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History of the Cheapest Destinations Blog

Some of you have been reading this Cheapest Destinations Blog for a long time, but a whole other set of readers land here for the first time after I show up in some search query or another. Google, also known as Big Brother of the Internet, released a major update last month that did something different and rather sinister: it penalized entire sites for having some posts that were deemed “thin content” or “not helpful.” 

terrible Google results helpful content update

Person wondering why such a terrible article is ranking #1 in Google

This naturally led to an angry outcry, some depression, and some people vowing to give up blogging once and for all. Spencer from Niche Pursuits even got the Big G riled up enough to reply to a Tweet he sent out titled, “Google is slowing killing blogging.”

His point was that we used to write what we wanted and write what we thought our audience would deem interesting or useful. We answered a lot of reader questions and concerns (and sometimes amused them) without having to worry about how many keywords and synonyms were in there so that the googlebots would find us and deem the article worthy of sharing in search. Now we have to write based on what the robots will define as useful. What we’re all reading has gotten a lot more dumbed down and a lot less interesting as a result. 

This is not me whining about my personal situation. This site’s traffic is basically at the same point it was in September, as are my others, though I have been knocked down many times before by these algorithm changes. I feel the pain of those who have gotten hit without getting any real guidance on why. Over the years, these algorithm updates have really hurt my Perceptive Travel site, which is mostly long-form, narrative travel stories.

Google may say it’s fine for anyone to publish that material, but they clearly don’t like it or want to feature it in their rankings. When it comes to comparing an in-depth story revolving around a destination and how someone experienced it to a keyword-stuffed “14 things to do in x destination” article, they’re going to pick the latter every time. They’ll push the former to #40 behind 39 similar versions of that listicle, a fair number of those top-ranking articles written by AI tools or writers who don’t travel, cranked out by the thousands by content farms.

So I’m using Duck Duck Go even more these days to get results I actually want to read. Plus they don’t follow me around the internet, tracking my every move.

Others are turning to newsletters, especially the ones out on Substack. Or they’re listening to more podcasts because they can’t find good articles on the subject. 

Or they’re spending more time on message boards like Quora or Reddit. Ironically, one of the biggest traffic jumps from Google’s latest algorithms went to those two players. If we wanted answers from members on there, wouldn’t we just go there directly or put “+ Reddit” in our search queries?

Deleting Old Posts From the Cheapest Destinations Blog

For the past few years I’ve been cleaning up the attic because the Cheapest Destinations Blog launched in 2003. That makes it one of the longest-running travel blogs still standing, maybe the longest-running one written by the same single person. To show how long I’ve been doing this, it was just after the first edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations was released (it’s now in edition number 5), My daughter was 3 years old (she’s now in her early 20s). When I first started blogging, there was no such thing as Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. 

At one point I had more than 1,800 posts in the archives, but a lot of them were out-of-date or objectively useless, so I got rid of them. Others were personal stories that I knew didn’t stuff enough keyword phrases in to please the Big G.

Tim Leffel OG travel blogger Cheapest Destinations

As I pared down more and more, I got to half of that number and now I’m below 800. Most of them that I’m getting rid of now are not terrible or outdated, they’re just too short, relics from the days when a blog post could be a few paragraphs long.

Now we can’t just spout off on a subject or answer a question succinctly. If we do that, the post won’t get ranked in search unless it’s on a big brand site that’s spending lots of ad money and has a high “domain authority.” Our posts from independent bloggers, not e-commerce sites or media empires, have to be deemed “comprehensive” or they wither and die in obscurity. We have to have triple the expertise and double the authority to reach the ad-filled first page of Google at the bottom. 

This is insider info on how search works that you the reader don’t really need to care about unless you’re frustrated by all the high-ranked articles in search that don’t really answer your question. Or they do get to the point you came for eventually, but you have to scroll through 2,000 words to get what you came looking for. Really it’s not the publisher’s fault: they’re just doing what Google has trained them to do. 

Some Relics and a Walk Down Memory Lane

Speaking of such, I’m finally going to get to the point of this post: I’m dumping a bunch of things in here that I’ve recently deleted. The first one is quite relevant because it ties in directly to the history of the Cheapest Destinations Blog. Back in 2011, I won a Gold award from a major travel writers organization for “Best Travel Blog.” That was nice, but what’s interesting looking back is what else I said: 

For the second year in a row I’ve been named one of the top travel blogs by the North American Travel Journalists Association. This one’s judged on writing and usefulness, not just how many people you can persuade to vote for you, so it means something.

Last year I got a silver, this year I got…the GOLD!

Here’s how it played out, in good company:

Category: Travel Blog

Gold: Tim Leffel, Cheapest Destinations Blog

– Silver: Gary Arndt, Everything Everywhere

– Bronze: Jennifer Miner,  The Vacation Gals

And proving that when it rains it pours, Perceptive Travel positively cleaned up. It won a Silver for Best Travel Journalism Site (behind some obscure pub called and three of the individual writers won prizes for stories, including a Gold for me and for Amy Rosen.

To illustrate my point about being one of the last ones standing from the old-school days, Gary stopped blogging and decided to build up a now-successful daily history/education podcast. Years ago, Jennifer and her two partners sold The Vacation Gals to Lesli Peterson, who recently interviewed me on her podcast

Perceptive Travel is still killing it on the awards front each year, even if Google does hate quality travel writing and the site barely makes a profit. I always say we’re like an indie movie studio: the critics love us but we’ll never win at the box office. 

But anyway, that part in italics above was the entire post. That doesn’t fly anymore. 

Quips and Jokes are Gone From Blogs

In the old days, we would comment a lot on news items or just travel industry developments we thought were funny. You can’t really tell a joke on a blog anymore unless it’s one that requires 2,000 words of set-up, so the humor has all moved to social media. 

Here are a few things I thought were funny enough to put on this blog at the time but they’re too short to survive, so I’m reviving them here in case you’ll think they’re amusing or interesting. 

The greatest travel coupon I’ve ever seen

southwest flights

This ran as part of a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. Pure brilliance, back at the time their competitors first started adding sneaky extra fees that have now become a commonplace nightmare.

Underneath what’s pictured above were these sentences:

No 1st or 2nd Checked Bag Fees

No Change Fees

No Fuel Surcharges

No Snack Fees

No Aisle or Window Seat Fees

No Curbside Checkin Fees

No Phone Reservation Fees

Yes, there are plenty of good reasons why Southwest trounces the competition in customer satisfaction surveys, but this ad sums the main one up nicely. I know what I pay for a ticket is the final price and, to borrow their language, they won’t #$*!% me over.

It’s kind of amazing how true all this still is as I post this toward the end of 2023. Everyone else is certainly screwing us over as hard as they can, multiple times per booking. At the time I said, “Now if only they would start flying to Latin America…” My wish was soon partially granted. I have gladly flown Southwest to Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, and Belize. With as much as I wanted to pack, thank you very much. 

Some of those flights were free too after I got a big sign-up bonus from their credit card

No such thing as a staycation

I was hanging out with lots of great writers and editors at a travel writers conference in California. One of the attendees with the best sense of humor who was attending was Spud Hilton, who ran the travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle. (2023 update: US newspapers don’t really have travel sections anymore. Or travel editors.) 

Here’s the auto-response if anyone dared to send him an e-mail that contained the term “staycation”:

This e-mail alert is to let you know that all messages to Chronicle Travel and Travel Editor Spud Hilton that contain the word “staycation” are automatically deleted by the e-mail server.

Please eliminate this word from all future mailings, in part because it was a non-existant trend, and because the idea — not going somewhere and calling it travel — is just stupid.

Thank you,
Chronicle Travel

Quick Rants Don’t Have Keyword Phrases

Sometimes I’d see something that really got on my nerves and I figured I wasn’t the only one, so I’d put it on the blog and let the comments roll in. As I mentioned, we didn’t really have social media channels in the ’00s, at least not ones that resonated with the general public, so we got a lot more comments then. 

This kind of list below always got lots of engagement, before that word became an “influencer” metric. You still see listicles like this today, but they have to be a slideshow or have several paragraphs of explanation under them to rank in search.

Unfortunately, I still see all of these items today:

Here are images of tourists and travelers that I wish I didn’t have to ever see again—but probably will.

1. Fat men in “sculpting” Body Glove sunblock shirts and skimpy Speedo bathing suits

2. White women over 16 years old with braided corn rows and beads in their hair.

3. Men who wear gold chains to the swimming pool

4. Women who wear gobs of makeup (soon to be running) at the beach

5. “Turtle backpackers” with a big backpack on the back, one almost as big on the front. (Yes, I was occasionally guilty of doing that at times before I learned to pack better).

6. People wearing Bluetooth headsets in their ear(s) and talking into the air loudly. (Or wearing them and talking while they’re eating with someone else in a restaurant—even worse.)

7. People who text message while walking (and colliding)

8. Large groups of adults who are not on a sports team wearing matching T-shirts at the airport.

airport waiting

English Nonsense on T-shirts

I love going to markets in foreign cities to see what they’re selling and unless all the clothing is imported used items, there will be lots of funny t-shirts. It always gives me great joy to find the English language used as a mere design element rather than to communicate. In most countries, it is very difficult to find a t-shirt in the local language. Almost everyone, it seems, thinks it’s better to have a message in English, even if they can’t understand what it says.

Sometimes it’s clear nobody knows what it says, or they wouldn’t be wearing it around. Like this one here that I found in a storefront in Sofia, Bulgaria. I walked for miles in that city looking for something in the mysterious Cyrillic alphabet the first time I visited, but the only thing I could find was ugly tourist shirts just spelling out “Bulgaria” or with the original alphabet scrawled out by the founder. Neither was something any local would wear. Instead you get boob references.

The second one to the left here is much like a few I have bought over the years in Korea, Thailand, and Peru. Complete gibberish meant to look like a cool message. Really though, just a bunch of random phrases slapped together. If you can’t read the text, here’s what it says:

Old Fashioned Root Beer Floats
Catfish Power
NewYork City
Sports Wear

Well okay then! On occasion in the past I’ve bought one of these and worn it out somewhere, but then I was always wondering what random strangers thought. They probably didn’t get that it was an ironic fashion statement and they just thought I was a complete idiot, so now I mostly just wear them around the house where there are few enough people to explain where I got it. 

A lot of these gibberish clothing items are manufactured in Asia, often designed by people who have no working knowledge of the language they are using. The words are just a design element after they snagged a photo and used some kind of background remover. funny photo from Vietnam

We saw a dozen hilarious shirts in the riverside night market of Hue, Vietnam when I was on vacation with my family, one having the word “pimple” repeated about 50 times and another with a cat pictured but the words saying, “Time file so fast in busy daily life.” This one to the right shows up the best as a photo though.

I believe she needs to quit her job and go to Hawaii. Or something like that.

Have you checked out the market stalls in Vietnam? It can be a worthwhile excursion if you could use a laugh, so don’t pass up the t-shirt section.

This related article I’m linking to is too short to rank in search anymore, but I’m leaving it up because I hope it will make your day: Funny Photos From Bangkok

One last note on humor: you can’t be clever in titles either anymore unless you’re aiming for clickbait that will do well on social media, not something that ticks off the right SEO boxes. This Cheapest Destinations Blog headline from 12 years ago won’t cut it these days if you’re talking about comparing your risk of dying between traveling in the USA and traveling south of the border: 

“8.2 Million Tourists’ Heads Still Attached After Visiting Mexico”

Please go old-school and leave a comment! 


Monday 20th of November 2023

Surely there's a whole market for search engines that don't use the vanilla algorithms of Google ... maybe even a search engine that allows us to customise the algorithms used. Otherwise we're looking at the death of democracy on the internet!

Tim Leffel

Monday 20th of November 2023

I'd love to see that, but it's very expensive and resource-intensive to maintain a search engine, which is why we really only have two backbones to all of them (Google's and Microsoft's). Three if count Amazon but that only applies to their own site and YouTube search is really part of Google.


Friday 17th of November 2023

Your recounting of the evolution of the blog, from its humble beginnings to becoming a go-to resource for budget-savvy travelers, is inspiring.


Thursday 16th of November 2023

Funny yet sad. I find myself reading less and less travel blogs. Most are just listicles and sentences that make no sense because they are being weren’t written for google.

What’s interesting is that on financial blogs I don’t find the same dumbed down for google sentences.


Thursday 16th of November 2023

No truer words have been spoken. Very well said. I'm still going to read all the snark I can find. It's one of the things that set Anthony Bourdain apart and made him so well-loved. I can only hope the big G will release its grip on having a personality in writing. It's interesting — they don't want robotic writing, but they take away all the character in our human writing. On another note, we used to have the best T-shirt awards in Penang to whoever could find the worst. I had a shirt with an apple on it that read, "You're pomantic. Mouth spreads." I won that year.

Tim Leffel

Monday 20th of November 2023

What a great t-shirt find! Thanks for the feedback.


Thursday 16th of November 2023

Someday over the rainbow, the blue birds will gather like a flock and sing happily on the other side of the rainbow, I am sure that People with the same mentality will be united in communities, surely that will be how it is outside of the internet!! keep on rolling and thank you