The Story of Katie Caf: Transforming a Gap Year Into a Thriving Travel Blogging Business

Maria Kuznetsova Maria Kuznetsova
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We had the pleasure of chatting with Katie, the creative force behind KatieCafTravel.com. Her decision to start a travel blog was far from ordinary. Following the end of the global lockdown in 2020, Katie embarked on a year-long adventure, supporting herself through odd freelancing jobs and living off her personal savings. Initially, her blog served as a beautifully designed documentation of her travels as well as a means to explain the gap in her resume to future employers. Little did she know that this venture would become an addictive passion and source of income within a year. Our interview with Katie delves into the growth of her blog and the challenges she encountered along the way. Discover the secrets to her success and the lessons she learned as she shares her journey with us.

The Story of Katie Caf: Transforming a Gap Year Into a Thriving Travel Blogging Business

Hi Katie!

I’m very glad that you could join us for an interview Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your journey from working in New York City to becoming a full-time travel blogger?

What inspired you to leave your life in NYC and start traveling the world?

My name is Katie. I started my blog KatieCafTravel.com in 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic and global lockdown gave me a new outlook on how I was living my life.

I used to work as a UI/UX design consultant in Manhattan, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

After the global lockdown ended, I planned on traveling for around a year while working odd freelance jobs to support myself, and also living off my savings.

The blog was originally just supposed to be a nicely-designed documentation of my travel year that I could show to employers when I got back home. It was a way to explain the gap in my resume. 

Around three months into my travel year, I found myself working on the blog way more than traveling. It turns out that I don’t thrive without something to focus my energy on, and travel lost its appeal to me around a month in.

So, I camped out in a hotel in Cusco, Peru, and decided to give the blog an honest shot. I was just about the only tourist in Cusco at the time, and every day I would bundle up against the Andean chill and go camp out at a cafe with my laptop.

It wasn’t the dreamy digital-nomad life you see advertised on Instagram. I wasn’t typing away in a bikini on the beach and all that, but Cusco was where I had the realization that I would rather be building something than traveling, so that’s where I stayed put.

My deep-rooted hope was that, one day, my blog would become profitable enough to live off of, which it eventually did, but it was a long road to get there! 

You’ve built your blog from scratch and started making money in just over a year. Those are amazing results. Do you have any insights into how you did it?

I’m so happy you asked. I toiled away on my blog for around six months before reaching out and trying to find a community, which I credit directly for leading to my success. 

After joining Facebook communities filled with other bloggers, I was able to meet people who were already living the dream of having a profitable travel blog.

If I hadn’t found this community, there’s no doubt in my mind that, today, my blog would still be going nowhere fast. 

Some friends I met through Facebook introduced me to blogging courses and, more specifically, courses on SEO.

SEO is pretty much the art of how to write for Google, and how to do keyword research to find out which topics you can write about to get more eyes on your site.

Through these friends, I was introduced to Laura from Mike and Laura Travel, who runs the “Scale Your Travel Blog” course. You can watch the free webinar of the course I took.

It was a big leap of faith (and cost me a huge chunk of my money at the time), but I signed up for Laura’s course, and within four months, I was making money from my blog.

The course took me through everything related to blogging. It turns out that I had pretty much been doing everything incorrectly on my own and had to redo my entire site from scratch. 

When I look back, I’m so thankful that I asked for help when I did and didn’t waste any more time trying to figure it all out on my own!

Could you talk about the initial stages of creating your blog? What were the main challenges you faced?

The main challenge was getting traffic to my site. Now, I know this is because, for the first eight months of my blogging journey, I wasn’t doing proper SEO, getting backlinks, or formatting my site for speed. 

Even though I worked hard on my blog during those eight months, I wasn’t getting anywhere. 

My blog remained stagnant at around 1,000 readers/month for the entire first year. 

This was incredibly frustrating. At that time, I thought (like so many other bloggers do when starting out) that you just need to publish more content in order to grow, so I was driving myself crazy trying to get an article out every day.

Very few of the articles I wrote before I took the “Scale Your Travel Blog’s SEO” course got any organic traffic from Google, even now that my site has more authority. So, all of that time was wasted. 

Now that I know about SEO, I know that what you write about matters so much more than how often you publish. Thus, it’s easier to not waste my time writing articles that no one will read. 

When you first started blogging, did you immediately think about monetization or was it just a hobby for you?

Originally, I just wanted my blog to document my travels.

I thought that a well-designed and well-written blog would be a great way to explain the career gap on my resume when I returned to NYC after traveling and had to apply for corporate jobs.

I didn’t tell anyone at the time, but I had a deep-rooted hope that the blog would take off and become my “real job”. 

It wasn’t until around six months in, when my blog was going nowhere, that I joined some Facebook communities for travel bloggers and met people who were already living the dream as full-time bloggers.

After meeting some successful travel, I gained more confidence and began to believe that blogging was a possible career for me. 

Once I knew it was possible, my dreams of establishing a blogging career turned into professional goals. 

How do you monetize your blog? What brings you the most revenue? 

Currently, my two main sources of income are ads and affiliates. 

After hitting 50,000 readers per month on my site, I was able to sign up with Mediavine, which is a premium advertising agency for bloggers. This helped spike my blogging income up to a livable wage.

Throughout this past summer, my income from ads and affiliates was tied. Around 50% of my income was from ads while 50% was from affiliate marketing.

However, with the dip in European travel beginning as we transition into the fall season, I’m currently making more money from ads. 

I also write a lot about Bali, which is a year-round popular travel destination, but it has far fewer affiliate marketing possibilities as most tours and activities are booked in cash rather than online. 

This is my first year running my blog as a full-fledged business, so all of the seasonal changes are new to me. I’m looking into more ways to add affiliate income for the fall and winter seasons. I might even go back home next year and write about that. After all, you can’t beat Christmas in New York!

If you don’t mind, could you tell me if the income you earn from your blog is enough to live off of and travel? Or do you have other jobs?

My blog has been my full-time job for around six months. It currently makes enough for me to live a comfortable life while traveling. But, I would have to put a lot more work into my blog if I wanted to move back to Manhattan and live off its income alone!

The thought of moving back home and getting a 9-5 is always in the back of my mind, but for now, I’m having way too much fun as a digital nomad.

Do you work alone on your blog or do you have a team? If you have a team, what tasks do you delegate?

I feel like I’m a bit of a blogging purist. I don’t have any assistants, I take all my own photos and write all of my own content. 

All of this is probably to the detriment of my blog, because if you look at any of the big sites, they all have virtual assistants and writers that keep their websites growing exponentially.

Photo of Katie Caf, the creator of the KatieCafTravel, at La Brisa Bali

Tell us how you chose the niche for your blog? You write about different countries: such as Egypt and Bali. Why did you choose them? Why didn’t you want to focus on a single country?

Originally, I chose my blog’s destinations based on where I was interested in traveling at the time.

Now that I’ve traveled and written about so many different countries, I can see that it pays to write about destinations that attract more tourists.

For example, I love writing about Egypt, but my Egypt posts get less traffic than posts I’ve written about Europe, because there are way more people traveling to Europe. 

I’ve also had so many amazing experiences on the outer islands in Indonesia. I would love to write about these for my blog, but I can’t justify it because barely anyone travels to these remote places. Nothing is worse than writing an article that no one will read. 

Another factor I now consider when choosing a topic to write about is English-speaking readers. 

My blog is written in English, so if I am writing about a location in Indonesia, for example, and Keysearch gives me a great high-volume keyword, I need to use my judgment to discern if that keyword is something that English speakers will be Googling.

I’ve written a few articles in the past that Keysearch says should have brought me thousands of readers per month, yet barely attract any traffic. This is because the main keywords in those articles weren’t being searched by English speakers, so they got skipped over. 

This makes it a lot trickier to travel and write about countries where English is not the national language. As a result, I often think about going home and writing about the USA. 

With that said, what initially got me into blogging was my desire for international travel, so I stick with it even though writing about Asia isn’t as good for my blog as writing about the USA.

What are some of your favorite blog posts? Share two to three of your favorite articles and related stories?

My favorite blog posts are the ones where I get to tell travel stories. It’s a difficult balancing act between writing for SEO and writing for me. I have a few articles that I always write whenever I visit a new country.

I’ll usually do a “travel tips” article for each new location. I can share a bunch of fun anecdotes in those posts while still offering useful travel info. 

Even when I’m writing an article on something kinda dry, like a scooter rental service, I’ll try to include my own personal stories to make it more interesting for the reader (and also more fun to write).

You provide a lot of local advice in your posts. How do you ensure that your information is accurate and up-to-date?

Part of the reason I love writing about Bali is because I feel like it’s a place I’ll keep coming back to throughout my life, so I can keep up with the info I share in these articles. With that said, even if you go back to the same place year after year, it’s difficult to remain up to date with all the important information. 

There’s an expectation that blog posts will always have current info. Yet, readers don’t have that same expectation for news articles or other media companies.

For some things, like prices, which are constantly changing, I always put a disclaimer that the reader should double-check to make sure the cost hasn’t gone up before planning their trip.

What was your most memorable trip? Can you tell us anything interesting about it?

My most memorable trip so far has been to Egypt. I’ve also done some out-of-this-world things on the outer islands in Indonesia, but I think Egypt stands out to me more because it’s so different from anywhere I’ve traveled before. 

During my month-long trip to Egypt, I explored the entire country from sea to sea, down the Nile River, and back. I’ve never experienced so many different climates, landscapes, and cultures. 

Egypt is a very special place, historically, and learning about the Ancient Egyptian dynasties as well as the Roman occupation of Egypt made me appreciate the temples and stunning landscapes even more.

What are some of the challenges you are facing right now? Do you ever feel burned out? Do you ever want to stop blogging and go back to a regular job?

This interview happens to coincide with the most recent Google update, which has unfortunately decimated my Google traffic by around 50%. In just the past week, all of my hard work on my blog for the past six months has essentially been erased.

Whenever Google releases one of these updates and changes its guidelines for what it considers “quality content”, it results in a shuffling of all the search rankings. Sometimes, blogs benefit from this reordering, and sometimes they suffer.

I’ve been told by veterans in the blogging world that this is just the way things go in this industry and that you need to persevere through things like Google updates and having your posts outranked by larger websites. 

Of course, it’s incredibly frustrating and, when setbacks like this happen, it’s easy to want to give up.

I’m going to continue staying the course with my blog because, to me, the benefits of this career far outweigh the downsides (even the Google updates that come through a few times a year like a wrecking ball). 

I know from working in tech before I started out on my blogging journey that no career, whether you’re working for yourself or a typical 9-5, is without these defeating moments.

In 2022, we all saw the mass layoffs in the tech industry, which I probably would have been a part of had I stayed in my old career. These highs and lows are simply part of any occupation.

Looking back, what’s the most important piece of advice you would have given yourself when you first started blogging?

I would have started learning before I started doing. 

What I mean by that is I was very gung-ho about working hard when I decided to start my blog, but I forgot about “working correctly”. During the first eight months or so, I was posting consistently, but I had no guidance on how to do proper SEO or keyword research. 

Now, if I could go back and do it all again, I would start by taking a blogging course before ever writing a single post.

What insights can you share with those who want to become travel bloggers?

It was a stark realization that my original travel blogging dream to become some sort of intrepid explorer with a laptop wasn’t realistic. The truth is, I’m either working or traveling, rarely both at the same time. 

When I first set off on my journey, I thought I could switch destinations every seven to ten days or so, and see different cities and countries as I worked. 

I actually did this for a while, while I was traveling in South America. I would spend days in one city, and then move on to the next town. 

The thing is, traveling takes a lot out of you. Truthfully, it’s exhausting!

And then, every new city you wind up in, you need to find a new cafe with good Wi-Fi, a new way to get around, new people to hang out with, etc. It’s simply not a good lifestyle for getting work done.

As the years have gone by, I’ve found myself traveling slower and slower. While I used to try to switch cities every two weeks, now it’s more like every three months.

In order to work, I need good Wi-Fi, a quiet desk, and few distractions. Almost none of these things are easily available while you’re traveling.

So, now my life as a travel blogger very closely resembles the one I left behind while I was working a 9-5. 

I work hard most of the time and then take off when I want to travel.

For example, next month, I’m taking off a few weeks to backpack Rajasthan in India. 

When I come back, I’ll write about it for my blog!

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