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.

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