As I approach my eighth year of travel blogging, I finally feel like I’ve really got the hang of this thing. In the past few years, I moved out of the early growth, frustrating phase of trying to figure out how to get traffic into the intermediate stage of trying to earn money from the traffic I’ve got. It’s been a challenge, to be sure, but also an exciting opportunity – figuring out what makes sense for me to promote that my readers also want to buy.
Like many travel bloggers, I signed up for everything originally and promoted willy-nilly… Sometimes I promoted things I had never bought or done; other times I missed affiliate opportunities because I didn’t know I could be earning through those links.
To that end, I’ve done a ton of work testing and optimizing my affiliate marketing strategy for my travel blog over the past year. I’ve figured out what I consider to be the best affiliate programs for travel bloggers, and I’ve done my best to maximize how much I earn from them.
In this post, you’ll read about what I consider to be the most essential affiliate programs for travel bloggers like us. I put them in order that I earn from them (from most to least), with the exception of Amazon which I put last because I don’t love the program but I still consider it essential. I also included the average percentage of my affiliate income that I earn from each one so you can see how it breaks down for my blog. (You can always learn more in my monthly recaps too!)
Whether you’re looking to get started in affiliate marketing on your travel blog or looking to find new programs and increase your earnings, read on.
Note that as of April 1, 2021, the Airbnb Associates program is no longer operating. This was a huge blow!
Different Types of Affiliate Programs
Before jumping into what I consider to be the best affiliate programs for travel bloggers, I want to define a few terms. The different types of affiliate programs and websites can be super confusing. Here are four types I mention in this post:
- Affiliate Networks – The most common type of affiliate website, where you can find a bunch of affiliate programs and apply for each separately.
- Affiliate Aggregators – A special type of network that aggregates a bunch of programs into one place and pools together all of the publishers into a pool so that everyone qualifies for every program.
- Direct Affiliate Programs – Affiliate programs directly with the company, rather than through a third-party network.
- Affiliate Hosting Programs – Websites that host direct affiliate programs if they aren’t hosted on the company website itself.
Unfortunately, to have a successful affiliate marketing strategy, you’ll probably be in a bunch of programs in all four different types. Just like everything in travel blogging, it’s important to diversify! Work to find your own mix of affiliates and sites to help earn an income.
1. Airbnb Associates
- Percentage of my affiliate earnings: 43% in the last two months
- Signup: airbnb.com/associates
For a long time, Airbnb didn’t have an affiliate program that everyone could join. You had to have a certain amount of traffic and get invited to their old program on Impact (an affiliate program management network). I never met the threshold, so like many creators, I earned from Airbnb in two ways: through my referral link and Skimlinks.
I was happy with Skimlinks because I was earning quite a lot. It was annoying when Airbnb said they’d be switching to their own program in mid-August 2020. But once I made the switch, my earnings jumped even higher, and Airbnb has quickly become my top-earning affiliate network!
The platform is a little confusing to get used to, but once you master it, I think it has the potential to be powerful for all travel bloggers who can authentically promote staying in Airbnbs (which I do!)
- Percentage of my affiliate earnings: 65% over the last year
- Signup: shareasale.com
ShareASale is an affiilate network, meaning you sign up and can join a bunch of programs through their portal. I was on the fence about ShareASale originally, but it’s the only network where I could join the Tieks affiliate program. That’s one of my biggest affiliate relationships and top-earning merchants!
ShareASale also has the hands-down best interface of any affiliate network. They make it easy to track clicks and conversions, see when you’ll be paid, keep up on merchant newsletters, and more.
Click here to signup for ShareASale.
- Percentage of my affiliate earnings: 14% when Airbnb was part of Skimlinks
- Signup: skimlinks.com
Many people might call Skimlinks an affiliate network like ShareASale. I prefer to call it an affiliate aggregator, which is slightly different. When you join Skimlinks, you’re automatically approved for every program they have. This is unlike ShareASale or other networks where you must apply for and be accepted into each merchant’s program separately.
There are two ways to use Skimlinks on your site:
- Their link-builder allows you to create unique links for any product that has a program in Skimlinks.
- Percentage of my affiliate earnings: 6% over the last year
- Signup: booking.com/affiliate-program/v2/index.html
Booking.com is my favorite hotel affiliate program; while other people might prefer Hotels.com (through CJ), HotelsCombined (which pays per click rather than per sale), or Agoda (good if you write a lot about Asian destinations), Booking.com has been really powerful for my blog.
The main thing to know about Booking.com compared to other hotel affiliate programs is that it’s a 25% commission – with no cookies. This means if the person makes a booking from your link right then, you earn 25%! (If they book later, you earn nothing.) This can be incredibly powerful if you can figure out the right intent and messaging to get people booking rather than browsing from your blog posts.
Booking.com also offers a standard affiliate program through other affiliate networks (I think they give either 4% or 6% through CJ) but their direct affiliate program is the most powerful by far.
(If you browse my site, you’ll see I always promote Booking.com with their direct programs and Hotels.com through Skimlinks. I’ve found this is the best way to give people options and try to maximize commission percentages.)
- Percentage of my affiliate earnings: 1% over the past year
- Signup: avantlink.com
If you write about outdoor or adventure travel in any way, AvantLink is a must-sign-up-for affiliate network for you!
I’m not a hugely outdoorsy blogger, but REI is such a powerful brand in that space – it’s like the Amazon of outdoor retailers! REI is also the only way you can affiliatize selling the America the Beautiful Pass for the national parks, which is really helpful if write about National Parks as I do.
AvantLink, like other networks, has a lot of other outdoors merchants too, including Backcountry.com and Patagonia. Basically, if you write about hiking, camping, or other outdoor adventures while traveling, it’s a good network to join.
6. World Nomads
- Percentage of my affiliate earnings: <1% over the past year
- Signup: partner.worldnomads.com
There are a lot of travel insurance providers out there, but my preferred affiliate program is for World Nomads. Their direct affiliate program lets you earn 10% of every policy you sell. This is especially handy in these pandemic and post-pandemic times, where more people are seeing the value of travel insurance (even if it doesn’t cover you getting sick with COVID).
I don’t earn a ton through World Nomads, but I also don’t push travel insurance very much on my blog. (It’s something I rarely purchase myself.)
7. Amazon Associates
- Percentage of my affiliate earnings: 7% over the past year
- Signup: affiliate-program.amazon.com
It kind of sucks, but it’s impossible to mention affiliate marketing on the internet without including Amazon’s affiliate program on the list. Amazon is notorious for treating its customers, employees, and affiliates poorly, and they keep cutting commissions to reduce our earnings.
So why use Amazon links at all? Because that’s still where you can find the largest number of products you might want to recommend. If you, like me, write packing lists, it only makes sense to provide the links for the products I myself buy and recommend my readers do too.
The best way to maximize Amazon earnings is by including those links wherever it makes sense – and also offering an alternative to either the company’s affiliate program on another network or through Skimlinks. (You can see an example of how I do this on my Hawaii packing list.)
Others Affiliate Programs
You might be wondering about some of the other more well-known affiliate programs that a lot of travel bloggers use. While I don’t consider them essential, it’s worth mentioning a few of them.
FlexOffers, Rakuten, Refersion & Impact
Finally, I use (and earn) four other affiliate networks I wanted to mention here.
- FlexOffers – FlexOffers is another affiliate network that might be worth joining if you see any merchants there you want to promote. I’ve found several merchants that also sell through Amazon and this allows me to add two links (one through the FlexOffers program and one through Amazon) to give my customers options when buying. (I earn more too because the commissions are always higher on FlexOffers!)
- Rakuten Linkshare – Rakuten is another big affiliate network; I don’t find as many travel merchants on here though. The main one I am a member of is Princess Cruises – the only major cruise company with an affiliate network.
- Refersion and Impact – Refersion and Impact are two affiliate program hosting options you might sign up for, depending on the merchant. Companies can create their own direct affiliate programs through Refersion or Impact, so you can join each one individually to promote that specific merchant.
What About CJ?
You might notice a glaring omission from my list: CJ (formerly Commission Junction). I used CJ for many years and would have considered it one of the essential affiliate programs for travel bloggers. But, I recently migrated everything off of CJ in favor of the other networks and merchant programs I’ve mentioned above.
Why stop using CJ? I had several reasons:
- I found their interface exceptionally cumbersome and confusing, especially their reporting.
- Payouts and communication around payouts was terrible. I never felt like I knew when I was going to be paid or what I had actually earned.
- In many cases, I found equivalent or better commission rates through other networks.
- My commission and conversion rates were so low through CJ that in some cases, I could switch to Skimlinks and their higher rates (for both commissions and conversions) would earn more even giving up 25% to Skimlinks!
This was my personal experience, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year comparing affiliate programs. In the end, CJ wasn’t worth it for my readers (they weren’t clicking/buying) or me (I wasn’t earning).
What About Tour Company Affiliates?
I see a lot of travel bloggers promoting tours on their blogs, and some people report earning a lot from them. Personally though, I feel weird promoting tours I’ve never been on – and I rarely do tours when I do travel. Sticking in a widget for a bunch of tours I haven’t done (and wouldn’t ever do) feels weird and inauthentic to me, so I don’t have any tour merchant programs I’m part of.
Actually, the one tour company I do promote is Airbnb Experiences, which is part of the Airbnb Associates program now. So I’ve been fortunate that Airbnb rolled out that new program, and will be recommending even more Experiences in the future.