8 of Our Highest Earning Travel Affiliate Programs

Posted By Jeremy in Blog Your Trip


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Currently travel affiliate programs are our second highest income stream, just behind CPM advertising with our private ad network Mediavine.

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 earning 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 ones that work for us to varying degrees, 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.

1. Booking.com

Dhevatara Hotel Seychelles

In the past, we optimized our hotel bookings around promoting name brand hotels directly (like Hilton via 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 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 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.

2. Walks of Italy on Tapfiliate

Walks of Italy Food Tour

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

Promoting our Sony a6000

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.

4. Groupon

Helicopter in Pittsburgh via Groupon

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

Panorama Trains Switzerland

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.

6. Conquest Maps

Our Conquest Map

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

Booking airplanes

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.

8. Etsy

Locally branded products

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.

This program does quite well in a number of product guides including our Top 100 Pittsburgh Products on Etsy, our Pittsburgh Gift Guide, and Pittsburgh Christmas Ornament guide.

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?

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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11 Comments

  1. Great post Jeremy!

    I’m working on creating an affiliate program for my designer luggage brand…

    I’m curious if luggage is too infrequent of a purchase to benefit affiliates though?

    Any experience with trying to sell luggage as an affiliate?

    Post a Reply
    • I’m sure there are plenty of people that would do well selling luggage; however, I’ve never had any luck but I still have a few things I need to try to know for sure.

      Post a Reply
  2. Have you tried using the search boxes or deals boxes for booking.com or Skyscanner? Do they convert? Thanks

    Post a Reply
    • I’ve tried the Booking.com search boxes and I don’t think I got very many bookings from them at all. Almost all of my bookings have come from very specific recommendations rather than a generic search box or click here. I have heard rumors of some cool things coming along on Booking’s end that I’m going to try though!

      Post a Reply
  3. I haven’t been able to find the Walks of Italy affiliate program and I did 2 tours with them and loved it. Do you know what the direct link is to sign up?

    Post a Reply
  4. Thanks for the great resource.I have one question,if you were given a well optimized travel website getting around 100K organic clicks per day and the site is about travel to a particular city,which programs will you prefer between TripAdvisor(pays per clickout) and Booking.com(pays per room sale)?
    Thanks

    Post a Reply
    • You can only really find out that answer by testing for yourself. As mentioned in the article I am optimizing around promoting rooms when I think I can get a sale and leads when I have lower success rates on sales to try and improve my earnings overall.

      Post a Reply
  5. Great breakdown. You’re so right about the sales funnel with hotel bookings. Typically I find that as a travel blog you’re going to be a little too early in the research process for many searchers. It’s a pity that sites like Booking.com do not offer any cookie tracking at all, as I feel like I’m driving traffic to such sites which then actually gets converted a few days/weeks later. Perhaps with your niche site hotel bookings perform better.

    Insurance is a decent earner as well for my blog, but I have noticed it tends to convert well on pages relating to longer trips. This makes sense as many people already have some type of annual insurance for short trips.

    Nice post!

    Post a Reply
    • In reply to Marek “It’s a pity that sites like Booking.com do not offer any cookie tracking at all,”

      No! No! No! It’s the lack of cookie tracking that makes Booking’s affiliate program so great,and so fair. Cookie tracking, specially short-dated cookie tracking of less than 60 days (which means most affiliate programs) is the worst rip-off possible for blogs and travel info sites. I’m sick of generating sales through affiliate links, then getting the message “convert declined. Reason: sale outside cookie period”.
      Hey, every time this happens, the affiliate is just providing free customers for the merchant, who doesn’t pay any commission at all on the trumped-up pretext that the customer waited too long between the first time he clicked the link on your site and set the cookie, and the time he came back to it and made a purchase.
      This is like me going into a supermarket, looking for something I want, finding it, then coming back a few days later to buy it and then walking straight through the checkout without paying, on the pretext that the supermarket doesn’t deserve to get paid cos I didn’t buy the item on my first visit.
      Obviously, that would be classed as theft; but when merchants put an arbitrary cookie duration time for paying commission on a sale generated by an affiliate, nobody bats an eyelid.
      Booking.com is one of the rare affiliate programs that doesn’t resort to this scam of using cookies to deny commission to affiliates. So for small-name sites, specially in travel where people take time to make up their minds, it is one of the rare honest partners. Someone clicks from your affiliate link, even if it’s a link that someone else has sent a friend in an email, and as long as your affiliate tracking ID is in the link, you get the commission. There’s no shelf-life for your link, and no possibility of the sale being discounted due to some spurious de-duping algo.
      That is how all affiliate programs ought to run, because it really is the only ethical way of running them, being the only way that is guaranteed to reward the affiliate who actually introduced the client to the merchant site and so was at the origin of the sale. That’s just fair, so thanks to Booking.com. Because you act fairly with your affiliates, we and thousands of other small websites promote your service.
      Your absence of cookies is good for affiliates, and obviously good for you, the merchant; by being relatively fair in the way you reward affiliates, you have encouraged your affiliates to help you to become the world’s no.1 booking site . It’s a win-win situation.
      Short-life cookies are a lose-lose tactic. A big loss for affiliates, who therefore have little reason to promote the merchant (except out of desperation), and a loss for merchants who lost out on a lot of goodwill from affiliate sites.
      Short-life cookies are good for just one category, the powerful remarketing and retargeting sites that use their own cookies to detect the merchant sites that *our* affiliate links are driving prospects to, in order to then spam *our* prospects’ sites with ads for the same products or merchants.
      With most merchant sites, the remarketers have it all nicely tied up. Money for jam, as far as they’re concerned. But with Booking.com, however much the remarketers retarget Booking ads at people’s devices, as long as the prospect returns to *your* site and clicks the link in it, or the link that he’s bookmarked maybe two years ago, you’ll still get commission on the sale. That’s how affiliate advertising ought to work for affiliates.
      If only more merchants would understand this, instead of being led up the garden path by the affiliate networks whose main objective is to generate as many affiliate sales as possible, then to have as many reasons as possible not to pay commission on them. “Sale outside cookie period” is just one of the most iniquitous of these.

      Post a Reply
      • I only approved this comment to say you are, without a doubt, 100% wrong on everything you said here.

        Here is the thing where your logic is flawed. You make it sound simple in that people return to your site, click a link again, and then you get a sale later, but a cookie is literally the same as them doing that without returning to your site.

        If you’re worried about retargeting ads, dont use Booking.com at all. They’re one of the largest networks out there that use retargeting. All that is to get a user to click, book via them, and rob you of a sale. If they had a cookie for affiliates, they’d still retarget. They still have that cookie for them regardless.

        How someone could be resigned to earning less money is beyond me. Never, ever, ever advocate for no cookie. That is just absurd (or you are doing some incredibly shady things with your affiliate links to get denied). One of the two.

        Post a Reply

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