Frequent Miler writes that he accepted complimentary Diamond status from IHG and Spirit Airlines Gold status. Those companies wanted to influence his coverage, but the perks helped him cover those experiences. He was offered free IHG One Rewards points and Milestone Rewards so he could better cover the new program as well.
I figured this was a good opportunity to re-iterate my own position.
- I do not have a problem with other writers who accept perks. They’re often not in a position to cover their own cost on trips, nd it helps them bring better content. Sponsored trips and other gifts should be clearly disclosed.
- However I avoid taking things myself. When I do, I make a charitable donation to offset the value of any gift, so that it’s like I’m buying whatever it is I’ve been given.
Sponsored Trips Sound Hideous
I do not need to be comped trips or other things in order to do the travel I want, or generate the coverage I want. Not only does the blog generate revenue, but I have a full-time job with a good salary.
I rarely want to things that someone else wants me to do. I dislike sponsored trips because my binding constraint is time, not being able to afford airfare or hotel.
However there are times when accepting a trip makes sense. For instance I flew the ‘media preview flight’ for the first United Airlines Boeing 777-300ER, which was the first to feature United’s Polaris seat. It let me try the seat before it was flying commercially. That wasn’t something I could buy myself, so I made a donation to charity for what a premium cabin ticket on the route what have cost.
When I traveled to Moskito Island with Bilt,
- The last thing I wanted to do was spend 3 day away from my wife and daughter – this would have been a great trip with them but the invite was for me only.
- It was framed as my providing Bilt with product feedback and competitive insight, but they weren’t paying me for consulting.
- I went because I didn’t want to say no to Richard Kerr (formerly of The Points Guy and Award Trael 101), and I made a donation to cover my share of what lodging and meals would have cost.
Oasis Estate on Moskito Island
The truth is though that gifts or comps are the most obvious way that someone might be influenced, but they’re actually not the most common or effective ways. And these issues are far harder to navigate.
Travel Companies Could Treat Me Better But Never Seem To
I want to experience travel the way everyone else does with a similar profile to mine, and experience status that’s been earned. When I was gifted Hilton Gold status I politely had them to remove it from my account. Then again no one has ever offered me American Airlines Concierge Key or Hyatt Courtesy Card status so my line has never really, truly been tested!
However I can’t prevent a hotel from Googling me and deciding to treat me better (or worse!) as a result. The truth is that this pretty much never happens. I’ve been recognized just a few times that I know of and it didn’t result in a better upgrade. I’ve never gotten an airline upgrade as a result of the blog.
- At the W Doha they had clearly Googled me and put odd memes in my room but my upgrade wasn’t as good as what many Platinum elitess were receiving
- At the Park Hyatt Vendome the marketing manager came out to greet me. On that stay I received the lowest category room they can assign when using a confirmed suite upgrade award. On my other stays confirming suites I’ve always done better! They don’t me if I wanted a better upgrade I’d have to pay for it,
I asked whether a room ‘like the one I had last year’ was available. I was told yes — and that I could have it for an extra 100 euros per night. I declined. While some would consider the room to be worth it, I was perfectly happy with the room I was assigned. I don’t consider a single room, usually, to be a suite but it was more than adequate for my needs.
In theory service could be tailored to give me the perception that a travel company treats its customers better than they do and yet no one seems to do this, or if they do the efforts fall flat.
Friendships Are The Real Conflict Risk
Perhaps what’s more likely to be an issue is just getting to know and liking some of the people who work at the programs. It’s important to remember that the people you cover aren’t your friends even if you get to know them and even like them as people.
I should put that a little bit differently. There are some people I’ve gotten to know that have run loyalty programs, whom I’ve stayed in touch with when they were no longer in that role and I was no longer covering their work. They can be friends but it’s important to draw a line between liking someone and letting that influence your coverage of them.
It isn’t always an easy line to draw because when you get to know someone you may (justifiably) give them more of a benefit of the doubt.
Maybe that’s not an ethics issue, but it’s certainly something to watch for.
Helping A Reader Versus Generating Content
Let me offer something that’s more clearly an ethical dilemma that has nothing to do with my own personal benefit.
Instead it’s an example of a coverage choice I had to make, where the benefit in question wasn’t mind but a reader’s. A few years ago a reader brought me a really bad experience with an airline. The airline was 100% at fault, but the customer had gotten nowhere. I was going to write about it, and reached out to the airline for comment. Their Vice President of Communications came back with an interesting offer.
- They wanted to handle this as a customer service issue rather than a public relations issue.
- If I was writing about it there wasn’t much they could do. But if I was just helping a passenger get compensation they’d take care of things. This reader would get two first class tickets anywhere in the world.
I pondered that. I could help the person who reached out to me, or I could write a good story. This wasn’t something that affected safety, and it wasn’t a situation that was even likely to re-occur. Writing about the story that the reader came to me with would have harmed that reader.
Telling the story wouldn’t make others better travelers. It wouldn’t help them travel better. I decided to take the deal. For avoidance of doubt there was no benefit to me, and I gave up something personally — a good story — that might have been good for my blog. The reader got made (more than) whole.
I still think I did the right thing but when I shared this story several years ago many readers disagreed.
I Do the Best I Can and Generally Don’t Judge Others
There are any number of ethical choices we all make on a daily basis. I don’t have a staff to bounce things off of, no editor, I’m just me and I do the best that I can to write content that interests me (the only way I could possibly still be doing this after 20 years) and hopefully engaging content and do it in a way that let’s me sleep well at night.
That doesn’t make me any more ethical than anyone else, and I’m sure readers will find fault with plenty of things I write, but it’s how I generally think about the blog.