Does “free” travel cost too much?

If you’ve ever been to a travel trade show, you’ve probably seen the freeloaders.

They prowl the floor in small packs, descending on the booths to claim everything that isn’t nailed down — pens, wrapped candy, four-color travel brochures.

Often, they walk by without saying “hi,” absorbing these giveaways with the efficiency of a shoplifter.

Those are the travel industry’s largely harmless freeloaders. I mean, show me one exhibitor who wants to carry all those doohickeys back home in his checked luggage. (Go on, I’ll wait here.)

The dangerous ones are after more than trinkets.

I’m talking about the travel agents and bloggers who accept free or reduced-rate travel in exchange for booking the destination for paying clients, or penning a favorable mention in their publications. Most of these people will tell you that their subsequent actions weren’t influenced by receiving a “free” trip, but how would you really know? At a time when trust and credibility is in the news (Brian Williams, poor soul, here’s looking at you) it begs the question: What does a “free” trip really cost?

Flash that pass

I admit, I have a press card, as do many travel writers. That card has gotten me into many museums, art galleries and attractions just because it says I’m a journalist. And while I usually do write at least a short blog post mentioning the facility, they’re not getting major publicity from me. They know that, and there’s no real incremental cost for my entering without paying the admission fee. They didn’t get my money, but there’s not really a cost to them for me to walk around the grounds.

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But what about the press trips where writers are flown to some exotic place and given a room, free meals, plus tours that the “regular guy” would have to pay for?

This is when the dollars start to add up. These businesses, travel bureaus and tourist boards are expecting you to pen flattering articles, post enticing pictures, and maybe even send some business their way.

In my profession, I’ve met people who expect to get free tours and trips and think it’s a “right” that they deserve.

How galling is that?

When Hong Kong stopped offering “free” trips, complainers took to social media, posting their displeasure. No, seriously.

“Free trips” are still out there, assuming that your time isn’t worth anything. You don’t even need press credentials. There are plenty of promotional offerings, such as this one for a “free trip to Las Vegas,” if you’re willing to sit through a sales presentation. I know quite a few people who’ve taken these trips, suffering through the sales pitches for timeshare properties, and then walk out with their gifts and their free 2- or 3-day “vacation”.

I’ve even done it in Mexico, where I knew going in that I wasn’t going to buy their property. After a good breakfast, listening to the sales spiel, and then saying “no” about forty times, I walked out with some of their marketing money in my hand. Don’t you think that the sales management already allows for a certain percentage of people who are going to say “no”? They’re crazy if they haven’t factored that into their costs.

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Not all travel writers are given free trips by the location that wants the coverage. This recent article in an Ohio newspaper spells out some of the pitfalls of such a trip. Can a writer be truly unbiased when the trip was paid for by that destination?

What does it matter to you?

Shouldn’t writers tell the truth and not be influenced by offers that aren’t available to the general public? I guess a better question is, do you really care? Time and again, consumers vote with their wallets and eyeballs, buying from sites that are heavily incentivized by commissions and clicking on blogs that publish stories based on “free” trips. Even Conde Nast Traveler, once known for its “Truth in Travel” motto, is quietly drifting in another direction.

Maybe the cost of “free” isn’t so high, after all. What’s a little favor here and there, as long as the essence of the report is true?

And if you don’t care, should I?

Should you accept that “freebie” when you know the business will get nothing from you?

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Stuart Gustafson

Stuart Gustafson is a writer, world traveler and professional speaker. He’s channeled his love of travel into writing travel-based mystery novels.

  • Ward Chartier

    The freebie is built into the cost of marketing. Companies offering freebies know that a certain percentage will accept the freebie and do nothing.

  • Mike Z

    This is where an educated consumer has a leg up. They can spot the written infomercial and take the blog or write up at face value and place an appropriate amount of weight into their decision. Only the consumer can say for sure if the free travel costs too much because only they know what their time is worth.
    I once sat through a couple pilot episodes while out in Las Vegas for the promise of some prepaid card for something. In the end it was the worst show I have ever seen and it was something I would never do again as i realized my time on vacation was worth far more than the offer I was given. (the show actually made it to air, go figure)

  • Wow, close vote on the poll today.

    I’ve always been deeply skeptical of any business offering something “free.” There are always strings. I’m particularly skeptical of combinations like “free flights” or “free miles.” If you use those words, it’s difficult to take you seriously.

  • ChelseaGirl

    The time-share companies are offering a “no obligation” trip in exchange for sitting through their spiel, so I don’t think it’s wrong if people take them up on the offer even if they don’t intend to buy. Personally, I wouldn’t sit through a time-share spiel even for a free trip. I don’t want to deal with the pressure and I’d rather just pay my way and not interact with annoying salespeople.

    On the issue of travel writers and freebies, reputable publications generally don’t accept free trips. (And the article that you linked to about Conde Nast Traveler doesn’t imply that the magazine will start doing that.) Smaller publications with limited budgets often do accept them. Websites and blogs are just sources of information for me, so I don’t always bother to find out if the writers take free trips because I do my own research anyway, such as checking Trip Advisor reviews. I do think any travel article is useful as long you take it for what it is–a list of possible things to do or possible hotels to stay at. It’s up to the consumer to take it from there rather than assume the destination is great. Many travel articles don’t really “review” anyway and are more information-based than opinion-based.

  • Ken

    These look to me clear cases of COI. I don’t see a problem as long as such a relationship is disclosed in an article, but I guess such disclosures is very rare.
    In my profession, there are set rules about what kind of gifts I can receive from vendors. There is also a rule about how to handle a gift that is out of scope of acceptable gifts (basically I need to report to a certain department). As to the newspaper in Ohio, the newspaper company should impose rules to its employees. I don’t believe that business section writers can receive gifts freely from companies which they write about.

  • Nathan Witt

    As far as I can tell, there are only three ways to have a travel expert review a particular airline, facility or destination: 1)have the business in question give the travel product away for free, 2)have an ad-supported publication purchase the product and hire the reviewer, or 3)have the reviewer pay for the product out of pocket.
    Since there are a very small number of people who are both independently wealthy and inclined to use and review a broad spectrum of travel products, it’s pretty difficult to keep marketing dollars out of the mix. And as for the “free trip to a timeshare seminar,” if the timeshare sellers didn’t want to pay for trips that don’t pay off, they wouldn’t offer them.

  • redragtopstl

    This may be a bit OT, but I’ve wondered about the package trips I see advertised featuring a local media personality. (A local TV station has recently run spots for vacation packages to Alaska & Hawaii, each featuring one of its weather staff.) Does the “name” get his/her trip free, and everyone else’s package price is jacked up to cover the comp? I also remember seeing this with local parish priests; usually the trip was to Rome/Italy, or sometimes Ireland.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    That is exactly the attitude I’ve heard from many people, Mike — “my time on vacation was worth far more than the offer I was given.” And that is the decision (well-informed decision) that people need to make.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    From some of the “Cruise with xxx” tours I’ve seen, I’ve gotten the impression that the personality is paid a fee to go on the trip and participate in the activities. You would hope that a disclosure was made like on TV when a name is shown as “Paid Endorser” or something similar.

  • Speaking for myself as a travel specialist – I am periodically offered free or reduced rate trips to different locations, free or reduced rate admission tickets, and similar benefits because these places want me to experience their product or destination so I can better inform my clients of the options and what it is like. It’s well known that the best way to truly understand something is to experience it, and that’s why these programs exist.

    My specialties are very specific: although I will handle any travel request my clients bring to me (within reason) my specialties are in personalized vacations to the British Isles, group cruise vacations, and premium cruise vacation experiences. Because I consider those my specialties, I will respond to offers relating to them. For things outside of those areas, I generally decline because I either won’t sell them, or my client base hasn’t shown an interest in it.

    Recently, I was offered a trip to Switzerland. It wasn’t a vacation experience, but rather a trip filled with hotel inspections, presentations from Swiss vendors, and other things to make it clearly a business trip focusing on what Switzerland has to offer the tourist. I declined it, because my clients haven’t shown any interest in that region even though I would love to handle more Switzerland. Perhaps that would change, and if it does so will my response.

    Just like in any industry, there are those who don’t see it quite so ethically and will take any freebie or reduced rate offered because it’s a cheap vacation for them, even if they have to sit through a supplier presentation or the like. But not everyone is like that, so one would do well not to paint everyone with the same brush.

  • Annie M

    That is what happens and usually the trip is marked up so those going are paying for personalities fees.

  • BobChi

    They are betting on their own skills at selling you. I’ll bet just about everybody who accepts their offer originally thought they wouldn’t buy. They know the math. I went to a time share presentation, and the first question they asked was, “Does (name) have any chance to sell you?” I said yes, since if the price would be ridiculously cheap who knows, maybe… But I knew I wasn’t really planning to buy and didn’t. Now I’m wondering if I said “No”, would they have just sent me on my way with my freebie or without it?

  • BMG4ME

    There is a good chance they will get something even if intangible.

  • Extramail

    And, that is why some people don’t use a travel agent. My son has a friend who is going on a honeymoon to a resort in a country I wouldn’t even consider visiting just because the travel agent just did a junket there and said its a fantastic place. I hope everything goes great but I’ll be interested to hear the report. He was told not to go to a sandals property because they are “all” a rip-off. Think the agent is a little biased? I do. I find myself doing a lot of research before I travel to a new destination but even that is suspect because of seeded reviews, etc. I miss my travel agent who retired many years ago so the advice is find a good one and don’t let him retire before you’re finished traveling!

  • Jonathan Kandell

    I work closely with various suppliers and have friends around the world at airlines, hotels and restaurants. I will often stop in to say hello after checking in or dining – and always after I have paid. If I am using the services for clients, I have no shame in asking for special considerations (upgrades, free desert etc.) for the clients. My
    friends appreciate my honesty.

    Once, when flying to London with a co-worker, they took it upon themselves to inform the airline of our schedule and I was greeted with an upgrade but only later learned that it was not because of my frequent flyer status. I was furious and wanted to downgrade back to economy, but our seats on this very full flight were already taken. My co-worker survived the trip but was let go, at my urging, shortly afterwards. Another time I was comped a meal after the sales manager of a fine restaurant recognized me, but I tipped the value of the meal and sent her flowers the following day.

    I will inspect a hotel, including staying overnight if needed (looking and sniffing the ice bucket is a great way to see in housekeeping is doing a good job), restaurant, location or service, or go on a company based Fam-Trip (Familiarization) only to suppliers we use extensively or plan to use.

    There is no reason to abuse the system – I need the good will of these services
    to make sure my clients are happy, especially when they are demanding and/or
    when there is a problem. I don’t want a manager to take my call and think that
    I must want a free something again for myself.

    Don’t think I am an angel – I am nuts for gadgets, pens, office supplies and other gifts given by suppliers, so long as they are in good taste.

    Our company has offered (and will continue to do so) semi-free trips for religious leaders (they contribute an amount towards the airfare) and we provide the land services for free. We then utilize our relationships with suppliers and funds available from the airlines,national and local tourist boards towards earmarked for this kind of trip. Each participant signs an agreement that they will attempt to organize a group of at least 20 participants to Israel in the next 2 years and will not utilize another
    agency to run said trip. The participants are usually agreeable and appreciative
    of such arrangements and we have yet to have anyone break this arrangement,
    even if not all are able to get a group together. I hope that most members of
    the clergy are honest in their dealings with us.

  • Lindabator

    Sometimes, there is an added cost — other times, based on the number of travellers, the vendor offers a comp.

  • Lindabator

    I do the same – but maybe going to Switzerland would have allowed you to experience this wonderful destination, and you would be able to “offer” the experience to those of your clients looking for something new. Great destination even for an add-on. :)

  • Lindabator

    But that doesn’t mean your son won’t enjoy this destination, just because you wouldn’t consider it. Sometimes, seeing a new destination means the agent is able to offer far more to a client than the usual – and to be honest, Sandals is never my first choice either – most times they are extremely high priced for the experience, and more hype than substance in a lot of cases.

  • Lindabator

    I have had upgrades occasionally, but on a vendor we used quite a bit, when they upgraded their services – gave me a chance to compare, so could more easily sell the option. :)

  • Carchar

    They don’t have to offer anything. If they’re offering and it’s something I’d like to try, I will. I take free tastes when I shop at Costco. Sometimes I buy the product and sometimes I don’t.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    When reading a report or article, I can almost always tell whether the trip to the subject destination was comped or not. So maybe freebies are good, maybe not. I happen to think it’s a dumb way to promote your travel destination, but It’s a holdover from the days when many people used real travel agents with expertise … and a very well-established way of doing things.

  • y_p_w

    A relative was a travel agent, and that occasionally got us some free flights, although it was sometimes a little bit hairy. The airlines would sometimes have appreciation parties with travel agents where a flight tickets for two to anywhere the airline travelled would be a raffle prize. Also, there was the occasional gift of “friend” tickets, although that meant standby. No money or favors ever changed hands other than normal business. I recall traveling to Thailand, Australia, and Hawaii on these tickets. Once was even in business class as this relative buttered up a counter agent. Somehow I didn’t get that on the return flight since I wasn’t of legal drinking age, or something about my age

  • BMG4ME

    I actually thought the title was a reference to companies like British Airways charging several hundred dollars in fees on frequent flyer tickets :-)

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