How I Turned My Love for Travel Into a $50K a Month Business
What if your passion project could become a full-time income source in a few years?
That’s what Shelley Marmor did when she started her travel blog as a side hustle. The former corporate worker and travel magazine editor turned her Travel Mexico Solo and Travel Blogging 101 websites into a thriving online business.
Today, Shelley’s ventures generate over $50k monthly in revenue. She talks about it on a recent episode of The Side Hustle Show.
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During the spring of 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shelley was at a career crossroads. She’d been working 15 years in corporate America and felt “chewed up and spit out” by her job.
Around this time, she’d been traveling solo in Mexico. She joined Facebook groups for travel bloggers, noticing that some were still earning good money with affiliate marketing during the pandemic—getting paid commissions by Airbnb when readers booked long pandemic getaway stays. She registered the domain in March 2020 and launched the site a month later.
Initially, Shelley wrote posts about her travels in Mexico. But she soon realized, “Nobody cares about me traveling around Mexico. They care about how I can help them travel around Mexico.”
On advice from other successful bloggers, Shelly invested in blogging courses to learn SEO and decided to focus just on Mexico.
She realized: “I can’t compete with 15-year-old sites like Nomadic Matt’s. But in a niche, I can cut to the front of the line and find unicorn keywords with high search volume but low competition.”
Shelley focused on questions and keywords travelers search for when planning Mexico trips, such as where to stay, what to do, is it safe, and packing tips. She didn’t earn money in 2020 but started seeing profits in 2021.
Shelley didn’t rely on ad revenue as her primary source of income. She focused on affiliate marketing commissions.
She now has three sites on Mediavine and Raptive (former Adthrive). These are two premium ad networks for sites that offer industry-leading RPMs (revenue per thousand impressions).
By leveraging multiple ad networks, Shelley benefits from competition between the platforms and diversification. If one network’s RPMs decrease or they lose major advertisers, she had a backup flow of ad revenue.
Shelley uses Affilimate, an affiliate management plugin for WordPress.
“I started making money before I had much traffic. The income came first, then traffic grew over time,” she says.
In fact, she never had a viral “traffic explosion” moment. Instead, it was many small wins that compounded.
For keyword research, Shelly uses KeySearch. For new sites, she suggests filtering for competition levels below 30.
If monetizing with affiliates, Shelly will optimize for buyer keywords even if it only has ten searches per month. She ranks quickly for high-ticket tours that pay $500 commissions.
Shelley has written 180 posts, focusing on topic clusters such as “things to do in Cozumel with kids / at night / when it rains.”
Shelly says you have to “crawl before you walk.” Ranking #1 for any keyword builds momentum faster than waiting for significant keywords. Traffic and income grow through small, compounding wins.
Related: 8 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting Affiliate Marketing
Growing her team
After about a year and a half, Shelly hired writers to help create content. She now has a team of 4 writers, an editor, and a blog manager.
Shelly focuses on writing content herself for Travel Blogging 101, where she shares firsthand experiences and reviews products she uses.Travel Mexico Solo is now three years old. It has about 180 published articles and gets 300K monthly pageviews.
Shelly estimates that’s about 1 article per week on average over three years. She advises starting with what you can sustainably write yourself without burning out. Do just one quality post every two weeks if that’s your limit because the articles compound over time.
By creating content tailored to specific audiences, you can recommend affiliate hotels that perfectly match their needs. “The riches are in the niches,” Shelly says.
Here are the top affiliate opportunities in the travel space:
Early on, Shelly did many guest posts to build backlinks, even though many avoid it because it seems like extra work for little payoff. Backlinks signal authority and trust to search engines like Google. The more reputable sites linking back to you, the higher you’ll rank. Writing guest posts got her backlinks from established sites, essentially “voting” for her site.
For email marketing, Shelly has about 8,000 subscribers total across her sites. Her travel blogging list of 1,500 subscribers is more monetized than her Mexico travel list so far.
Shelly has multiple opt-in offers tied to specific guides and content topics. A generic opt-in hasn’t generated as much success for a vast region like Mexico. Opt-ins designed for specific niches deliver better conversion rates.
Shelley has seen tremendous success through her weekly email campaigns. She structures her emails with a 50/50 split – delivering free, helpful tips to readers as well as promoting relevant products.
This balanced approach keeps her community engaged while also driving revenue (She recently generated $3,500 in sales from a single product launch to her list).
The travel niche tends to be “one and done” visitors from Google. But email subscribers engage ongoingly regardless of algorithm changes.
- Google rolls out hundreds of updates per year. If your website gets caught in one, your organic search traffic could vanish even if you did everything right. You may never know exactly why.
- Facebook adjusted its algorithm years back. Facebook pages went from reaching all followers to only reaching a fraction without paying.
- Pinterest updated its algorithm, and bloggers lost massive amounts of traffic literally from one day to the next. These weren’t spammers or low-quality sites; Pinterest simply deprioritized their content.
While social and search algorithms are out of your control, Shelley emphasized email marketing as the most direct audience connection.
Collecting emails from website visitors allows ongoing communication regardless of future algorithm changes.