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The Travel Marketers’ Guide to Google Ads

Keyword Research, Copywriting Mastery, and Best Practices

Wikipedia defines traveling as “a violation of the rules [of basketball] that occurs when a player holding the ball moves one or both of their feet illegally.” For the purposes of this blog post, this is, of course, the incorrect usage of the word. We’ll be talking about travel as an industry, in the context of Google Ads.

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But it allows us to link out to this Tweet, which we felt like we owed you. Being a professional marketer in the travel industry isn’t easy—competition is fierce, seasonality can be unpredictable, confusing sales cycles abound—so please savor this moment of levity before we dive into our guide.

The Current State of the Travel Industry

travel industry stats from emarketera
Travel industry ad spend is on the rise.

There’s a good chance that in the past, as you’ve juggled all the various marketing initiatives on your plate, you’ve toyed with the idea of simply stepping back from the fray of digital advertising. Nobody’s going to fault you for thinking about doing so. But seriously—don’t do it!

65% of those traveling for leisure and 69% of those traveling for business begin their travel research online. That means people are far more likely to visit a search engine for early-stage travel info than they are to ask a friend about their own experiences.

You can’t afford not to spend on digital advertising. Everyone else in the space is. In 2017 $7.38 billion was spent by the travel industry on digital ads. In 2018 that figure ballooned to $8.59 billion, and in 2019, it’s expected to swell further to $9.81 billion.

Where You Can Advertise (And Where You Should!): Best Practices for Travel Ads

Like just about any other service that’s sellable online, ad placements in the travel sector fall into these categories:

Half of the larger players in the industry buy their ad space programmatically, mostly on display. And since only 23% of leisure travelers are confident they’ll find the info they need efficiently on mobile, desktop placements are a hot commodity.

It’s a competitive space. That’s why it’s so important to enter it purposefully, regardless of which combination of placements you choose to run ads on.

Ads: How to Make Them Effective

As is the case with the formulation of any campaign, it’s super important to get a grasp on your sales cycle before you put pen to paper—or… thumb to laptop touchpad.

For travel, that cycle probably looks something like: Dreaming → Planning → Booking → Experiencing. And search plays into every one of these steps. (Google’s even created a handy informational bit of content on the subject, with a lengthy, Big Brother-y examples of actual people’s search histories

Suppose you own a stand-up paddleboard rental service in Austin, Texas. You might want to capture dreamers with display ads placed on Austin-specific travel sites. Go after the planners with search ads targeting keywords like +austin +tx +activities. Capture the bookers with higher intent keywords like +where +to +rent +stand +up +paddle +boards +austin.

And as for the experiencers, showing up on a local search, letting folks know where you’re located, cannot be topped in terms of closing!

But as we mentioned earlier—and as you already know—travel sales cycles are prone to hiccups and fluctuations. That doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of those, though! Take Red Roof Inn, for example.

The Columbus, Ohio-based chain of economy hotels found out that 90,000 air passengers find themselves stranded daily in the United States alone, due to flight delays and cancellations. So Red Roof Inn devised a script that activates ads near airports experiencing major delays.

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How to Plan Your Keywords

Depending on what your specific campaign’s objective is—to inform, or drive action, or something in between—how you’ll use keywords will vary.

For starters, deciding whether you want to focus on intent or volume will impact the type of ad you’ll want to run. Display and YouTube ads will provide a far greater volume of impressions—so keep the keywords here a bit more big picture.

Think: spokane wa activities, or spokane wa travel , or use a more precise form of placement like choosing specific websites or YouTube videos.

But search offers the chance to be more choosy about who sees your ads, and lets you connect with those more likely to be further along on their journey to purchase/book.

You already probably have a good grasp on who your customers are. But it’s trickier to peg down what your customers are most likely to search for before connecting with you. That’s where keyword research comes in.

Might we suggest taking the vast travel-marketing-expanse of your powerful brain and dumping some of it into Google’s Keyword Planner? It’s a great tool for assessing the value of keywords, and discovering new ones.

A Little More on Volume vs. Intent

If a user searches for “spokane wa,” there’s any number of reasons they might be looking for information on Washington’s second largest city.

They could be a student writing a report on the Inland Northwest. They could be from nearby Moscow, Idaho, and simply looking for driving directions.

Sure—they could be looking to research an upcoming trip to the site of the 1974 World’s Fair. But you have no real way of knowing, and the odds aren’t exactly stacked in favor of that being the case. If you’re adamant about including vaguer keywords in your search campaigns, just be aware that those will likely be very high funnel users you’re serving ads to.

To capture clicks from people better poised to take a desired action, go with keywords like +hot +air +balloon +rides +spokane +wa, or +book +balloon +rides +in +spokane. These are longer tail keywords that indicate a higher level of familiarity with a topic, often because of previous research or knowledge. A user searching for a specific activity or action, in or pertaining to a certain place, is likely further down the marketing funnel. Even if the cost per click may be higher for these users, they’re probably a better investment than someone just searching for “spokane.”

A Note on YouTube: Respect the Vlog

Given that travel is by definition experiential, it can be challenging to convey just what a destination has to offer via words or pictures. Video does a better job of simulating an experience, and so running upper-funnel ads on highly targeted YouTube videos and channels can be a smart move, if you have the creative assets to pull it off.

The most popular travel videos come from vloggers—the noble GoPro warriors of the New Internet—so do a little research and familiarize yourself with some of the bigger names. (Mark Wiens, SimplyDumpling, and Tess Christine are just a few.) Then see if any of them have visited locations near you. If they have, consider using that video as an ad placement!

Ad Best Practices and Examples


The above ad from Airbnb checks off a lot of boxes.

It features an eye-catching image of a family having an almost dangerous amount of wholesome fun on the beach, with clear, concise, and aspirational copy that suggests a similar experience can be within your reach, too. (You just gotta list your home on their platform to financially get over the hump.)

This ad would probably be most effective with a remarketing audience of visitors to Airbnb’s “host” page, with an exclusion of those who have already applied to list their properties on the site.lonely-planet-google-display-ad

Lonely Planet travel guides have long been a respected and up-to-date source for travel-related information. As such, it’s a smart move for them to prominently feature their logo well above the fold.

Given the weight that name carries in the industry, the subsequent claims made within the ad hold water: they are in fact qualified to assess the “best in travel,” and you better believe their experts can “pick the perfect destinations.”

Of course, the stunning image of a landscape that looks straight out of Game of Thrones doesn’t hurt in terms of grabbing your attention.

And lastly, that “Sponsored by GoPro” bit? If you can get another brand to help cover the cost of your advertising, you’re probably doing something right!


Nat Geo Expeditions does a wonderful job in this ad of taking full advantage of ad extensions. We’re looking at site links, structured snippets, callouts, and seller ratings. If nothing else, this ad consumes more space on the screen than most of its peers, and taps into philanthropic language to appeal to the more socially- and eco-conscious traveler.

The takeaways here are: use as many ad extensions as make sense to promote your business; and harp on your competitive advantage. Take a look at the next series of ads to see why.


There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these ads. They convey their respective brands’ competitive advantage.

The problem is, they all essentially say the same thing, without ad extensions. That said, in a battle of numbers, Priceline’s 60% purported discount seems to be the most likely to earn clicks.

Finishing Touches and Last Minute Tips

We’re going to close out this guide with a smattering of pointers that don’t necessarily fall into the greater umbrella of the bulk of the blog post.

  • If you run or rep a hotel, be sure to sign up for Google Hotel Ads. The program takes the premise behind Local Ads and tacks on additional functionality.
  • If you’ve got some sales or deals, tout them. People look for compelling offers when planning travel, because let’s face it. Travel can be pricey!
  • Stay abreast of Google’s ever-expanding scope of travel-related offerings by tuning in regularly to its travel blog.
  • Take the additional time—and extra resources—to ensure your visual goods are top-notch. Show off what you’re selling in a clear, striking image or video.
  • Ordinarily, we advise only target “People in your targeted locations,” and exclude “People in your excluded locations.” But for travel advertisers, that won’t always hold true. You may want to reverse these settings, to focus on those outside of your immediate geographic area. You could even exclude locals if you really cater mostly to a traveling set of people. (These settings can be accessed by clicking on a campaign, then “Settings,” then “Locations.”)
  • And lastly, make sure your landing page rocks! The fewer clicks necessary to achieve a conversion, the better. And if it’s not optimized for mobile, it really should be.

In Closing

Phew. That may seem like a lot to take in, because it is. But the results will be worth the effort, once you start seeing heads in beds, feet(s) on the streets, or folks eating yolks (if you’re a brunch spot).

Utilize different channels wisely, plan your keywords carefully, make sure your ad copy and visuals both sizzle, and optimize your account by ensuring ad spend is going toward where it’s been proven to be most effective.

You got this!

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