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'Learn to surf or drown:' Travel blogger Gabby Beckford on pivoting during a pandemic

When Gabby Beckford graduated from college in 2017, she had it in her mind that working a 9-to-5 job was just a temporary means to an end.

Born in a military family, Beckford was used to traveling and living abroad in places like Japan, but it wasn’t until a study abroad experience in Dubai that she expanded her horizons. It was during that year Beckford made a commitment to herself that she was going to travel the world for a living.

“I really never cared what I did, I just knew I wanted to have my own time, have financial freedom and not be in an office every day,” Beckford said, “I need sunlight.”

Gabby Beckford is a Gen Z travel and lifestyle blogger who who specializes in travel tips, writing, and marketing. (Photo courtesy of Gabby Beckford)
Gabby Beckford is a Gen Z travel and lifestyle blogger who who specializes in travel tips, writing, and marketing. (Photo courtesy of Gabby Beckford)

Now 24, Beckford runs Packs Light, a travel blog that chronicles her adventures through 31 countries — and counting — on six continents. She’s also a freelance writer and coaches students on how to win scholarships.

In February, she put three years’ worth of planning into action and quit her job with a plan to move to Bali in March to focus fully on blogging. The pandemic grounded her and her plans and she’s now living at her mom’s house in Virginia.

Cashay caught up with Beckford, who is on her first trip since the pandemic’s arrival. She and her mom drove to an Airbnb in Florida that she describes as “a different world” where “they do not care” about social distancing or wearing face masks.

[Author’s note: Interview has been edited for clarity and length]

You quit your full-time job as an engineer to devote all of your time to blogging and then the pandemic caused stay-at-home orders three days later. Tell me about that.

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Gabby Beckford: Wild timing, right? This was my plan for three years and I saved up five figures from my job as a federal contractor quality engineer to be able to travel the world with financial freedom and not be in an office every day.

I had it in my head for two years that I was going to quit my job on Valentine’s Day 2020. So I put in my two weeks’ notice on the first (of February) and dropped off my security badge on the 14th. The lease on my apartment also ended in February, so I moved my things to my mom’s house.

Then I went to Chicago for the NBA All-Star weekend. I returned to Virginia for two weeks and got my website ready and emailed some pitches. Then I went on a press trip to Savannah, Georgia, and was planning to move to Bali for three months. When I came home from Savannah, everything was on lockdown by the weekend.

I had all these opportunities and then COVID hit and everything was canceled. Then I had to really do a 180 to creating content in quarantine.

Everything I do is about positivity. I say you either learn to surf or drown. So I started pitching myself as how to discover the world from home, how to travel blog from home, and creating mental health content. All that’s helped me stay afloat while in quarantine.

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With tourism and travel down, are people still interested in travel blogs and travel-related content?

GB: It's actually weird how much my traffic has improved since COVID. I pivoted my material to be travel generic like how to start a travel blog or ways to travel from home. I’ve also placed a focus on wellness.

So, yes people are still reading travel blogs. I don't have hundreds of thousands of views every month, but I have probably doubled my traffic during quarantine by switching to travel-adjacent material. People still search questions on Google and find blog posts like mine so it's still kickin’.

What do you think the future of travel blogging will look like?

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GB: I definitely foresee bloggers putting together posts that gather information on what states are taking COVID-19 seriously. People are looking for information where they have stricter social distancing laws, or where laws are being enforced.

For those staying in the travel space, I do think there will be more content on being outdoors and local road trips. Partnerships with rental car companies, RVs, and camping tents. A lot of people are pivoting into the outdoors.

But for me, I'm not satisfied with that. If I only took trips from Fairfax, Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland, I would probably cry myself to sleep because I still aspire to travel internationally or at least to the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.

My future of travel is traveling to different countries and slow travel. I’d like to self-quarantine in other countries to make sure that I don't have anything or that I'm not spreading anything and stay for a month or so. Hopefully testing becomes more widely available.

Where are you looking to go this summer?

GB: I still kind of hope to go to Mexico this summer. I’d like to fly and self-quarantine in a beautiful house and work from there. I just can't give up international travel.

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Bloggers have been criticized by environmentalists who say that flying around the world for a weekend trip isn’t responsible tourism or sustainable. Where do you think that’s headed?

GB: I do see us [bloggers] taking a stand. It’s a waste of time and resources for everyone, including the blogger. It’s not sustainable to fly to the Maldives, only stay for a day, and then sleep on the plane. I see bloggers asking hotel partners to stay for like a month, at cheaper accommodations, of course. Doesn’t have to be at one of the bungalows floating on the water.

I'm not surprised, but countries are not that excited to have Americans travel to their countries because of how we're handling [the pandemic]. I've already seen talks that the EU may not let Americans in and I don't blame them at all. You can't trust us as a country. I mean, we can't trust Florida. Maybe I’ll be stuck in the U.S. doing my little domestic quarantine trips, but I do hope that I’ll be able to travel internationally and just do it really, really cautiously and safely.

For those who have wanderlust and can’t wait to travel this summer, what advice do you have to travel safely?

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GB: If you can, I recommend driving.

If you’re conflicted about flying, know that airlines have been doing a lot to make planes safe like cleaning them. The only thing is you can't trust the person next to you who thinks that wearing a mask is infringing on his rights. Maybe if you're traveling with your family and you're in an entire row by yourself, you'll feel more comfortable. If you’re stuck in the middle seat in the back next to a stranger, maybe you won’t.

Call your hotel and ask what the COVID-19 precautions are and if they start stuttering, then maybe you shouldn’t stay there.

When it comes to selecting a place to go, it just takes going past the first page of Google. That’s what I’ve been calling it: “Get on the third page of Google” travel. You don't have to go to Coachella, while you're in California. Don't follow the crowds. There are so many things, especially in these small destinations that are really fun.

When you think of Florida, you think of Disney, Orlando, Miami, and the beach. But you don't think of places like Cape Coral, where I am now. This quiet community has Sea-Doos, wave runners, and the pool at our Airbnb looks over a lake. You can take canoes or kayaks out and manatee watch, which is a great social distancing activity.

And this is just one small part of Florida. With the United States being four or five times the size of other countries, it's like we have six countries in this country to visit.

This is your time to really explore and discover what these locations have to offer, so I hope people see it more as a challenge has been a setback.

What advice would you give to someone who had their study abroad experience derailed?

(Photo courtesy of Gabby Beckford)
(Photo courtesy of Gabby Beckford)

GB: Studying abroad is still possible! I work with a lot of study abroad companies and they have been having virtual coaching sessions and pre-study abroad sessions, but trips are rescheduled for 2021.

Please don't give up on studying abroad. The experience changed my life. Obviously that's what propelled me to think: “Wow, I could actually live across the world by myself and love it and have a great life.” It really changes people's lives, so don't give up.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. She can be reached at stephanie.asymkos@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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