My First Freebie as a Travel Blogger

For a lot of people, the term ‘travel blogger’ conjures up images of endless free airline tickets, hotel stays, and tours in exchange for what is — basically — content advertising. My readers will know that’s not what I do.

I’d been at Bambu Hostel in Medellin for over a week before the fact I was a blogger even came up. I was sitting at the breakfast table, talking with Ram, the first Indian traveler I had met in South America.

We were talking about the vibe at the hostel. It’s hard to quantify the overall vibe of a hostel, since it changes all the time, depending on the people who are there. But, at Bambu — right then, right there — it was a good vibe. I’d been living in Bambu for a week, and I just kept extending my stay. Ram said he was tempted to stay longer too, “but I’m staying for free, and I don’t want to be that guy you know? ‘I’ll stay just a few more days…’” he told me, by way of explanation.

“You’re staying for free?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m a travel blogger,” he said. “I stay everywhere for free.”

(check out Ram’s blog at BackpackWays.com)

I looked down at my phone, where I saw a worryingly low number in my bank account. I looked back up at Ram. “A travel blogger, you say? How many views do you get a month?”

He said a number that was significantly less than my number.

“Realllllly,” I said. “And you get free stuff with that?”

“Yeah man,” he responded. I write city guides, so before I go to a place I just email all the hostels and offer coverage in exchange for some free stay… usually enough places take me up on it that I don’t need to pay.”

I drank my coffee quietly. Ram and I traded blog addresses, and he headed off to do some sightseeing. I stayed at the hostel, where I spent the afternoon in the garden, smoking and playing chess with my friend Dylan.

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Pictured here

Dylan had volunteered at Bambu, two years prior, and now he had brought me back. He was volunteering again, for a short spell, but I was still paying for a bed. Granted, it was $9 a night with free breakfast — a steal, in the fancy Poblado neighborhood of Medellin — but still. $0 a night sounded a lot better. And in this case, I knew I had the leverage I needed to get at least a few days for free.

Long story short, I got my free nights.

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They put me up in one of these sweet ‘glamping’ tents

And in the end, I spent a month in Medellin — almost entirely at Bambu hostel. Most of that time

It was a place I enjoyed very much — from the fun and helpful presence of Nata, the owner, to drinking ‘mate’ and talking with the Argentinian volunteers, in their incredibly fast Spanish, to the great parties we attended in Poblado. And most importantly, I loved the time we spent playing chess in the garden out back. So much time, in fact, that the cleaning lady invited her husband by to play with us. The chess champion of his local barrio, he cleaned our clocks. Several times. But now at least, I know all the Spanish words for chess — or aljedrez, as they call it.

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We spent a loooooot of time doing this…

But the issue I’m faced with, when I sit down to write about Bambu, is: a lot of the things I enjoyed about the place aren’t things a business would usually want me to write about.

The story I have to tell about Bambu is flattering — it is nice. It has a soul. But it isn’t marketable.

Now, having taken compensation from them, I find myself questioning what type of story I should write.

 

Let me be clear — the staff at Bambu didn’t set forth any rules for what I could write or anything like that. In fact, we really didn’t discuss my blog much at all. I think Nata would have given me the free nights anyways, because I’d been there for so long by that point. I don’t think she really cares what I put forth.

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For the record, the glamping IS pretty sweet — especially when u ain’t paying for it. TV AND a full-sized bed?? Backpacker bliss.

But, the thing is, I have two conflicting impulses here:

1. I want to tell an honest, authentic story.

2. I also want to show gratitude for the great hospitality I received, and to help Bambu succeed.

But achieving the first goal will impede the second. Prioritizing the second goal will reduce my ability to achieve the first goal.

So, what is there to do?

Obviously, one of the great perks of running a successful travel blog is the opportunity for free or sponsored travel. That’s probably the greatest perk of the job, which otherwise involves a lot of time spent working for free, battling technical problems, and pulling hair out over spotty wifi on beautiful beaches.

Now, after two and a half years in the ‘business,’ I find myself in the position of having a successful travel blog.

A successful travel blog that’s built on a reputation for radical honesty, authenticity, and storytelling skills. You don’t come here for fluff. But brands, to be honest, are rarely looking for anything beyond fluff.

The story I have to tell about Bambu is a good story. There is an arc, there are characters, there’s emotion… but I almost don’t want to tell it, because certain parts don’t reflect all that well on a place that was kind to me.

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Enjoying the nice outdoor garden at the hostel

This is the struggle with honest writing.

I met a pair of European travelers at Bambu — a German woman and her Dutch friend. They caught me at the kitchen table, tapping away at a blog post. “What are you doing?” the German asked me. I was kind of dismissive with her — I told her I was working on my book. She inquired a little further, and I told her she could read it here, on my blog.

She vanished, for a day or two. She came back, and told me she’d read the first bit. Now, she seemed a bit more interested in me. A few more days went by, and she read a little more. The next time she saw me, she was angry with me. She’d read the bit about the ceilings.

“You can’t just write stuff like that about people!” she said, her tone wavering between playful and serious. “Imagine if any of those women were to read that?”

I think about this often, of course.

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Some of the awesome staff that worked at Bambu while I was there — notice the Mate cup and thermos… I developed a real appreciation for mate, sitting and drinking it with this guy.

When one has an audience, at least in the U.S., the next step is to start profiting off that audience. To convert, to get some sort of reward from the work I’ve put into this blog, I need to start selling. But I don’t know if I want to be selling brands to you, my readers. I think I’d much rather sell stories.

Of course, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t need to sell anything at all. But I am not yet a millionaire, and contrary to what some other blogs might tell you, extended international travel isn’t free.

Writing in-depth blog posts and stories with emotional depth takes time. Time for which I am not compensated — especially since I stopped running ads on the site.

So, going forward, maybe you’ll see a bit of sponsored or compensated content now and then. I’ll always let you know if that’s the case — I value our relationship, you and I.

So, for now, I’ll just say: if you happen find yourself in Medellin, Colombia, you should check out Bambu City House and Glamping. It’s probably not the best hostel in Medellin. But it is my favorite.

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If you happen to get down there, say ‘hola’ to Nata for me!

Best,

Dan

 

[click here to see how I leveraged this post and partnership into another, more significant travel blogger sponsorship] 

 

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59 thoughts on “My First Freebie as a Travel Blogger

  1. I really liked this post. The way you balanced honesty and integrity with the desire to help a business that had vern so kind to you is admirable. A great read

  2. Excellent writing. Your voice comes through. I have been writing a travel blog for about a year, never considered looking for freebies! I might have to bring it up with one of my go to hostels in Shanghai. The stumbling block, I am not good at asking for free things. Complaining, yes. I am working on my little old lady persona. I need an audience of +55 backpack travellers.

  3. This was really interesting to read. I always feel like the idea of getting freebies or paid for travel blogging is such a faraway and intangible idea. But, I really liked that you kind of just went for it and asked. I mean, you don’t ask you don’t get ! I’ll be sure to subscribe.

  4. Nice post!! I would like to be a travel blogger too! But I still don’t have the nerves to just quit my job and do it! Anyways I followed you and hoping you can check out my blog! I just started blogging 🙂

  5. Love your writing style and honest stories! I definitely want to try approaching hostels that way while backpacking. I was wondering if you would be interested in a blog exchange or participate in a travel blogging challenge with me sometime? Cheers!

  6. Wonderful posts !! Great writing ! Honesty or so !! Great .. Even I think I can express my views in good way of writing.! I do have blog

    I will be soo happy if u guys can check my new post ! And I invite comments so I can improve my later posts .. please do help me ! 🙂

  7. Hey, congrats on getting your free nights. This was a really cool read (particularly can relate to the feeling of a significantly low number in the old bank account!) and looking forward to reading more about your travels!

  8. Promoting a business/ brand in this way appeals to me way more as a consumer than oblique brandisms and painfully cynical endorsements. I think there is a market for genuine, emotive travel reviews – but yeah, sadly not the first priority of your patrons. Keep at it!

  9. Love your style of writing, very easy, friendly and comfortable to read ☺️ travel and writing are passions of mine as well, as I’m sort of new to this if you could take the time to check out my blog I’d be really grateful!
    I would absolutely love to get to this point, can’t beat a freebie (especially as a student) Look forward to reading more of your posts

  10. This was an absolutely wonderful read! I intend on going travelling in February 2018 across South East Asia while (attempting) to make some money through travel blogging/designing… I’m going to see where life takes me!

    All the best for your travels 🙂

  11. We just started to lower costs of our stay in similar way and sometimes, it is a struggle. You know that majority of people expect hot water, clean toilet and equiped kitchen with miltiple stoves and you have to mention lacking of all of this. And that may couse smaller amount of people staying in, despite great vibe, hospitality and open heard of the owner and staff.

  12. Do you know about the ‘feedback sandwich’? So, you say something positive then you tell them what could be improved, then you end with something positive. Remembering that many people don’t write blogs but will tell at least 10 of their friends when they have had a less than satisfactory experience somewhere. Therefore Nata would most likely profit from your piece as it would give her something to work on. Knowing that improvements are required and meeting those needs not only make staying there a more pleasant experience but they could probably put the rate up too for better service. that is of course if that is what they actually want. If not they may be so laid back about it that is ok. People will follow their curiosity – look at you – you have made a career from it and that is fantastic. Happy Travels!

  13. This was a really interesting post. So many places I have stayed I wouldn’t say are the best hostel but there’s just something about it that I really like, whether it’s the vibe, the people, or something other than just the physical aspects of it, which makes it so hard to recommend to others because their experience could be so different

    • I agree! So much of what makes the experience of a hostel is the people you happen to share it with. It could be completely different from one moment to the next!

  14. Great post. It is good to see that not everyone is inclined to sell themselves and their audiences to brands. Totally agree with your take on being a blogger and hope that more brands realize that certain things, like authenticity can´t be bought.

  15. I really appreciate how straightforward and honest you are about the situation you were in. Authenticity is so important and it can be hard to stay true to yourself sometimes, but you accomplished that. Way to go!

  16. Love your straightforwardness. 🙂 We’d been blogging for over a year now and have decent stats. I’ve just pitched to hotels in my next destination and hopefully one replies haha. We always write travel guides and direct people to some accommodation and while it feels nice to give helpful advice, I’m now looking for ways to lesser our costs, if not earn. Our audience isn’t in the US so monetization is challenging.

  17. Really nice post. It is really interesting thinking about the dilemma you had about how to write about this place. I guess this is something that all successful travel bloggers have to think about, but not something I had considered before…

    • Yeah, felt pretty safe so far! Still here for another 3 weeks. I’d advise having some Spanish but besides that I see nothing worse here than in many other spots. Bit more drugs, maybe

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