Are freebies ethical? A short summary

A debate often had in the travel writing world is whether the practice of taking freebies – from tourist boards, airlines, restaurants or tour companies – is ethical.

Lots of people have different opinions on this, and one of the most famous travel writers – The Indepdendent's Simon Calder – is known as 'the man who pays his way' because he refuses such things.

However, the majority of us can't actually afford to pay our way to travel the world and write about it, so it seems freebies (in the form of press trips) are the only solution. But with this come a number of ethical concerns. Here's a by no means exhaustive list of the pros and cons of free travel, and how to deal with them while retaining your journalistic integrity.

1. Pro: freebies make travel writing accessible to all

As mentioned above, if we all had to pay our way to travel the travel writing industry would be a rich person's game (and it once was).

While today's travel is far cheaper than the past, and many people can afford to hop on a plane or train to escape for a week, it's still not affordable if you want to make a living doing it. You might be able to do a weekend in Dublin for £150, but that'll likely cancel out the writing fee from any commissions you secure.

Conclusion: freebies mean the travel industry is more diverse than it has been before.

2. Con: you may not see the full picture

Often on press trips – on either individual or group trips – you'll be whisked around from place to place seeing the shiny PR-polished version of wherever you are. Often, the reality can be somewhat different.

Whether it's exceptional service in a restaurant or the biggest and best room in the hotel, your experience may well differ from the average traveller's all down to your being a journalist. This means it can be tricky to write up an accurate review.

Conclusion: this requires you to be a little discerning. With your journalist head on, question everything. Ask to see other rooms in the hotel, talk to the staff, in restaurants eavesdrop on others' interactions, talk to the customers.

You can't stop the PR from giving you their preferred version of events, but you can investigate on your own to find out what it's really like.

3. Pro: you often get priority

Whether you're skipping the queue at an attraction, getting an unofficial tour from a museum curator or perhaps just getting into the airport lounge for free, press trips often get you priority over the general public.

The difficulties of this situation are addressed above, but it can also be a good thing. Being 'press' often makes your job a hell of a lot easier.

It could mean free internet at the airport so you can keep working while you wait, or even some extra insight into an attraction or museum that you can pass onto your readers in your published piece.

Conclusion: be aware that you're getting special treatment, but don't disregard it all. As above: be discerning but use your position to your advantage.

4. Con: you have some obligation to your hosts

Of course, with freebies, comes obligation. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch.

Once you've accepted and taken a freebie, you're often obliged to write about it. Few PRs employ official terms and conditions, but some will insist you sign to say you'll give adequate coverage.

You should not, however, be obliged to write positive things about it. If you really feel the need to write a bad review, do it (though be prepared to be black-listed by that PR). I have a rule for myself on this one: if I can't say anything good about it, I won't say anything at all. I'll often let the PR know if I had a bad experience – this way they can feed back to their client, and it ensures they understand why I can't review their product.

Conclusion: you can keep your integrity, you just have to stand your ground and give good reasoning.

This was, as previously mentioned, not an exhaustive look at the ethics of press trips, but hopefully will offer some insight and advice on how to handle them for yourself. Here is an excellent article on integrity in travel writing and how to keep it.

Lottie Gross

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