A Professional Hobo
An Interview with Traveler, Author, and Blogger Nora Dunn
If you want to find out how to travel cheaply the best person to ask is Nora Dunn. A former financial planner, Dunn is the author of 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget. She also writes about small-budget travel and living at Transitions Abroad and Wisebread and says that it’s possible to travel full-time for less than $14,000 per year.
Editor's update: Nora reported an income of over $39,000 in 2012.
Dunn practices what she preaches. With unique money-saving techniques such as traveling slowly, house sitting for accommodation, and novel discount plane ticket search techniques (for more information about these, see the above-linked $14,000 per year article) Dunn has managed to visit 21 countries on five continents since 2007 and is still going. This interview found Dunn in Australia where she is way too excited about her next train trip.
Matt Gibson: You used to be a financial planner. How did you make the transition to writing full-time?
Nora Dunn: I’ve loved writing in one form or another for most of my life. So when I sold my financial planning business to travel, I started a blog to keep in touch with family and friends. Shortly after, I realized I could put my writing talents to work by combining my financial knowledge and travel experience, and I could earn a (modest) living.
MG: You write one of the best-known travel blogs on the net. Was there a tipping point where your blog’s popularity really started to climb? If so, to what do you attribute the increase?
ND: The tipping point was probably when I was in northern Thailand in May of 2008 spearheading an international fundraising campaign to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis in neighboring Burma. I made numerous international TV and radio interviews, and I used my blog as a landing page for donors. Subsequent humanitarian campaigns and the release of my first book (10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget) kept the fire fueled over the ensuing year.
MG: What is the single most effective strategy that a blogger can use to bring traffic to a blog?
ND: I’m not sure there’s a “golden goose” to bringing traffic in. The traffic itself varies depending on the strategy – from attracting small numbers of individuals who become dedicated readers, to large surges in traffic most of whom don’t stay for long and don’t return. A comprehensive marketing plan that touches on different strategies works well. Engaging other travel bloggers for panel discussions or guest posts is also a great way to create effective cross-promotions and loyal readers.
MG: Social networking is a great tool for increasing blog traffic, but many people don’t know how to use it. Take me, for example. I have 100 followers on Twitter. You have more than 7000. How on earth did you get so many?
ND: I am far from a social networking expert, believe me! I got to 7,000 Twitter followers by working pretty hard at it a few years ago. I don’t have as much time for it these days, but it has a momentum of its own now. I don’t spend a lot of time on social media in general, but it has proven to be very useful in generating fans, meeting new people, and staying in touch with friends.
MG: How important is social media for generating blog traffic? Which social media sites do you think are the most effective?
ND: Social media can be very important, and each site helps me accomplish something different. I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, Twitter to engage other travel bloggers and promote my articles, and LinkedIn to connect with other professionals and editors. I also use StumbleUpon from time to time, but I haven’t properly incorporated it into the fold for lack of time and sustainable results.
MG: Part of this article series focuses on the earning potential of travel blogs. Does your blog earn money? If so, may I ask for a ballpark figure to give our readers and idea of how much a successful travel blog can make?
ND: I’m pretty sure my site is far from a shining example of how to monetize a travel blog, since it’s not a primary goal (instead, I use my blog to write what I choose, stay in touch with those following my journey, and showcase my portfolio. Nevertheless, my blog makes a few hundred dollars each month.
MG: What drawbacks, if any, are there to being a professional travel blogger?
ND: There is a work-life balance that must be maintained which is not only trying at times, but often misunderstood by others. Contrary to popular opinion, the life of a travel blogger is not all beaches and pina coladas. There are many hours and days of sitting in dark internet cafes furiously working away.
MG: Is there competition between bloggers out there, given that new blogs keep springing up with often similar themes (and occasional downright rip-offs)? Or do you think that many are driven more by the need to express their own passions?
ND: I don’t worry much about market competition in the travel blogging realm. Most travel bloggers are very supportive of one another, and the balance of travel blogs are usually debunked within a year of being built since they’re too onerous to maintain or the creator stops traveling. The cream rises to the top, and if you give a helping hand to another travel blogger, you’ll likely receive one yourself.
MG: How much time are you “plugged in” to your computer, smartphone, or other devices during your travels?
ND: I tend to work on my computer for an average of 2-4 hours per day. It’s not always a daily thing though; I’ll go a few days without doing much, then put a few full days in to catch up. I could easily spend more time at it, but that usually covers writing, clearing emails, posting, booking travel arrangements, and staying in touch via social media.
MG: Do you think that blog and blog posts follow the literary tradition as, say, short installments of a larger story? Or do you think that blogging as a medium has completely changed the way we write?
ND: Blogging has (at least in part) changed the way we write, read, and even speak. It’s part of a larger consciousness of impatience, short attention spans, and desire for pre-digested information. All the abbreviations and jargon from instant messaging and texting is also part of the fray that has unfortunately reduced the overall quality of much of the writing out there these days. I dread the day when “lol” makes it into the dictionary…hopefully it hasn’t already.
MG: Do you think that the line between blogging and traditional writing will continue to be blurred such that journalism schools and even conventional educational institutions will become less important in the development and appreciation of travel writing?
ND: Although blogging is a unique style of writing that is pervasive, I don’t think that it will dilute all travel writing and the appreciation thereof. There’s still a desire and demand for quality writing that I doubt will ever completely disappear.
MG: Do you consider yourself an outsider wherever you go no matter how long you stay and participate in the life and cultures about which you write? Is this reflected in your blog posts?
ND: Quite the contrary! Many of the places and people I’ve visited have been incredibly welcoming and have incorporated me into their way of life quickly and seamlessly. Any feelings of being an outsider are often self-imposed, as the writer in me likes to observe differences and travel-induced transformations, and to communicate these observations in my blog posts.
MG: Are you concerned that blogging on a particular subject might potentially put someone at risk or danger politically, and has this ever happened to you inadvertently?
ND: I am ever-aware of the fact that my blog is public, read by strangers as well as my family, friends, partners, and others who could unwittingly find themselves the topic of a post. This knowledge creates in me a responsibility to write things that won’t cause undue offense or strife. Sometimes it means I won’t write a funny anecdote that might be offensive to somebody involved, or a compelling story about an experience that might backfire politically (for me or somebody else). However I view these obstacles as necessary practices for any diligent writer working within sound ethical guidelines.