We make close to $25,000 per year in total across our travel affiliate programs, and have spent the last few years A/B testing which programs and placements convert the best- both on our global travel blog, Living the Dream, and our local Pittsburgh blog, Discover the Burgh.
In this one we wanted to share our highest paying affiliate programs for our travel blogs, and take a look into how we use them to make money, how much we make on each network, and what we do to promote them the best.
As with everything, odds are good we are not the most optimized even though we have spent months, if not years testing out the placements for these programs.
It is entirely likely you could have a travel blog that is virtually identical to ours and not have the same results (for better or for worse). All this post is meant to be is a collection of best affiliate programs that work for us, and our attempt to highlight why that is.
Note: Any affiliate links to featured programs mentioned in this post are done automatically via a plug-in and are purely coincidental. It is not our intent to use this post as a means to convert affiliate sales (other than perhaps a course shared at the end). Likewise, if you are a representative of an affiliate program looking to see if we use your service, please note we are not accepting new programs at this time.
In the past, we optimized our hotel bookings around promoting name brand hotels directly (like Hilton via Rakuten/Linkshare), non-branded hotels on Booking.com, and generic “book in [city]” prompts with a cost-per-lead setup on HotelsCombined. We ideally started with brands, and worked our way down where appropriate almost like a waterfall in terms of insertion logic.
This setup brought us around $3,000 a year.
In mid-2018 we scrapped this setup entirely for a better way. One of the biggest reasons was that if we had referred someone to say Hilton on our Rakuten/Linkshare affiliate link, and they did not book Hilton, we lost the sale entirely.
It was great for commissions purely on Hilton, but we've found through testing that moving back to the broad Booking.com option is the best option for us.
So what do we do instead?
We have dedicated booking prompts at the end of most posts on our site, which are customized to the city or region of each article. (Check out our how to visit Easter Island post for an example.)
Implementing this was easy on our Pittsburgh blog as we did one global insertion of places we like, great locations, and best deals in the footer across all articles. On Living the Dream it is a manual approach and we're still working our way through (starting with posts that were known to convert, expensive countries, and popular posts respectively).
So why do all this? Because readers want to be told specific recommendations. “Book here” doesn't get your attention. Being told this is where we stayed and enjoyed, or this is a great location, or a good value implies that you know what you're talking about. Clicks go up, sales go up, and after making this change we went from making under 10 bookings a month to 100 practically overnight- and I'm not even exaggerating in using that phrase in the slightest.
So we said goodbye to Rakuten/Linkshare and HotelsCombined (and removed them from this guide) as we're all in on Booking.com for the reason outlined above. Could we re-optimize with the previous waterfall? Sure, but we're liking how we have it so far.
Average earnings: $15,000 per year.
2019 Update: In early 2019 Rakuten canceled our account for no apparent reason. We are presently waiting on an explanation and payout of revenue owed. As such, we recommend not participating in their services.
2. Walks of Italy on Tapfiliate
Walks of Italy is an affiliate program we just found about recently, despite writing reviews of their walking tours well over five years ago.
We immediately applied to the program after hearing about it, and many months later were finally accepted. As we only have a handful of articles featuring the tours it was pretty easy to integrate, and have regretted doing it sooner ever since.
The reason? They convert well (upwards of 10% for us)!
This is another case where we believe the conversion occurs because our articles are dedicated reviews rather than name dropping (see our failure section below for more on this), and within the first month of us adding the links we had about eight sales.
But since those were all for $10+ commissions, we'll gladly take it. If you've ever done a walking tour with a company, and reviewed it, be sure to get affiliate links added if they're available.
Now we're just wondering how many conversions we've missed over the years!
Average earnings: $2,500 per year- projected.
3. Amazon Affiliates
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It doesn't take long before Amazon appears on a list like this, and there is good reason why. This service is about as straightforward as they come and has a high conversion rate simply because nearly everyone uses Amazon.
We've found that a good chunk of our income comes from recommending specific products (such as the DIY map kit above or books), but a modest amount still comes from ancillary sales that we pick up through bulk clicks.
Over the last few years we've been putting a focused effort into promoting higher priced items that have commissions in the $5, $10, and $20 range (camera gear like our Sony a6000) as lower priced items almost always have commissions under a dollar.
These small sales add up over time, but nothing beats selling a $600 camera or $150 pair of KEEN shoes and getting $10-$30 commissions, that's for sure.
Average earnings: $2,500 per year- increasing steadily.
Groupon is a local deals website that focuses on deep discounts in many major cities, and as we have come to find out, Groupon Pittsburgh is quite popular.
We promote this one on our local blog through a number of avenues including features in our newsletter, dedicated Facebook shares, and a running handpicked directory that we update once per week.
Earnings here are variable based on the promotions at any given time, but generally speaking deals we would consider good come and go in waves such that they're on the site for a few months, off for a bit, and back on.
Our highest earner has been referring big ticket items like Pittsburgh helicopter tours (which we personally tried and reviewed) that also pay as much as $15 per sale (10%). Couple that over by a few dozen sales and you have a really good payday. Getting beyond these into more conventional food Groupons, commissions may be well under $1- so it is a volume game.
We'll be the first to admit that most of our sales are through shares on our Facebook page of 100,000+, but our Groupon guide also contributes regular conversions as well after we share it on social media or in our newsletter.
Do we think this one will be viable in the long run? Not really, but we also only spend about 15-30 minutes on it a week which is a good enough ROI for us.
Average earnings: $1,000 per year- variable based on promotions.
5. Rail Europe
By now you should be seeing a bit of a trend, and if you haven't we'll spell out again here- we make money on Rail Europe by featuring them in our dedicated train articles (specifically one about booking train tickets in Spain on RENFE and one looking at a cost evaluation of Eurail passes).
We do feature Rail Europe sidebar and footer ads on our Europe posts as well, which we got an uptick in sales after adding, but they still almost always came from the articles above.
In this particular instance we think the sidebar ads were more used as a visual cue to remind readers of the product option, and after seeing it a few times in the post it helped compel them to click just that much more.
But at the end of the day, it was still the dedicated feature in the article that netted the ultimate sale. But it does have us thinking about how we can use visual cues to help increase our CTR on converting articles even more moving forward.
Average earnings: $1,000 per year and trending upward.
2019 Update: Due to the above issues noted with Rakuten/Linkshare, we are no longer promoting Rail Europe and are looking into alternative rail pass services to replace it with.
6. Conquest Maps
Conquest Maps is an interesting affiliate program in that it is entirely based around push pin wall maps.
We have an immensely popular article (mostly from Pinterest) about how to make a travel map with push pins for under $50. We wrote this many years ago before upgrading to a much more expensive and professional looking map- namely one from Conquest Maps.
We happened to find out that they had an affiliate program, added a new section into our review, and the rest is history. DIY map for those who want to save money, and premium maps for those who want to jump to quality right away.
Within just a few months our map paid for itself, entirely because of this one dedicated plug, and there isn't anything wrong with that!
Average earnings: $500 per year- projected based on current earnings.
7. Skyscanner / Airfarewatchdog
When it comes to airline affiliates, we have tested promotions via sidebar ads, footer placements, custom “search for a flight deal,” and with insertions via Linkify text.
As Skyscanner and Airfarewatchdog pay out on a cost-per-lead basis, this is another case (like HotelsCombined) where generating a lot of outbound clicks will go a long way to increasing your revenue.
While we do get some outbound clicks with Linkify text that convert some clicks, the vast majority come within articles where we manually place a “search for flight deals at [site].”
From there, the bulk of conversions come on posts where we are talking about spending in a specific destination (and how to get costs down). Here, searching for flight deals makes sense, and readers are more than eager to do a bit of research at a link we recommend.
Could we convert more by adding this generically across all posts? Well, we tried this in the past with Ad Inserter and did not have the best of luck.
But while we tried a few kind of placements, we have not tried them all. If any have the potential to increase with such a generic insertion, our experience and data suggests it could be these. Volume clicks do work on cost-per-lead ads, after all!
Average earnings: $500 per year with some upward potential.
Finally, we come to Etsy- an odd affiliate program to be featuring in a travel blogging affiliates list, we have to admit.
We use this program primarily for our local blog on Pittsburgh to sell city branded products created by (mostly) local artisans.
We have also sent out direct promotions on Facebook and via our newsletter with some notable conversions; however, like most sales we get the vast majority via promotion in dedicated guides that we put in front of the right people, at the right time. (As of early 2018, the Etsy terms changed to not allow direct link shares like these, unfortunately.)
Can you think of a city you could do this in? I bet you can.
Average earnings: $350 per year and holding steady.
Travel Affiliate Programs We Haven't Made Money On
As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, we've tested a lot of programs with our two travel blogs, and have found many programs that quite frankly have not converted that well for us.
These include Viator and Get Your Guide for day tours (we still have hope for the latter), rental cars (both aggregates and with direct sales), travel insurance, and group tours such as G Adventures and Intrepid to name a few.
We've also tried other third party programs like StubHub, Ticketmaster, and other similar style programs on our local blog with negligible results outside of a one-time sale as well.
Nearly all of these fail around a similar issue, and that is we tried promoting them as relevant recommendations rather than being the star of a featured piece. Sidebar links? Nothing. Footer links? Practically nothing. Linkify text links? Only on programs with cost-per-lead payments.
We have made some sales of all of the programs above, but only when featuring them in dedicated articles oriented to people who are actively looking to buy. However, many, especially the higher priced items, convert at such a low rate that it is practically negligible overall.
This is perhaps the most important lesson we've learned in all of our tests to date. If you want to create content that will convert well in travel blogging, odds are good it needs to be a dedicated feature.
A Bonus Note – What About Blogging Affiliates?
If you've been around in the blogging world as long as we have, or have simply been paying close enough attention, you'll notice an interesting trend- bloggers of all types are starting to promote blogging affiliate links in addition to programs within their niches.
We have even changed the focus of this site to promote these kinds of articles as well, so call us guilty as charged.
But there is a reason for it, and it all has to do with affiliate payouts.
You see, if we can get you to search an airfare website for ticket prices, we may make $0.50. If we get you to book a cheap room for a few nights, we may make $5. If we get you to book a nice room for a week, we may make $100. If we get you to buy a hosting package on Bluehost, we may make $65. If we sell you a blogging course, we may make $100 or more.
It doesn't take a math whiz to figure out that one $100 sale is worth literally hundreds of executed referrals to an airfare booking site, and you can make substantially more money on a much lower conversion rate.
In travel writing, some of the only affiliates that have payouts on that scale are tours, and most bloggers are lucky if they sell one a year in the best case.
But you know what is even better about promoting blogging services? Purchases related to blogging are digital, which can be much more impulsive. Thinking of starting that blog? You can do it right now if given the right push.
Naturally, bloggers everywhere want to tap into this while blogging is still a hot thing to do.
We try and go about this a bit differently in providing a whole host of articles related to travel blogging, rather than a cheap ‘how to start a blog in five minutes' post like most write (admittedly, we have one of those too).
But we're still guilty of doing all of this, and it does earn us a few thousand dollars more per year than the above. We're just a bit more honest about it than most, or at least, we try to be. The money is too good to ignore.
Our next goal? To turn our $25,000 per year income into $100,000 per year income!
Looking to learn more about affiliate marketing? Check out the course Affiliate Marketing for Travel Bloggers by our friend Amanda at A Dangerous Business (who gave us the hotels tip above!). It is a great introductory course for how affiliate programs work and how to optimize around your travel blog (best suited for those who are at the very start of their affiliate journey- not seasoned marketers like ourselves). And yes, that is an affiliate link that we put in on purpose.
For our full review of Affiliate Marketing for Travel Bloggers, click the previous link.
Know of other top affiliate programs we should try out? We'd love to hear your results in the comments below!
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