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Through the Shopping-Glass: the Unreality of Instagram #Wanderlust

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? On social media, it turns out it's both. Instagram travel accounts are a big deal these days, the top accounts boasting hundreds of thousands — sometimes millions — of followers apiece. Beautiful people travel to beautiful places in beautiful clothes and take beautiful pictures, all in the name of #adventure. How nice. But how do they do it? Much has been said of how much top travel influencers are paid for sponsored posts (it depends on follower count, but up to £20,000 per post, if you were wondering), but how much would their lifestyles cost?

‘Instagrammability’ is reportedly now the most important factor behind millennial travel, which is upsetting. But it gets worse. It turns out that what constitutes ‘Instagrammable’ isn’t even attainable to the average narcissist. Breaking down the logistics of top Instagram travel accounts brings up some eye-watering numbers, and sheds light on remarkable modern trends in 21st century travel. Before your fear of missing out gets too worked up, it’s worth noting that a lot of the adventure inspiring it is a showroom for the products and services you thought you’d escaped with AdBlock.

A month of Instagram travel

We wanted to put the relatability of Instagram travel accounts to the test, so we chose five top Instagram travel accounts, ranging from 200,000 followers to 2.8 million, isolated one-month stretches of their feed, and broke down how much it would cost to do what they do during that time. Resorts, hotels, flights, fashion brands, adventure activities, and camera equipment all factored in, and those were just the staples. Conveniently, most of the info we needed was tagged. Wherever a brand or service wasn’t apparent, we scrimped. The cheapest flights, modest lunches, all that jazz. The real figures could well be in excess of our estimates. It’s all a bit of a rabbit hole.

The top account we looked at was Jack Morris (@doyoutravel). He and his girlfriend, Lauren Bullen (@gypsea_lust), travel the world together, boast over 4.5 million followers between them, and earn six-figure salaries by promoting various brands on their photo feeds. Result. But how much money goes into making those photo feeds possible? We had a crack at working it out.

So that you have a clear idea of how we approached this, we’ll walk through the process of costing a couple of pictures.

A post shared by JACK MORRIS (@doyoutravel) on

Flight from previous location (Morocco) $585
8-day Land Rover Adventure Tour $7,400
Travel insurance for the duration of the trip $79
Inoculations for Diptheria, Hepititis A, Tetanus, and Typhoid $115
Total $8,179

That's saying nothing of photography equipment, which is an essential investment for most top Instagram travel accounts. Morris and Bullen do (practically) all of their own snaps, but many travel influencers need to be shadowed by their own photographer. Anyway, we digress. From there we go to the next post:

A post shared by JACK MORRIS (@doyoutravel) on

Flight from Namibia to Belgium $469
2 nights at the De Witte lelie hotel $609
Tiffany CT60 watch $5,100
Meal deal $4
Total $6,182

And so on. By piecing the posts together we can build an itinerary. Factor in overarching costs like camera equipment, image editing software, photography presets, and meals, and you get an idea of how we put this together. We ordered posts as best we could (the chronology of events isn’t always clear) and discarded throwback posts out of step with the flow of travel. Still, it bears mentioning that we set out to cost the fantasy of Instagram feeds as much as the logistics.

It costs a lot. Between flights, hotels, resorts, adventure holidays, clothing, jewelry, photo filter packs, and photography equipment, it would cost around $58,000 to do what Morris did in four posts in October and November last year. Between a Moroccan luxury resort, the above Land Rover road trip, and a Tiffany and Co adventure from Belgium to Mauritius, you might have to save up for a while to get your bucket list ticked off.

That said, @doyoutravel is one of the big dogs. For a more representative figure it’s worth looking a little lower, so we did. To live the dream of one of the more modest accounts (think 400,000 followers) for one month you would only have to spend half your annual salary. The four other influencers we looked at all clocked in with somewhere between $9,000 and $14,000 worth of travel and merch in a month. Images like this are in abundance:

We don’t know about you, but when exploring a new city there’s nothing we love more than lying down on the sidewalk and flaunting our $240 jeans and $225 shoes. Or if that's a bit modest for your tastes, there’s always this convenient getaway:

Do you believe in magic? We do. Two nights of enchantment would only set you back $1,080. And flights of course. And visas. And travel insurance. And a photographer.

The dominant expense varies from account to account, but the formula holds true: cameras, clothes, lodgings, and adventure. Standard fare for most holidays, but not quite like this. I don’t know many people who can afford to fork out $2,200 for four days of self-discovery with a ‘Journey Architect’ — photography service included of course. Not a bad rate for a double rainbow, to be fair. And the tagged skirt's only $70.

Some costs would drop off (you wouldn’t buy a $247 photo filter pack every month, although the shame would likely stay with you forever), but it still doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that some of the top travel accounts are made possible by over $100,000 worth of lodging, adventure, and merchandise per year. Magical. It's a dangerous business going out of your door. You step into the road, and if you pay through the nose there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.

The influencer wave

We should be clear that these channels almost certainly aren’t a case of the overprivileged flaunting exorbitant amounts of money, nor are they walking away from the deal with thousands of dollars worth of clothing and jewelry. They’re part of the Instagram travel club. Brands exchange a service (and/or money) for exposure in influencers’ feeds. Influencers tend to be quite transparent about this, but we suspect a lot of partnerships are sidestepped. As things stand, even the Federal Trade Comission doesn't know what to make of Instagram disclosure best practice. Many influencers probably don’t even know how much their lives would cost if they weren’t sponsored and/or paid, but then why would they need to care? They’re riding on the crest of the influencer fantasy.

Influencer marketing is skyrocketing, with an estimated $1.2 billion funnelled into Instagram marketing alone last year. These days most people online are familiar with influencers on social media, but it’s interesting to see how the money is impacting the authenticity of what we see. It’s all starting to get a bit fuzzy. Look closely enough and you’ll start noticing many influencers work with the same agencies, wear the same brands and stay in the same places. In fact, two of the five accounts we looked at (@chelseakaui and @jess.wandering) happened to be signed with the same agency, as was one of their photographers. There’s an entire network of Instagram travel professionals, living the dream and selling it to the huddled masses.

This is all just scratching the surface. According to hashtag tracking site Captiv8, the number of #ad posts tripled last year, and Mediakix conservatively (conservatively!) estimates there will be as much as $10 billion in influencer marketing by 2020. And you have to wonder where this will lead. Surely it’s only a matter of time before agencies start building influencer brands from scratch. Give attractive people a blog, a photographer, and a budget to travel and soon enough they’ll have thousands, potentially millions of trusting followers. Maybe they’ve started already?

Traveling Truman Shows

Instagram recently surpassed 800 million active users, not a bad potential audience for travel boards, hotels, resorts, and clothing labels, but it’s a platform built on stories. A picture of a backpack isn’t going to get people going. But a backpack worn by a free spirit nomad wandering the world? Now you’re talking.

It’s an odd dynamic. There’s a class of people travelling the world, unquestionably having a wonderful time, but the fantasy of what they’re doing is exactly what sustains it. There’s not much in it, but the most common income bracket of Instagram users is less than $30,000 a year, and most of the users setting #travelgoals on New Year’s Eve are estimated to earn less than $20,000. Yet using Instagram to set expectations for travel is akin to using Harrods to set expectations for interior design. It’s possible, but certainly not for everyone. Consider this post, for example:

Life-affirming stuff. And all you need is a song in your heart, a dance in your step, access to a tropical waterfall, and a dress you can pay for in installments. Just a couple of weeks ago a few of the crew were in hot springs in Oregon, staying hydrated thanks to the fine folks at Dasani Sparkling water. Big Seltzer's reach is long. Eat your heart out, Bohemian Grove:

Who knows what beautiful experiences they're planning, the monsters. Follow all those tagged names and you’ll find player in the same world. It goes on and on, and it’s a peculiar mix. Instagram travel is awash with adventurers, creatives, and dreamers, but the authenticity of their experiences leaves a lot to be desired. Their unreality is what makes them marketable. The whole deal is like one big traveling Truman Show.

#newfilter

Fair play to the Trumans. By all accounts there’s a whole lot of work, talent, jetlag, and stress behind the glamorous photo feeds keeping you up at night. Making this kind of thing work is much easier said than done. (My Instagram adventure feed would be dreadful.) Furthermore, plenty use their platform to promote charity work, environmental protection, and sustainable brands. Plus they’ve inspired accounts like @youdidnotsleepthere, so it's not all bad. Their lives don't warrant aggro; just smarmy envy. Lots of smarmy envy.

So before you let your feed send you into an existential crisis, bear in mind most of what you see comes at a price — literally. Behind the curtain of wondrous Instagram adventure a lot of what goes on resembles a series of slick marketing campaigns far more than it does the lives of ordinary people scraping together enough money to see some of the world. You’re doing fine. A handful of people are just doing better. So it goes. And get used to it. It’s the same old deal with a new filter. As Bob Dylan says, “life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be.”