Blogging was the last thing I ever thought I’d be. Diplomat, international businessperson, author, these all seemed likely when I graduated with my MA in International Relations way back in the halcyon days of 1999. I’ve never been tech-centered, I’ve never adopted anything early and when I first started my web site on a rainy Saturday morning more than six years ago, I had to look up blogger in the dictionary to make sure that’s what I actually was. No, my new career was unlikely in every way, but along that road I’ve seen a lot and learned even more. I’ve tried to experiment with what works and doesn’t work and, more importantly, I’ve watched as others do the same. Let’s be clear, this post is not geared towards travel bloggers. I don’t write for them, I write for normal humans. So today this post is about how to distinguish between a good travel blog and one that isn’t and what you should rightfully expect from any travel blog you read. This should also clear up some misunderstandings between readers and authors, setting expectations for both as they move forward.
Guiding but not a guide
Not too long ago, a reader left a comment on one of my posts complaining that she didn’t like the restaurant recommendation I had made. Instantly, I felt guilty. I’m always a little nervous when I recommend something; I don’t want to inadvertently ruin someone’s vacation after all. Honestly though, I don’t get a lot of complaints, so I read through the post again, read her comments and realized that no, the fault was not mine. There was no fault actually, instead what happened was a complete and fundamental lack of understanding about what makes a good blog a good blog.
Independent travel blogs are not guidebooks or magazines, they are personal interpretations of how an individual (or individuals for multi-author blogs) travels and perceives the world. Personal is the key word here. They should be all about the individual writing them, they should be biased and they should not be comprehensive guides to any given place. That’s how and why blogs became popular in the first place, and yet so many bloggers seem to have forgotten that basic tenet in recent years.
How I normally explain it to people is like this. Think about the popular guidebook author Rick Steves. Why did he become so popular as a travel personality? We frankly didn’t need any more European travel guides; Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and others had already done that quite well. No, Rick became popular because of his personality and the way in which he traveled. It was different, it was unique and people could identify with it. Instead of listing key sites, Rick showed people how he prefers to travel Europe and as it turns out, a lot of people agreed with his style. We didn’t need Rick for his listing of famous sites and tasty restaurants, we needed Rick for Rick. A good travel blog seeks to accomplish the same mission, just in a digitalized fashion.
A good travel blog should not be a travel guide. If you see a post listing everything to see and do in Paris, don’t read it. What’s the point? Now, if that same author wrote about the 10 things they personally love to see and do in Paris, then that would have some value. It would reflect their personality and would be interesting. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the value of a good travel blog.
Personalized but not egotistical
That being said, there is a fine line one must negotiate as a blogger between providing information that is personalized and information that is simply egotistical. I’ve seen a recent, and sad, phenomenon of young men and women who seem to be all about fluff instead of substance. They purport to have a blog, they write (albeit poorly) but really it’s a platform in which to showcase themselves half naked or in bikinis. I’m not sure how or why this weird trend of models turned travel writers occurred, but it’s not good for the overall profession. They cheapen it and they take away from what’s important all in the vain attempt to increase their own notoriety and probably score some free trips in the process. No, a good travel blog should be about the individual writing it, but it’s also the responsibility of that writer to address the needs and concerns of his or her audience. It’s tough, no doubt there, which is why the most successful travel bloggers are also fiercely intelligent and driven people. Most of the successful travel bloggers are in their second or third careers in life and of the ones I know they come from industries as impressive as medicine, law, banking, politics and more. These aren’t the stereotypical young 20-somethings on a gap year; they are smart professionals who simply have an unconventional job. That’s also why they’ve succeeded, because they have the mental acuity to walk that tightrope and deliver content that is honest and engaging, without being braggadocious or self-aggrandizing. Keep that in mind when looking at travel blogs, are they using you or are they serving you?
Useful but not redundant
This is also a tough concept for many newish writers to understand, but again a fine line must be traversed when providing information to the world. As I said, a good blog should be personal, it should be all about an individual’s experience in a given destination. At the same time, it also should include some of those destination basics. For me to travel to a city like Paris for the first time and NOT mention the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre would be tone-deaf and slightly idiotic. Popular places are popular for a reason and should feed into the overall narrative when addressing a new destination for the first time. It’s how the writer is able to then transition into experiences not as well known, but still enjoyable. They must accurately share their time in the city without it coming across as a travelogue. How did they feel, how were they affected and how did they change and grow as individuals. This is what we as readers want to know and what we should expect. So, yes, bloggers should provide all of that information which is useful, but the post shouldn’t be a carbon copy of a guidebook. It must be integrated and nuanced into an overall travel narrative that is personal, interesting and compelling.
Justice Potter Stewart rule of good blogs
In 1964, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart coined a phrase in relation to a case involving pornography that is now one of the most famous phrases ever issued by the Court. In his threshold test for obscenity he wrote that he knows it when he sees it, and the same certainly holds true for a good travel blog. It’s not something that can be quantitatively defined or analyzed, but a good travel blog is just something you know almost right away. It starts with the design of the site itself and parlays into the photography and written word contained within. The internet has an uncanny ability to detect BS, and within seconds you should be able to know whether or not you’ve surreptitiously landed on a good travel blog or not. You’ll know immediately if the writer is there with a clear goal in mind and that goal is ultimately providing a service not to themselves, but to the greater world. It takes a certain personality to put yourself out there, to place your very identity on display for everyone to critique and judge. Those of us who do this professionally don’t do so for the perks, although they’re certainly nice. No, we do it because we have no other choice. This is our passion and our calling and to NOT write these posts, to not own a travel blog would mean depriving our very souls of the oxygen needed to survive. That, my friends, is how you know a truly great travel blog. Whether or not they have that passion for travel, whether or not it’s their true calling and whether or not they could imagine no other way of life.