Some quick thoughts on travel writing (well, service writing really)

I was recently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, doing a badly needed update of our coverage of the city. I thought it would be interesting (to some) for me to write up what something like this actually involves.

I arrived in Phnom Penh on the afternoon of January 5 and left early in the morning on January 20. While there I filled my days with visiting sights and tours and such like, inspecting hotels (I looked at over 40 altogether), eating a lot (please don’t ask me how many meals I had) and dedicated many a night to bar research—often with the guiding hand of my friend Nick Ray who seems to have been to every bar in the city—side note, Phnom Penh has a LOT of bars.

Each day I would set aside some portion of the day (generally early afternoon when it is the hottest) to write at least short versions of what would end up being the final reviews on Travelfish. Not all of these would see the light of electrons though, as I’d stay in a hotel, then find somewhere better, so ditch an old review and so on. Same goes for food and, to a lesser extent sights.

Thankfully the transport section had already been updated by another Travelfish writer (Mark Ord) as it was really badly out of date, so I didn’t have to bother with that, save a few minor updates or changes.

I stayed in thirteen hotels and hotels all up, some for more than one night, some for no nights (yes, it was that bad), and while many of these places made the cut, not all did. In any event I deleted about 30 of our existing listings–not so much because they were all terrible (though some were), or had closed (as some had), but mostly, as we’re really moving towards listing mostly places that are really great, I see little point writing up a review of somewhere that is just ok. This isn’t a strict rule, but the accommodation scene in Southeast Asia is just so competitive now, I see little value adding in spending time looking at 15 mini hotels all on the same street.

My average spend across the stay was US$31 which is quite high for me (I’d say $20ish about right for me normally), but Phnom Penh has so many delicious places to stay at around the $50 mark I just had to try a few. Cheapest night was $5, priciest $55. Also, as I was working, I really wanted a bit of space and privacy so I could throw by papers all over the place and get stuff into the laptop—hard to do in a $5 dorm.

F&B wise, Phnom Penh is a cheap town that can get a bit pricey fast, meaning it is an easy town to spend a bit of dosh. I think the priciest meal was around $30, but mostly I floated around the $5 to $10 mark. But, as I eat multiple times a meal, on one occasion four lunches in a day (no Mum, I didn’t eat all of each meal), my spend is absolutely atypically high. The bar research also adds up—booze is cheap in Cambodia, but when you’re covering three or four bars (or more) in an evening, the incremental costs add up—yeah I know, my job is hell. Much of Cambodia is still a very much cash economy, so I don’t have a figure on my actual cash spend on food and drink, but $25-30ish on food, another $10 on booze a day sounds about right—those bloody cocktail bars will be the death of me.

The other cash black hole was tours and activities. I spend around $160 on three street food tours. I hired a tuk tuk for a coupla days for some out of town stuff at $20ish (I paid for his beer and food) a day, and another evening to the Khmer kick boxing ($20), an architecture tour ($35), a sunset boat cruises ($8 bargain!), a performance of Cambodian dance ($25) and plenty of other random $5 and $10 drops here and there. Also museum admissions, lots of $5 and $10 costs there.

A typical day for me is starting early (6am ish) out and about just wandering, take some pics, eat a bit, perhaps a market. It depends. See a morning sight, perhaps a museum or torture centre. Ten am to midday is looking at hotels and hostels, then I eat again, then back to my hotel to write up the morning and previous evening’s material. Once the heat drops back to tolerable levels, more hotels, another sight or two, then food and bars.

Rinse and repeat.

I used to (like five years ago!) be able to do three weeks without a break at this pace before the wheels started to fall off, but now closing in on two weeks, I start going a bit around the bend. When you are doing this kind of work it pays to keep an eye on your mental state, not only to be fair on yourself, but importantly also on the properties/restaurants/bars/whatever you’re reviewing. Stuart, take a mental health day when you need it.

What hasn’t changed, at least for me, is the write-up math. A day in the destination (generally) equates to a day at home writing it up (this includes me doing crib notes and posting some stuff during the trip). Obviously when I am home I have a whole raft of other responsibilities, be it school pick up and drop off, cooking dinner, feeding the cat (that is a big fat joke), or whatever, but still, taking all that into account, at least for me, one day away to a day writing up is about right. By writing up I mean including sorting and filing pics, and posting onto the Travelfish site, both of these are also considerable time sucks, but I’m bundling them all as one.

My overall spend in Phnom penh was about $1,400 (including accommodation), or around $100 a day. This is before flights to get there and so on.

So. What does all this mean?

It means doing the legwork, in person, checking all this stuff, is both expensive and freakin time consuming—which is why some publishers don’t bother with it anymore, relying on “desk updates” instead. A desk update is where you update your travel guide to wherever by not leaving your desk, just using the internet (you bookmarked Travelfish right?) and (oh gawd do I have to call a person?!) the telephone, to fact check stuff.

Is it important to verify this stuff in person? Well, that’s a good question. In the age of TripAdvisor and Google Travel (but not yet, it seems, antitrust) how much value adding is there in having some sentient being going and looking at the whole shebang in person? Obviously I think there is, as otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it, but more generally, I still think there is a lot of value in having a more rounded view of a destination. Should you go to Kien Svay or Koh Dach? Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng? Pavilion or Plantation? Annnnnd so on.

Much of our Phnom Penh coverage is available online for free. Members get all the sights and a mega 185-page PDF to the city. Do you need a 185 guide to a city? No, probably not, but the font is big, there are a tonne of pics and it will give you something to read through on your tablet on the flight. Membership is A$35 a year, or about US$2ish a month—think about that, that’s the cost of a third of a martini at Juniper Gin Bar—or just about as big a bargain as an $8 sunset cruise. You can sign up here. (Yes, I know three links to the signup page in the final par, do it!)

A last word, just in case you’re not familiar with Travelfish, we do no freebies, no media rates, none of that stuff. We pay our way every time and have been doing so for 14+ years.

Thanks for reading.

Bali debunked

The following piece ran on an Australian media site. I’m not linking to the piece, sorry. Story is in italics, my thoughts bracketed. I’m doing this only because I envisage a whole strong of ranty, ill-informed pieces like this to run in the Oz media in the coming weeks. They totally ignore the challenges the local population face and also seem to fall down at acknowledging the efforts people are making on the ground to try and alleviate the situation.

There are worse things in life than being stuck in Bali for a week.


A tropical paradise with no shortage of pools, cocktails or hot weather.


But it comes at a price and so far it’s upward of $5000.

[The $5k is generally optional]

I came to Bali for a five day getaway with my mother and sister. We came here to relax, swim, eat and soak in the sun. All of which we did, very well if I do say so myself.

[Great, glad to hear it went well, Bali really can be quite awesome]

But all good things must come to an end and we were set to fly home on Sunday night, however Mount Agung had other ideas.

[I hate that]

As the volcano continued to spew ash we were being told we wouldn’t be on a flight until December 4 at the earliest, leaving us stranded a full eight days longer than planned, and even then, as every airline employee repeatedly reminded us, “there’s no guarantee”.

[Unfortunately volcanoes are not timetabled]

Now I’ll be the first to admit sitting by the pool for another week is hardly stressful, but every minute I’m stuck here costs money.


Accommodation, food, international phone calls to every airline we can think of, even water, which isn’t safe to drink out of the tap and has to be bought.

[Well, depends on the hotel or house, but generally true. A large 1.25 litre bottle costs a bit under A$1 ]

After five hours dealing with various engaged airline helplines, desperate to try and find a way out of this mess, I realised I was going to have to pay a taxi to take me to the airport.

[Taxi to the airport? Outrageous!]

And while sitting by the pool waiting for news may be peaceful, Denpasar Airport is anything but.

[On this point I totally agree, DPS international is a dump (domestic is ok tho!)]

Hundreds of people from all over the world were lining up at airline desks in queues that never seemed to move.

[This sounds like a totally normal day at DPS to me]

The airport is cavernous, there is no aircon, and the humidity was at 78 percent.

[The airport is fully air-con]

I spoke to people from Thailand, Sweden, Croatia, the US and Britain – some of whom had been sleeping in the airport for three days.

[Given you can get a room in Kuta for $5 I don’t really understand why people would do this, but yes, you are allowed to sleep at the airport]

One mother from Adelaide told me she’d left her two young children home with her mother, tearfully informing me she had “no idea when I’ll see them next”.

[When she gets a flight home?]

Qantas had originally cancelled all flights until next Tuesday, with some stranded travellers not rebooked until December 27.

[I find the Dec 27 date just about impossible to believe, tho assume it was the said travellers being dramatists rather then the author ]

I witnessed more than one person make a tearful call home to tell loved ones they won’t make it back for Christmas.


It didn’t seem to matter what ticket people held, a first class seat with Emirates or economy with Tigerair, no amount of money was going to make the airport reopen or the volcano stop erupting.

[Agung is not for sale. Sorry.]

Here, in this sweaty, sticky mess, we were all in the same boat.

[Yup, you and 100,000 people living in camps on the slopes of the volcano]

And boat seems like it may be the only option.

[Not really, well, a boat+ other stuff—full instructions here]

Hundreds of people lined up for a bus set to take them on a 12-hour drive to a ferry at Gili Manuk which would take them across to Java, where they’d hop on another bus to Surabaya airport.

[It is actually 12 hours to Surabaya (on a good day) Gilimanuk is about 4 hours (depending on traffic)

From there they hoped to get a flight to Jakarta from which they could fly back home safely.

[Indeed, or fly internationally, or a train or a domestic flight to Jakarta (for eg), there are plenty of options to the west. Look in a guidebook. ]

The trip could cost hundreds of dollars, and people with young children and quivering bank accounts were unsure if they could make the journey.

[The airport bus to Surabaya cost 300,000 rupiah, so around A$30. I guess if you has a family of seven it could cost “hundreds of dollars”, but for a single traveller, $30 seems kinda reasonable for a 12+ hour bus trip ]

Not to mention, bad weather in Java saw flooding and landslides take the lives of 11 people yesterday.

[The deaths were in a southern strip of Java and I think were related to the Cempaka cyclone (which has faded away for now). There was some flooded on the road to Surabaya, but I’m not aware of any deaths related to the bad weather on the route to the airport—I could be wrong on this though! ]

People are being forced to measure risk, cost and desperation to make it home to their families on Christmas.

[Christmas is a month away. A volcanic eruption has been on the cards since September. That is risk management. ]

Meanwhile, we laughingly looked up private planes and helicopters, wondering if maybe even that might be cheaper than a month’s accommodation.


Plenty of observers, safe in their homes back in Australia, have been passing judgement on those stranded here.

[Plenty in Bali (also safe) too]

Accusations about holidaying without money for emergencies are flying left, right and centre.

[Flying to a destination known for a potentially-about-to-explode volcano with insufficient funds to carry one over in the case of an eruption could be construed as being irresponsible, or at least, lacking consideration.]

But I bet they’d be singing a different tune if they were here.

[I live here]

Many of the people I’d spoken to were here on their last dollar, trying to give themselves a much needed break after years of saving.

[I get this, but I also get being financially responsible and doing your research. People have been waiting for Agung to blow for months and the Oz media have been flogging it like the second coming of Schapelle. Seriously. Read a paper, do your research. If you are short of emergency dosh, don’t travel to a potential disaster area without some loose time (and loose money). Go to Thailand—no active volcanoes there]

Another was here for a friend’s wedding, where she was the maid of honour.

[Congratulations to her friend!]

A third was here for work.

[Hope they had the right visa! (that’s a joke for Bali expats, sorry)]

No one goes on holiday expecting an act of god to throw their plans into chaos.

[Yes, agree, but this “act of God” had been reported almost daily in Oz paper since September!]

As my mum and I video-call our partners back home, we can’t help but feel our hearts twist for everything we are missing.

[You should bring them with when you return!]

Mum has already missed a prepaid trip to Melbourne with my dad.

[Bugger, sorry to hear it.]

We missed my other sister’s birthday, and were unable to farewell her as she left for Vietnam.

[Lucky your sister missed cyclone season in Vietnam as that wrapped up last month—hope she enjoys it, fab country.]

My sister has missed out on a training session at work which would have assured her a promotion, and I’m using up my painstakingly saved annual leave so I can afford to keep a roof over my head.

[Well hopefully your travel insurance (you had some right?) will cover you for the accommodation costs, and sorry to hear about your sister missing the course.]

I’m sorry your trip had a rough ending, as it seems like it was great until it wasn’t. Really, I mean that. But also, it pays to do some research, read the newspapers, get some travel insurance, and travel in a more informed fashion than you appear to have—and certainly a bit more fact checking on the above story would have been prudent.

We all hope the volcano chills out, which will give considerable relief to those who have been evacuated and so on, and also free tourists to arrive without needed to get a PhD in volcanology and ash cloud patterns.

Good travels


Still stuck in Bali? Read this!

New Facebook newsfeed

Plenty of press at the moment on Facebook’s new take on what a news feed should be—first reported by Filip Struhárik under the title “Biggest drop in Facebook organic reach we have ever seen”.

In Filip’s piece he notes that FB is testing this new feed in “Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Cambodia” and this seemed to be supported by Adam Mosseri, the head of News Feed at FB, with the following tweet.

OK, fair nuf.

Here is what I am seeing in Bali, Indonesia.

Facebook homepage:

Now, on the above page, I can scroll forever and never see an unpaid/promoted item from a page I’ve liked. Nada. The only way I see them is in this “Pages stories you may like” insert. Paid/promoted posts appear as normal.

This is the same behaviour Filip wrote about.

In Filip’s case, the unpaid items have been buried I mean, moved, to the “Explore Feed” tab, but in my case this is what I see:

Some dude with a big fish from a page I have not liked but Facebook thinks I might want to. Now I can scroll forever here and all I see are items from pages Facebook thinks I might like—not from pages I have actually liked.


So where are the unpaid items from pages I’ve liked?

I tried the “Pages” tab and Iget this:

This is the “Top suggestions” from Facebook—essentially the same as the Explore tab, but this time better targeted (liked by my friends etc). But, where are the unpaid items from pages I’ve liked?

Lets try the “Invites” tab.

This is a summary of all the pages I have been invited to like. If I click on one, I just get the FB page for that organisation. That is not a news feed—and I don’t like these pages anyway.

Lets try the “Liked pages” tab.

This is a summary of all the pages I have liked, so am getting close, but there is no feed here. If I click on one, I just get the FB page for that organisation. That is not a news feed.

The last tab is “Your pages” which just links to a couple of pages I manage.

So as far as I can see, as a user in Indonesia, one of Facebook’s largest markets, unpaid items from pages I have liked have not been relegated to the Explore tab but instead have been entirely removed from Facebook’s feeds.

This doesn’t make the tweet from the FB staffer up top inaccurate of course, but it does suggest they’re running another, even more damaging test, here in Indonesia.

Thirteen points on thirteen years

After first announcing Travelfish had turned 14, I did some basic math and realised the business is actually only 13 years old. So, aside from improve your math, here are some other thoughts, thirteen to be exact, on thirteen years of running a travel website.

Work practises
* Your laptop will take all the time you give it.
* Own your mistakes.
* Listen to your readers and users but don’t follow their every whim.

Social media
* Facebook is better for traffic than Twitter.
* Twitter is better for making connections than Facebook.

Travel guide stuff
* Stick to your principles. There is no single “right way” to create a travel guide.
* Covering obscure places that nobody goes to, is the best part of the gig.
* Destinations that nobody goes to will earn you next to no money. They are very easy to rank for though.
* Don’t assume that submitted corrections are always accurate.

Money stuff
* Look after, listen to, and pay your staff as best you can.
* Don’t assume readers won’t pay for what you are doing.
* Don’t write for free.

Most importantly
* Remember to take a holiday. This one took me twelve years.

What does it cost to run Travelfish?

Start a website! It’s free!


I came across a post a week or so ago that detailed what it cost an “online company” to remain online. I found it to be astoundingly high, but it did make me wonder just how much it costs us to keep the hamster-wheel at Travelfish spinning. How much do all those $5 monthly charges add up to in the end?

Here’s what I put together. Obviously, the tech side is a small portion of our expenses — the vast bulk of our earnings goes to our writers — but I’ve kept it technology focused. I also haven’t included Upwork costs, which are related to when I occasionally use a contractor to assist with a server management task or programming/inputting drudgework.

As a couple of the charges are traffic based (Mapbox, Amazon S3) and as our traffic is somewhat seasonal, there is a little bit of variance month to month. I’ve also included services that are free for the level of use we use them at, but which have paying tiers.

Lastly, I’ve included a brief on each after the list, explaining why we use each item and if whether I’d recommend them.

Essential to keep the site up
Server hosting with Server Beach (now Cogeco Peer) $274 per month
Amazon S3 $160 per month
Mapbox $215 per month
Google site search $750 (annual) 150k queries, lasts almost a year
SSL Cert $99 annual

Chartbeat $9.95 per month
Google Analytics Free
Google Webmaster Tools Free

Security & making my life easier
Sucuri $89.99 annual
Akismet $50 per month
Bugsnag Free
Mailchimp $30 per month
Dropbox Pro $100 per year

Aweber $149 per month

Moz $99 per month

Payment processing

Productivity/management etc
Asana Free
Toggl Free

Pinboard $11 annual

Prefer all the above in a chart? Here you go.

Cheque please!

A few more thoughts

Server hosting
We signed up for a dedicated server with ServerBeach years ago and have been through probably a half dozen servers with them over the years. No complaints. Very proactive support with a decent turn around on support queries and hardware failures. Have had one significant stretch of downtime in the last decade.

Amazon S3
We use S3 for image hosting and other storage needs and desires. There is a significant performance uptick in doing this rather than hosting the images locally. Would recommend it for any website with a lot of images.

We use Mapbox throughout the site and in the PDF travel guides. Very comprehensive documentation for their API and we’re a big fan — though the costs do add up. A free alternative is Google Maps, but we vastly prefer Mapbox.

Google Sitesearch
Having a 40,000-page website means you’ll be needing a search tool. We pay Google in order to be able to use their search tool free of ads. We buy it in chunks of 150,000 search queries, which lasts us almost a year, give or take.

SSL Cert
Essential if you’re running a https:// site. There are cheaper means to this and we’ll probably stop using Comodo next year.

Site analytics with a social tilt and with a site uptime side service. We were put onto Chartbeat by a friend at a newspaper who gets a lot of social traffic. As social isn’t a large traffic source for us, this isn’t so much fun and I keep meaning to cancel it. Maybe this month. If you do have a significant amount of social traffic, Chartbeat is worth a look.

Google Analytics
Essential if you want to keep on top of what is happening on your website.

Google Webmaster Tools
An imperfect tool for keeping an eye on the overall health of a site from Google’s perspective.

This is a WordPress monitoring service which we use for the sole remaining WordPress install on the site. If you use WordPress, this is well worth considering.

While you can use a single Akismet API key for free, we upgraded when we were using a bunch of WordPress installs. Now they’re all gone I could probably reduce this to the one-off fee ($5 per month from memory) as we still use the API for spam control on the forum, but Akismet is a great product and we’re happy to keep supporting its efforts to keep comment spam under control.

Handy tool for monitoring the site for PHP and other coding errors. Free for up to 250 errors a day.

We use these guys for transactional email delivery (password resets etc). Every month when I get the invoice my teeth grate as we previously used their associated service (Mandrill) but then it got rolled into Mailchimp and you were forced to pay another $10 for a mailing list you don’t want. Penny pinching or what? We went to switch to another company but they refused service because we are in Indonesia – never ceases to amaze me when companies thumb their noses at a country home to the fourth largest population on the planet.

We use Dropbox Pro (not business) for image management between us and the writers and while we pay for their licenses too, we’re just listing the one account for the purposes of this piece. Avoid their enterprise product.

You do get our newsletter right? Aweber isn’t free and it isn’t perfect, but it works. We have more than 10,000 subscribers and the inertia involved in moving to another service (which would never, ever be Mailchimp – see above) keeps us here.

I want to love Moz but I don’t and having been with them for a year will cancel this month. The product is good, especially the initial period when you first sign up and the site audit was very useful for fixing glaring errors, but as time goes on, at least in our case, we’ve logged in less and less. We don’t take a particularly competitive SEO position — we follow the rules and concentrate on content — so some of this was definitely a bit of information overload for us.

If you’re into SEO and particularly if you want to get into competitor analysis, then this is worth the money, but if you essentially just want to check you’re not doing anything especially stupid, then perhaps use it for a month or two then cancel, or pass on it and just follow the founder on Twitter, as he links out to a lot of very interesting stuff and his “Whiteboard Fridays” are reliably interesting.

We use this for payment processing for Travelfish premium members and for travel planning consultancy. Stripe is awesome and better than Paypal in pretty much every single way imaginable. Their fee base is percentage based per transaction.

I wrote about Asana when we first started using it way back when here. The more they added features the less I used it, to the point now where I don’t understand what is going on anymore. Sometimes simplicity is an asset. We don’t use it anymore.

This is a personal time manager which I can sync from laptop to phone. I love it. Very simple to use. If you want to get on top of what you spend time on, in a very simple format, this is great.

What we don’t use and what we do instead
Any kind of social networking management accounts (Hootsuite etc etc etc and etc). We do it old school — though I am taking a break from all of them for now.

We don’t use Slack for team collaboration and communication (I find Slack infernally confusing and counter-intuitive to use), instead using a private Facebook group and email and Skype.

No accounting or budgeting software. Instead budgets, GST, accounting, payments etc are all in a single excel sheet which we send to the accountant annually.

Oh, I almost forgot Pinboard
I signed up for Pinboard solely because the guy who runs it is one of the funniest tech people I follow on Twitter!

Switching Travelfish to https: A quick walkthru

We recently switched the Travelfish website over from http to https and it appears to have run very smoothly (touch wood!). As Chris at TravelHappy asked, here is a quick wrap on what I did and a few heads up to potential issues.

Primarily because of moronic telecom companies here in Indonesia (Hello Telkomsel!) who hijack sites which do not use https to inject their own ads and popups into the website. I have written about this previously here – it is an absolutely bottom-feeding parasitical practise, but, currently, is not illegal in Indonesia.

The site
Travelfish is a travel content site of give or take about 25,000 pages. These pages are served via 100 templates (again give or take) and serve around a couple of million impressions per month. It runs off of PHP and MySQL. Pretty bog standard stuff.

While we have a handful of WordPress installations tacked on the side, the vast majority of the CMS is custom.

Some are hosted on the server but most are on S3 with Amazon Cloudfront.

Embedded content
We use Mapbox for almost all of our mapping, and Vimeo for nearly all videos (which are primarily on just the one page). Otherwise there were a few Youtube embeds and so on scattered around the joint.

We don’t run any third party served ads (Google Adsense for example). This made the whole task considerably easier.

The process
I’m not going to bother covering getting an SSL certificate and setting that up, as there are a bazillion tutorials already online about that. In our case it was already set up as we were already using it for login stuff.

Going through the templates
The main headache is “mixed content” where you have a https page that is calling an item (say an image or icon) from a non https source. This mixed content causes browser warnings and, in some cases the page won’t load.

What this meant was that we had to change every single link in the site that pointed to to So, there’s no shortcut route here, we needed to go through every template and check that every url was https.

That was a fun day.

At the same time, we had to check that all our support files (javascript, css, icon files, font files etc) were both hosted on https and called by their https address. Same went for third party content like mapping. Not complicated to fix – just tedious.

This was another fun day.

As we make heavy use of templates and PHP functions to generate chunks of standard content, the above was a lot less painful than if it was all vanilla HTML, but, well, your mileage will vary. It all needs to be changed — every bleeding line.

Aside from the tedium, there are a couple of things to watch out that are worth mentioning.

Hardcoded http in 3rd party files
http:// addresses that are hardcoded into Javascript and css files are a hassle. In one notable case, if you’re using Google Sitesearch as we do, there is a problem as the search JS script is hosted with Google (at //, but the JS file contains a hardcoded http:// reference which creates a mixed content warning

This meant I had to pull down the script, change the http: to https: and host it on our server (as obv I can’t change the code Google is hosting). The downside of this is of course is if Google changes something the script breaks — so far so good 😉

Images at S3
This was one of the main reasons we had delayed the switch to https because of the complexity is getting a SSL certificate that would cover all the images there. To be honest, I still don’t really understand all this, but this explainer at the aptly named Delicious Brains (their blog has lots of interesting stuff too), worked a dream and made all of our images and other stuff secure with a minimum of effort (and zero cost).

Once all the images and all the support files had had their references updated, we moved on to the content.

The database
Plenty of our content in the database (accommodation reviews etc) has links hardcoded into it. Rather than doing search and replace through the database to fix this, we took the more gradual approach of:

a) On the public template pages we replaced the old url with the correct ones as a part of the process of querying the database and formatting the output with PHP.

b) We adjusted our CMS to do the same, so any time we open a record in the CMS any baked in links are updated permanently when the record is saved. Over time, all the records will be updated.

The forum
One issue here was members being able to post images that were hosted elsewhere. The problem was that people may not always post images from a https source so we’d end up with a mixed content warning. We dealt with this by forcing the image to https (again by replacing the url with the PHP str_replace function as in (a) above). What this did was if the image wasn’t hosted on https the image broke — but no mixed content warning. That was preferable result to our mind.

As an aside, if you’re built on WordPress, you’ll want to avail yourself of the following plug-ins to make your life easier. Both should be self explanatory.

Search and replace
SSL Insecure Content Fixer

WordPress’ new image handing with srcset can be an added complicating factor. The easiest approach is to just disable srcset by adding the following to your functions.php file:

function disable_srcset( $sources ) {
return false;
add_filter( ‘wp_calculate_image_srcset’, ‘disable_srcset’ );

Once all this was done, mix yourself a major gin and tonic then:

1) Upload all the files
2) Add a sitewide 301 redirect in the .htaccess file sending all traffic from the http:// to the https:// (this should catch any hardcoded links I missed plus deals with all inbound traffic)

And see what happens.

In our case (SO FAR) it ran smoothly. No noticeable traffic budge (in either direction) and no Webmaster Tools freak out warnings. Note you will need to register the new domain in Webmaster Tools if you want to busy yourself with their beyond pointless 404 reports.

And, that’s a wrap.

Adblocking: down the track in travel

I’m not going to go to deep into the pros and cons of actually using an adblocker, other than to say I don’t agree with their use — especially if a publisher makes it clear they don’t want you to use one. Instead I wanted to write about what the results of adblocker use by a large majority of readers might look like down the track, within the travel writing sphere.

There are three main aspects to this. How advertisers and ad networks will respond, how publishers will be affected and how readers will be affected. What will happen to the reader’s experience is the most important to my mind, but I’m treating it last as the other two are inter-related and contribute (obviously) to the reader experience.

How advertisers and ad networks will respond
Two primary arguments are raised by the pro-adblocker camp: Ads are annoying and detract from the reading experience and adtracking is loathsome. Currently, most adblockers block third party Javascript, which is used to load both ads and tracking cookies, removing both issues.

The most straightforward way to address the first part of this (the ugly annoying ads) is to load them server side. Plenty of sites already do this, so those ads are (generally) not blocked; expect to see more of this. Adblockers can block on creative size — for example, they can block all images that are IAB unit sizes — but there will be a considerable amount of collateral damage to this approach (as not all 300*250 images are ads, for instance).

Getting around the tracking block is more difficult but not impossible. Assigning unique IDs to readers and then identifying characteristics like referrer (where available!) and other user-agent/platform stuff, plus plenty of site specific stuff (such as time on site and pages viewed) is relatively straightforward. This information could then be baked into the querystring and passed to an adserver on click (because the ads are now being served server-side). Some publishers would probably agree to bake that into their entire site navigation for enough $$. Sure, it’s not as comprehensive as current tracking, but it is a start. Take a look at ANY Online Travel Agent querystring once you’ve surfed around a bit to see what I’m talking about.

Content-wise, what should we expect to see? A massive growth in native content — this is basically advertorial, renamed to make is remotely more socially acceptable. Brands pay the publisher to have their editorial staff prepare stuff related (sometimes vaguely, sometimes very specifically) to the brand, whittling down the editorial/advertising Chinese wall. As Medium founder Evan Williams says, “Native ads are the only thing that can work. Other stuff hasn’t been a win-win especially for users. It’s on its last legs.” I’d never categorise native advertising as a win-win, but Williams’ sentiment is a common one.

Responsible publishers clearly disclose native content — phrases like “Partner content”, “In conjunction with” and “Sponsored by” are all code for advertorial. Of course, clearly disclosing native content to your readers means you’re also clearly disclosing it to adblockers. So expect adblockers to increasingly block this material as well.

Therefore the next step will be for brands to require undisclosed native content blended in as closely as possible to editorial content. This will be far more difficult for adblockers to detect correctly and remove. It will also be extremely difficult for readers to realise what they are reading is actually an ad.

This last step is a double win for the advertiser — unblocked content that readers don’t realise is advertorial. It isn’t so much a great thing for publisher trust because when readers realise they’ve been tricked into reading an ad, they’re generally not very happy.

So the ads and much of the tracking are gone — yay! They’ve been replaced by material that is advertorial and indistinguishable from editorial — not so much yay!

What will happen to small-scale publishers?
At, say, a 75% percent block rate, many independent smaller scale publishers (ie too small to have dedicated ad and tech teams) will stop publishing. Aside from lawyers, bankers, cocaine dealers and politicians I can’t think of many occupations who work with a 75% profit margin; take away three-quarters of any business’s income and it will struggle. Non-professional hobby sites will undoubtably continue, but maybe they’ll just pull in enough for a slab of beer annually rather than monthly.

Obviously a wise approach as a professional publisher is to not have all your eggs in one basket — being totally reliant on advertising has never been the best idea. Travel-themed affiliate marketing and ebooks are two obvious and relatively easy candidates to help in this regard. But these revenue streams too may well be blocked in the future by adblockers because of the zeal of people who simply think information should be free (never mind the cost of compiling the information).

In travel publishing, we’ll see a vast growth in advertorial (sorry, I mean native content) — not that it wasn’t already a massive reader problem in travel. Expect more luxury hotel insider pieces paid for by luxury hotels, adventure travel experiences paid for by adventure travel companies, local food pieces written by local food tour providers, PR companies paying for guidebook writers to visit certain properties and so on. The travel vertical is already awash in native stuff. Expect to see plenty more from publishers willing to do it and less and less of it to be disclosed to the reader.

The reader experience
As an adblocking reader, you’ll be tracked less and see fewer ads. You’ll also be presented with far more content that, well, is probably actually an ad. You didn’t realise? That’s the idea. And if you don’t use an adblocker? Well, you’ll still face reading crappier content online as well as some publishers bend to the new regime.

For some readers, this is a reasonable trade off. But it is worth considering that the most likely result to your “hating ads” and so blocking them, will be getting to read ads without realising they’re actually ads.

And whatever you do, don’t worry about all the tracking that is going on while you browse the web logged in to Facebook. (That was sarcasm.)

On Travelfish
Advertising is a minor but important part of our revenue stream. If 75% of our readers blocked ads, we wouldn’t be very happy about it, but we wouldn’t go out of business. You’ll never read native content on Travelfish. We’d shut the site down before it came to that.

We will continue to run ads, as we currently do, primarily through Google Adsense which remains, by far, the most cost-effective way for a small publisher to monetise their website. To the full extent that the Adsense platform permits, we disallow advertiser practices that present a poor user experience or enable excessive tracking. For example, we block third party and interest-based ads as well as more than 2,000 “Google-certified ad networks”. There is definitely a revenue cost for us associated with blocking these “services”. Does this matter to adblocking software? No. An ad is an ad is an ad.

If the adblock rate gets high enough, we’ll paywall adblockers. Don’t want to pay and don’t want to turn your adblocker off? Take your entitlement over to Wikivoyage please. (This is not meant as a slight to Wikivoyage – they’re a solid site – but rather highlighting a non-commercial site providing similar information to Travelfish.)

We don’t think we’ll be the only publisher to do this — others who get that icky feeling about native content may well do the same. If you buy an adblocker, consider that down the track you may also have to buy access to a site in lieu of seeing their ads. Some people are cool with that; if so, everyone is happy.

One thing I’ll give adblockers: blocking comments on blogposts was a great idea. But what about the perfect adblocker?

Does social matter?

If you have a travel-related website, perhaps not.

A big fat NOTE up front here, I pulled together this information from SimilarWeb which delivers estimated stats on desktop traffic and I couldn’t see any way to split the stats out by device. One would imagine the stats would be somewhat different on mobile.

Anyway, I gathered the site stats on ten travel websites (Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Fodors, Frommers, Travelfish (my site), Tripadvisor, Moon, Wikitravel, Travellerspoint and Gogobot) and then gathered the same information for ten news websites (NYT, Guardian, The Atlantic, New Yorker, SMH, BangkokPost, FT, The Australian, LA Times and the Independent). I then plonked them all into a spreadsheet and made the following four simple charts.

Get a magnifying glass for social.

Get a magnifying glass for social.

Social traffic
This is FAR more important to news websites than travel. Rough Guides derives the largest proportion of its traffic from social, but it is still below 5% of overall traffic – the average across the ten travel publishers was just 2.09%. Compare this to the Independent in the UK who gets 36.68% of traffic from social, with an average across the ten publishers of 22.03%.

Search traffic
This is the bread and butter to travel publishers, with an average of 73.62% across the ten. News by comparison is just 30.66% across the ten. Similarweb doesn’t break out results from so I’m assuming it is wrapped into the overall Google figure. I’m kinda surprised it is this low, but, to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I looked at Google News – Twitter is now my newsfeed.

A closer look at social for travel websites. The “big three” are Facebook (52%), Twitter (16%) and Reddit (16%), but there are very big fish in a tiny pond. Taking Rough Guide for example, their largest social source of traffic is 41.43%, but that is 41.43% of 4.48% of their overall traffic – ie Facebook represents 1.85% of their traffic.

One point eight five percent.

This all makes sense I guess, breaking news is far more “share-worthy” than a profile of the guesthouse that you stayed in last night, so maybe give that some thought before you slather social sharing buttons all over your website.

Traffic data is here.

Managing travel photos – is this possible?

A common problem we have at Travelfish is managing photos. Managing author submissions is no major issue – we use Dropbox for that – they share a folder on their laptop/desktop with us via Dropbox and we see the pics, then we pull them off and into local folders so we can use as needed.

We struggle more though with our home setup. Basically there are two Macbooks – Sam and mine – they’re not networked. Each has their own distinct photo library local to that laptop. These two libraries are organised differently — mine by location, Sam’s by a different method. This is ok when we are in range of each other’s laptops, but when one of is is away and needs a pic from the other’s machine, it is a hassle.

An ideal solution would be to mirror the image organisation system onto the two machines, and introduce a third machine, which would automatically sync with my and Sam’s machines, making a central copy of everything, plus copying images from Sam’s to mines and mine to Sam’s to fill any blanks, update with new images and so on. Essentially they’d then be three collections of the same image library, so if one of us were away, they’d still have a copy of everything the other had — at least up to the moment we went away.

We don’t want to use Dropbox or some other Cloud solution as we’re often where internet is poor and the combined gallery is about 50,000 pics.

Is the ideal situation I describe above possible? Or is there a better way?

Any suggestions much appreciated!

Indonesia to offer visa free entry for Australia, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea

TTGAsia has the scoop that “sometime” in 2015, Indonesia is to offer tourist visa free entry for tourists from Australia, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

While there are lots of details still to be announced (and I assume to be negotiated), this is quite a big deal.

“Part of the Ministry of Tourism’s quick-win programmes to boost arrivals to Indonesia and achieve 20 million arrivals by 2019, tourism minister Arief Yahya is expecting 500,000 arrivals from the five target markets alone as a result of the visa-free facility.”

According to Bali Discovery, in 2013, Bali arrivals were around 750,000 Australians, 360,000 Chinese, 190,000 Japanese, 70,000 Russia and 120,000 South Koreans to Bali, so even taking into account that the Bali Discovery numbers are just for Bali, the Tourism Minister is either expecting a boatload of Australians to take advantage of the new conditions, or some pretty staggering increases from some of the other markets.

Regardless of the actual tourism increases, this is a great first step in the right direction for Indonesian tourism.

The key questions are of course, how long will the allowed stay be (currently 30 days for a visa on arrival), will multiple stays be allowed (visa on arrivals can be used back to back) and when will it be expanded to other countries?

The second step should be the creation of a longer-stay tourism visa — ideally in two flavours of 90 days and 180 days. There could each attract a modest fee — say $30 and $50 respectively.

It won’t be until a longer stay tourist visa is available that Indonesia will go anywhere close to sustainably realising the target of 20 million arrivals. The current month visa on arrival allows one to cover the highlights of say Java, Bali and Lombok at a moderate pace, but realistically for tourists to explore other regions — say Sumatra, Sulawesi, Flores or Sumbawa — one or two months simply is not sufficient.

These longer stay travellers will see more tourist rupiah being deposited into the hands of small scale, family-run businesses across the archipelago — rather than short stay tourists padding the bank balance of the development tycoons who are busy paving over South Bali.

This is a great first step.

And of course these new regulations should be 100% reciprocal. Fat chance of that with the current Australian Government.