There are a lot of bloggers out there traveling full-time and filling your Instagram feed with gorgeous destination photos. But there are very few who have actually cracked the code and figured out how to make money. Alyssa Ramos is one of them. This 29-year-old is the definition of a digital nomad: A solo adventure traveler and entrepreneur, she travels full-time, runs the site My Life’s a Movie and has racked up over 125,000 followers on Instagram.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Until three years ago, Ramos was struggling to make ends meet. “I always thought I would be too poor to ever travel anywhere,” says the 29-year-old, who was raised by a single mom with four children and started working as a waitress when she was about 14.
We got Ramos to tell us the secret formula that has taken her this far.
Laura Begley Bloom: Tell me about your career trajectory.
Alyssa Ramos: I’m a Cuban-American from Florida who transplanted to LA. for five years before I became a full-time traveler, which has been my life for the past 14 months. I’m very proud to say that I am now making more income from than any other job I’ve had in my life as a full-time travel blogger and social media influencer (or in technical terms, a content creator, destination marketer and product promoter).
Begley Bloom: How you decide to do this?
Ramos: To be completely honest, when I first came to L.A., all I wanted to do was NOT work in an office. My solution was to figure out how to work for people from a laptop, which I mostly did via Craigslist or freelancer websites (and I admit: I would often Google how to do the job skills that the postings asked for). Long story short, some of those job skills included blogging, social media management and publicity for other people and companies. But it was a good friend (and former literary agent) who said to me, “Why are you working so hard for other people who barely pay you enough to make rent? You have an interesting life and you write well, you should start a blog. We get a lot of requests for bloggers these days.” So I did. It didn’t turn into a travel blog until I traveled solo internationally for the first time ever — just a mere three years ago — but after that trip, I knew that all I wanted to do was write about travel.
Begley Bloom: What you were doing before this?
Ramos: I have quite the kaleidoscope of a resume. After working as a waitress through high school and college, my career goal was to be a veterinarian. But after six months as a veterinary technician, I got frustrated working in an office — and by the fact that hardly anyone could (or would) afford pet care. I quit and decided I wanted to be a charity event planner to help raise money for animals instead. I got noticed by a young CEO in Palm Beach who wanted the same philanthropic recognition I was getting, and magically was asked if he could hire me with a $35k salary to be his corporate philanthropy and event planner. Initially this was a dream job, but again, I couldn’t work in an office for a set number of hours and for someone else.
After leaving that job, I also left Florida for what was supposed to be the weekend and ended up spending five years in L.A. My first job (from Craigslist) was as an unpaid journalist for a semi-popular online magazine. It offered free room and board in an artists’ house instead of payment. I learned the ins and outs of journalism under a tyrant of an editor in chief (it was literally like a bootcamp). After that, I just started taking any freelance online job I could get, including content writing, blogging, social media consulting and management, as well as working as a publicist for C-level celebrities. I kept working insane amounts of freelance jobs while working on my blog and social until my brand was big enough to make money. I’ll admit that I stopped working my paid gigs too soon and literally hit rock bottom last year, and was forced to decide to pay another month’s rent or become “homeless” and travel. I chose to travel.
Begley Bloom: How did you fund your initial travels if you were broke?
Ramos: I saved every penny that I made from my freelance jobs that didn’t go toward rent and food in order to fund my very first trip abroad. It was a charity trip, so it wasn’t too expensive, but I did end up having to come home early because I ran out of money. After that, I kept saving, but it was nowhere near enough, so I started working just as much on my blog and social media so that I could attempt to pitch hotels to let me come stay there to write about them. This is when the whole blogging/influencer thing wasn’t big yet, so I had to be really convincing, which I was pretty good at. I also did a really good job at providing the content they were looking for, so I’d use that and their recommendation to pitch the next place.
One time I got really lucky was when a travel magazine I was content writing for mentioned they wanted to go to Cuba but couldn’t get a visa (before the embargo lifted). Since I’m third-generation Cuban with family still there, I offered to take them (a.k.a. so they would take me) on my family visit visa, which they did. And they paid me for the article!
The day my grandpa died two years ago, I also went viral on Huffington Post with a story called “Yes, I’m Pretty and I’m Traveling Alone,” which led to an insane increase in my following, as well as TV news stations, producers and media outlets wanting to know more about me and my story. It was a really hard time for me, though, because this was happening as I was literally sitting on my grandpa’s death bed, feeling painfully sad (my grandpa was my only father figure). And it was overwhelming: My article was highly controversial and I worried it was going to ruin my career.
Aside from the freelance work and content creation gigs, I rented out my apartment on Airbnb. I was able to get a one-bedroom apartment because my grandfather left me a small amount of money that I could use however I wanted. I thought by getting the apartment, I could make money from renting it out while I traveled. But I put too many eggs in my Airbnb basket and ended up having to force myself to travel — as in I had to go camping, mostly not by choice, so I could rent my place out. This taught me to travel on an extreme budget and use anything I could to create content.
Begley Bloom: You once said that instead of paying rent, you were paying to roam around the world.
Ramos: Yes — it’s so true. The amount I pay on hotels and Airbnb rentals abroad is equal or less than what I was paying to live in West Hollywood. That was my justification those first few months I went abroad and kept booking flights to the next country rather than back home. By the way, a lot of people think traveling is so expensive, but you’d be amazed by how cheap nice accommodation can be.
Begley Bloom: There are so many other travel bloggers and Instagrammers out there. What’s your key to your success?
Ramos: My key to success was forming a recognizable brand, creating the best content in my niche, going all-in with how hard I worked on it and portraying travel in a way that made it relatable and do-able. Most of my audience knows that I travel solo and I started from the bottom up. They know I don’t have rich parents, I don’t have a rich boyfriend or anyone taking my photos and that I figured out a way to travel the world on my own dime, which shows anyone can do this on their own, without someone helping them. I guess I also take pretty good photos (most of which, do not show my face).
There’s also the teensy fact that since this whole career wasn’t a big thing when I started, I had to formulate on my own how to make it work. That means I’m really good at the business aspect of being a blogger/Instagrammer and am extremely committed to making all of my campaigns as successful as possible, which leads to more projects.
Begley Bloom: How do you make money now?
Ramos: As a blogger/influencer, I am a photographer, model, writer, videographer, editor, personality and creative director, plus I come with the large target audience that certain brands are looking for, and I’m typically always in a really awesome location for shooting photos and videos. Most importantly, I have influence with my audience, because they respect and trust my recommendations, which is what makes me valuable to brands. Therefore I get paid by destinations (tourism boards), hotels, tours, products and other related companies to create content and post it to my audience, who are likely to purchase it or at least follow their accounts on social media.
This year I also opened up Group Trips (which I call “#mylifesatravelTRIBE”) for my followers to come travel with me, and so far I’ve successfully done one in Iceland. I did another in Indonesia with a fellow blogger that was an extension of a Blogger Bootcamp. The next will be my biggest challenge yet: a group trip to Antarctica.
Begley Bloom: How do you give back?
Ramos: I’m very big into charity, which stems from my mom being a foster parent (my older brother and sister are adopted). And I do as much charity work as I can while traveling and through my organization called HeartSleeves.org. Recently I was the ambassador of a three-week, five-country charity road trip rally through Africa, where I helped fit and deliver over 2,000 pairs of “the Shoe that Grows” to children in need.
Begley Bloom: What’s your advice to other women who want to do something like this?
Ramos: My advice is that if this is your true passion, and if you’re willing to work your ass off for it, do it. We are in a time where social media marketing is a highly valuable industry, and if you can do it right, you too can get paid to travel the world.
I’ve also started offering a free course , which I call “The Wanderlust Workers: Travel Savings and Makings Program” for people with existing jobs who want to learn how to save better and add freelance jobs to supplement their income and save to travel.
Begley Bloom: What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?
I’m pretty bad at listening to other people, and again, when I first started this, I didn’t have too many supporters, but there are a couple that always stand out:
“So go.” —My mom’s response when I finally admitted how badly I wanted to travel on my own to volunteer in South Africa but was worried about going alone and not having enough money.
“That’s the thing you do that I love the most, travel.” —Last words of my grandpa (after a lifetime of asking me when I was going to get married and give him grandkids).
“There’s going to be a lot of people trying to do what you’re doing. That’s how it was for me when travel writing first became a thing. But just keep doing what you’re doing, because you’re doing a really good job at it.” —Patricia Schultz, author of 1000 Places to See Before You Die (and my personal idol).
Begley Bloom: Worst advice?
Ramos: “Don’t go to ______.” I’ve had so many of these before going to so many countries, and I always ended up loving the country so much. Some include India, Egypt and Jordan.
Begley Bloom: Have you had any challenges along the way? How did you solve them?
Ramos: The entire way has been a challenge. From the very beginning where I had no idea what I was doing and having no money to accelerate my dream, to constant competition and the never-ending annoyingness of growth hackers. Oh, and let’s not forget the endless questions — including people asking how I’m able to afford travel — to people picking on the way I look. To solve anything, I have just worked twice as hard to prevail, kept my eyes forward and refused to let anyone else get to me. I remind myself that I have to be my biggest fan and supporter and that it’s up to me to be as successful as I want to be.
Begley Bloom: What is it like to travel solo full-time?
One of the reasons why I traveled solo initially was because my boyfriend didn’t want to go with me and told me if I went without him he’d break up with me. So I went and we broke up. Later, I started dating another guy who also had a travel-job, thinking we would travel together, but he would never make travel plans with me, so I continued traveling alone for over a year while still dating him (yet never traveling with him). The thing I miss the most while traveling full-time is my dog. (He lives with my mom now).
Begley Bloom: Talk about your slogan “Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do.” How can other people use this advice?
Ramos: The slogan “Dreams don’t work unless you do” has basically been my life mantra since I was young, stemming from the early idea that I never wanted to ever have to rely on anyone for money, especially seeing how hard my mom struggled to support four kids on a $30k salary.
I was, and still am, the type of person who would rather spend hours Googling something rather than ask someone for help, because to me, I’d rather learn than to just expect someone to give me answers. I knew I was the only person in control of whether my crazy idea to travel for a living would become a reality or not. And I knew that my dream wouldn’t work unless I worked my ass off to do it.
So this is the advice I give to others. You can’t depend on other people to make your dreams happen. No one will ever work as hard for your goals as you will. And if you don’t, they won’t happen. There will be days when you’re exhausted, when you dread the tedious email pitches you have to send out, or the early mornings you need to go get sunrise photos. If you don’t put in the work, your dreams won’t work either.