Travelling Free! Ethical or Scam City?

A couple of years ago I was walking  around the Annex in Toronto and ran into a man I’d met on a beach in Thailand – what are the odds?

Just happened to meet a guy

Just happened to meet a guy

The first thing he did, after finding out I was now travel writing, was to launch into an attack on my integrity. The gist of the conversation was, “If you take the free trips, of course you’re going to write good things. Travel writing is a sham.”

My response was, “Have you read any of my stuff?”

That kind of glowing PR-ish writing he was talking about bores me and I can only assume it bores readers, too. For the most part I tend to shy away from making sweeping judgements about places. My approach is just to tell my story, to write about the people I meet and the trouble I get into. (And trust me, I can get into trouble whether a trip is paid for or not.)

My goal is to create a sense of the place without using superlatives, as in,”This is the best facial I’ve ever had!” Unless of course, it really is the most amazing facial and I suddenly look seven years younger … then I probably would write a report that’s as glowing as my freshly-peeled skin.

Unless they’re masochists, travel writers love to travel so whether a trip is free or not, they’re probably going to find something they like. And if they don’t, it’s still going to be great material which is why, when you get a group of travel writers together the conversation may go something like this, “Wow! You fell off your bike and landed on your face and broke your camera in Barcelona? What a great story that’s going to be!” (Hey, that actually happened, and yup, I wrote about it.)

BUT. I’d be crazy to deny that there is pressure to write positive things. What’s the point of pretending that a hotel or a tourist board is going to shell out thousands of bucks to fly me somewhere and put me up and feed me so that I can tell everyone how much the place sucked? This is where the integrity thing could get tricky, except it usually doesn’t because … because of a few reasons:

1) If a hotel or a cruise company really sucked, they’d probably be aware that they sucked and wouldn’t bother forking out money to get a journalist there to verify this.

2) Rather than point out how something SUCKS in an article as in saying, “XXX Restaurant is a hellish hole of canned ham,” I might simply describe the canned ham on my plate and leave it to the intelligence of the readers to glean that this is, indeed, canned ham rather than peppercorn roasted pork with vermouth pan sauce. And just the description alone of canned ham on a plate somehow strikes me as humourous, almost Dr Seuss-ish, and when things are funny I tend to enjoy myself, so I may actually end up liking the canned ham just for being the canned ham that it is and giving me something funny to write about. Is that unethical?

3) If something is truly awful, leave it out. I think many writers take this approach. It’s easy to do because on a press trip to say, Aruba, we’re not spending (wahhh!) hours on the beach. Instead, we’re seeing every tourist sight, eating at a million restaurants, doing more hummer tours, snorkel trips and city tours than we want to and generally seeing so much stuff that only our favourites will make it into an article anyway.

That said, there are many papers and mags who won’t accept any free travel, most notoriously the New York Times and the LA Times. And that’s why the recent revelation of a couple of Newsweek and New York Times writers accepting a free trip to Jamaica prompted a host of Internet buzz  like the article in Daily Finance, Ethics takes a holiday: Newsweek, New York Times writers in swag orgy.

Considering I take free trips all the time (though I still spend all my spare cash on travel) I hate to see these poor slobs slammed, yet I think the Times’ high and mighty philosophy of accepting nothing from a journalist who has had anything subsidized could use a poke or two. Then again, it might just be sour grapes on my part, because when I was just starting out, the LA Times called me, interested in publishing a story I’d sent them on Glastonbury.

“Was this trip subsidized in any way?” the editor asked.

No really, I paid my way!

No really, I paid my way!

I was so proud I could say no. On a 3-week trip around Britain I’d paid my airfare, my train fare, my food and room. “The only thing I got,” I said, “was that Visit Britain said they’d reimburse me for four nights hotel, but that wasn’t in Glastonbury.”

“Sorry,” said the editor. “If anything was free we can’t accept it.”

That was a blow. I could have just left that free part out, I suppose, as it wasn’t relevant to Glastonbury, but on the other hand it saved me a lot of guilt down the line. What if it came back to haunt me somehow? And anyway, how could I tell anything but the truth? Because, as you know, a journalist, especially a travel journalist, would never lie.

Nice view. Shame about the subsidy.

Nice view. Shame about the subsidy.

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3 Responses

  1. Nice piece. As far as free travel goes, it seems to me that, if a newspaper or magazine wants the writer to replicate a typical consumer experience, the writer should be required to pay expenses out of his or her pocket. That would be tough on staff travel editors, but taking away their expense accounts would be a win-win situation for the periodical: The editor’s travel experience would be more authentic, and the publication would save a few bucks that could be used for employee buyouts or severance pay.

  2. Good piece. I have long been interested in this “grey” area. Once was told by stranger in a museum line-up, “Tavel writers? You’re all scum” (or words to that effect). Another favourite line is, “We couldn’t accept a cup of coiffee when I was a journalist at X.” ( But it takes more than a cup of coffee–or a hosted trip with its tten-twelve hour days to buy my love.) I agree, however, that in an ideal world–the one where NYTimes editors presumably live–not the editors whose journos were winning prizes for filing made-up investigative pieces written in their apartments–we’d all pay for our own trips and/or be independently wealthy. In this world, however, travel departments are understaffed and writers are underpaid. I have found little difference between my account of a hosted or a non-hosted trip since (a) travel writers LIKE to travel and (b) if something like your Barcelona incident happens, it’s too good NOT to write about. It gets in–and for me, this includes threats of arrest, racism, and sudden-onset barking madness.

  3. […] October 26, 2009 by wanderingcarol Free trips! Free trips! It’s still a hot topic (see post below). I just came across a post on Gadling.com by Tom Johansmeyer called Free press travel: necessary […]

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