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on travel blogging, sponsorships, and ethics

Blogging and sponsorships

*I don't talk about the business side of blogging much mainly because there are a lot of other folks doing a great job thinking about professional travel blogging, it's very inside baseball (and I don't even like baseball), and I don't want to bore you guys with the very unglamorous side of this travel lifestyle.  So, if you aren't a travel blogger and can't imagine why anybody would want to turn this into a business, I highly suggest that you check out our recent posts on gorgeous Prague and Pompeii .  But, if you're in the biz, or someone curious about what I’m doing when I go on “sponsored trips,” or a newbie travel blogger, maybe you'll find this ridiculously long-winded post interesting.

There’s been a lot of noise in the last few months about travel blogging and ethics: namely, is it appropriate for travel bloggers to take sponsorships and paid press trips and write about these products and destinations?  Aren’t bloggers obviously biased if they receive a press trip in which they are wined and dined by a specific destination?  How can a blogger write objectively about such destination?  And, how can a reader/consumer of blogs know when a blog is “real”?  (See the following articles that generally discuss this topic: this article from BBC/Skift , a recent newsletter from Bootsnall (which I can't link to), this article from TNooz that describes the new FTC guidelines requires bloggers to disclose sponsorships in their tweets , and the recent FTC guidance itself that basically tells bloggers that we must plaster disclosures all over the place if we want to accept sponsorships.

(Side note: I'm not even going to get into the discussion of whether or not the FTC Guidance is fair or unfair and how traditional print journalists may accept press trips and don't have to disclose that press trip in their magazine article.  The FTC Guidance is a post/vent for another day.  And, yes, I am a totally nerdy lawyer and have read the whole guidance multiple times, parsed through it, and am still thoroughly and completely irritated by it.)

The ethics of sponsorships is something that I’ve been wrestling with in my own blogging because I’ve been getting increasingly more sponsorship offers and more pressure from sponsors to portray them in a positive light.  And, I’ve been mulling --- a lot --- about what sponsorships and sponsored travel means for The Road Forks, me, and you.

Why talk about travel blogging ethics now?

Simply put, travel blogging has become huge.  I began blogging five years ago --- around the same time that a lot of the biggest players in travel blogging began their blogs, such as Adventurous Kate , The Planet D , and Twenty-Something Travel. At that time, destinations and companies were just beginning to think about working with travel bloggers.

Blogging, itself, was a vague notion.  Patrick and I were in South Africa on one of our first sponsored trips --- which we had cultivated by directly communicating with the company --- and someone asked me to describe a “blog.”  Before I could answer, someone else responded, “Oh, basically, it’s an online diary.”  Why would a company or destination want to work with a bunch of people spilling their guts in online diaries?  At that time, we weren’t even on the map.  Heck, we couldn’t even see the map with the "real travel journalists" in the way.

Now, there's no comparison.  When Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) had its first conference in 2009, a modest 150 people showed up in Chicago at the end of the much bigger Blogher.  Last year, there were four different conferences aimed solely toward travel bloggers hosted by three different entities across Europe and the United States with between 300 to 1,200 people at each conference.

Gary Arndt started a small Facebook group of travel bloggers around 2009 --- there were about 200 or so of us who chatted about random blogging stats, SEO, and industry issues.  Now, I'm one of the administrators of that group and there are 3,000+ travel bloggers and more joining every day.

And, now, companies are falling hand over feet backwards to work with bloggers.  I get offers nearly every day asking me to check out the newest product, app, book, hotel, restaurant, or destination. At ITB Berlin (a travel industry conference), travel bloggers became coveted and sought after , with specific events tailored to help destinations and areas meet travel bloggers.

(And, yes, I totally feel like the curmudgeonly old codger fondly recalling the good old days.  But, hey, that's what it's like in this business.  A year on the Internets is like ten years in the real world.)

As our industry grew, so did the avenues for cash.  Bloggers became entrepreneurs --- because we had to --- because that's the way to make money.  ( Go check out Kristin's amazing post on the need for entrepreneurism in travel writing/blogging .)  Blogging friends of mine are writing books , becoming brand ambassadors , developing conferences , and speaking at conferences .  And, we're getting respect.  We're no longer considered itinerant diarists (though, of course, sometimes we are) and amateurs.  There's a Professional Travel Bloggers Association , now, but the surest sign of the times: this year, three of the eleven National Geographic Travelers of the Year are travel bloggers and five of the winners of the Society of American Travel Writers' awards are bloggers .

But, with great power comes great responsibility.  Or, something like that.

bloggers have directly accessible personalities

Why do travel bloggers matter?  Why are destinations sending travel bloggers on press trips?

The explosion of travel blogging as a serious respected avenue for travel writing is still very much a work in progress.  Take, for example, this article from Skift/BBC which says, "The problem [of bloggers getting free press trips] stems not from freebies, per se. It stems from the disconnect between how travel bloggers position themselves as influencers of consumers.  They are not.  Their audience is a fraction of a sliver of a minuscule, but they make lots of noise.  On a good day, travel bloggers are marketers, and their audience is an echo chamber of equal-minded travel bloggers."

Here's what I know from my own work as a blogger: yes, there is a lot of this echo chamber issue in the travel blogging world, but I'd argue the same problem in any industry.  When I was a law student, I worked on a highly respected law journal: in it, academics talked to other academics.  When I was a lawyer, I went to numerous conferences where attorneys were talking to other attorneys and complaining about issues that, of course, no attorney could resolve because we were all part of the problem.  Judges mostly talk to other judges.  Doctors talk to doctors.  And, as we've recently discovered with the whole government shutdown, politicians seem to talk only to other politicians (and, they're not even doing a great job of that).

It's what we as a society do.  We talk to those who understand our industry the best.

Though bloggers do make a lot of noise, I'd argue that we are more influential than the Skift article posits.  No, we don't have the numbers of a Lonely Planet or a Frommers.  But, we have something that they don't: we have accessible personalities.  If people have questions, they can contact us.  If people have issues at a destination, they can talk directly to us to get our advice.  We are here.  We're available.

For example, check out my article on how to decide whether or not a Japan Rail Pass is worth the expense .  I wrote up this post way back in 2010 because it was an issue that I had spent a lot of time thinking about and worrying about and I wanted to help out other travelers.  The post has over 175 comments on it and, even now, I get at least one email a week from someone looking for Japan Rail Pass help, not to mention that it's one of the lead search results that sends people to my site.

Of course, the average non-blogging traveler could go to Lonely Planet or even to the JR Pass website and read up about the Japan Rail Pass system.  But, I can provide something that neither a guidebook nor a static website can provide: personalized help.  When people contact me, they don't address me as "Dear Sir/Madam" (well, unless they're a spammer, in which case they're equally likely to refer to me as Dear Mr. Patkila).  They address me as "Akila" because that's who I am.  The reason people ask me questions is because they know that I'll give them an answer to the best of my ability.  And, if I don't, they can hold me accountable (at least to a certain extent) because I am a real person and this is my blog.

That's the value a destination gets from sending bloggers on press trips.  No, we don't have the numbers of Conde Nast or National Geographic.  But, we have directly accessible personalities.  If someone reads about Namibia on my blog and they think this sounds like a great destination, they can email me or leave a comment and I'll get back in touch with them and help them sort out a trip to the best of my abilities.  And, those directly accessible personalities result in a pretty good return on investment for the destination.

How do you define a sponsorship?

A few years back, I would have told you that a sponsorship was a "free trip."  Or a free item.  In fact, Matt Kepnes of the huge Nomadic Matt wrote this great article on why he would keep taking free "press trips" and "free stuff" back in 2009.

But, if you ask us now, few bloggers will call a press trip "free."  Here's what we've learned in the intervening years:

  • DMOs (direct marketing organizations) and destinations demand a lot when on a press trip.  The pace is hurried and we're often writing blog posts, tweeting, Facebooking, and Instagramming on mediocre internet on buses as we run from one destination to the next.  We work a lot on a press trip, in the same way that I used to work a lot on business trips as an attorney.  A press trip is a business trip, albeit a fun business trip in an exotic locale.
  • Usually, we're not getting paid beyond the services provided by the DMO (i.e., lodging, food, etc.).  Now, this isn't always true.  There are some bloggers who make a salary from the organizations that they endorse, in effect acting as celebrity endorsers for a particular brand, in the same way that Lebron makes money from Nike (though, I can tell you that noone's getting super rich as a travel blogger).  But, that's the exception.  Most of us take press trips during our vacation time from our other paying gigs.  If we're professional bloggers or writers, the time that we are at a press trip is time spent not writing or pitching on other projects.  It's the loss of income and opportunity.
  • DMOs and destinations are starting to wise up to the fact that press trips aren't free.  In the last two years, I've started getting W-2s from organizations from whom I've received a press trip, meaning that I'm making "income" from these companies that I need to report to the IRS, even though that "income" may be in the form of lodging, dining, and air tickets, rather than cold hard cash.

All this goes back to the original question: how do you define a sponsorship?  I define a sponsorship as an arrangement in which I provide writing, photography, and linking services through my blog in exchange for a certain product or set of products.  A sponsorship is a bartering system.  Instead of providing cash for my services, the destination/product manufacturers are trading goods/products for my services.

And, that raises lots of questions: how can I accept goods or services from a company and then be honest in my writing about that company?  Isn't there an inherent conflict of interest if I'm getting "income" from X destination?

Online services consumers most trust

Why does honesty matter in travel blogging?

Many non-travel bloggers have assumed that it's not possible to go on a press trip and still write honestly about the product/destination.  It's the reason that the FTC has come down so hard on bloggers, requiring in their most recent guidance, that bloggers directly state that a review, blog post, or tweet about a particular topic was sponsored.

It's the reason that Sean Keener wrote in his recent Bootsnall newsletter (which is, in part, what prompted this whole blog post) that, "Many popular travel bloggers are given free trips (often called press trips) or in some cases are even paid to go to a destination, hotel, hostel, etc.  The blogger will often use this disclaimer: 'This trip/hotel/hostel/etc. was paid for by XXXXX, but the opinions are my own.'  Really? I call Bull-shitake.  Let's think about this for a minute. If that blogger paid for that exact same trip with their own coin, would the content be the same?  Quite simply - No...it wouldn't."

Let me turn this around: why is it assumed that bloggers can't be honest about a press trip?  Why is it assumed that we will automatically give glowing reviews of a product because it was given to us to review?

Personally, I didn't start getting sponsorships and offers for product reviews until I was already well-established as a blogger.  I'd been writing for a year or longer, had a decent sized social media presence, and was active in the travel blogging community.  I got sponsorships because I already had credibility with my readers.

Credibility is critical in this industry.  In fact, I'd say that you can scrap everything else: the quality of writing, the quality of photography, the quality of your web design, and, if you can be seen as a credible authority, you will succeed as a blogger.

Though not a blogger, Paula Deen is a perfect example of this.  She was a respected and credible authority on Southern cuisine.  She reminded all of us of our fondly indulgent grandmothers, who lived in a time when butter was considered a health food.  I've made her recipes before and I've eaten at her restaurant : I'm telling you, people, that she wasn't that great of a Southern cook.  But, people loved her because she was so honest and cute and round and full of buttery fun!  Then, all of a sudden, people found out that she had used racist terms.  She stopped reminding of us of our kindly grandmothers and started reminding us of those bigoted Southerners that every other Southerner would rather not know.  She lost her credibility and, in doing so, lost her TV shows and endorsement deals.

Now, there isn't a single travel blogger who is as famous as Paula Deen.  But, we, too, have reputations to uphold.  If you have been doing this travel blogging thing long enough to have developed a credible reputation that will earn you sponsorships, then you've probably worked pretty hard to develop such credibility.

And, it's that credibility that's getting you sponsorships and making you money.

In fact, Technorati recently concluded in its Digital Marketing report this exact same point: blogs are the fourth most influential online source for people making consumer decisions, behind retail sites and brand sites and the fifth most trusted source of information on the Internet.  (Note that consumers prefer blogs as a source of information over news sites and online magazines.  The King is dead.  Long live the King.)  And smaller communities actually drive purchases over larger bloggers because people believe that smaller communities have greater influence.

People trust bloggers because they think that we are credible sources of information.

online services most likely to influence a purchase

How much is your credibility worth?

So, really, when you look at this whole big question about whether bloggers should accept press trips and sponsored gear, the question boils down to this: how much is your credibility worth?

My credibility is worth a lot to me.  I've worked hard to build a credible reputation as a blogger.  I've worked hard to build credibility in the travel industry.  Why would I screw up that credibility by creating content that only favors a sponsor?

Our job --- or, at least, my job --- as a travel blogger is to write and be responsive to my readership. Not to any sponsor.  Writing for sponsors isn't a sustainable business model.

Sponsors come and go. Readers last

I think there's also a quantity issue: if you, as a blogger, take on too many sponsorships, people may assume that you're just a corporate shill.  Unlike a faceless guidebook entity, we bloggers are our brand.  As Nora Dunn eloquently put it , "out-of-sight/out-of-mind is a real problem in the ever-changing blogging industry."  I think that's part of the reason that The Pioneer Woman is so successful.  Even though she has many, many, many sponsors, she is always the face of her blog and always writes her personal stories on her "confessions" section.  She never loses sight of the fact that she is her brand.

I get over a hundred offers for sponsorship a year --- for gear, apps, websites, books, hotels, restaurants, cooking classes, tours, and destinations. Of that hundred, I accept less than 5 to take on as sponsors. Why? Because, frankly put, a whole lot of the stuff being put out there is terrible and I don't want to be associated with terrible stuff. Of the five that I take on, I'd say that I have a bad or a middling experience with one.  And, I write about why I didn't like it.

How do we keep ourselves ethical?  How do we deal with sponsors who provide us with bad products?

Not every press trip is full of puppies and rainbows.  In one of the more famous examples, Kate McCulley was shipwrecked on a sponsored trip. She wrote about it scathingly on her blog and warned people to never ever use that company again and Lonely Planet quoted her experience in their newest guidebook. Just to be clear: Lonely Planet --- an independent guidebook --- used a blogger's perspective of a sponsored tour in their newest book. Why? Because Kate was honest about the whole thing.  She kept her credibility.

Sadly, as more press trips have been coming in, companies have started asking me to sign contracts agreeing that I will only "write positive reviews."  I say no and I email them a copy of the FTC guidance.

But, it scares me that there are bloggers who are unthinkingly or unknowingly signing contracts like these.  And, in a Facebook group discussion about this concept, several bloggers mentioned that they feel like they have to write positive reviews in order to satisfy their sponsors.

That just makes me sad.

Our credibility is worth more than a few press trips and free gear.

At TBU Porto, I gave a presentation on Legal Issues for Bloggers and asked the audience to raise their hand if they wrote contracts with their sponsors.  Not a single person raised their hand (granted, it was a pretty small audience but even still.) .

I write contracts with every single one of my sponsors (or, at minimum, I write an email laying out what each party will be providing).  The contract includes the following information:

  • what I am receiving from the company with the retail value of the product or press trip
  • what I am offering, including the number of blog posts and whether or not I will be providing videos and posts via other social networking mediums (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest)
  • the date by which such posts will be up
  • a statement that all posts by me will be completely and utterly unbiased with a disclosure made in accordance with the FTC Guidance, with the warning that I may write a negative review about their product, and I will notify them beforehand if I plan to write such a negative revview

I can't even count how many times I've seen people ask "how do I deal with a bad press trip/sponsor" after the press trip or sponsorship.  After the fact, it's too late.  This is a possibility that should be dealt with up front, before any product or value is exchanged.  (And, if you're a blogger and curious, I hoped to run a session on this topic last year at TBEX but Amara was only two months old at the time so I couldn't go.  I hope that I'll be able to run a session on contracting with sponsors at a later point.  Maybe next year?)

Where does that leave me and The Road Forks?

If you've made it through the last 3,000 words, bravo!  Have a cookie.

Where does this leave me?  Pretty much in the same place that I've always been.  I accept very few sponsorships every year with brands that I believe align with our core ideals --- promoting delicious, fun, and sustainable travel with companies that care about this good world.  I'd say that we pay for 95% of our travel and gear and perhaps 5% is sponsored.  I write contracts with those sponsors to ensure that my reviews are always 100% unbiased and independent, regardless of the sponsorships.  I keep a cordial relationship with my sponsors but, ultimately, my focus is on being honest and dependable to my readers.

Matt Kepnes recently talked about why very few travel bloggers succeed: that it's because few of us develop our blogs as a business with a business strategy. I've always been honest about the fact that I don't want to be a professional travel blogger and I treat my blog as a semi-business .

It's for that reason that I don't think I will be ever considered a popular travel blogger.  But, I do consider myself to be a credible one.  And, I'd like to keep it that way.

on making money blogging

Making money blogging*I don't talk about the business side of blogging much mainly because I don't have a lot to say on it and I don't want to bore you guys with the very unglamorous side of this travel lifestyle.  So, if you aren't a travel blogger and can't imagine why anybody would want to turn this into a business, I highly suggest that you check out our recent posts on fabulous, yummy Istanbul.  But, if you're in the biz or a newbie travel blogger (and I get a lot of emails from newbies so this post is largely for you guys), maybe you'll find this interesting.

A year or so ago, I firmly put my foot down and said that I did not want to be a professional travel blogger.  I didn't want to be tied to my computer, forced to churn out blog posts and articles when I had other things I wanted to do, and required to take on shady advertisers and post sponsorers.  And, frankly, I thought that being a professional travel blogger sounded awful silly.  I couldn't imagine myself answering the question, "What do you do?" with "I blog."

But, this just goes to show that one should never make such firm foot-in-mouth sort of statements, because, here we are a year later, and, now, what do I do?  I blog.

Okay, so, this isn't my full-time job but we are making a decent supplemental income from the blog.  Yes, this blog (and also our other blog).  And, if you're surprised, believe me, you're not the only one.  I'm not entirely sure how this happened, either. 

The Cash Bit

If you are a blogger, then you've probably heard a whole lot of screaming and teeth gnashing about how you should or shouldn't make cash while blogging.  Some people say that e-books, apps, and products are the best way to make money while others swear by banner ads and sponsored posts.  At TBU (where I did manage to do more than just eat), I met folks who make a living almost entirely on affiliate sales (that is, they provide a link to a company and the company gives them a portion of the sale in cash.)  We do a little of affiliate sales, banner ads, and sponsored posts, but not all that much.

So, cash, yes, we make some of that --- somewhere around $1000 a month between our two sites --- but, we could and should be making a lot more if we properly monetized our sites.  Why don't we monetize better?

  • We have strange principles.  There's a lot of talk about ethics-this-and-ethics-that, but the bottom line is that every blogger has to decide for himself/herself how comfortable they feel in accepting advertisements.  The line that we draw is that we require any advertisements on this site to be clearly listed and labeled as such, either by calling it a "sponsor" or "advertiser."  Lots of advertisers don't like this rule and won't work with us (and, yes, this means that we don't accept contextual text links.)
  • We demand perfectionism.  One of the best ways to make money as a blogger is to create static sites and sell them or use them for Google ads.  We haven't done this largely because we demand that every site we produce be "perfect."  Perfect means that we need to spend tens of hours fixing up the design, content, and material, so we don't have enough time in the day to work on more than a few sites.  Perfectionism is a problem in a quantity-oriented business, which blogging is, to a large extent.
  • We don't seriously consider this to be a business.  This is, I think the biggest reason we don't make more money.  At TBU this year, I listened to all these folks talking about how they leverage affiliate links and newsletters, partnership affiliations, and more, and, all I could think to myself was, "Gosh, Patrick and I are complete idiots.  Why aren't we doing this?"  A month later, we still haven't integrated more affiliate links into our site and I think that it's simply because we aren't serious about making money out of our sites.  We have "real" jobs --- Patrick works as a software consultant and I work as a legal consultant and writer while we're on the road --- so any income we make on our sites is simply a nice little bonus.  This money isn't for our survival and, because of that, we aren't so focused on churning out a lot of advertising sales and e-books.

How to make money blogging?In fact, I get this question all the time: "How do you make money blogging?"  The very simple one sentence answer is "Treat your blog as a business."  If you do that, then you'll make money (maybe not a lot but you'll definitely make some.)  We treat our blog as a semi-business: it's a place where we make money and work with partners but it's also our creative playground.  And, because we treat it as a semi-business, we only make okay money on it.

The Sponsorship Bit

If I had to choose between my advertisers and sponsors, I would choose my sponsors every single time.  In fact, we've mostly oriented ourselves to working with sponsors --- we get somewhere around $1,500 worth of sponsored travel every month --- rather than relying on advertising because we love our sponsors.

Why work with sponsors?  At the beginning, we started working with sponsors simply because people offered us sponsorships and we were so excited that people wanted to give us FREE! SPONSORED! things that we didn't stop to think about why we would work with them.

Now, we partner with sponsors because we enjoy providing value to companies who we value.  You could say that we're getting free stuff . . . but, actually, none of it is free.  We provide value for these sponsorships. 

sponsorships doesn't mean freeIn fact, sponsorships are a LOT of work --- a lot more work than simply putting a banner ad or text link on our site.  Whenever I take on a sponsor, we go in full blogging mode, meaning that I'm writing notes the entire time we are on a sponsored tour or activity and tweeting/Facebooking about it, and Patrick is taking constant pictures.  A gear review means that we test the gear thoroughly and put it through its paces.  Afterwards, I spend a lot of time crafting sponsored posts to ensure that we are honest, unbiased, and completely accurate, while also providing value to our sponsors.  On average, I spend about six hours crafting a sponsored post (and if I go on a press trip, I normally allocate one to two weeks of coverage to that destination, meaning that I probably spend forty hours working on sponsored posts for a one week press trip) versus four hours on a non-sponsored post.  I also bump sponsored posts up on our post calendar so we don't take more than a few sponsorships each month otherwise the entire site would just be one big sponsored party, which we definitely don't want.

What does this mean?  This means that I try really hard not to take on a sponsorship if there's a possibility that we're going to hate the tour, activity, or product.  I don't want to rip a company apart on our site especially if they've provided us a product to review.  In the last year of working with sponsors, we were only once unhappy about a sponsored tour, which is relatively good odds.

We love our sponsors because we carefully choose them.  Of the two or more emails I get each week offering me sponsorships, I only take one.  I reject a lot of sponsorships because the company isn't focused on our target audience of food-loving travelers and I reject some of them because I can't see us enjoying their services.  We don't take on sponsorships simply because they're there . . . we take them on because we believe in these companies and would be using them anyway.

Ahem, The Future

I'm going to say this straight out: we don't have a business plan (yes, I know we should) and we don't know what the future holds with respect to this blog.  I suspect it won't change all that much from what I'm currently doing but I've learned better than to make firm foot-in-the-mouth statements that will come back and bite me.

The thing is, I love talking with y'all, sharing our stories and advice, and finding this amazing community of people who care passionately about food and travel.  The money we make and the sponsorships we get are just a nice little bonus hiding behind something I would be doing anyway.

what travel bloggers eat


View of Perugia from TBU photowalk

Please take this post with a gigantic grain of salt --- make that a cupful of salt --- because this isn't normally how travel bloggers eat, otherwise we'd all be rolling ourselves across the world.  But, last week: wow.  I'm always joking about how we're gaining weight but, last week, at the Travel Bloggers Unite conference in Umbria, Italy, I literally gained three pounds in six days.  At the end of the week, we only half-joked that we needed a group liposuction because the amazing Umbrian Tourism Board organized such good food.

So, without further ado, here is a photo essay of what we saw and ate in the lush and decadent Umbrian region.

Opening ceremony at TBU Umbria Umbria opening ceremony TBU
Chocolates from Perugina Opening nights ceremony at Valle de Assisi

The Opening Ceremony at the Valle di Assisi Hotel near Assisi, Umbria: though a bit far from Assisi and with hesitating Internet, I couldn't fault the outstanding food, the way they accommodated all food restrictions throughout the conference, and the gorgeous views

Dinner at restaurant with Steve McCurry

Dinner with Steve Curry

Steve McCurry dinner

Dinner with Steve McCurry

Dinner with Steve McCurry

Dinner with Steve McCurry

Dinner in Perugia with Steve McCurry, the award-winning National Geographic photographer

Vegetables at Bevagna market Luigi Frappi
Luigi Frappi artwork Luigi Frappi artwork

The artwork of Luigi Frappi , who focuses on still-life images of fruits and vegetables, in the medieval village of Bevagna .  The gray-haired man above is Luigi Frappi and the Italian next to him is fabulous Fabio, our amazing tour guide through Umbria.

Lunch at Terre Margaritelli

Wines at Terre Margaritelli Terre Margaritelli wine
Salamis at Terre Margaritelli Wines at Terre Margaritelli
Sausages at Terre Margaritelli Pasta with stinging nettle pesto Terre Margaritelli

Our lunch at Terre Margaritelli winery, in Torgiano, where we had locally cured meats and cheeses, marinated saltwort, farro salad, sausages with grapes, stringozzi (a type of eggless pasta) with stinging nettle pesto, and their red and white wines.

Crostata di ricotta di pecora
Jennifer with Life . . . Italian Style Jennifer cutting the crostata di ricotta di pecora Kash at Budget Traveller eating crostata di ricotta di pecora

The sensational crostata di ricotta di pecora (sheep's milk's ricotta tart) with chocolate and orange peel (I want this recipe!) served by Jennifer, chef at Terre Margaritelli, and teacher of cooking classes in Umbria called Life . . . Italian Style and Kash eyeing the tart hungrily.

Wine glasses at Caprai winery

Chef at Caprai winery Caprai olive oil and bracelet
Rociatta Fava bean and pecorino salad
Handmade pasta noodles Apple rocciatta
Glasses at Caprai dinner table Sagrantino

Lunch and wine at the Arnaldo Caprai winery in Montefalco where we ate traditional dishes including fava bean and pecorino salad with their homemade grassy and bright olive oil, rocciata filled with vegetables and a sweet rocciata with apples.  Rocciata is a typical Umbrian dish, similar to a strudel, though the dough is eggless and made from a combination of flour, olive oil, and wine.  We topped off the delicious meal with the best wine I tried in Umbria, a sweet Sagrantino dessert wine from the Caprai winery and produced only in Montefalco, Italy.  The wine is pricey --- 30 Euros for a half bottle --- but an excellent special occasion dessert wine and one that I highly recommend wine connoiseurs try.

Meal at I Mandorli, Trevi Mamma Wanda at I Mandorli
Chocolate cake at i Mandorli Apple rocciata
The spread at i Mandorli Homemade gelato at hotel
Fabio, our guide, told us that we were going to end the night with a "simple farm meal," which turned out to be not simple at all but rather a mouth-watering smorgasbord of vegetables, breads, and soups, made by Mamma Wanda at the Agriturismo I Mandorli .  It is an absolute shame that I Mandorli only offers dinners to its agriturismo's guests because I think that everyone should try this type of homestyle Umbrian cuisine, but I'm sure that they approach their agriturismo with the same hospitality as they approached our dinner.

We wound up that night with a lesson on how to make gelato with liquid nitrogen at the modern Delfina Palace Hotel .  One of the other bloggers said that she would gladly swim in the strawberry sauce that the chefs made there and I could eat that gelato every single day of my life.

Lungarotti wine Porchetta at Lungarotti winery St. George feast
Fava beans at St. George festival Wine at St. George feast
Feast of St. George
Ali at Feast of St. George Tony at Feast of St. George
Travel bloggers at Feast of St. George
Wine from Lungarotti winery in Torgiano, Umbria, and porchetta and fava beans at the incredible feast of St. George .  As night fell in Torgiano, the locals lit a giant bonfire of twigs snapped off from the dead vines.  This is a tradition passed down for centuries to signal the start of spring and new growth on every April 23rd.  People laughed, talked, ate, and drank, as the fire flickered and danced around us.  I felt fortunate to experience this beautiful night with old and new friends in lovely Umbria.

*I cannot thank the Umbrian Tourism Board enough for hosting me (and the rest of the 200 bloggers who came to Travel Bloggers Unite) and introducing me to this beautiful part of the world.  As always, though this trip was sponsored, every single thought, picture, and word on our blog is mine and mine alone (and, of course, Patrick sometimes gets a little bit of say in what I'm going to write).

when travel loses its charm

Me at Pompeii

Me at Pompeii last month

This is my third new year as a permanent traveler.  We packed all our possessions into a storage facility in August 2009, and our sofas, dining table, and box-after-box-after-box of books have gathered dust for the last two and a half years.  We haven't settled in one place for more than two months in the last 28 months.  839 days of full-out nomadism.  When we head back to the United States next September, we will have been on the road for three solid years.  36 months.  1096 days.

When we left for Australia at the very beginning, Chewy was a spry 8-year-old.  Now, Abby, our baby girl, is going to turn 8 and Chewy is a steady 11.  Our nephew was a Spongebob-adoring preschooler and now he's fully enmeshed in Little League and the first grade.  We've lost and gained family members while we've been gone.  We've watched friends marry and have children from afar.  And, in those two and a half years, we've traversed five continents, over 20 countries, and way too many planes, trains, and boats.  We've been together nearly every single day for almost 900 days.

And, so far, we're not bored.  But, I'm afraid that it's going to happen soon.

Chewy and Abby at the Cotswolds

Chewy and Abby seeing rhinos and zebras at the Cotswolds Wildlife Park

You see, at some point, traveling loses its charm.  When we started this blog, we virtually met lots of travellers embarking on round-the-world trips.  While we've been exploring the world, most of those blogging friends have returned home, resettled into jobs, and some have even had babies.  In the last week, Jeannie from Nomadic Chick and Ayngelina from Bacon is Magic, two popular travel bloggers and super fun women, announced that they're ending their long-term travels.

Jeannie explained in her hilariously titled post, "Crazy Travel Lady Needs to Stop," that "I’ve been bulldozing alone for too long.  It’s time to stop.  I’m getting irritable, even slightly panicky about replenishing my savings.  What saddens me the most is that I’ve lost something.  The spark that first ignited my thirst for other cultures has dwindled.  I want it back."  Ayngelina echoed Jeannie saying, "I’m done with the constant travel.  The nomadic lifestyle is not for me, I loved it for a year and a half but now traveling is becoming a chore. I miss the wonder and awe. It disappeared somewhere along the line. And I think many of you realized it before I did."

And, though not quite as dramatic because he's not ending his travels, Dave from The Longest Way Home, who has been traveling for 7+ years in search of a "home," complained recently that he was "frustratingly bored" by Southeast Asia.  So, he headed to Kathmandu, the first place he ever felt truly at home, because, as he says, "I want to take up my own challenge and make a place to live. I want to throw caution to the wind and join the elements for an adventure to the edge of the world."

About a year and a half ago, Christine from Almost Fearless posted that "Eventually, Everyone Stops Traveling," referencing two other popular travel/lifestyle design bloggers who decided to quit traveling.  Christine asked, "is the romance of the round-the-world trip actually burning people out on travel? . . . . I’m beginning to think the entire premise of a RTW trip is flawed. It’s as if we’ve collectively decided that if you’re going to travel, then you must cram as much actual traveling into that time as possible. Lest you miss something."

Us at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Us at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Patrick and I are doing things very differently than most long-term travelers.  Because we've got Chewy and Abby with us, we move slowly.  In the last five months, we've been in only five countries, renting holiday homes/apartments for two weeks (or more) at a time.  We limit sightseeing to every other day at around 6 hours per day.  We cook most evenings, meaning that we're not packing on calories at mediocre restaurants every night.  We have our car with us which shortens most travel times.  We rent places with laundry machines, WiFi, and big beds, to mimic home comforts as much as possible.  Our dogs, amazingly, adapt to every environment in about 24 hours, eagerly scenting out the new places we stay in, creating as minimal disruption or annoyance to our lives as possible.

Even still, we are exhausted.

You see, we've been permanent travelers for 839 days.  We move establishments every two weeks.  I pick up a new language every month (while Patrick smiles and nods at my attempts to speak Spanish/French/Italian/German/you name it.)  We are constantly adjusting to new climates and cultures.  We find dog parks, walks, and veterinarians in every city.  We work every single day at least five hours per day.  (Last week, for example, we revamped our site while we were showing my parents around London.)  We never know the day of the week because we never take a "weekend."  And, sometimes, as Dani and Jess at Globetrotter Girls poignantly put it, we fear that we've become frighteningly forgettable as we struggle to keep up with our friends and families across the sea.

Yeah, we are exhausted.

The last four days, we've both slept over twelve hours per night.  We haven't ventured outside the immediate proximity of our apartment since the new year began.  We've been ordering in Indian takeaway.  We've been pretending that London doesn't exist, though we haven't even been to the acclaimed National Gallery, because we don't have the energy to deal with it.  Tomorrow, Patrick flies to New Orleans for a friend's bachelor party and, next week, we're both heading to Cancun for a wedding, but, in between, we're staying still.  Sitting in one place.  Catching up on Friends, Frasier, and The Big Bang Theory, all of which air continuously on British television.

And, I am totally okay with this. 

Me exploring Pompeii

At Pompeii

I think five days will be enough to get our travel juices flowing again.  When we come back from Mexico, we're heading to Croatia, a country that we are super excited to explore.  I'm already pumped up about our two months stay in Turkey in the spring.  And, have I told you that we're going to spend a month - a MONTH - in Paris, that heavenly land of cheese and chocolate?

I still love traveling.  I love the excitement of waking up somewhere else, of being somewhere new, of finding those unmissable firsts.  But, will I still be excited in another eight months?  Lately, we've found ourselves starting sentences with these words, "When we settle down, I want to . . . . "  Is the end coming for us as it has come for so many of our traveling friends?  And, if it comes, then what?  What do you do when you finish a dream?  How do we even begin to plan to move on from our current state of now, now, now?

Denise from The Art of Slow Travel --- who practices ultimate slow travel, often spending months or even years in a place --- explained that "slow travel is about understanding that the world is big and varied enough to make travelling a life-long endeavour."  That's it, exactly.  We want this to be a life-long endeavour.  We don't want to get burnt out or bored, and we don't want to be exhausted, either.

This isn't a round-the-world trip anymore.  It's definitely not a vacation.  This is our lifestyle.  Our nomadic lifestyle.  And, I don't know how this story's going to end.

January 2012

shiny 2012
January 2, 2012

July 2011

seven links from our archives
July 6, 2011

April 2011

introducing the road unleashed!
April 18, 2011

February 2011

how we (don't) fund our travels
February 10, 2011

January 2011

new year, new site
January 3, 2011

November 2009

essential resources for new travel bloggers: photography and SEO
November 5, 2009

September 2009

essential resources for new travel bloggers: creating content
September 8, 2009

August 2009

essential resources for new travel bloggers: setting up
August 10, 2009