Q&A with a Muslim Influencer: Muslim Travel Girl

Our guest influencer for this issue is Elena Nikolova, most popularly known as the Muslim Travel Girl.

Welcome, Elena! Please introduce yourself more to our readers.

Salaam, I am Elena, the MuslimTravelGirl. I am an award-winning blogger and the creator of MuslimTravelGirl.com, the largest Muslim-friendly site in the West, helping Muslims travel the world in style without breaking the bank. I am also an expert speaker on Muslim travel.

Visiting and living in different countries are different experiences. You have so far lived in 5 countries. How was that experience, and what is your favorite country you especially liked to call "home"?

I lived in 5 different countries during various stages of my life, so they have all affected me differently. Currently, I consider the UK my home since I have lived here technically the longest, but also because we have put more roots here.

My second home country is Greece since these are the primary years I have spent growing up there. I also loved Qatar, and my daughter was born there, so it holds a special place for me.

Honestly, I can't pick one country that I love the most. I remember a friend telling me before I moved to the UK to study that you will get the "expat" syndrome, where you will feel a piece is missing no matter where you are, and this is how I feel most of the time. When I am in the UK, I want to be in Greece, especially in the summer, and when I am in Greece, I want to be somewhere else. Alhumdulillah it is a blessing to have such a problem.

"Leave the road, take the trails!" ( Pythagoras ). You encourage people to interact with locals when visiting a new destination. Tell us more about how many countries you have been to so far and how fulfilling it is to learn about a country through the eyes of its local people?

I have been to 30+ countries, and I always find that traveling and interacting with locals shows you the true identity of a place. It also breaks down the barriers of people from different religions or cultures.

I have seen this first hand with my family. They didn't know Muslims from real life but only from the media. When I started traveling with my parents and my mum, they realized quickly that there is so much more to Muslims than what the media says.

Also, when traveling and meeting locals, you don't get the glossy version, but you truly deep dive into the destination itself. You learn about places to eat local food that is not a tourist trap. You learn of places the locals visit to hang out and see what their lives are truly like.

I grew up in Greece and on the island of Corfu, so I know from experience when tourists come, and they want to see only the tourist places, buy the overpriced souvenirs and then go back home having felt they have seen the country. Then we had the tourists that wanted to know us, spend time with us, ask us about places we used to eat or enjoy and get a feel for the real country and Greek life.

Success is not a linear line is a saying that most entrepreneurs keep reminding themselves at every opportunity. How did your love for writing grow into a business? Were there times you contemplated giving up?

I contemplate giving up every single day! Then I open social media or my emails, and I read the emails people send me with questions or appreciation for helping or inspiring them.

I didn't start MuslimTravelGirl in order to turn it into a business. I started because I wanted to share my travel hacks and the good deals I kept finding. It just grew up from there since there weren't many Muslim blogs seven years ago.

I often feel like an imposter. I have my doubts, COVID hit the travel industry hard, and it was very disheartening seeing your work go down. But ultimately, I love what I do. I love teaching people, communicating with them, learning new things, and sharing them with my readers.

I have had readers from the first day I started, and I am truly grateful there are millions who have read the site at some point.

We have grown, we have had our ups and downs, but honestly, it is worth it because of the people. I didn't start the blog to make money, which is the case with many people today. Nothing wrong with wanting money or making money from your hard work but quality and putting people first has always been my number one goal.

You became a Muslim in 2009. One of the interesting posts on your social media page was to "show Islam without talking about Islam." Nations like Indonesia became Muslim after observing how Muslim merchants behaved in earlier times. How did you use this strategy to win back your family's support regarding your decision to become Muslim?

I show them the changes that matter more, like being kind to them not pulling away once you become Muslim. Showing them that Islam gives charity, helping the family everything that I can do. I don't tell them this is not allowed in Islam, or I can't do this or keep mentioning Islam. I have no intention for them to convert or for me to talk about religion. I want to show them the kindness and true spirit of Islam to the best of my ability. Then they can make their own decisions. My sister has read the Quran, and my mum has lived in a Muslim country with me. I am happy they accepted my decision, and I didn't have to lose their love the same way I lost my childhood friends.

As a Muslim and Hijabi influencer, what have your challenges been when traveling? How did you deal with them?

The biggest realization I had when it came to travel was when I converted and started wearing the hijab. As a white convert without a hijab, I was never stopped or questioned. Once I started wearing the hijab, I started getting padded down more often. It never really bothered me since it is their job, but it did make an impression.

Also, as a hijabi, whether you are an influencer or not, you represent Islam when traveling, so I always try to be nice, smile, and be polite when traveling because this is the impression I want people to have of Muslims.

I honestly don’t find any challenges as a hijabi traveler or influencer. Hijab is part of my style and my life. I realized that the more often I travel, people are very open and curious. If they look at you, it is mostly not because they are racist but out of curiosity.

You started your travels solo. How has the experience changed with your husband and now with your daughter, MashaAllah?

I think each stage has its benefits and memories. Traveling solo was great because you didn’t have to accommodate anyone apart from yourself and what you wanted to experience and explore. Then, things started to change as a couple because, obviously, you have to add someone else to the mix.

When I was pregnant, people kept saying, now that you have a baby, you have to slow down. In reality, we didn’t. We just adapted and kept going. My daughter is two and half years old now and has been to 8 or 9 countries already, Alhamdulillah.

It is very important to have a routine when you travel with a child and stick to it. Then there are fewer tantrums, they know what to expect, and you all enjoy your adventures. As a parent, you need to know that you won’t be able to explore at the same pace as without children, but for us, this was ok.

I love traveling with my daughter and showing her the world. She is a confident little girl who loves her adventures and plane rides, and I believe she is well behaved because she knows what to expect and what we expect of her. We stick to her routine and food timings, so she has something that stays constant, and then we all enjoy our time.

Traveling with her is tiring, but I wouldn’t change it because the memories we are making and the experiences we are accumulating are definitely worth it.

What travel tips can you share with us to make affordable dream vacations a reality for many?

There are so many travel tips that you can find on MuslimTravelGirl.com, but personally, I love loyalty points. They help us travel in style and experience things that otherwise wouldn't be possible. Our most recent adventure took us to the Maldives. We stayed at one of the most expensive hotels, but we paid the same as if we were on a 3-star budget option.

Also, one of the things I always suggest and people don't take me too seriously is to have a travel plan. I start at the beginning of the year, looking at Eid holidays and summer holidays, and then creating a plan by keeping an eye on all the hotel and airline sales. This way, I know when to book and save money.

So many people are last-minute travelers missing on offers because they decided too late. Nothing wrong with spontaneous holidays, but if you have created a good travel plan, you can enjoy them with savings too.

A person's past doesn't define his future. Allah SWT guides whomever He wishes. You have channeled your love for traveling into helping other Muslims to travel around the world, and in the process, you have inspired many. Thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions, and please feel free to share any final thoughts.

I am very happy to see more and more Muslims traveling and being confident in their identity. I feel that there will be so many good things coming our way with the development of Muslim-friendly destinations and more.

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