It was 2011 and Lauren Juliff was convinced she was making the greatest mistake of her life.
In just 24 hours, she would be travelling to the airport with a shiny new backpack affixed to her shoulders and a one-way ticket in hand. From there, she planned to board a plane from the U.K. to Croatia, with little idea of when she’d return. On her travel blog, she’d told readers she dreamed of travelling the world for a year or more. In her mind, she was worried she’d be home within days.
For most people, setting off on the first day of their round-the-world adventure would make for one of the most exciting moments of their life. But for Lauren, it was one of the most nerve-wracking. Not only had she never travelled alone before, but she’d also never spent more than two weeks away from home. Her lack of experience had her doubting her abilities, to the point where she was convinced she’d never make it as a traveller.
Her fears were so strong, in fact, that she came close to cancelling the entire trip.
Fortunately for us, she pushed through the nerves and touched down in Eastern Europe on a sunny July morning. Almost immediately, she got lost and developed sunstroke. It was a mishap that would set the tone for the next decade of her career.
On Never Ending Footsteps, Lauren began to write about the realities of a life of long-term travel. She shared countless mishaps as she experienced them — from getting scammed to flashing her tour group — and subsequently built a large, loyal audience who couldn’t wait to read more.
As she transformed her website into a major player in the travel blogging field, she found herself making money from her stories as she dedicated herself to turning her newfound passion into a business. For many years, she marveled at her luck: she’d made a career out of travelling the world and it felt as though life couldn’t possibly get any better.
But then 2020 reared its ugly head and we all know what happened next.
What happens when a travel blogger can’t travel?
What does it mean when your business falls apart overnight?
What’s it like to travel the world for over a decade?
We found out the answers to those questions when we sat down with Lauren in a bustling cafe in Melbourne, Australia.
Hi, Lauren! It’s great to have you here with us.
Thank you for having me!
Of course! So, I’ll kick things off by asking you to tell the readers of Too Many Adapters a little about yourself.
So my name is Lauren Juliff and I’ve been unexpectedly exploring this planet for ten years and counting. Over that time, I’ve been fortunate to have visited just under a hundred countries, and the travel itself has been entirely self-funded.
I always knew I wanted to see more of the world. I was a person who was forever daydreaming of foreign lands and unfamiliar cultures, and coming up with travel itineraries that would challenge my perceptions and help me gain a deeper understanding of the planet. I just wasn’t sure how I could do it.
At some point — probably around 2008 or so — I discovered the concept of a round-the-world trip and couldn’t get the idea out of my head. From that moment on, every decision I made was with that end goal in mind. I took on multiple jobs to build my savings while spending every spare minute researching different countries.
When I finally felt as though I’d saved enough money, it coincided with my graduation from university — perfect timing! I packed my bags, said goodbye to my friends, and hit the road.
And you started your travel blog around this time?
A bit before then. I launched Never Ending Footsteps around six months before I first left to travel. Look at me, saying “launched” as though there was any kind of fanfare or interest in what I was doing [laughs]; definitely not true.
Back then — this was in 2010, 2011 — travel blogging wasn’t in any way the industry that it is today. The term digital nomad hadn’t been created. Instagram didn’t even exist! Twitter was the social media of choice [laughs].
I think there was like, y’know, 10 people who were making $1,000 a month from their travel blogs, so it wasn’t like I started this venture by thinking I was going to become an influencer. I didn’t have the mindset of my blog being my “business”. I just thought travel blogging sounded cool and I wanted to be a part of the community.
So, you had six months of travel blogging under your belt before you left the U.K.
Was that a deliberate choice?
It definitely wasn’t a calculated move. These days, when I’m working with brand new travel bloggers, I recommend that they start their travel blogs as soon as they possibly can. Like, today. Start today! In fact, I spent weeks putting together the most detailed guide on how to start a travel blog partially because I saw so many new bloggers making the same mistakes and sabotaging their chances at success.
I now have enough knowledge and experience to know that learning how to run a travel blog while travelling at the same time is the absolute worst. There’s so much to figure out in those early days. Trying to travel full-time while learning how to run a business means that, well, you don’t have any time left to travel. And so, I strongly believe that it’s best to get everything set-up and running in advance.
But back then, I had no idea that I was doing everything right from day one. Travel blogging-wise, that is.
Yes, you couldn’t say the same about your travels.[Laughs] Definitely true. Little did I know when I first set out that I was about to become the unluckiest traveller in the world.
Your list of incidents is remarkable.
Yep. Seriously. My list of travel mishaps feels endless at times. I’ve been scammed in China and Laos and the Maldives and Sri Lanka and Tanzania. I face-planted into a sand dune in Namibia, fell into a leech-infested rice paddy in Indonesia, and accidentally ate a cockroach in Laos.
What else? Oh yeah, I had rabies scare in India and I caught cholera in Borneo. Cholera! Who gets cholera these days? Well apparently, I do. I wet myself on the streets of Nepal, almost ran over a monk in Myanmar, flashed my tour group in the Cook Islands…
Should I go on?
I think we’ve got the picture.
Yeah. I’ve certainly had plenty of mishaps while travelling — but those always make for the best travel stories right?
What kept you travelling throughout all of the disasters?
Honestly, the bad luck seems extreme when you list it all out like that, but it’s made up such a tiny proportion of my travels. You have to remember that all of these incidents took place over the space of a decade — often, there were months and months of joy and life-changing moments between them.
I haven’t found the disasters scarring. Instead, I relish in having the best stories at a dinner table, and remind myself that every bad experience is outweighed by a hundred incredible ones.
So on that note, what’s been your best ever travel experience?
Oh, you know it’s so hard to choose! There are literally thousands of incredible moments to choose from.
One of the most meaningful experiences for me, though, took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, I hiked deep into the jungle to meet wild mountain gorillas, then climbed an active volcano that contains the world’s largest lava lake. The night I spent sleeping beside its caldera, listening to the lava bubble and splash, was one of the most magical moments of my life.
At what point did you realise your travel blog was starting to find success?
So, it was around a month before I even left to travel that I made my first dollar from my travel blog. In fact, I made 200 of them! Out of the blue, I received an email from an advertiser who had discovered my site and wanted to place an ad on it. I asked around in the travel blogging community to try to find out how much I should charge for it, then couldn’t believe it when the advertiser agreed.
A year later, I was making enough money to sustain my travels in cheaper parts of the world. Most importantly, what that meant was that I didn’t have to go home! I was elated. Somehow, I had managed to find a way to continually break even and cover my travel expenses. As long as things didn’t fall apart, I could keep going, well, forever.
Is that how you make money now?
I’ve diversified my income a lot over the past decade, as my audience as grown and evolved with me.
Display advertising plays a large role in my site’s income to this day, along with affiliate sales, where I earn a commission on any sales of the products I recommend to readers.
When I began earning six figures from my site — that was when I was around five years in — I started a coaching program to help new bloggers fast-track their journey to success. Later, I launched a travel anxiety course to help others overcome their fears and see the world. I tried freelance writing for a while — which I hated. I edited the travel section of a magazine for a year or so. I used to run a Patreon, where I’d share untold travel stories with subscribers.
I’ve tried a lot, but in recent years, I’ve scaled back to focus on the sources of income that allow me more freedom in my personal life. I’d much rather earn passive income from having advertising on my site than spend a hundred hours a month writing for somebody else’s publication.
The Gear Lauren Travels With
Too Many Adapters is a technology site, of course, so I have to ask you about some of your favourite gear.
Sure. So, I used to travel with kilograms upon kilograms of technology.
Including, I’ve heard, the worst external hard drive known to man.
Oh, man. So much.
So, uh… wow, this is embarrassing [laughs]. But just as I was about to start travelling, I realised I’d need to bring an external hard drive with me.
I was going to be packing a high-end DSLR and I obviously needed a way to back-up all of the photos I’d be taking with. I didn’t even think of the prospect of uploading stuff to the cloud — was that even a thing back then?
Yes, it definitely was.
Right. So I didn’t know that that was a thing. Um, so I decided to buy this 2TB external hard drive for my trip. And back in 2011, those could be pretty goddamn weighty.
As in, this brick that I purchased weighed close to a kilogram.
It was enormous.
It was so heavy.
And I didn’t realise there were alternatives! There were lighter hard drives out there!
Oh and the best part about all of this was: it had to be plugged into a power socket, too! You couldn’t just plug it into your laptop. You had to full-on plug it into the wall and then into your laptop, and then the hard drive somehow weighed even more than your laptop and…
It was a lot.
Truly, one of the worst tech decisions of my life.
So, back to the present.
Yes. I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the past decade.
What gear are you currently traveling with?
So I need a laptop, of course, for travel blogging purposes. I’m an Apple girl through and through, so I’ve been travelling with various iterations of Macbooks throughout the years. Currently, I’m travelling with the 13″ 2020 Macbook.
I also travel with an iPhone. The iPhone 11 Pro. You know, back in the early days of my travels, I refused to travel with a smartphone for so long. I always believed that having access to a phone would take me away from my travels, which is true. But the world has changed since then, and my iPhone makes travel so much easier — navigating with Google Maps, storing boarding passes on my phone, taking travel photos.
I actually don’t travel with a camera anymore. And my external hard drive has now become cloud storage through Backblaze. That’s freed up a lot of weight and space in my luggage, which I greatly appreciate.
I travel with a Kindle, of course. It makes a lot of sense for travellers. As much as I don’t like spending all of my time looking at screens, it’s simply impractical to travel with ten different books at any one time. And I like to have options. So a Kindle is an essential for me.
Other than that… I’ve got a Fitbit that’s rarely charged. Some Airpods…
Honestly, I think that’s about it. Laptop, phone, Kindle: bam! Obviously, I also have a bunch of chargers and, uh, too many adapters.
I see what you did there.
I’m curious to know — you obviously have to be very connected in order to work — what do you do when you can’t get online?
Well, fortunately that’s pretty rare these days. Back in those first few years of my travels, it was often a struggle to get connected. Now, with a local SIM card and cheap data packages, I’m nearly always able to get online if I absolutely need to.
And you buy local SIM cards for every country you visit?
Pretty much. [Pauses] Yeah, I think so. If I’m only going to be in a certain country for a week and won’t be travelling around, I might not bother. Or if it’s particularly onerous to buy a SIM card anywhere, I’ll skip it for an easy life. Both situations are fairly rare, though.
Which is the least connected country you’ve visited?
I definitely struggled when I visited Myanmar, or Burma, back in 2015. Cell service was limited in the country back then, and the Wi-Fi was abysmal.
I remember leaving my laptop open while I set out for a six hour tour and returning to the room to see it had downloaded exactly two of my nine new emails over the time — both of which were just a couple of lines of text. Fortunately, the situation has improved since then, so it’s not as bad for present-day travellers to the country.
And I remember my trip to the D.R.C, too. That was a wild one. I probably could have picked up a local SIM card somewhere within Goma, where I was basing myself. But because it was my first time visiting a truly dangerous country — one that many governments recommend avoiding non-essential travel to — I was simply too nervous to wander around outside.
The only time I was able to get online was on the top of an active volcano, where my Rwandan SIM card picked up a signal from a cell tower over the border. It was just enough to send a couple of “I’m alive!” texts before heading back offline.
In 2019, you walked the Camino de Santiago.
In case our readers haven’t heard of the Camino before, can you give a brief rundown of what it entails?
So, the Camino is wonderful. Basically, there’s a huge network of pilgrimages in Europe and Africa leading from various starting points to a cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain. Completing a Camino involves walking one of those routes. Some walk for 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the end point, others walk all the way from Israel!
I walked the Camino Primitivo, which is 320 kilometres, or 200 miles, in length, and it took two weeks from start to finish.
And I imagine it was challenging from a technology point of view, both because you have little internet and you’re having to carry everything on your back.
Yes, exactly that! I obviously wasn’t going to try to work while I was on the Camino, as I couldn’t justify packing a laptop with me — and I’d be far too tired to write each evening, anyway. I even considered not bringing my phone with me.
You didn’t want the extra weight?
Yeah, partially that and partially because I wanted to fully disconnect from the online world as I walked. I didn’t want that distraction clouding my mind, you know?
Yeah, I get that. But you packed it anyway?
I did. Ultimately, I wanted to take photos while I was on the Camino and that was the easiest way for me to do so. Plus, it did prove useful in the end: navigating with Google Maps, checking reviews of pilgrim accommodation, and even booking a fancy hotel when I couldn’t handle the snorers anymore.
On Being a Travel Blogger During a Global Pandemic
So how was 2020 for you? It must have been the stuff of nightmares for a travel blogger.[Nods] Oh yeah, it absolutely was. When March 2020 hit — which was when much of the planet realised just how much of a life-changing event COVID-19 was going to be — my whole world stopped.
Obviously, there was the travel impact. At the time, I was driving around Australia and booking flights and accommodation for upcoming trips to Thailand and India. Of course, I had to cancel those plans. I was also renting a house in Bristol, in the U.K., so I fled back home in a panic, masked up and wishing I was better prepped for the apocalypse.
Business-wise, I went from earning around $400 a day to, um… maybe like, $15, $20 a day? That was terrifying. Ad rates plummeted, my traffic fell off a cliff, and everybody was cancelling their booked flights and accommodation. Suddenly, I was making no money, receiving little traffic, and contemplating whether to close it all down and try something new. It was truly the worst time.
And yet, I want to acknowledge that for the most part, I was fortunate. Despite making no money, I had enough in savings to keep myself afloat. Working online meant that I was able to isolate at home and lower my risk of catching COVID. I retained my health throughout the pandemic, as did my family. So I was luckier than most, even with an absolutely obliterated travel blog.
Did you consider closing everything down and starting something new?
Absolutely. A hundred per cent. I had a feeling that this was likely going to affect travel for two, three, or even five years. I had savings, but I knew would’t be able to make them stretch for five years of living expenses.
But then the question became: what else could I do?
Travel had been the focus of your life for so long.
That’s it. I didn’t want to get an office job or work for anybody else, because I love being self-employed. I love being able to work from anywhere. I love that freedom, I love that working from home keeps me insulated from the virus.
And also, when you’ve been travelling continuously for the better part of 10 years… [shrugs] Like, I had a very one-track mind. I hadn’t had the time to cultivate many interests or hobbies outside of travelling. And I felt as though I needed that in order to build another site. Food blogging and gardening blogs were taking off, but could I really run a food blog if I didn’t care that much about cooking?
On top of that, when you start a brand new blog, it can often take a year or two to begin pulling in a decent amount of money. In two years, the world could be back to normal and I could have just spent that time working on Never Ending Footsteps instead. And I already knew that travel blogging could be extremely lucrative in regular times.
That makes sense. It must have been scary, though.
Of course I was worried I was making a huge mistake. What if I was making the assumption that travel would one day return to normal, but it didn’t? What if a deadly variant emerged? What if countries kept their borders closed for a decade?
I could be spending years working on a travel blog that was making no money, waiting for travel to return, and not realising that it actually never would. It would be a complete waste of time. A waste of years of my life.
Now that we’re almost two years into the pandemic, do you regret that decision to stick things out with Never Ending Footsteps?
Yep! [Laughs] So much. Two years in and my income is still down by… 70%? 80%? Maybe even 90%? I don’t know. It’s too depressing to calculate.
At this stage, if I had started another business at the start of the pandemic, I’d most likely have now built it to the point where it was replacing at least some of that lost income.
Yeah. I’m sort of at the stage now where I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m most likely going to have to continue draining my savings for another six months or so.
But that’s okay. All I can do is ensure my travel blog is one of the best on the planet while patiently waiting for the rest of the world to, um, also discover that’s the case [laughs].
Were there any upsides to the pandemic destroying your business?
I know it’s a bit of weird question. But in troubling times, disasters can provide opportunities and learning experiences. Perhaps force you to change things up?
I agree with that, and it definitely was the case for me. Losing so much of my traffic presented me with a reason to finally change the parts of my site that I wasn’t happy with. I was able to change the main focus of my site from telling stories — which are tremendously difficult to monetise online — to creating helpful resources, which are a hell of a lot easier.
It was a huge change, but something I’d been longing to do for years.
I’d always branded myself to the internet as a storyteller who was always messing up and subsequently had some of the best travel tales to share. But as I’ve grown as a person, I realised that was no longer the dominating attribute of who I am. I was telling the world that I was a walking disaster, when in actual fact, that was simply who I used to be in my early twenties. These days, I rarely encounter those mishaps I spoke about earlier.
The problem is, when you’ve built a specific persona or a brand, and you find a huge amount of success from that, it can be challenging to change. You’ve changed, but if you share that with your audience, are you going to lose everyone? If everybody follows you for your wild travel moments, are they going to unsubscribe if you hit them with a detailed guide to spending a weekend in London?
Did you experience pushback from that decision?
A little. But it was expected, so I was prepared for it. And I knew that I had made the best decision for both my mental health and the ongoing health of my business. You can’t please everyone.
I also took the time to cut down on the things that were sucking up all of my time while not making enough money to make that investment worthwhile. I mentioned that before, I think. I closed down my travel anxiety course where I offered one-on-one therapy for very little money. I stopped running my Patreon, which required me to work dozens of hours per week with limited earning potential.
Both were passion projects that I was so proud of, but passion projects unfortunately don’t pay the bills.
Ultimately, the pandemic forced me to get rid of the side gigs that underpaid me, freeing up time for me to dedicate to improving Never Ending Footsteps, and I’m grateful it pushed me to do both.
The Future of Never Ending Footsteps
What do you have planned for 2022?[Grimaces] I’m almost too afraid to share my plans in case I end up tempting fate!
Still, I’m hoping that life will begin to return to normal next year. At least, I’ve made a whole bunch of plans as though travel is going to finally make its triumphant return.
Right? I genuinely have no idea what the next year has in store for the planet. Surely things can’t get any worse?
Let’s not think about that.
Okay, travel plans!
So I’m currently in Melbourne, Australia, and I’ll most likely be here for another four-to-six months. Now that lockdown has lifted in the city, I’m excited to enjoy all of its offerings without restrictions.
From there, I’ll most likely venture over to Europe for a Northern Hemisphere summer. I have tons on the agenda there, from sailing in Greece to island-hopping in Croatia, road-tripping Cyprus to hiking the Camino de Santiago across Spain (again!)
Once those six months are up, I’ll most likely be heading south once more. Back to Australia and New Zealand to help me continue my pursuit of following summer around the planet.
It should be amazing.
I’m super-excited! I also have no idea how much of it will truly come to fruition. The pandemic has taught me that every time you make plans, you should expect them to fall through.
And you’ll continue working on Never Ending Footsteps?
Yep. Despite the bleak moments of the past couple of years.
Partially because I have no idea what else I could possibly do with my life and partially because I have hope that things will return to the glory days of pre-2020. Overall, I’m optimistic for the future.
Finally, where can our readers find you if they want to follow along on your adventures?
In very few places! I put a lot of effort into remaining elusive on the internet.
Obviously my travel blog — Never Ending Footsteps — is the place to be. That’s where I share all of my personal life updates and big adventures, along with all of my biggest and best tips for making the most of your travels.
And I’m fairly anti-social media these days, so Twitter is the best place to keep up with my day-to-day adventures and any new articles I’ve published.
Images via Lauren Juliff