Are Travel Blogger Who Take ‘Press Trips’ More Ethical Than Traditional Travel Media?

BBC runs a piece on travel junkets for bloggers and ethics policies, and how blogger travel compares. I came away from reading the piece with the sense that the ethical boundaries are less clear than sometimes thought, and also realizing that some publications are taking free travel that I never realized.

  • Traditional media, where journalists aren’t “taking a free trip,” may have the assignment arranged between the advertising and publishing department. The magazine may be bringing in more than enough on the advertising side to cover the trip expenses, and this still generates editorial coverage.

  • Lonely Planet makes exceptions to their no freebies policy “when it is the only possible way to research a destination.” I took a trip (that I paid for, while others were comped) where an industry publication representative explained that they just didn’t have the budget to pay for a trip of the sort — it was business class, I used a confirmed upgrade — and it was the only way they’d be in a position to cover it.

  • BBC Travel, whose piece prompted the discussion, allows comped trips if
    it is the only opportunity for press to be a part of something before the public launch, or the story is editorially justified and would be financially unattainable otherwise.

  • Budget Travel allows free press trips. So does Fodor’s. And Frommer’s doesn’t prohibit the practice.

  • The New York Times doesn’t take free trips. I’m not sure that makes all of their pieces free of bias. Their articles are still written by people, not machines.

Travel bloggers who disclose their freebies are being more transparent than some traditional media.

I’ve never taken a comped trip or media junket, I have taken some merchandise but generally do it as a giveaway or if I keep the item myself I make a charitable donation of the full retail price. When I tested an international wifi device rental I didn’t just turn down the offer of a comp, I even declined a discount.

The number of bad hotel stays I have makes clear that I’m not generally getting better treatment ‘as a blogger’ as opposed to because of my elite status and other strategies I’m using for upgrades, etc. I do have financial relationships with several banks and I fully disclose those — not just in fine print terms and conditions and on my About page (though I do that too) but in every post where I include a referral link. That won’t satisfy everyone but I do the best job that I can.

None of which means that I lack biases, I certainly am biased or at least I have a clear perspective – as a business traveler, as someone who enjoys first class travel and hotel suites (the travel is a part of the experience, not just a means to the destination). Food is an experience and not just fuel.

And I’m not even inherently against free trips. I know that some travel bloggers get into the space hoping for comped trips, some in the travel space (more so than the miles and points space) seem almost to be blogging for the primary purpose of getting on junkets rather than some other reason. For the most part, trips really haven’t interested me. See, I’m very particular. I’m very busy. And so when I do travel for leisure I want the trip to be exactly what I’m most interested in. I don’t want to be shuttled around to a bunch of promotional events that hold little interest for me. I don’t want to stay at a hotel that isn’t as nice as I’d book for myself on points or through some other discount. And there’s such a long list of places I want to visit, I don’t want to have my trip chosen for me based on what someone else will pay for.

Put a different way, I know a wine blogger whose site has less than 10% of the traffic of this one. His basement is filled to the brim with cases of free wine that’s been sent to him. He’s gone on wine junkets. But here’s the thing, do I really want to store a ton of bad wine, let alone drink bad wine? (I gave away the two bottles that US Airways sent to me at the recent Frequent Traveler University).

My aversion to trips, to date, has been selfishly motivated rather than based on grand principle. I suspect that if Aman Resorts reached out to me and offered me one of their better suites or villas I would jump on that. I also suspect it would be genuinely awesome — just well above my price point. I’d be perfectly objective, and probably in awe, and grateful not to be coming out of pocket for something I couldn’t otherwise afford.

But Aman Resorts isn’t coming knocking. It’s usually some property in the Caribbean or Central America. Or a cruise — during the off-season, since they don’t want to cannibalize rooms they’d sell to paying customers.

I thought that One Mile at a Time’s review of American Airlines new business class was 100% fair despite his flight being comped. I was on the same flight, I paid for my ticket, and my experience was highly similar to what Ben wrote. He fully disclosed the that the trip was comped in each related post as well, and you certainly don’t see disclosures in magazines like “we paid for this trip ourselves but our advertiser gave us extra money so we’d send the reporter in the first place.” So I actually think Ben does a better job both on the content side (no brainer) and on disclosure and lack of bias compared to many travel publications in the traditional publishing world.

While I’ve not done any comped trips despite offers of high-end cruises and even private jet travel, I don’t take a high horse position about the ethics of it, I think it’s important for the blogger to disclose where they’re coming from (potential conflicts of interest), and for the reader to judge — having been given that context — whether the writer’s perspective is valuable or not.

See, there are plenty of people that aren’t taking comps and are neither good nor interesting. And plenty of people who aren’t paying their own way a do a pretty good job offering a valuable perspective. Sometimes the post speaks for itself, good or bad. And in the end we’re all only human, and I think it pays to be a cynic — of both bloggers and traditional media.

Would y’all still read me if Amanusa ever decided to give me a pool suite? 🙂

(HT: Points and Travel on Facebook.)

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, 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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  1. I think what many people don’t realize is that there are several types of travel bloggers:

    1) those who blog in addition to their fulltime jobs and earn an income
    2) those who blog for fun but don’t earn any income
    3) those who blog fulltime and earn their income from blogging and consider themselves as bloggers
    4) those who blog fulltime and earn their income from blogging and are freelance writers

    Bloggers in camp 4 tend to go on more press trips than other bloggers because they provide material for articles, not just on the blog but for submission. Press trips are designed for exposure for the sponsors.

  2. I think personally if i was given a press flight, i would actually be more critical of the flight as it was free rather than being paid out of pocket.

    However, if it was something special, like a launch flight, or some kind of commemorative event, you know that service and amenities would be better than normal anyway.

    At the end of the day, there’s all sort of biases in any article or forum posts. Its just like reading yelp reviews, which many have written articles about. You have to read more than one article/post to try to get a better picture of the flight, hotel room, etc.

  3. I thought Ben/Lucky taking the free trip was a stupid career move especially for someone who claims to have 2-3 million miles in the bank at all times.

    At the time he announced the trip and his claim to be unbiased I looked at his year to date posts in 2013. While I forget the exact number he had roughly 30 posts about American…nearly all favorable and a small number [around 10 or so] for Delta and United with a high percentage negative. Are his high American favorables due to natural enthusiasm or getting free tickets? We will never know.

    In the past I have used some of his links for credit card sign up. Not now…and I won’t until he swears off free trips of any kind. I may not be in the mainstream on that but blogs are a business and I prefer to go where I get content without the pressure of a compensated relationship that may affect editorial content.

    Keep up the good work Gary!

  4. @MarkJ – I thought his review was extremely fair. And he’s been positive about American BEFORE receiving the trip from them. I’m equally favorable to American relative to United (though I think MileagePlus is great for business class award redemptions to Europa and Asia) and Delta. I guess my point is I think he’s a better and worthwhile read than much mainstream journalism, and his taking that trip doesn’t change my view. And much mainstream journalism is more tainted than we realize (much less disclosure). But your mileage will certainly vary! Best, Gary

  5. @Traveling Well for Less – for the record I’m in camp #1 and I get free trip pitches all the time, I generally ignore them, trip pitches used to be primarily for folks who would get into print media sometimes but i don’t think that’s the case anymore.

  6. I for one appreciate Lucky’s candor in disclosing his conflict. I don’t believe that he makes it a practice of accepting comped travel. As for Gary, well, he’s just a cut above everyone else. His standards are beyond reproach.

  7. So approx how money or miles much do bloggers receive for each credit card sign up referral they get from their site?

  8. @Frank I believe it can vary quite a bit, and that’s probably why folks getting referral credit for credit cards are contractually precluded from disclosing the specific amounts, since the card companies don’t want the website owners colluding with each other to push up the amount.

  9. There is also a distinction between destination travel writers and the miles & points crowd you’ll find on BoardingArea and elsewhere. I was talking to some of these “traditional” travel bloggers recently and they were amazed I had never been invited on a press trip. Maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s the kind of content I write. There are very few miles & points bloggers who go to TBEX, for example, but I’m trying it out this year just to see what I’m missing.

  10. I think ethics and hosing the travel industry are mutually exclusive, so don’t quite understand why anyone would complain.

  11. @Scottrick – my sense is a bunch of TBEX folks LIVE for press trips. It’s interesting and you’re right, most miles and points bloggers probably don’t even get the invites. And a lot of it is historical. Different cultures, don’t cross paths with the travel blog folks. So aren’t on the radar of the destination companies and PR firms pitching these things. The bloggers in the miles and points space grew out of miles and points communities, folks like Lucky and like me and later Frugal Travel Guy. Not big on networking with PR firms, started out as a hobby/passion. Lots of historical reasons I suppose, but it is a different beast for sure.

  12. i feel a lot of the bloggers who go to TBEX are the destination bloggers where they will sleep in that 8 bed mixed dorm hostel and are nomadic most of the time. personally, I can’t stay in the same city for more than 3 nights..

  13. Yet another great post, Gary. We’re in Camp #2 – not necessarily by choice, but because we write about what we’re passionate about – food & travel – and we’re just not smart enough yet to figure out how to make money at it :).

    We follow a lot of the bloggers in the points & miles space and fund a lot of our travel based on what we’ve learned from you guys. There is definitely a broad spectrum in terms of motivations, objectivity and, as a result, credibility, but VFTW has always come out at the top of the list in our book.

  14. I just signed up for a free press trip to fly over the Grand Canyon in a plane.

    Am I ethically challenged?

    I don’t think so. More like I am financially challenged that I would not spend money to fly over the Grand Canyon in a plane when I have more pressing needs for my cash.

    As a travel writer I think people would like to know about the experience of flying over the Grand Canyon. I look forward to the trip next month.

    It gives me content and gives the sponsor exposure.

    I could have had a sponsored trip to shoot machine guns in Las Vegas. That experience is outside my ethical boundary and is something I neither care to do or write about.

    At TBEX Toronto I have a couple of days of sponsored trips in and around the city.

    Bloggers are a relatively new conduit for PR firms working to get exposure for their clients.

    I meet many travel writers who rarely pay for trips around the places they visit. Most PR firms will provide everything except airfare for travel writers visiting a destination. That is the way the industry works with PR firms representing clients and seeking to get their clients media exposure and helping writers get exposure to places. Of course that exposure is skewed by who is paying the PR firm or Tourism Board for the area.

    Personally I tend to take PR trips mostly in conjunction with travel conferences where these trips are arranged for dozens or hundreds of attendees.

    In 2012 Lucky and I were SPG Amex Bloggers. It is not like Starwood Lurker or some Starwood Hotels executive contacted us to be part of the deal. The whole thing was set up by a PR firm out of New York. My initial reaction to the offer was to turn it down until a friend asked me to participate.

    Despite being given thousands of dollars in free Starwood hotel stays, I did not like the experience of working with the PR firm. New York, Hawaii and Miami Beach were great places to visit. Poorly scheduled flights and transportation were annoyances of putting my travel into the hands of less competent travel planners than myself.

    My experiences in 2012 with a couple of different PR firms has me thinking that I would be better off booking all my own travel.

    Still, I take press tours that I think are interesting places to see and hotels to stay.

    I am a miles & points blogger. As I planned my travel for next week driving from California to Colorado I came across several luxury properties along the way where I could probably sleep for free every night and post a hotel write-up.

    Instead, I’ll be earning bonus points with Choice Privileges and burning Best Western points.

  15. Good for you that you’re not accepting any comps, Gary.
    As for Lucky, it doesn’t matter whether he disclosed the fact or not.
    It still made me wonder about the bias in his report, and that’s just one too many.

  16. I’m with Gary on this. Comp or paid does not matter too much to me, as long as it is disclosed. If you read someone consistently and have an opportunity to experience the same reviewed airlines or properties, you will know if the the reviews are influenced.

  17. This is an interesting discussion. Travel is very interesting, because its both expensive and ephemeral. You can’t be sent a review sample of a hotel room or of a first-class flight. If a blogger can’t afford (either in cash or miles) to pay for the trip themselves, they can’t review it without being comped. Food reviews are like this as well, but a heck of a lot less expensive.

    So by saying that no travel blogger should accept a comped trip, you’re limiting it to bloggers that are of otherwise independent means. While I see the potential bias, I’d rather have a review (from someone who has proved their ethics in their writing) rather than not have it at all.

    I think people who wonder about bias in any comped review must not be reading any reviews at all – my company arranges product review junkets for press (particularly in the camera space) and those reviewers are flown to incredible locations, wined, dined and put up in 5-star hotels all in the name of getting good pictures (and hopefully good press). Yet I don’t see the outcry in their blogs that they are biased or sold out.

  18. Speaking as a full time journalist and occasional travel writer, I can tell you that the biggest issue these days is very few publications have the budget to commission all-expenses-paid travel. Most pay a freelance fee that doesn’t come close to covering costs. So writers are left to compromise themselves or bankrupt themselves. It’s a problem. But it’s also subtle and insidious. It’s very difficult if you’ve made a name in this business to travel incognito. The hotel upgrades and special perks just happen. And they definitely color perceptions.

    What’s different in Points & Miles blogging is the incredibly varied level of quality among bloggers (Gary and Lucky among the best; some of the worst also on this site) and the direct unvarnished connection between credit card referrals and blogger income.

    In the end, all a reader can do is find writers whose work and taste they trust, whose credibility is apparent over years of work. All of us who cover these beats these days are compromised to some extent. Some of it is blatant and disreputable; for others it’s an essential occupational hazard. Like always, it’s buyer beware.

    The unmentioned aspect of all this is what underlies most of the blogging on Boarding Area, the “gaming” practices espoused (and kept hidden) by the bloggers to maximize their annual haul. I think some of it is savvy, but some of it is tacky, bordering on obsessive, and often deleterious to the legitimate goals of the frequent traveler. But that seems to be the one topic not discussed at all!

  19. In my opinion, people are required to disclose, by law or contract, their financial ties with other companies if they are or do one of the followings: Run for or hold public office, introduce a bill that will become law, collect compensation when dispensing investment advice, investigative reporter or researcher. It is incomprehensible and inexplicable to ask a blogger to remove cc affiliated links because it will not adversely affect anyone’s bank account.Well established bloggers like you, Ben and Brian must not dignify yourself or justify your position when writing cc reviews or having cc links by responding to constant attack on this issue. Lucky must not display weakness thorough repeat apologies on cc issue. He must not give gratification of achieving victory to them by engaging in written Q & A friction with detractors. I read blogs from three of you for educational and entertaining purposes without having to be exposed to barrage of repeat uncivil attacks. If you ignore such attack, they will eventually be tired of talking to the brick wall and spare other readers the misery.

  20. Wow! What a bag of worms this opened! Thanks for the HT! I find the responses interesting and varied. One of the reasons I started my travel blog was to be a blog that was sort of in between the points world and the travel world. I collect points, but do it for one purpose and one purpose only: that is to travel. And for me, I am all about the destination. I don’t have the finances to travel everywhere I want to go, so that is how points and miles came into play. But for me, instead of being a 100% points blogger, I also wanted to be a travel blogger as well, thus It is true what Traveling Well For Less said in that there are many, many different types of travel related bloggers and each of us are in it for different reasons. I, too, have taken press trips and also disclose it in each post, but a majority of my blog posts come from personal travel, thru miles and points, way before I had a travel blog. I did want to mention that I have not only been to TBEX, but also European travel conferences such as TBE and TBU. With over 1000 in attendance for TBEX Toronto 2013, there is such a wide variety of types of travel bloggers, that it is impossible to lump them all into one category. Luxury travel writers attend these types of conferences, so it is not all hippies and nomads. Each conference also has press trips related to the conference. I like what Adam P said “In the end, all a reader can do is find writers whose work and taste they trust, whose credibility is apparent over years of work.”

  21. This was really good post and most interesting discussion. Wow, two in a row now. Waiting for the top 5 credit card related post to break the streak. Kidding:-)

  22. If you write a blog as a business or to pay your bills AND you take free trips then your client is the company not the reader. You are not reviewing but advertising. You need companies to pay for trips for you to write blog posts so you can’t do anything that will threaten the financial relationship. Personally as soon as I see a blogger has taken a comp trip I no longer read their reports. I can’t trust their honesty.

  23. After reading Gary and Ben for years, I still trust them. As for Lucky, I know there were some issues with UA way back when. That’s why he doesn’t write about them as often. I think you have to fly UA to write about them. 😉

    I think we all have blogger filters on when we read.

  24. My slightly odd take on free flights is that they are little different to a miles redemption in terms of your internal view of the cost. If I was planning to spend £5k on a J seat and looking for online reviews tomchoose an airline I would be concerned about bias in a comped trip AND a standard mileage redemption trip report.

    Heck, it is probably more effort to shmooze the PR’s for a free flight than it is to do another card churn to get the equivalent amount of miles!

  25. I’m a reader, not a blogger or travel industry worker; here’s my take: Regardless of the writer’s position, all benefits etc. not available to the general public should be disclosed. Over time, attentive readers tend to learn which writers at least try to be objective and which have sold out. In the end, it is still the reader’s responsibility to make that call Buyer Beware, especially in the travel industry. Some writers honor their moral obligations of integrity – and some do not. If one reads with care, it is not difficult tell the difference.

  26. All I can say is WOW! I have been a travel blogger/photographer/consultant for just over 2 months now. I started it because I am passionate about travel and inspiring others to get out and see the world. I am retired from the military and was a girl scout prior to that so my morals and ethics are instilled deep within me. I did not become a blogger to “get perks or free trips/lodging, etc”, not even on my list of “Why this is what I want to be when I grow up”. I merely decided that since I turn 50 this year, I was not going to wait any longer to turn my life into my job. I’m not trying to make any money but if I am able to exchange services while providing HONEST reviews of a destination or property, I am not going to turn down a potential sponsor. I will ALWAYS provide honest feedback and a disclosure and because I like to have and write about positive experiences, I will certainly research potential sponsors to ensure they are as professional as me. My motto is “I work for Jesus” and he keeps me honest. I don’t need a middle man to do that. I’m not wealthy so I am all about finding creative ways to travel as much as possible for as little as possible. I created a mission statement and core values as part of my “business” and will abide by those. I’m sorry for the ones that will quit reading my blog in the future just because I may take a press trip or sponsor. I am attending TBEX for the first time this year and am very excited about not only the conference, but being in Toronto for the first time. I am staying 2 nights for free (using my OWN Marriott free nights that I EARNED with stays) and at a hostel for the other 5 nights (that I am paying for). I’m not sure if this makes me bi-polar because I am just as happy in a 3-5 star resort as I am in a cot or bunk bed with lots of new friends. Maybe its just my military background. I’ve gotten off track as I try to respond (or maybe defend myself) to several different comments from different people. I’m just going to quit while I’m behind 🙂 Happy Travels All! Thanks for a great article and some great insight into this world I have jumped wholeheartedly into!

  27. As a travel blogger who has been writing for a few years now, I have been cautious about setting up press trips. I have done them and I will do more of them…but only if it fits my interest and what I’m looking to do.

    Quite honestly, I think I bring something a bit unique to travel. And when I contact someone about a trip, I’m not doing it to get free stuff but to get their help because tourist boards know areas better than I do. I love to focus on telling stories, meeting locals, the culture and passion of sports, and the outdoors. When I request help for a trip, I want to do something unique and interesting that most other tourists aren’t doing. So if I get a press trip out of it, I know it’s something I want to do.

    With that said, I am not a big fan of group press trips. While I’ve done a couple, I was the ONLY blogger in the group – the rest were traditional media. So I could write and focus on things that were unique and not being covered by 10 or 20 other bloggers.

    I do applaud bloggers for being open and disclosing. Frankly, it can be tough to be critical on a free trip. However, we have to be honest. We also need to make sure we aren’t overly demanding. Honesty and integrity are essential to being a blogger. We have less regulation than traditional media so our authenticity is our name. Both disclosing and being objective is something that will only enhance our reputations in the future.

  28. First of all, don’t confuse disclosure with ethics. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and if a blogger sucks up to a DMO or travel company because of freebies (or, in some cases, a cash payment), disclosing that the trip was free doesn’t make the blogger ethical. (Nor does it help the blogger’s credibility: A blogger who constantly churns out gushing tweets and Facebook updates for a trip sponsor comes across as a shill and risks damaging his or her personal brand.)

    Second, when “traditional media” (such as The New York Times) forbid comped travel (including press trips), it isn’t because of ethics, it’s because of appearances or public perception. As the travel editor of a major metropolitan newspaper explained a while back at an SATW Editors’ Council meeting, newspapers “live in glass houses.” A newspaper that trumpets the fact that City Council members have been treated to a lobbyist-sponsored junket at the Widget Island Resort doesn’t want to be put in the position of having to explain how that differs from having a staff or freelance writer being treated to a weekend at the Widget Island Resort.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that some bloggers (unlike journalists) are being paid to promote destinations or travel vendors. It isn’t unusual to hear travel bloggers refer to trip hosts as “clients,” and several relatively high-profile travel bloggers are in the business of writing bylined advertorial for DMOs and travel companies. Whether such activities are ethical or unethical is in the eye of the beholder, but the notion that such bloggers are more ethical than “traditional journalists” is nonsense.

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