Have followers, will travel

Globe-trotting Instagram influencers are changing the way we think about the world. Who are they?

A few years ago, several forces — the Internet, the global population’s increasing desire and ability to tour other parts of the world, and capitalism — came together to create a new kind of social media star: the travel influencer.

These intrepid wayfarers started out posting gorgeous images from popular or remote destinations to the Internet, particularly Instagram, attracting legions of fans who wanted to follow in their jet streams. Tourism-related brands quickly recognized the advertising potential of such images and began offering top Instagrammers payment or comped visits in return for social media promotion, allowing some "content creators" to leverage their talent and followers into full-time gigs.

Instagram and its influencers have helped make travel more accessible, more informed and more popular — international arrivals increased to 1.4 billion people in 2018, two years earlier than the World Travel Organization predicted in 2010. But the same feeds that sell the romance and desirability of travel are part of a larger social media landscape where the quest for the perfect (often, exact same) image has damaged fragile ecosystemssites and landmarks and has led to deaths by stunt or selfie.

While many influencers strive for transparency and professionalism, the practices of some, such as neglecting to clearly disclose sponsorships according to Federal Trade Commission rules, artificially inflating follower counts, demanding freebies, staging dangerous-looking shots or glossing over negative experiences, have earned scorn and skepticism from their audiences. Still, travel influencing doesn’t seem to be an endangered vocation, though it takes money and nimbleness to keep up with Instagram’s evolution, whether it’s IGTV, Instagram Checkout or the possible removal of “Like” counts from posts. With the constantly churning business model, followers need to be smart consumers.

Look for disclosures such as #ad, #sponsored or tags indicating business partnerships, which mean the influencer was paid to post or received a free trip, product or service. How much? The influencers we surveyed for this project declined to disclose their rates. But according to Evan Asano, founder and CEO of Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency, a rough rule of thumb is that influencers can make $10 to $80 per 1,000 Instagram followers per post — though much compensation is a mixture of payment (say, a daily rate for traveling to and posting from a hotel) and freebies. Meanwhile, he noted, competition is increasing and content is only getting harder and more expensive to produce. “If you’re a travel influencer, you can’t just go around and take photos of murals in L.A., he said. “You have to do, like, a backflip off a cliff in Boracay to get any interest.”

We reached out to a variety of influencers active on Instagram to learn more about why and how they got into the field and how they work. Below, you’ll find examples of their content and their responses to some of our emailed questions. The answers have been condensed and edited; follower numbers are as of Aug. 1.


Photo by Maxim Kuzlin

Damon Dominique
and Jo Franco


Damon Dominique and Jo Franco, both 27, have been traveling and posting to social media since about 2012, when they were studying abroad in Paris. “At first, it became a way to share our experiences with our friends and family, then it quickly turned into a passion, and then we asked ourselves: Why has there never been a travel show about young people traveling?” they wrote. “After that point, we were determined to change the travel space.” After a few years of working odd jobs to have the time and money to travel, they both went full time with their YouTube channel and their travel company, Shut Up and Go, in the summer of 2015. They post daily to Instagram on their shared account, their personal accounts and their company account. They also make money through projects such as clothing and e-books and, coming soon, a card game and language courses.

What was your most successful post, and why? 

Any photo where the editing is so blatantly obvious performs the best on our Instagrams (for example, a photo where we photoshopped our butts to look unnaturally large . . . in front of the Eiffel Tower). It’s not for everyone, but we found it funny, and so did our audience. Travel content, for the most part, is very cookie-cutter and frankly, predictable and often, downright boring. Our generation doesn’t want that — it's been seen way too many times. Seeing two friends goofing off in front of the Eiffel Tower is much more relatable and strikes this idea in their minds that “Hey, maybe I can do that too!” That’s the goal behind the enlarged booty pics — we're promoting experiences and memories, not pretty places to take pictures in front of.

What is your dream vacation? 

It’s difficult to travel to a new city or country and not feel like we have to document the process. If we find out something interesting about the culture, our first instinct is to share it. That being said, because we have already visited Thailand or Mexico, we could safely say we could go there and not feel the need to “work.” We always say we have the best job, because our job is to literally laugh and have fun . . . but that’s not to forget the “job” part. Someone has to plan the video, find the cool spots, edit the video and hope that it performs well on the Internet. Additionally, there’s an entire business side of being an “influencer” most people disregard completely like answering emails, doing taxes, hiring freelancers, managing different projects like the development of products, etc. Creating is fun, but when the camera is on you, it’s a modified form of fun.


Photo by Pete Heck

Pete and Dalene Heck

Pete and Dalene Heck, 41 and 43, have been at this a long time. The couple, based in Alberta, Canada, quit their jobs as a financial controller and sourcing manager in 2008, sold their possessions, and set off on a nomadic journey. At first they wrote on blogspot.com, then, in 2011, they began to blog at HeckticTravels.com and to post to social media. In 2014, they founded an influencer marketing company that has become their primary job. In 2016, their journey was interrupted when Dalene was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. “It was an intense battle, and in the beginning, I was very public about it. Doing so brought me tremendous support from our followers and influencer community, but since then, we have both turned a little inward,” Dalene wrote. “Now that I have overcome the illness and I am regaining my stamina, we are beginning to travel more again, and will likely also share more, albeit at a slower pace.” 

What is your dream vacation?

The Northwest Passage. As kids growing up in northern Canada, both of us had always dreamed of living farther south among palm trees, but once our life’s travels allowed us to do that, we actually realized how Canadian we are. We missed our rugged landscapes and snow.

Why did you become travel influencers?

We were posting about our travels far before anyone started using the word “influencer,” and we did so purely because we wanted to share our stories as we embarked on a nomadic lifestyle that took us around the world for eight years. Of course, it all evolved into something much more than that, and we’re grateful that this craziness has given us successful businesses and a beautiful life. But we never could have imagined this all when we started, which I think is very different from why people start today.


Photo by Wendy Hu

Wendy Hu

Wendy Hu’s influencer life grew out of her career as a creative director and travel photographer. After years of working with agencies in New York, the now-34-year-old American was ready to move on, she told us. So, in 2016, she quit her agency job and bought a one-way ticket to Paris as the starting point for her initial three-month travel sabbatical. “I knew I needed structure and wanted to continue developing my photography voice, so I created an Instagram account and a blog,” she wrote. “I vowed to post one original, creative photo each day to hopefully inspire others to dream big and take chances,” she wrote. Less than a year in, after her photography began to draw the attention of tourism boards and travel brands, “I knew it could be possible to turn this into a career.” She now posts a mix of stories and videos a few times a week. She spends time off the road in New York, Los Angeles and Taipei, Taiwan. 

What was your most successful post, and why?

Sometimes a post surprises me and does really well in terms of numbers, but maybe it’s not my favorite photo. Other times I take a really artistic and creative image and write a thoughtful comment, and it doesn’t get as much engagement. (Could be because of the algorithm, timing, or it’s too artsy and not as mainstream.)

Some photos that I’m really proud of are ones where I’ve put my own spin on a familiar location, that tell a story, require extra effort to “get the shot” and promote my clients in a natural way. Two posts that stand out: Over the winter, I took a self-portrait as part of Canon’s #ShootForGreatness campaign. The challenge was about perspective, so I shot it at Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park with its symmetrical columns and ceilings. Another image was taken at the Taj Mahal while on assignment with G Adventures. Whenever I’m shooting in a familiar location, my goal is always to see it with fresh eyes and make it my own through my capture and edit.

How do you try to stand out from the crowd?

While I’m passionate about getting off the beaten track to find hidden wonders, incredible scenery, and truly experience a culture or destination, just as important for me is being a responsible traveler. I practice sustainable travel as much as possible through supporting local communities, caring for the environment and being diligent about my day-to-day decisions. I try to reflect that in the places I visit, the companies I promote and the stories I share. My goal is to inspire others to do the same — drawing like-minded people together and connecting with my audience on a deeper level.


Photo by Oneika Raymond

Oneika Raymond

Oneika Raymond, 36, is a Canadian based in New York when she’s not traveling. “I have had a deep passion for travel, culture and language from a young age,” she says. She grew up in multicultural Toronto and, as the child of Jamaican immigrants, traveled often to the Caribbean to visit family. She worked and studied in France, then became a serial expat as an international educator, also living in Mexico, England and Hong Kong. She started her first blog in 2005 as a hobby and in 2016, “I was able to pursue a career as a travel host, journalist and influencer full time.” She posts at least three times a week on Instagram. 

What moments do you choose not to share?

While I’m mostly an open book, I typically refrain from sharing photos of the people I meet on my travels unless they are public figures and/or have given explicit consent. I refuse to show people in an undignified light on my feeds, particularly when they are already part of marginalized, disenfranchised or disadvantaged groups. I also refuse to show “slum tourism” or glorify saviourism on my travel feeds. I generally refrain from sharing images of children.

How do you try to stand out from the crowd? 

I am transparent and honest in my travel musings and often explore topics and issues in the travel space that are uncomfortable, controversial and sometimes incendiary. I post often about race and privilege and encourage my audience to examine their behavior, interactions and ideas about the world. I engage my audience in discussions and hopefully lead them to understanding themselves and the world around them better and more compassionately.


Photo by Shivya Nath

Shivya Nath

Shivya Nath, 31, who has been posting to social media since 2011 and traveling full time since 2013, hopes to encourage her audience to follow her lead in slow, solo and sustainable travel. A native of India, she worked with the Singapore Tourism Board and, after quitting that job, has been a freelance travel writer, co-founded and sold a responsible travel company (India Untravelled), and written a book about her adventures, “The Shooting Star.” She blogs at the Shooting Star and posts three to four times a week to Instagram, focusing on telling stories in her captions. “I sometimes have to edit my captions to not exceed the 2,200-characters word limit — which might seem contrary to most Instagram wisdom out there but seems to work quite well for my travel style and my audience.” 

What moments do you choose not to share?

Given that many places around the world are struggling with overtourism and irresponsible travel, I’m cautious about geotagging spots that are still genuine and pristine yet have the potential to become an “Instagram phenomenon.” Over the years, I've also moved from ‘instant gramming’ to ‘later grams.’ That means I try to take the time to experience a place or build a real connection before choosing to share it online.

Why did you become a travel influencer:

I cringe at being called an “influencer,” but I began to write about my travels seriously when I first started traveling solo in India in 2011. There was (and still is) a lot of fear surrounding solo travel, especially in India and especially as an Indian woman. Yet I was having some of my most heartwarming experiences as a solo woman exploring remote, rural parts of my own country. I felt like these positive stories needed to be told, and that I enjoyed traveling, writing, blogging and social media enough to be able to tell them.


Photo by Shurupchik Family

Shurupchik family

Alexandra Kryaneva, 34 and Russian, and Florian Baumgard, 36 and German, have been posting to social media about traveling since 2013. “We never chose to be influencers, but people seemed to like our stories and photography, so the audience grew. What began as a personal diary to memorize our trip led us to actually have a say in the way people travel.” Unlike many influencers, they don’t do this full time: Florian works as an engineer, and Alexandra (whose artistic name is Shurupchik) works in the airline industry, although she has gone part time to keep up with the influencer work. They live with their two children in Dortmund, Germany. They run a travel blog and post to Instagram three to four times a week, mostly Instagram stories. 

What moments do you choose not to share? We rarely share very personal moments. But since we became parents of two wonderful kids who travel along with us, we are sharing more and more of our family life.

How do you try to stand out from the crowd? Nowadays, it's very difficult to stand out, because everyone wants to be an influencer. We believe that our photography and the ability of finding joy in simple things keeps us up. Family travel is also a great way to stand out. We try to motivate other parents and families to explore the world with their little ones, and it seems to ring a bell. 


Photo by Cameron Lee

Cameron Lee

Cameron Lee, 32, an American based in Los Angeles, had a good background for becoming a travel influencer: He had already studied and worked in marketing and public relations. He started posting to social media in 2016 “with the intention of building my account into a travel account” and now also has a creative PR/marketing business that stems from his Instagram presence. “I am a rarity in this space, because I came from the brand side working with influencers before I transitioned being both behind and in front of the camera,” he wrote. “There are also not that many Asian male influencers on Instagram.” He posts once a day, mostly photos, and also blogs at outwithcameron.com

What moments do you choose not to share?

The behind-the-scenes. The whole creative process is not as exciting as the end result. Getting up at 5 a.m. to catch the morning light is a norm, and location scouting all day can be exhausting. Those are moments that I don’t share, because I think there’s a certain quality to being a mystery. 

Why did you become a travel influencer? I've always loved exploring different cultures and seeing different parts of the world. I grew up traveling a lot because both of my parents worked in the airline industry. I think it really changes a person's perspective having been exposed to different cultures. Being able to share my travels through photography is a creative outlet for me, and I want to inspire people to travel and open their minds. I understand there are people that are not able to travel due to financial or work obligations, I hope through my platform and my content, I am able to bring them on the journey with me so it's both informative and aspirational.


Photo by Emily Nathan

Emily Nathan

“I would say I am not a traditional influencer,” wrote Emily Nathan, 42. “I am a photographer who created a travel brand.” Her business, Tiny Atlas Quarterly, bills itself as “a photography-led lifestyle travel brand and social community.” The Oakland, Calif., resident started posting to social media about her travels in 2013, and posts to the Tiny Atlas Instagram account once a day. “When we are on a shoot, we post to stories — maybe on average 30 stories a week.”

What was your most successful post, and why? Our most successful posts are usually something architecture-related that our audience has perhaps not seen before.

How do you try to stand out from the crowd? Tiny Atlas both publishes my own and our contributing photographers' images and also pictures I curate from our hashtag #MyTinyAtlas, which has almost 8 million posts to date. I try to keep the feed inclusive of our wider audience and their travels and also real. The colors you see should be quite close to the places when you actually get there. The images are always beautiful, but the moments are human.


Photo by Willy Joseph Louis Photography

Francesca Murray

Francesca Murray, 31, an American who splits her time between California and Martinique, launched her website One Girl One World in 2014. “It’s always been my main platform for storytelling, and social media came after as a way to complement my work and reach a different audience,” said the former English teacher and marketing coordinator, who is now a full-time influencer, posting one to three times per week. “ ‘Be yourself’ may be a platitude, but it’s something that’s worked for me thus far,” she wrote. “I talk about things other travel influencers don’t tend to touch on — be it my own uncomfortable moments on the road, experiences learning a different language, or the best place to eat local food. I use beautiful imagery to draw people in, then dive deeper in my captions.”

What was your most successful post, and why? 

One of my most successful posts was a post where I discussed the lack of diversity in blogging, specifically in the Caribbean travel niche. I have been covering the Caribbean for years now, and it hasn’t always been the easiest when it comes to opportunities to work with hotels and tourism boards. I was afraid to be so honest about my sentiments, but to my surprise it garnered over 100 comments from people who felt the same and were excited to see a different narrative. 

Why did you become a travel influencer? 

I wanted to change the perspective of what a traveler looks like. I’m extremely passionate about representation, and since I had a journalism degree and a dream of having my own travel show one day I thought — why not start with a blog? It was a way to show other women that “Hey , I’m out here traveling, and if I can do it you can too!”


Photo by Eric Stoen

Eric Stoen

Eric Stoen is a 48-year-old father of three from Ojai, Calif. (Babbo means father in some parts of Italy.) An avid traveler and amateur photographer for much of his life, he quit his job handling operations for a health management company in 2014 and started posting about his travels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “I want to encourage people to go abroad with their kids — maybe skip Disney World this year and take your kids to Portugal or Colombia instead,” he wrote. “Today’s kids are tomorrow’s decision-makers. The more knowledgeable they are about the world, and the more they’ve personally seen, and the more people they’ve met, the better equipped they’ll be to make decisions that help others.” He creates Instagram Stories in real time as he travels and post photos every other day or so; he also has a blog.

What moments do you choose not to share? I don't post many photos showing my kids' faces or me up close or really any personal moments at all. I want to inspire people to show their kids the world, but my account isn't about our personalities or making us into celebrities. The kids didn't sign up for this. They don't need to become famous. And that doesn't inspire travel, anyway.

How do you try to stand out from the crowd? We seek out destinations that aren't obvious family vacation spots and show that they're kid-friendly. In the past year, we've been to Greenland, the Seychelles, Turkey, Brazil's Amazon rainforest, the Maldives, Vietnam and Laos, in addition to more standard destinations like Italy, Greece, Japan and Thailand. And I've let each of my kids, starting at the age of 4, choose any destination in the world every year for a one-on-one trip with me. They've picked places like Antarctica, Easter Island, Palawan, the Faroe Islands and Australia. They've also created a couple of around-the-world itineraries that have led to very fun trips. My 9-year-old is working on an around-the-world itinerary for the two of us next year. No idea where she'll choose.

Elizabeth Chang

Elizabeth Chang is a Post travel and wellness editor and occasional writer.

About this story

Story by Elizabeth Chang. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Design and development by Lucio Villa.