Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on March 27, 2023.
Currently travel affiliate programs are our second highest income stream, just behind CPM advertising with our private ad network Mediavine.
We make roughly $23,500 per year 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 paying 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 best affiliate programs that work for us, and our attempt to highlight why that is.
1. Hotel Affiliates
When it comes to testing affiliate programs, we've spent the most amount of time working on our hotel affiliates. There is good reason for this- hotels make us a ton of money!
But not all affiliate programs are created equally. There are direct programs, like direct programs on Hilton and Marriott (via Rakuten and Partnerize, respectively), 3rd party platforms like Booking.com, curated networks like Stay22, and some even pay on leads (like HotelsCombined or TripAdvisor). There are even 3rd parties that feature apartment rentals too, like VRBO (Airbnb's program has sadly closed).
For programs that pay commission on sale price, you can generally expect 3-10% of the booking rate paid out to you, with about 5% being a common average. Lead programs, on the other hand, may pay out pennies all the way to a dollar or two per lead, pending the context.
Some bloggers are firmly in the commission camp, while others are in the lead camp regarding what works best for them. For us, we found that the commission camp is the way to go, and we've learned a few things along the way that we can share.
First off, when it comes to branded properties like Hilton and Marriott, virtually no one seems to book on 3rd parties like Booking.com. As we are premier members of both Hilton and Marriott, we can understand why- you do not get points or status when going 3rd party. So for these properties, we always stick with the direct program for the best success. Of course, if someone clicks a Hilton link and then ends up booking Marriott you lose the sale completely, but our conversion rate is strong enough that we accept that risk either way.
- Sadly, Hilton's program on Rakuten never converted for me, and despite me asking for help, the reps at Rakuten were functionally useless and would say that I simply wasn't making sales on their end. I switched all of these links back to a 3rd party and my sales shot up considerably (I know it would be higher if I was in the direct program, but, alas, some bookings are better than almost zero).
From there, when we are promoting non-corporate properties or general “click here to book a room” style links, we always use links via Expedia and Hotels.com from Stay22. While we made good money on leads from non-bookings, we simply found that we had enough volume of sales to make 3rd parties work. As such, you may want to A/B test these and see what works best for you. If you make sales via targeted posts in the USA, Expedia or Hotels may be the way to go. Otherwise if you're just throwing things out into the ether, lead services may be your best option. (If you use a service like Pretty Links Pro you can create masked redirect links that can be swapped out globally in a custom dashboard along with A/B testing!)
- Stay22 also offers a novel pop-up tool to open 3rd party pages via a script. This has increased my bookings by 5x!
- On our travel site, we often finish our articles with a “Looking for a room in [city]? Click here to book!” style promotion either linking to a specific hotel or a city landing page. On our local blog, we use Ad Inserter Pro to insert a recommended hotel list at the end of every article (like a reusable block).
Finally, we offer one last pitch for hotel bookings via custom Stay22 maps on our travel blog. This gives one last look at real-time pricing before readers leave our site to try and snag one final sale. However, as these are destination-oriented, we insert them via Ad Inserter Pro via custom category tags (by country) showing hotels in the biggest city (e.g. Paris in France). Our sales on this one are somewhat low, but we do get a few a month as a final conversion.
Generally speaking, what we've found with hotels is that focused hotel recommendations often convert far better than simple “click here” prompts. So, in an Easter Island post, we may tailor our text to be “Check out [hotel name] where we stayed” or in our Pittsburgh site listing out our five favorite hotels. But, as always, testing matters when it comes to hotel conversions as we do tend to feature both!
Average earnings: $12,500 per year.
2. Omio and Eurail
Much like how we make the most amount of money on hotels with very focused recommendations (e.g. “check out [hotel name] where we stayed” or dedicated reviews), we do the same when it comes to Eurail passes and train tickets via 3rd parties like Omio (like our article about train tickets in Spain on RENFE).
In the Eurail articles, it is because we are making a focused recommendation on when and where to buy train passes. In the Spain train tickets article, it is because booking on the national train service is terrible, so going 3rd party is way easier.
Much like with our hotel prompts, in our Europe articles we also feature a custom footer section, inserted via Ad Inserter Pro via continent tag, which gives one final reminder that users can book their train tickets via our links. Once again, this one does not convert terribly well but is all about pushing that last-minute sale option all the same.
Average earnings: $3,500 per year.
3. Walks of Italy/Take Walks on Tapfiliate
Walks of Italy is an affiliate program we just found about recently, despite writing reviews of their walking tours almost a decade 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. This works because we are providing valuable content from those actively looking to buy that specific product and simply act as intermediaries to help convert the sale.
Would these customers have bought with Walks of Italy anyway? Maybe. Would they have bought the same tour we reviewed? Maybe. Does it matter to us which tour they buy? Not at all as long as it is with our link, and we'll take whatever we can get for those $10-$10 commissions!
So if you've taken any tours with specific companies, check out to see if they offer an affiliate program as it could be a quick win in generating some revenue.
Sign up for Walks of Italy's affiliate program here.
Average earnings: $3,000 per year.
4. G Adventures / Intrepid Travel
For the longest time, we struggled with selling multi-day guided tours. It just never happened. We tried custom ads in the footer of our site, but much like our hotel bookings a “click here to book a guided tour” did not work that well.
We noticed an uptick when we added in links to specific tours in hard-to-travel destinations in our footer, and increased our promotion of our dedicated review articles for G Adventures (a company we've personally used) which ranks fairly well in Google. As such, we're hoping to take more guided tours in the future in order to promote direct tours better- just like what we do with our day trips from above!
Average earnings: $2,000 per year.
5. Amazon Affiliates
It doesn't take long before Amazon appears on a list like this, and there is a 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 or Sony A7RIII) as lower-priced items almost always have commissions under a dollar.
These small sales add up over time, but nothing beats selling a $2,000 camera or $150 pair of KEEN shoes and getting $5-$30 commissions, that's for sure.
Average earnings: $1,500 per year.
6. Skyscanner / Airfarewatchdog
Airline affiliates are, to be honest, terrible. Services like Skyscanner and Airfarewatchdog typically only pay per lead, which means that you may be fighting for $0.25 at a time. As such, you really need volume here to make any sort of appreciable income from these services.
For us, despite having volume in terms of traffic, we've never quite got these to convert as well as they should. We have tested promotions via sidebar ads, footer placements, and custom “search for a flight deal” to name a few.
The bulk of our conversions appear to come from posts where we do spending roundups in a destination or articles on “how to get to” a hard-to-reach spot. As such, searching for flight pricing is a natural extension and we get more engagement when recommending links in these particular articles.
Could we convert more by adding this generically across all posts? Well, we tried this in the past with AdInserter Pro and did not have the best of luck. That being said, there is still potential with these if you can be strategic!
Average earnings: $500 per year.
Much like with airfare, we quickly learned that “book here” prompts barely work with travel insurance. While we still retain these prompts for periodic clicks (as we get a ton), we've really found that focused recommendations in specific articles, as well as our dedicated review, convert the best.
Going to an adventure destination? You need insurance. Visiting somewhere people get sick from drinking the water? You need insurance. Going on an obscure flight and may miss your connection? Definitely want to consider insurance. If you are reading our getting robbed post and are worried? We're going to talk about insurance.
Much like other aspects of affiliate marketing, there needs to be a motivator to sell a product and with insurance, the above cases are where we make our pitch and convert more than general pitches.
Average earnings: $500 per year.
- Note: World Nomads has recently switched to a cost-per-lead mechanism which may impact our earnings (likely negatively). As such, if you have a preferred insurance that offers an affiliate system on total sale volume, you may want to look into this instead.
Volume vs Focused Recommendations
If you noticed a recurring trend in this article, it is that focused recommendations on our sites always perform much better than generic “click here to book” recommendations. To put it simply, content-oriented to people looking to buy now will always convert better than general advice articles for people who are planning and may shop later. Cookies, unfortunately, don't last forever and some may only be for that particular session.
As such, your best luck with all travel products is to simply create content tailored to those who are wanting to buy right now, like reviews. From there, we use our end of post and footer prompts to provide a last-minute recommendation to try and convert on the volume of traffic our sites get as a whole. In these cases, if you find your links may not convert at all but still receive clicks, it could be an indicator that your audience simply is not wanting to buy (and maybe testing a pay-per-lead service could be a good idea). Otherwise, you may also just need more traffic to get the volume of clicks up overall.
That being said, every site is different, and the only way you can find out what works for you is via robust testing. Hopefully this article will have given you a few ideas on where to start!
So what is our next goal? To reach $100,000 per year affiliate income!
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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