    Sorry to hear you worked so hard on a great travel tips article.. .all for nothing. I hope that doesn’t happen to you too often. :))

    Thanks for the ‘lessons learned’ at the end of your ‘rant’… soft rant, I’d call it.

    yeah- Vira’s suggestion is great! Have a fun Friday night next time.

    cheers, Lash

  12. Dude,

    What I love about you and your writing are these morsels of honesty around your travel blogging lifestyle. Thanks for sharing and shedding the light on the behind the scenes “grind” that it takes to make your lifestyle possible. Everything worth doing is hard in it’s own way, even traveling around the world like a rockstar and sharing with the rest of us.

    Those more technical journalistic type posts are really awesome, and the message is not lost on everyone.

    So thanks and keep it up player.


  13. Hi Matt,
    I found your post quite interesting! I’m just in the process of starting up my own travel blog (www.travellingbelle.com) and was curious as to what you thought readers of travel blogs were interested in? Do readers want to hear reviews on places we have been? Or do they want to hear about the wild nights and mischief we get up to along the way?? I’m really torn as to what direction to take my blog and would love some feedback!

  14. Wow. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to blog full time. Seriously, I freak out about each and every post. To have to do it on the road while struggling with all the elements would probably drive me crazy.
    That being said, I agree with your last piece of advice. Finding a really cheap ticket from my city to San Jose was the entire reason I went to Central America. Opportunities must be seized!

  15. Ugh, bummer. Such a pain that you put in all of that work for naught. Fact-checking is one of the most important but least fun parts of journalism. In my first job out of school, I was a personal finance journalist. I was assigned to work on a story that needed a corresponding chart on the statue of limitations on debt in all 50 states (fun, I know). States make this info very difficult to find on purpose, and the rules are murky as it is. I spent at least two months researching like crazy, calling all kinds of government agencies, and jumping through hoops. Once it was done, it was an awesome resource, but God was it awful pulling it together.

    One of the key components of journalism is quoting sources or experts (something most bloggers don’t ever do), so I love that you are making an effort to do that!

  16. Journalism in general can be very frustrating – particularly in the realms of hard news. If you’re not quick enough the story changes and you’re left looking like a clown, peddling old information. Nice rant.

  17. Wow. That must have been so frustrating! I feel your pain.
    I can especially relate to going on rants in blog posts =P
    I hope you managed to vent all of that frustration! =)

  18. I can completely understand that sinking feeling when, after one last fact-check before clicking “publish”, you find out your article no longer makes sense.

    It takes all the wind out of me and drags down my inspiration.

    Having to keep up with all the best “travel hacks” is tiresome but I love doing it!

    Rewards programs are an ever changing industry and timeliness is most definitely vital.

    But we have to keep learning and adapting to travel for pennies on the dollar.

    Thanks for the great post.

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