Ethical Conflicts Writing This Blog

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.


W Doha

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. How could people disagree with you helping a reader (who asked you for help) at the cost of a story you admit would help anyone else? It basically would have been gossip to others. The selfishness of some people never ceases to amaze me. You did a good thing there Gary, live with it…..

  2. @Gary, let me use my observations on YouTube reviews as a response to this.
    It is clear that some reviewers received the item as a gift to keep, versus a loaner, or they bought the item themselves and later wrote a review.
    I actually don’t care which it is… BUT, I do want to know what it is. Because no matter how much one might want to think reviewers are objective, a free is a powerful incentive not to diss the provider.
    Just tell me. I won’t think more or less of you. I just want to know.

    For example: I have a Bilt card. I will be closing it. I don’t pay rent (I receive it) AND the transfer points to AA don’t count towards status. I don’t keep cards I won’t use.

  3. This is a great post, Gary. You’re being honest and authentic. It’s one of the reasons it’s in my daily travel blog rotation.

  4. You’re definitely in the 99th percentile of travel blogger ethics. The only beef I have is when you push a credit card (such as the chase sapphire preferred) incessantly when it’s not something most people should apply for.

  5. The moment you accept something from a these companies you’re biased no matter how hard you try not to be.

    If one invites you and your family over for a weekend stay and a BBQ, are you really going to stare them in the face as you depart on Sunday and complain that while the food was good and the pool was great, however the thread count of the sheets didn’t quite meet your standards? No, most wouldn’t.

    Same with these companies. Even if you dislike something, and you want to write about it…most will try to “pretty it up”, lie about it and say all is well, or just omit the part they didn’t particularly care for.

    The best benefit to not taking freebies and handouts is you retain your right to bitch and complain without feeling an ounce of guilt about doing so.

  6. Totally support your stance. Disclosure is key. And your approach is a sensible balance.

  7. If only you had as high of standards about research – esp. about anecdotes which turn out to be one in a million events – or less.

    Anyone can appreciate you’re being honest and having the ethics – which does explain why you probably don’t get some of the goodies that others do. Just don’t bemoan the fact that you get left out.

    Look at the bright side, Gary. You can walk around with a scarlet letter E for ethical in Washington, DC and you will be a one in a million, I mean ten million, occurrence.

  8. I do not care what sponsorships or friendships come into play in this blog because I read it for five reasons.

    1. I want to see real photos of hotel rooms and airport lounges. Not professionally staged, Photoshopped, filtered photos.

    2. I want to learn all the savvy traveler tips and tricks on how to clear security lines quickly, how to reach customer service in a flight delay, what brands of luggage to buy for durability and compatibility with airline size limits.

    3. I want to keep up to speed on niche travel news like lounge openings, new aircraft, new routes, new travel services.

    4. I want to post anonymously in the comments section and see the reaction of very low IQ and/or low EQ people. This saves me from having to pay for coffee to get me going on a lethargic morning.

    5. I want to learn the best ways to use miles and points although let’s be honest, virtually all the sweet spots have been gone for years, and a person with a desire to travel in first class and stay in hotel suites should spend their time pursuing a career that affords them an income of cold, hard cash that can straight up buy those luxuries.

    Although not especially germane to the topic of ethics I think a lot of casual readers of this blog would be surprised to learn the level of income it brings to the author, Gary Leff. Leff has often posted that he doesn’t make money “in the quantities” that allow him to totally give up points and rewards programs and just pay cash for all trips — but I think he actually does. This blog without a doubt generates a 7 figure annual income for the author. That dollar amount shapes my perception of the content far moreso than any sponsored trips or anything of that nature.

  9. “Leff has often posted that he doesn’t make money “in the quantities” that allow him to totally give up points and rewards programs and just pay cash for all trips ”

    Huh? Rewards programs are how I fund the bulk of my travel. I could spend more money on travel but then I’d be giving up spending it on other things or savings.

  10. @Tim Dunn – you’re completely misreading here, I do not think people accepting free trips are being unethical, I am explicit I don’t think I’m *more ethical* than others, I am just highlighting the challenges that may be less obvious and how I think about them.

  11. Virtually all of the stories in traditional travel magazines are “sponsored” and there are NO disclosures whatsoever. Writers at the traditional travel magazines live incredibly lavish lifestyles — a friend is the editor at one. Our blogger pals might get a “fam trip” along the way — which they disclose — but our blogger pals get nothing on the order of what writers at the traditional travel magazines get. In the end, WE get far more from our blogger pals than they get as perks. Their tips and tricks have easily netted me over $100k in value. I ain’t complaining about ’em.

  12. There is a clear confusion here.

    There is nothing “unethical” about accepting perks per se, especially if disclosed.

    The bigger problem is that there is always a conflict of interest, real or perceived, when someone who writes about a given industry accepts perks from companies in that industry. Disclosure is fine but insufficient to wash away the “stench” because all it does is to tell readers to take whatever that someone writes about that industry with a grain of salt.

  13. I disagree with most of Gary’s conclusions about science/health and economics/business but do not take issue with his business practices or how he frames the topic promotional travel, which nearly all writers disclose when received. I do take issue with volume of credit card promotion but it is not as excessive as TPG or TPG2 (Ben over at OMAAT). TPG2 is probably the worst. No credit card company left behind. Seems all his hotels are booked on travel agent rates, which are absolutely not the same experience as most customers and level of discount/kickback is never disclosed. Think that is more unethical than promo travel. He gets my vote for most unethical blogger.

  14. Gary,
    you didn’t respond to what I said.

    I do appreciate that you even bothered to write something that others couldn’t although I will note that CF (which you link to) does an outstanding job of disclosing what he gets including access to information.

    ps I still enjoy reading.

  15. @ Yin Jing

    “ virtually all the sweet spots have been gone for years”

    It’s certainly the case that some sweet spots have gone. But then others present themselves.

    I just booked YVR-SYD-CNS for two in QF business class for 55,000 Alaska miles and about USD85. A couple of weeks ago I booked SIN-LHR for two in SQ Suites (new) for 125,000 Krisflyer miles and about USD50. Personally, I’m very happy with that.

    Meanwhile, opportunities to earn miles / points have diversified greatly (depending upon your location and choice of program).

    “ a person with a desire to travel in first class and stay in hotel suites should spend their time pursuing a career that affords them an income of cold, hard cash that can straight up buy those luxuries.”

    Why so?

    Points and miles can be earned through so many ways in which we spend our (and maybe our employer’s) cash. If we have our own business, even more so. The tax advantages of such are also substantial (tax free transfer of asset from business to self).

    Why does being rich negate the benefit of generating travel wealth from cash you’d be spending anyway?

    The uber rich folk I know are still very interested in airline loyalty. When I explain the potential of churning everyday cash through the loyalty program cycle to rich folk, they get it and love it.

    “ This blog without a doubt generates a 7 figure annual income for the author. That dollar amount shapes my perception of the content far moreso than any sponsored trips or anything of that nature.”

    Just curious – please share how and why would that “shape your perception?”.

    @ Gary

    A clear statement on the ethical conflicts writing the blog is most welcome. Well done. Hopefully your charitable donations were assigned to the recent AA promo with spectacular points earn…;)

    Incidentally, you had a third logical choice in your “help a reader” scenario – neither write about it (simply pick another topic), nor help the reader (let readers fight their own personal battles without your influence). I’m not suggesting that was a preferred option, but was a theoretical option.

    @ Tim Dunn

    “If only you had as high of standards about research…”

    Maybe you’ve touched upon something interesting.

    Commonly ascribed ethics of journalism (accepting this is a travel blog and not journalistic media) would cover truth and accuracy and accountability (e.g. correct errors), as well as independence, fairness and impartiality, and humanity (e.g. not harm).

    Now its @ Gary’s blog, so his choice how he wants to interpret the ethical landscape as a blog writer, how to set the standard, what aspects of ethical writing are in scope for him, and what to present as opinion versus reported event or fact.

    His article above does indeed address issues relating to independence, fairness and impartiality. Great stuff – arguably, evidence of a position which is aware, open and clear.

    But in the event blog articles are poorly researched, or on topics outside of the writer’s expertise, then those other ethical dimensions of truth, accuracy, accountability and humanity can potentially come into play.

    It’s up to @ Gary to decide whether such ethical criteria are relevant to his blog (and if so, how to address them) and readers to decide whether they even care.

  16. @ Miamiorbust

    “ TPG2 is probably the worst. No credit card company left behind. Seems all his hotels are booked on travel agent rates, which are absolutely not the same experience as most customers and level of discount/kickback is never disclosed. Think that is more unethical than promo travel”

    So, is it your personal perception is that a travel blogger who gets travel for free (and declared such) would be more ethical than a travel blogger who pays for their travel? And the reason is that you think the latter hasn’t paid the full rack rate (and declared such)?

    Is using miles/ points to “pay” for travel for blogger articles more or less ethical, than not paying at all or paying the travel agency rate?

    Have you detected any bias comparing articles on travel blogs, which are (1) promo (2) paid at travel agency rate (3) paid with miles/ points (4) paid at commercial rate, or are your concerns theoretical (which would be fine)?

    Aren’t all travel blogger reviews subjective to a greater or lesser extent, leaving it up to the reader to extract whatever value they seek from the articles?

    Just curious about differing perceptions of relevant ethics and their potential impacts on this thread.

  17. Glad to see you’re keeping the weight off so you can still easily give yourself that pat on the back you need.

  18. @ Reno Joe

    “ but our blogger pals get nothing on the order of what writers at the traditional travel magazines get”

    That may indeed be the case. That said, TPG boasts 35 full time employees, assuming it’s in profit (and not subsidised by parent company), that website must be earning impressive revenues to cover such a payroll.

    Incomes from credit card commissions and affiliated marketing can attract very substantial incomes.

    As you no doubt already appreciate, high web traffic is golden, and revenues in the realm of USD5 million per month achievable through affiliate marketing in a well run internet company.

    “Their tips and tricks have easily netted me over $100k in value. I ain’t complaining about ’em.”

    You nailed it, bro!

    Relevant articles from travel bloggers can be very valuable. The content is free to us. We just have to sift through it all!

  19. I think that you do quite well overall. DCS does raise a valid issue though, even with the strange “stench” term. Also I suppose that in some perfect world you would also do as FM and specify when a credit card offer is really the best around. Still, if that’s the worst criticism I can manage without trying hard you’re doing fine.

  20. I may not always agree with your content choices/opinions, but I read this travel blog nearly exclusively b/c I share your ethical view on this topic.

  21. Meanwhile, opportunities to earn miles / points have diversified greatly (depending upon your location and choice of program).

    Depending, indeed. I would say opportunities are not what they used to be. Think about Chase and “5/24.” Think about Cartera’s shopping portals, I’m seeing more restrictions on what types of purchases qualify for points.

    Why does being rich negate the benefit of generating travel wealth from cash you’d be spending anyway?

    “Travel wealth” is priceless if you mean the cultural experiences gained from broadening one’s perspective of the world. We’re talking about points and miles, though. Unlike cash, they’re not actual currencies — they’re only good for distressed inventory — and you don’t even own them, technically the airline/hotel does. When you’re rich you have the freedom to spend cash on whatever you want. You don’t have to take “repositioning” flights just to catch that one Saver award seat that lands in Dubai at 3am and you’re not even going to Dubai, just transiting there.

    The uber rich folk I know are still very interested in airline loyalty. When I explain the potential of churning everyday cash through the loyalty program cycle to rich folk, they get it and love it.

    I’ve never bothered mentioning points programs to the uber rich because I’ve seen others do it and uniformly get blown off. Of course the criteria for uber rich is wildly dependent on your professional circles.

    Just curious – please share how and why would that “shape your perception?”

    The miles and points game is most valuable to the “mass affluent” who earn low- to mid-six figure incomes. If you are in the seven figures then your approach is different. What you consider “worth it” or not worth it is different. The advice you provide may not be empathetic or suitable to the bulk of your audience.

  22. @ Yin Jing

    “Depending, indeed. I would say opportunities are not what they used to be.”

    We may be lucky in Oz. Broad opportunity for miles / point earn regardless of credit card (although they help). Also, some stellar earn rates are possible fairly consistently.

    “ We’re talking about points and miles, though. Unlike cash, they’re not actual currencies”

    I was talking miles / points and realised redemption value. Sure, we know they’re not fiat currencies, but they still have a definable value upon redemption.

    “ When you’re rich you have the freedom to spend cash on whatever you want”

    Sure, but not necessarily frivolously.

    “You don’t have to take “repositioning” flights just to catch that one Saver award seat that lands in Dubai at 3am and you’re not even going to Dubai, just transiting there.”

    Or you could equally well argue that you have the freedom to pay cash or take the award booking if it meets your personal needs.

    “I’ve never bothered mentioning points programs to the uber rich because I’ve seen others do it and uniformly get blown off. Of course the criteria for uber rich is wildly dependent on your professional circles.:”

    Or personal ones…;)

    ““Just curious – please share how and why would that “shape your perception?” The advice you provide may not be empathetic or suitable to the bulk of your audience.””

    Interesting, but I was referring to how @ Gary’s income from this blog would shape your perception of ethics of the blog (since you mentioned that).

  23. You are about 100x more ethical than most travel writers and this is reflected in the blunt and brutal content regarding various travel providers. I am sorry to hear you don’t get free upgrades like Ben aka Lucky – I don’t either – but then again I’m not as aggressive as Ben in demanding such things.

  24. Gary, as long time reader I appreciate your ethics around this. It is so obvious when bloggers abuse that issue or abuse trust. For example the “top 10 must have products for any traveler” posts that are just thinly veiled amazon affiliate links. As far as comps and perks I believe as long as you are up front about those I wouldn’t blame you for accepting them. However is they really do sway your honestly on a topic then they should be skipped. I really can’t believe AA hasn’t offered you lifetime CK status, what fools 🙂

  25. I do appreciate your approach. Clearly I respect your vast knowledge on credit cards, miles and points, and travel services in general, and have always wondered how you provide so much content while also working a full time job and helping to raise a family. As readers we need to be confident that content that affects our decision making is based on well researched facts and genuine well founded opinion rather than a motive for maximizing personal gain. I used to follow a dozen blogs, but found many unreliable (and several are now out of business) and only read two regularly now, checking occasionally on a couple of others. Keep up the good work.

  26. platy,
    the point that I made is that one can’t truly gain an advantage for being moral and then complain about what you have lost. Moral choices always involve giving up something that could have value – whether it be the rush of an affair, the larger bank account when you cheat on your taxes, or anything else.
    Morality and being ethical costs something and it doesn’t need to be reiterated that “I didn’t get upgrades or other bennies because I didn’t accept something for free”

    Perhaps giving things away for free is EXACTLY the way those “other blogs” should be read. No one legitimately thinks the average person spends money the way those blogs indicate the rate of high value travel.

    And those “other blogs” also get more page views and more revenue. Their model works for what they want.

    I commend Gary for his stance; just don’t bemoan what he is giving up.

  27. Your comment about ‘ethics’ is not only admirable but should be illustrative for other bloggers. And of course the imposition on privacy by other sites and even blogs goes beyond privacy limits as we all know; but also legitimizes what shouldn’t be.

    Anyway I like your ‘balanced’ approach. In my own stock market (blog-style) daily comments and over 50 years at it including starting financial television in LA, and then Nationally, I have also regarded privacy as important; have never accepted patronizing endorsements; and castigated guests on my old TV show ‘if’ they told viewers what to do instead of expressing it as an ‘opinion’. This era is unusual because the ’40 Act has not been repealed and every day (hedge text at ends of shows or blogs or not) pundits are ‘telling’ what to buy or sell; and that’s actually illegal to anyone with whom no fiduciary relationship exists. I think you’re in the financial industry so might concur.

    By the way we never rented or sold lists of our members/subscribers and never will; and from what I can tell you also maintain that high standard of respecting your followers privacy.

    Good luck! Keep flying the good flights!
    (P.S. I’m an old Delta Flying Colonel and survivor… )

  28. I submit that Gary deserves credit for even bringing up the question. How many in any field question their own ethics? Not very many in my view.

  29. Your articles have an increasing number of typographical errors, Gary. It diminishes the blog.

  30. Oh come on Josh! It’s a highlight feature: the what did Gary really mean there game!

  31. @ Tim Dunn

    Yeah – thanks for the clarification. Perhaps you are conflating morality with ethics, but your conclusion may still be valid nonetheless, if I understand them as intended.

    @ Gary is setting himself an ethical framework for his blog just as a company may publish an ethical code for its staff to follow.

    Depending upon how that is framed, there can be benefit (increased positive perceptions by readers, etc) and there can be a cost (has to pay for some travel to avoid freebies, etc).

    You have to accept that reality, if you set up the ethical framework in the first place.

  32. Platy: don’t worry about Gary, he has no problem paying for anything. He has to be the hardest working blogger on the planet. Read his archived articles on how and why he writes and how busy he is. With all that work his output is this good?
    I’m convinced Gary has a secret twin who shares the workload but is extremely shy. The best part that warms my heart is that Gary loves what he does for work, all three jobs that feed into each other. He is incredibly lucky and knows it and is humble about it. I had a job like that at a non profit in Austin from 1998 to 2007 working with volunteers running a food pantry that was heaven until the pride mafia took control and funny business started happening with the budget. That feeling when you can’t wait to wake up in the morning and go to work and many times you’d go to work super early just to sit there and look around and think “wow, I get to do this!” He has that blessing and it shows (typos and all) and I am blessed to be able to read it…..

  33. @ JorgeGeorge Paez

    Many thanks for the insights! Warmly received and appreciated.

    Be well – travel safe.

  34. Thanks! You as well platy! Enjoy your well reasoned posts, most well thought out. A joy after the last 2 years of, well, you know…..

  35. Gary,

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve noticed that Frequent Miler often posts the best credit card deals out there that I notice you do not post. For example, there would be a 150k Amex Platinum offer out there that he would post, but your Platinum link would just have the 100k offer for example. Why is that?

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