Elena Nikolova is an international speaker, author, and editor-in-chief of the award-winning MuslimTravelGirl.com, the most significant Western Muslim-¬friendly travel site for millennials. She helps Muslim travelers explore the world without breaking the bank.
As a thought leader in the halal travel industry on Muslim travel and millennials, she has spoken at several national and international conferences. Her work has been featured by The Times, BBC, Business Traveler Middle East, Thomson Reuters, and more.
You don’t have to be a Muslim to be in Halal travel industry. But, It is important to have a very good understanding of what Muslims want or what they perceive. Let’s be honest, if you live it, you know it.
Q1: Firstly, the story of how you came to be an expert on the landscape of halal tourism. Can you take us through your travel career journey?
I started about seven years ago when there weren’t many people. I come from a very culturally diverse background. I was born in Bulgaria, and I was raised in Greece. Travel, pretty much, always in me since I was a baby. My parents run a hotel, even though they don’t speak English. So, I was doing pretty much the marketing, sales, and finances. I love the diversity.
I used to tell my mom that I would go and study abroad and I did. I went to the UK when I became a Muslim. After I became a Muslim, I started to travel and I realized how different the traveling perspective is from a Muslim. You kind of start getting, extra treatment in the airport and extra security and the fears associated with it. Whether you’ll be stopped or search or embarrassed. And that’s when I realized that I would like to encourage more Muslims to travel.
When I started this site seven years ago, I was pretty much the early bird. And since then, the Muslin travel community has grown. I didn’t start thinking that this will be my career or be an influencer or a famous blogger or an expert. It just happened. I love it, and I wouldn’t change it, but it wasn’t a planned kind of career option.
Q2: What it is like to travel as a solo female Muslimah?
Today, I’m a hybrid between a solo travel and family travel. When I was a student, I used to travel by myself. I find that traveling solo is exciting. I would book the longest layovers, and I would go to different places.
Right now, I’m married and have a baby girl. Often, my mom joins our travels. That’s how we bonded through travel after I became a Muslim. I enjoyed sharing the travel experience with other people rather than being by myself. And I did travel by myself these days for business, like conferences.
Now it’s much safer to do solo travel for women. There are social media, safety apps, and online groups that will help solo travel easier.
Q3: Do you think being a Muslim is necessary to work or have a career in halal tourism?
I don’t think it’s necessary to be a Muslim to be in Halal tourism industry. What’s important is to have a very good understanding of what Muslims want or what they perceive. And I think, let’s be honest, if you live it, you know it. If you don’t, you probably have to know someone who is a Muslim. Usually people would think Halal tourism is about Halaal food, mosque, Islamic history, or praying. These are very basic things. There are things that we sometimes forget like alcohol in the room or privacy in villas for women. They’re things that you would only know from experience. I believe it’s vital to have some knowledge because you are presenting a segment. For example, I wouldn’t be able to work in a black travel market or an Asian market because I’m not Asian. I don’t understand their requirements.
Q4: What are the most significant challenges, as a woman, holding an entrepreneur position like you?
People don’t take you seriously because you’re women.
We already know women are under presented in the entrepreneurial world. And we know that if you have a hijab on your head, it becomes even harder. Especially in the Muslim world, that’s harder, where we still have that patriarchy going on. It is changing. But then I’ve had occasions where people would ignore my advice and would take the same information from a male because he was just a male and I was a female.
My advice is to keep showing up and persevere. There even today, opportunities that I have missed because men are considered better. Not have the reach of the audience or the information or the skill. Still, they are males, so they take advantage. If you stick it out and you keep going and know that although he bothers you, it doesn’t define you.
Q5: Which apps or companies that you recommend using while traveling? For example, there’s a new app called Irhal that lists sightseeing and shopping as well as maps for mosques and halal restaurants.
I use Zabihah.com, which is to find Halal restaurants around the world. The guys behind it are great. I’ve been on several conference panels with them. I choose local recommendations over apps. Every time I go somewhere, I asked on Instagram, the suggestions from my audience. Because, if people have been there, they will know it and it’s real reviews rather than fake reviews because we know that sometimes TripAdvisor has fake reviews or all these companies will go and give reviews on their own.
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Let's talk TRAVEL Tips… . . One of the most underrated tip I have for you is to book your holidays on refundable rates. Many types we assume that the earlier we book the cheaper we get it and it is non-refundable. . . However prices change daily ( I know because I monitor) and companies base their price on demand and supply. . . For example on a day you book many ppl might have booked too and might have over estimated their capacity (whether flight or hotel). So their prices are high. . . Fast forward few days /months ( especially if booking for months ahead) the prices have reduced. If you had booked non refundable you wouldn't be able to change it but because you are on a flexible rate you can cancel and re book. . . Over the years this has saved me thousands of 💵💵 even last week I saved £300 for a hotel booking I have for June. I booked for £1200in November and I checked last week and I got it for £900! 😜 . . . For Umrah in December I saved £600 as the hotels were more expensive. I kept checking and the prices reduced by £600!😮 so I just cancelled and re-booked with the saving 🕋👍 . . Have you used this travel tip? Share below ⤵️ . . #traveltip ##travelblogger #luxurytravel #halaltravel #halalholidays #modesty #hijabista #muslimah #muslimtraveler #muslimtraveler #travellingwithhijab #muslimtravelgirl #hijabtraveller #simplycovered #muslimtravelers #muslimhoneymoon #islamichoneymoon#halaltrip #halaltravel #islamictravel #muslimtourism #islamictourism #muslimahblogger #hijabdailywear #muslimtravel #travelmuslim #shetravelsmodestly #muslimtrip
Q6: What’s your advice for women who want to have a career in the halal tourism industry?
My advice for women who want a career in the Halal travel industry is to persevere and keep going. For the past six years, since I’ve started it, there’s so many startups and blogs. And people saying how they love what I’m doing and want to learn more. Well, come back in a year’s time because if you’re really, really passionate, it will show after the first six months to a year. And for the majority of the part, these companies hire these bloggers or these wannabes haven’t come back because it’s a lot of hard work. It’s much harder than posting a photo on Instagram and saying, Oh, how happy I am. The hours you have to spend. The usual story of you spends all night fixing website while on holiday.
These are things that are not portrayed on social media or my website. LI wouldn’t talk on my website about how I spend 10 hours at night working over it because my website crashed. And these are the things that make the difference. You have to learn, share, ask, but also, you shouldn’t feel entitled. A lot of people would ask me questions and forget to say thank you. It would help if you had people around you. The travel industry is small, it’s growing, but you have to want to be in it for the long run.
Q7: What does self-care mean to you?
These days I’m traveling, running a business, and taking care of my six-month-old daughter. Sometimes I feel I’m losing parts. Self-care for me is a nice massage, a good book, or watching documentaries . These days, to be honest, having an uninterrupted sleep would be great. Think it’s always a balance between your business, yourself, and your family. I used to neglect my family a lot, especially with my husband in the early days. Self-care means sticking to dedicated hours for work and family.
Q8: When you feel like you’re going to experience travel burn out, what are some things you do to help you get back to your full self?
I’m starting to enjoy more slow travel. Especially now with the baby. Instead of moving to five different hotels in a week, I would stay in one or two hotels and take it slow and enjoy. Hence, it’s more about experiencing on a deeper level and then recharging your batteries again at home and going for it again. I permit myself to feel bad and giving myself self a few days of doing nothing or doing the bare minimum. I also do this in the middle traveling. I took a few days to recharge on the road.
I permit myself to feel bad and giving myself self a few days of doing nothing or doing the bare minimum. I also do this in the middle traveling. I took a few days to recharge on the road.