This column, Escape Artist, is a series about folks who have escaped. More importantly, this biweekly column is for those thinking about trading in their 9-to-5, leg-shackled-to-the-desk existences to forge their own way. The brave outliers featured in this collection of interviews are the digital nomads, online entrepreneurs and lifestyle trendsetters who decided it was time to say to hell with the humdrum and grab life by the roots.
James and Sue Feess run The Savvy Backpacker, a travel blog that gives tips for budget backpacking in Europe. The site focuses on the details of planning and preparing for a trip, not the destinations themselves. In 2017, the couple looks forward to updating their site with a fresh look.
The “escape the 9-to-5” mentality seems to be popular now. What are your impressions?
James Fees I think people have been trying to escape the 9-to-5 mentality since the invention of the 9-to-5. But now, thanks to the internet, people can see actual examples of others who have escaped it, which makes it more tangible and attainable in their minds. Most importantly, it gives people the confidence to build their own life and forge their own path.
On the other hand, I’ve always felt a little uneasy about promoting this escapism mindset that many travel sites tout. On our site, we never talk about or promote quitting your job to travel full-time. I think it makes people sad or upset when they don’t lead that kind of life. We just want people to travel more, whether it’s for a week or for years.
What was the “aha” moment that sparked this idea of travel for you two?
JF It started when we both studied abroad in college, and then I started traveling extensively and it snowballed. We had the opportunity to move to Paris because of Susan’s master’s degree studies. By that time, the blog was only a year or two old, and the move gave us the chance to continue building and improving the site. My biggest “aha” moments occurred when I received emails from people asking my advice and thanking me for creating the site. That’s when I started to see that people were actually valuing my work and opinion.
What inspired you to start blogging, and how did you first build a following?
JF I wanted to create the site that I wish I’d had to prepare for my first backpacking trip to Europe. I spent a ton of time researching for my trip, and the information online wasn’t all that great. I set out to build a straightforward, no-nonsense guide to help people plan their trip. Also, I had just moved to a new city and was unemployed when I started the site, so I had time to get the site kickstarted. I’m not really sure how we built a following other than writing content people found valuable. I guess I struck a cord with people. I certainly had no idea the site would become popular when I started.
Why did you decide to focus on “The Savvy Backpacker” as an idea and brand?
JF Budget European travel is all I know, so that’s what I write about. I should have started a luxury travel blog because those guys make more money and get better perks! However, what I love about focusing on this budget niche is that most of my readers are taking their first trip. They’re still full of wonder and excitement. I love that enthusiasm. I feel like my advice can have an actual impact on their travels.
Do you have a favorite travel spot you’d like to share with Paste readers?
JF I know this isn’t a cool or unique answer, but my favorite travel spot is still Paris. I fell in love with the city the first time I was there. I remember walking around the streets and realizing that the city felt “right.” During that trip, I was there for three days, so I didn’t even scratch the surface but I felt that connection. Then, a few years later, we were able to live there and now I have an even deeper appreciation for the city.
The “travel blogging” mentality is becoming more popular as well. Does the market seem saturated?
JF It certainly does feel like the market is becoming saturated. Our site got in before travel blogging really blew up, so that helped us. If we were to start today, I don’t know if we would become successful. But we’re still in the Wild West in terms of the internet. There is still room for more people to become way more successful than we’ll ever be. All you have to do is find your audience and give them what they think is important. I try to stay connected to readers by giving them helpful information, whether that’s though articles, social media or email.
What’s one tip you have for readers who want to live a life like yours?
JF Choose your own path and do everything you can to continue traveling it. It’s important to figure out what’s important to you. Once you know that, you’ll have an easier time finding what makes you happy. And it’s not easy — I still struggle with it often but it’s an ongoing process.
The most important tip is to just start. There are thousands of resources to help you get started, but you’ll go nowhere if you spend all of your time reading those. You just need to start. You’ll figure it out. Plus, doing is the best way to learn.
What are you most excited to focus on in 2017?
JF We are working on overhauling our site to make it look better and be more user-friendly. We also plan to create more helpful content. I want put more focus on the business side of things so we can take the site to the next level. So where will the site take us in 2017? I have no idea, which is part of the fun!
Carolyn Crist is a freelance journalist based in Georgia. She writes about travel, health, science and business for regional and national publications.