A day seldom goes by without someone asking me how the heck I am able to constantly travel and earn a living. Honestly, before I entered into the elusive world of travel blogging, I would be asking the same question (raised eyebrows and all). Growing up, the idea of making money from travel felt like an unobtainable dream. Yet by some miracle, here I am today, at the age of 22, traversing the globe, calling myself a ‘full-time’ travel blogger and photographer.
Just to pre-warn you, I’m not writing this article to provide a step-by-step guide on how to get paid to travel the world- I’m sure you’ll find enough articles out there that do that. For me, getting to the point of making money from travelling has been far from straightforward, and is certainly not something that happened overnight. There is SO much more to the story than picture-perfect Instagram photos and an idyllic-looking lifestyle of travelling. So instead, here is the long-winded, raw, uncensored truth of how I got to where I am today. Not just as a travel blogger, but as a person.
I’ll start at the beginning of the it all. I graduated high school in Brisbane in 2011, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Since the age of fifteen, I had become obsessed with photography, and deep down, I knew I wanted to pursue a career as a photographer. Yet upon graduation, I felt the imminent pressure to go to university and study something ‘academic’. I spent days flipping aimlessly through university catalogues and feeling so blank about my future. I had received the grades in school to pursue whatever I pleased, yet no sensible career choice excited me in the slightest. After all my time spent searching, the only course that caught my eye was a Bachelor of Photography. This seemed like a solid compromise- I would be pleasing my parents and teachers by actually going to university, and I would be getting to study something I enjoyed.
University started off well, but after a year, I started questioning what I was going to gain by completing a degree in photography. If I am to be honest, I was learning more from the photography work I was doing out in the real world, and if anything, studying was slowly killing my passion for the art. On top of that, I was SO ready to escape Brisbane and go traveling. The travel bug had been ignited in me from a rather young age. I had my first overseas trip to Cambodia when I was 15 (which I will tell you about a little later on), a school trip to Hong Kong when I was 16 and a trip to Europe with my family when I was 17. I was now 19, and was absolutely desperate to take my first solo trip.
2012 came around, and I decided to take the ‘year’ off university. I spent the first half of the year working like crazy. I started a wedding/ commercial photography business and also worked in a camera store in order to save every penny for my first big overseas adventure. Finally, the day came around. The day I set off on a plane to Europe was the day my life changed forever.
Four months travelling around Europe and I had the absolute time of my life. I fell in love with meandering through the streets of unknown cities, uncovering the secrets of each new culture I encountered and opening myself up to new experiences. I felt like I was seeing the world through a new set of eyes. It was official- I was utterly addicted to travelling.
Part of my trip was a whirlwind Topdeck tour across Western Europe, and again, I had no idea how much this tour was going to affect the course of my life. After plastering photos of my time on the tour over social media, I NEVER expected to be approached by Topdeck and asked if they could use some of my Europe snaps for their next brochure. This was the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the tour company. I never dreamed that over the course of the next three years, I would photograph my way through sixteen different countries, seeing my photos on the front cover of Topdeck brochures, in the windows of travel agencies and even on billboards across the country. But, I am skipping ahead a little, as it took some time before all this came to pass.
Once my year of working and travelling came to a close, I returned to Brisbane to find out that my family was moving to New Zealand. I had a big decision to make- stay in Brisbane and resume the life I had before my travels, or move over to New Zealand and start anew. Before travelling, I never would have dreamed of leaving the place and the friends I’d grown up with. Yet travelling had changed something inside of me. I no longer craved consistency. Instead, I yearned for new adventures and experiences. Hence, after a lot of deliberation, I came to the decision that I would leave Brisbane and start a whole new chapter.
I had my heart set on doing something more meaningful with my year, and that turned out to be a long-term mission trip. At the start of 2014, I moved over to New Zealand with my parents so I could save up for this next trip. The first six months in New Zealand weren’t easy. I knew no one, and all my energy was spent working two jobs and trying to restart my photography business in New Zealand in order to save up every penny for my trip.
Finally, the time came around to embark on a mission trip with the organization YWAM, where I was given the opportunity to volunteer in seven different countries over the course of five months. It was a life-changing trip in so many ways. Everywhere we went, we would volunteer with local organizations and ministries. The most incredible part was getting to know so many locals, hear their stories and help out in their communities. Over these five months, I fell more deeply in love with travelling and I began to see just how meaningful travel could be.
It was actually during this time that I started my blog and named it Polkadot Passport, inspired by the polka dotted passport holder my mum had gifted me for the trip. I intended to use the blog to document my travels and let my family and friends know what I was up to on my mission trip. Also, it was the perfect way to stop spamming everyone’s facebook newsfeed with all my photos. I honestly had no clue what Polkadot Passport would evolve into or where my humble little travel blog was going to take me.
Once my five months with YWAM came to a close, I expected to come home with a zeal for life and a clear direction for the future. Yet quite the opposite happened. The reality of being back to everyday life caused me to fall flat, and I had no idea what to do next. After two years spent travelling, I started to feel the societal pressure to settle down and “get my life together”. At the beginning of 2015, I made the decision to move to Sydney, go back to studying at University, and attempt to live a normal, settled life. At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship with a guy from Sydney, so this inevitably had a big influence on the decisions I was making. I really convinced myself that I would be happy if I had a settled life. As much as I knew deep-down that I wanted to make a full-time career of travelling and photography, the idea still didn’t seem to line up with reality, as much as I wanted it to.
When I was living in Sydney, I randomly attended a seminar on how to become a full-time blogger. It was the first time that it actually dawned on me that blogging could be an actual career path. One of the speakers on the panel was a full-time travel blogger, and this seriously inspired me. At the time, I had a VERY small following on Polkadot Passport, but I was suddenly motivated to try and grow my blog and see where it could get me. Annoyingly, I had just starting studying again, and suddenly my workload was massive. Every free moment I had was devoted to my blog, but there just didn’t seem to be enough hours in a day to put my full efforts into my studies and my blog.
After being out of contact with Topdeck for quite some time and starting to feel like that window of opportunity had been shut, I received an email asking if I wanted to go on a trip to take photos for their upcoming USA and Europe brochures. I could hardly believe it- I was actually going to be paid to travel and take photos! It was a dream come true, and just about the only thing that kept me sane through my first semester of studying in Sydney.
As soon as the university break had begun, I set off on my first all-expenses paid work trip to go on Topdeck tours and take photos in the USA, Turkey and Croatia. I felt so alive- everything I had been dreaming about was finally turned into reality. This time, I didn’t want the dream to end. I didn’t want to go back and face the reality of life in Sydney. The more I traveled, the more Polkadot Passport grew, and although I was far from monetizing the blog, I was excited by what my travel blog and Instagram were turning into.
I reached the point where I had to make a massive decision. I was scheduled to catch a flight home to Sydney just in time to start semester two classes. Everything was lined up. But I decided not to catch that flight to Sydney. Instead, I decided to keep travelling for longer, and made the call that I would focus all my time, money and attention on pursuing Polkadot Passport with everything I had.
I eventually flew back to my family in Auckland and decided to re-establish my home base there. I couldn’t afford the extortionate Sydney rental prices if I was going to go all-in and travel as much as I wanted to. Once I got back, I started working tirelessly from home. For the next few months, I lived and breathed Polkadot Passport. I’d wake up and start work at 8am and wouldn’t switch off my computer or my phone till 12am. I checked my emails at least 100 times a day and Instagram probably even more. I was reading every blogging how-to guide, reaching out to as many companies as I could and doing everything I could to build up my readership and social media following. After the first month of running Polkadot Passport “full-time”, I had barely made $100. But I was determined, and after a few months, my efforts finally started paying off. At last, I found myself being pursued by companies wanting to work with me, I started receiving press trip invitations and a following that was building by the day!
Since this time, Polkadot Passport has continued to grow. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunities that I’ve received, and every day, I have to remind myself to not take any of it for granted. Today, by the world’s standards, I am very much “living the dream”. But I don’t want to end the story here.
What I have learnt throughout this journey is there is so much more to life that just myself. In the world of travel blogging, it’s an ongoing challenge not to be self-focused. You are working by yourself, for yourself, and everything you do is about your own experiences. It’s so easy to get caught up in a cycle of wanting to gain more followers, be invited on more press trips, work with more companies, earn more money. The problem is, chasing after such things never makes you content because you are always wanting more. It’s a vicious cycle. Travelling for yourself is one thing. I can admit that I’ve done a whole lot of it. You go to places as a tourist, see the highlights of the destination, take your selfies and leave. But when you start travelling for others, you unlock something far deeper and more meaningful.
This brings me back to my first overseas adventure at the age of fifteen, which was a mission trip to Cambodia. This trip was essential to what sparked my love of travel and my curiosity to see and learn about the world. It wasn’t an easy trip by any means. I was confronted with the atrocious history of the Khmer Rouge as we visited the genocide museum and Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, where my fifteen year-old eyes gazed upon towers full of human skulls and bones. I witnessed what true poverty looked like as we went to hand food packages out at a massive garbage dump in the city, home to thousands of families, many of whom were forced to scavenge for food amongst the rubbish. I had my heart shattered into pieces as we visited a rescue home for girls who had been victims of sex trafficking. It was here that I met girls my age and younger that had been sold into sex slavery as children.
Whilst I had been living in a bubble of western privilege, wealth and safety, these young girls had been abused, devalued and dehumanized. As a fifteen-year-old, I had been raised in a safe, sheltered bubble of Western comfort, and I was suddenly being confronted by massive, real-world issues. The trip completely shook up my world, and I vowed that I never wanted to simply exist in the sheltered bubble of my adolescence. I wanted to learn more about the world and I wanted to make some kind of impact in it. I didn’t want to live a small life then and I don’t want to live a small life now.
Don’t get me wrong, running a travel blog has enabled me to visit some mind-blowing places and do some mind-blowing things. Yet staying in a luxurious five-star hotel, going on a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon or picnicking under the Eiffel tower has never given me quite the same sense of satisfaction as when I have been able to travel with a bigger meaning and purpose in mind.
Why am I telling you all this?
Firstly, as a challenge to myself, to do more than just travel for my own gain. I want to make this public declaration to no longer remain complacent and comfortable. Instead, I want to be more meaningful with my travels and with this platform that I have been given. Moving forward, I would like to use Polkadot Passport to build a community of like-minded, world-changing travelers. I’m still figuring out what this looks like, and I have a long way to go in terms of evolving my blog into a platform of change. But I do hope you’ll come along for the journey, wherever it may lead.
Secondly, I wanted to put this out as a challenge for everyone out there who travels or aspires to make a career out of travelling. How can you play your part so you can travel for more than just yourself? Right now, we are living in a crazy world. There are hundreds and thousands of children out there starving to death, innocent families fleeing their war-torn countries, young girls shackled to sex slavery. These problems are overwhelmingly massive, but we can’t let ourselves get dwarfed by these issues. If each of us play our part, we CAN make a difference. We are designed for more than just ourselves, and if we all start living for each other, change will be inevitable.
Seriously, lets band together and start a travel revolution!
A massive thank you to every single person who has followed along this crazy journey with me so far and I hope you’ll stick around to see what is next for Polkadot Passport!
Love Nicola x
PS. If any of this resonates with you, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear your ideas, dreams or any upcoming projects around meaningful travel!