Almost Fearless

Belize Wrap Up: Thoughts on Traveling for Free

Belize, Central America, press trip, Tourism, international travel


I was in Belize, a paid trip by the Belize board of Tourism and I’m slurping down ceviche and broiled lobster and wondering about ethics. You see the point that became clear for me, in a way that only $200/night hotel rooms and free samples of Aveda shampoo can crystallize—is that there are no writers paying for this out of pocket. I don’t dare to do that math, but a $1000 flight, $200+/night for 5 nights accommodations and 3 meals a day that included apps and dessert (yes even for lunch) plus non-stop activities, air and ground transfers from one end of the country to the other, I’d say we’re looking a $500/day budget. Easy.

The big debate about travel writing comes down to semantics. Can you be objective if someone else pays the bills? To which I ask: does it matter if the check is picked up by your publication or the tourism board? Because let’s not kid ourselves. The writers in any glossy travel mag aren’t staying at spa resorts out of pocket. Someone else is paying. Does it make a difference to the writer if a PR group pays or your boss? Not really. It’s still free. It’s still a luxury that you couldn’t afford on your own. Does it impact coverage? Absolutely. But not in the way you’d think. Most travel writers aren’t approaching the medium like a restaurant reviewer. They aren’t visiting a location to covertly judge and measure everything and produce at 1-5 star rating. It’s about the angle, the story, the bigger picture.

In short, the story is the bias. I didn’t write about where we stayed or what we ate, but rather about traveling pregnant and my take on authentic tourism in Belize. I brought my own agenda and my experiences were filtered through that lens, not necessarily the objectives of anyone who arranged the trip. What impact did the insertion of public relations into my travel have? Access. Seriously. Sure, they probably made sure that my hotel room was extra clean or that they were quick on the water refills at dinner but I don’t write about those things. The biggest difference to me, as an independent traveler, was getting to meet the chef at each restaurant. Spending time with tour guides who were willing to be pumped for information. Having an after dinner drink with the hotel owner. Finding the stories that interested me.

Is it the only way to write about travel? Absolutely not. I could have spent the entire time in Dangria, following Garifuna drummers around and trying to learn everything I could about the African influence on Belizean culture, for $20/day. I would have stayed in modest locations, spent time interviewing locals and picking up as much Creole as possible. That has value. But it was interesting to me that what some people have classified as unethical, i.e. receiving “freebies” and not paying for my travel out of pocket, actually opened me up to stories I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

It reminds me in a way of the age-old traveler vs. tourist argument, which is really about purity. On some levels I’m interested in that, the idea of the pure travel writer, gritty and determined to experience it all and report back in flowery detail. I want that ideal, but it gets in the way of itself. It romanticizes hardship and scorns comfort. It assesses value based on obscurity. It frowns on name brands. To me, it seems that sometimes a place is well known because it’s awesome. Sometimes the obscure mountain village isn’t charming but a hell-hole. If you’re fitting the “authentic” mold then you’re conforming as much as the guy writing 500-word travel filler about his last cruise.

There was one thing about this trip that made me really excited for the future.  This was a group of bloggers. In some ways they didn’t know what to do with us, and having done this trip, I have lots of ideas of how we could have used our shared resources better. But we are online writers. We’re not on assignment. We’re Twittering and blogging and talking about Stumbleupon and HootSuite.  I think it’s a very exciting development, and hopefully we can figure out how to make it work beyond replicating the print model and inserting the word “blogger” into the itinerary.

Did I mention I loved Belize? The only side effect is my inclination to work the phrase, “You better Belize It” into every conversation. Maybe they did unduly influence me. Or perhaps there was something in that last bite of key lime pie. Totally worth it.

I know I haven’t posted enough photos, so here’s a slideshow of all my Flickr set from the trip (double click to view in new window):

Pic: Lars Ploughmann

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • I went on my first hosted trip as a travel blogger in September and I had many of the same questions. You answered them for yourself, and for me, in very thoughtful ways. No matter who pays the bill, you as a writer bring your own spin to every story. Multiply that by the number of bloggers on that trip and you get that many different stories to tell. It’s a good move by the tourism board.
    .-= Kim Tracy Prince´s last blog ..10 Things About Zumba =-.

  • I don’t think free trips have an inherent moral problem, but I’m personally more interested in reading about experiences I might want to replicate. So I’m interested in your thoughts on Belize generally, but not so much on the $500-a-night experience (I typically budget £100/day).
    .-= Rachel Cotterill´s last blog ..A Special Shopping Street =-.

  • Rachel,

    You bring up a really good point and something I’ve thought about as well. My theory is that the hotels and restaurants were picked based on that old print model, where you have people writing on assignment for high end luxury travel mags. A $200/night hotel is a steal. Spending $500 a day on your vacation is completely expected. But I think long term, they’ll have to think about whether that model works for all online folks (although there are definitely some luxury travel bloggers out there) or if they would be better served to tone down the accommodations and splurge on some other aspect. I think we both (PR folks and bloggers) have a lot to learn about each other and about what an online audience wants vs print.

  • Nice post. I work as an old-school travel journalist and get hosted in that capacity rather than as a blogger.

    I’ve no problem with the idea of hosting per se. I agree – it’s not the hosting that creates bias. If I don’t pay for my hotel room, it’s only an ethical minefield when I’m writing a review of that hotel. If I’m writing a piece on the arts scene in a city or a trek up a nearby volcano, then who cares? It’s simply a case of keeping my costs down and being able to afford to write about a destination that I’d otherwise not be paid enough to be able to justify.

    The real problem of bias comes when it’s not just me. If I’m surrounded by a whole host of other journalists/ bloggers and we’re ferried around from place to place on a bus, then my perception of a place is seriously skewed. I like to get on public transport, wander around by myself and rock up at a random bar to earwig/ strike up a conversation. It’s very difficult to do that when you’re being constantly shepherded and herded around with other people from your own industry.

    I don’t do group trips any more because of this, and I’m extremely specific with PR people when I get hosting for an individual trip. I like to stay in and eat at places that someone on an average income (such as myself) could afford. If it’s hosted, then great – I only feel discomfort if I’m put up in a luxury joint that I couldn’t ordinarily afford to pay for myself. I also like plenty of free time in which I can poke around into the areas I’m not supposed to poke around into.

    There’s a massive difference between alleviating the writer’s costs & faciltating their research and putting on a lavish junket in return for as much positive coverage as possible. The latter is where the problem lies – and is why we see so many travel publications filled with gushing drivel about upmarket spa resorts.
    .-= David Whitley´s last blog ..Air Asia X cheap flights 2010: London Stansted to Perth, Gold Coast & Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia =-.

  • David,

    Is there an actual casual link between “so many travel publications filled with gushing drivel about upmarket spa resorts” and press trips? Isn’t it a chicken/egg thing?

    Personally, I think the consumer desire to read travel porn about places they’ll never go and to be spoonfed overprice itineraries has something to do with it. It’s not like glossy magazine in general– even outside of travel– are these temples of integrity. We like a little trashy writing with our pretty pics.

    I mean folks have tried to do other models of writing for travel mags and failed. People wouldn’t buy it. Let’s not give writers that much credit for shaping the entire industry (or PR firms, depending on who you think is driving the bus).

    But I do agree that it makes it harder to get a good story if you’re not allowed to roam a bit. I’d have a hard time (read: I wouldn’t) doing this kind of travel exclusively.

  • There’s a certain truth to the public wanting travel porn, yes. But it’s largely about advertising, I suspect. Income for travel publications (particularly newspapers) comes largely from advertising rather than cover price. To a certain extent, the publications couldn’t care less who’s reading it as long as they advertisers are happy to pump money in.

    A lot of those advertisers want to be seen as upmarket, and thus want to be alongside content that is upmarket (read: gushing drivel about luxury spa resorts that 99% of the population will never get near).

    This is the real reason why most travel publications tend to skew towards the luxury end of the market – advertisers have deeper pockets because they are selling high value products. Resort A only really needs a few people to come in as a result of one advert for it to pay for itself. For travel companies where the prices are lower and margins are tighter, they need an awful lot more traffic per advert. Hence it’s very difficult to get a magazine about genuine budget travel or the sort of holidays the average Joe can afford off the ground.

    Personally, I think the oft-ignored majority of the travelling public is crying out for an honest, warts-and-all, entertaining travel publication. God only knows how you’d monetise it though.

    You’re right – some of this is down to the consumer. People clearly like a bit of travel porn. But how much is this due to the scarcity of credible* alternatives?

    *And entertaining. I bang on about this, but the main problem with an enormous percentage of travel writing is that it’s excruciatingly dull.
    .-= David Whitley´s last blog ..The battle of the reclining seat: What are the rules? =-.

  • Great post, I’m excited about the inclination to begin sending bloggers on such trips as well. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the coming years, which offers great opportunities for the people already traveling on their own dime to access those different experiences you mentioned, and write about them as well. To their own audiences, smaller perhaps, but probably a lot more loyal and engaged (vs those of a magazine or newspaper).

    And I titled a post “You’d Better Belize It” after my 2006 trip so you’re in good company!
    .-= Dave´s last blog ..Let’s Be Adventurous: Solutions for a Picky Eater =-.

  • Hi Christine,
    I went on my first blogger media trip in March to Israel. And I totally agree with the points you have raised. Because let’s face it, even glossy magazines send their writers on assignment, covering their expenses. Very few travel writers/freelancers actually pay their own way through a trip – and usually, these are “novice” writers or those trying to break in to the travel writing industry. And I’ve been on both sides – accepting sponsored trips and paying my own way. Is there a difference in my writing style and opinion about a place? No. Because I mostly write about experiencing a city. The fancy hotels and meals are just “gravy”.

    So I go on pondering this age-old debate of free vs not free, and I just realized that as an avid traveller, it is very unlikely that I would NOT enjoy a location. Unless a place was really shitty and I get raped or mugged or something, then I probably would find something positive to write about. And if I don’t like a place, I simply DON’T write about it. The harsh reality is, magazines are primarily about promoting / marketing tourism and earning those advertising dollars. But I hope bloggers can change that – for bloggers to gain integrity online by writing about both the facts and their personal experience in a purposeful way.
    .-= Jen Laceda´s last blog ..Lubitel 166+ Camera Giveaway!!! =-.

  • Could having more than 1 master be the solution and have a clear outline of what the expectations on both sides should be?

    Just mentioned your site in Working Vacation Visas, Work, Travel and Play if 35 and Under, US Passport not a Plus on ‘Serge the Concierge’.

    Took the liberty of using your ‘Last Chance Cafe’ pic as an illustration.

    Happy Thanksgiving

    ‘The French Guy from New Jersey
    .-= Serge Lescouarnec´s last blog ..Working Vacation Visas, Work, Travel and Play if 35 and Under, US Passport not a Plus =-.

  • Great piece, Christine! But it’s not true that “there are no writers paying for this (travel) out of pocket” – most of the travel writers I know pay for travel out-of-pocket. The majority of guidebook writers certainly do, indeed Lonely Planet has a no comps/discounts for authors policy, although of course not all writers adhere to it. Not all guidebook publishers pay expenses; many only pay a token amount, however, the sum would hardly cover meals for a week on an 3-month project. I know of a number of magazines and newspaper travel sections that also have a no comps policy for their freelancers – despite their own full-time editors accepting freebies.

    My husband (and coauthor/photographer) and I almost always pay for our travel out of pocket and we have lucrative careers. We frequently go to a destination with only one or two magazine commissions (although more often than not we’d have lined up half a dozen commissions to warrant a trip to a particular place) – and we’ve been travelling constantly for the last 4 years this way. The commissions might cover the cost of our air-fares but we know we can confidently sell other stories from the content-gathering we do to justify the expense. I know many other writers who work this way.

    Like David, we don’t do group press trips – we’ve never done a big group tour in our lives, wouldn’t do one, and don’t intend to. For us the group press trip replicates the tour bus experience. For us personally, that’s not what travel is about, and for me, part of the fun is organizing the trip. Then when we’re there, we love making our own way around (and learning how to do that) and meeting the locals on taxi rides, at shawarma stands, in restaurants, galleries, shops, etc. Learning about the restaurant scene through chefs/sommeliers/waiters, the fashion scene through boutique owners/designers, the music scene through musicians/venue managers, etc, is what makes our job so much fun.

    I’ve also never had a PR organize a famil for me; I organize my own hotel/meal comps/media rates – it’s easy to do, I email the hotel/restaurant directly and simply ask for a media rate. More often than not we get one, but in some cases, we might just get a big discount. I always follow up with them later with detailed feedback and will forward the stories when they come out. The relationships I’ve developed working this way have been invaluable in securing me other hotel stays around the world. If we have to pay $200+ a night for a $500-hotel room, we do. Because we know we can sell a review on that hotel or incorporate that hotel into a story far easier than we can a bland mid-range place. the but we’ll ensure we sell-on something that covers the cost of paying in full.

    I apply the same ethical standards to how I evaluate a property/restaurant, whether it’s a comp/discounted stay or I’m paying for it out-of-pocket. The only difference is that if a hotel/resto has discounted/comped us, out of respect/fairness, I’ll give them any negative feedback before our critical review comes out. Or we simply won’t write about experience. A wasted meal/stay, but it happens occasionally. Rarely, because we’ve done our research, but it does happen.

    And I *always* do the math! That’s how I’ve created a travel writing model that works for us. 🙂
    .-= lara dunston´s last blog ..An update from the road =-.

  • Lara,

    No worries! I appreciate you sharing your perspective. To clarify when I said no writers are paying for this, I was referring to the $500/day type budget. Maybe there are some… but it sounds like from your comments that no one is really paying full price at a minimum (media rates and so forth).

    To me the math doesn’t work out, but it sounds like you guys are able to make it work by writing a lot of pieces about each place. A $2500-$4000 trip would be how may pieces? Maybe eight? Forgive my ignorance but are there writers that are able to place eight stories from a single week long trip?

    Also, I’m sure I’m just being sensitive here, but it’s interesting to me that the two established travel writers who have commented have left similar comments. There’s a certain feeling I get that there’s this “travel writer” right way to do it. Is there a hint of travel snobbery about press trips? Or is there a desire to control how the industry is talked about? It’s curious as I find my own path that I keep hearing these same messages, but on the other hand there is all this talk about being able to “make a living”. Why avoid press trips if it would pay the bill completely? Truly is it impossible to find quality stories if a tourism board is involved? I’m not picking a fight (dear lord at least I hope not) but I’m curious. I was still able to talk to people and do my thing. I thought I found some angles I could sell and I was happy to write about. I learned alot. So I haven’t really experienced this in-your-face thing people talk about. I’m not sure I would do it all the time but if it gets me out to places I wouldn’t otherwise visit, what’s the harm?

  • Many guidebook writers are paying full price due to the no comps policy of some publishers – so that’s a few hundred writers working for LP. New York Times, Conde Nast, Nat Geo Traveller don’t allow comps. I know of a few Australian and UK magazines/newspaper supplements that don’t either, so that’s a lot of writers. We definitely have our close-to-$500 days, especially say if we’re paying $200 for a hotel, another $250 for lunch and dinner, and the rest on sundry expenses (entrance tickets and the like), but then we’ll have days where we’re paying very little at all because I’ve been able to organize comps or because of the nature of what we’re doing. I do the math and I find they all balance out nicely.

    We recently generated ten pieces on one destination from a two-week trip, which ranged from small 150-word pieces to accompany full-page pics that only paid £150 to mid-length stories paying around £400 to a longer feature paying £600. We recently went to Jerusalem/Ramallah for 4 days on one commission (paying US$2000), and because it was such a challenging trip (hard to organize, experienced lengthy border delays, were detained and interrogated at a checkpoint), we decided to stay on and make it worth our while as we probably won’t return again, so we went and gathered content in Tel Aviv, spending four days trying out two hotels and dining at the best restaurants. I’m confident we’ll sell those stories and Terry of course will sell his pics. We do fewer guidebooks now than we once did (by choice), but we’d often go to a place on a $15,000 guidebook commission, break even, but then make some profit by selling stories post-trip.

    What tends to happen is we do a combination of expensive trips (generally to European destinations) and cheap trips (MidEast); the latter are cheaper not because we’re staying in less expensive accommodation (on the contrary), but because we have so many low-cost airlines in the region, we’ll only pay $50-150 max for flights, and we can balance out a $150 meal at a fine-diner with superb street food that might feed the two of us for $5 and we can write about both. Because we’re considered Mid-East experts and have a huge body of work on the region, we have a constant stream of commissions coming in throughout the year on those destinations, no matter where we are. So we often find ourselves writing about Dubai from Darwin, or Beirut when we’re in Bangkok. That content might come from a trip or experience 6 months before, so we see any travel we do as a long-term investment.

    We simply wouldn’t do this if the math didn’t work out. During our careers my husband and I have gone from freelance to full-time and back again, and we’ve both had highly-paid full-time jobs. We don’t see what we do as a paid holiday, we treat it like a business. We do the math and we try not to take on jobs that won’t be lucrative, but of course occasionally we make bad decisions. There are a few guidebook publishers we won’t work for again for that reason.

    Often the best-paying stories come to us from the most surprising places. We actually work quite differently to David. For one, we no longer have a home base (so we only pay rent on our storage units – one in Dubai, and another in Sydney!), because at the end of 2005 we had a year’s worth of projects lined up for 2006 which meant we would rarely have been at home in Dubai, so we packed up, went on the road as a one-year experiment (which we’re writing a book about) and we’re still travelling four years later.

    On our part (and I’m sure David’s), there’s no snobbery about press trips. (And I certainly don’t care how the industry is talked about). My husband and I hate tours (we’ve travelled independently together for over 20 years), I hate other people organizing things for me and dictating how we spend our time. We don’t write for tour groups. So we would never consider doing a group press trip. We love to travel the way we travel, doing our own research, making our own plans, doing our own thing, having total freedom, and being completely flexible. If we want to stay out until 5am in Barcelona and sleep in until noon, we’ll do it. If we arrive in a place and want to stay longer we will. If we hate a place and want to get the hell out of there we can. We often travel with one-way tickets. We recently went to Jordan thinking we’d stay a week and stayed two. We couldn’t travel – and wouldn’t want to – without that flexibility and ability to be spontaneous. Simple as that. We would much prefer to pay our own way, no matter how much it cost, and then pitch and sell stories later.

    There’s no right way to do it. Writers need to figure out what works for them and how they prefer to travel. We weren’t always “established writers”. While we do have a steady stream of work, I work very hard to pitch stories, we don’t always get the stories we want, and it can often a struggle to juggle commissions and meet deadlines. This job is not easy. As I’ve said in posts on my blog, we work 15 hour days on average, and only take 3 days off a year (Christmas period), but it’s ****** satisfying and tonnes of fun.

    Woops… another novel, sorry! That’s a 10-minute response, so now you see how we churn so much content out! 🙂
    .-= lara dunston´s last blog ..An update from the road =-.

  • Christine, I don’t want to hijack this conversation, but I can’t resist dropping a hint about a project that will make a lot of travel writers/bloggers happy… I’m not allowed to say anything yet until the project’s official launch, however, Terry and I have actually been contracted for the whole of 2010 by a company (not a publisher) to travel the world and blog, write and photograph our experiences. We’re being paid industry writing rates too! I think that this will be the first initiative of its kind and should really get other companies thinking about how they can work with writers/bloggers. (We do both of course). As soon as I can, I’ll announce it on my blog and twitter page and we’ll be launching a new dedicated blog and twitter page too. Now that’s the last you’ll hear from me, I promise! 🙂
    .-= lara dunston´s last blog ..An update from the road =-.

  • There’s absolutely no right or wrong way of doing things. The group press trips work for some people and not for others. They don’t work for me (particularly in the context of selling six or seven articles from a one week trip – which is certainly possible but requires a certain ruthlessness in organising the itinerary).

    Put simply, my aim is to get as a many stories as possible from a visit. That’s far more likely to happen if the itinerary is shaped around my needs rather than if my needs are shaped around the itinerary. It’s a lot easier to do the former if I’m working together on an individual basis with tour operators/ tourist boards/ PRs and virtually impossible when I’m travelling in a group with other journalists who have different interests. And, more importantly, are getting the exact same stories.

    You can speak to 100 travel writers, and you’ll find 100 different ways of working. Mine is very different to Lara’s – partly because I’m more likely to sell the story on the good value midrange hotel than the luxury hotel, partly because of divergent areas of interests, partly because I work from a base and she travels constantly. We also have very different outlets.

    It just so happens that neither of us do group press trips – and many travel writers do – because they don’t suit our needs and way of working.

    For me, it’s not about snobbishness, it’s about efficiency.
    .-= David Whitley´s last blog ..Air Asia X cheap flights 2010: London Stansted to Perth, Gold Coast & Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia =-.

  • Hi, I am not a travel writer or any kind of writer by any means but I do love to see and read about where you have been! I really enjoyed looking at your photos of what you experienced in Belize. (What did they serve on that bed of spinach? It looked delicious as did all the other food plates!!!) I have enjoyed reading your discussions in your comments section. I have to say that as a reader, I dont really care how you get paid (:)), but I do love to read about ALL the experiences you have, whether good or bad and I also do like to read about where you stay and what you eat. Photos of course and lots of them like in your slideshow was very helpful to visualize the experience. All those food shots made me very hungry for that food! Continue writing and traveling, we will keep reading!
    .-= Lillian Sockwell´s last blog ..Christmas Cheer Card =-.

  • […] Christine Gilbert shares her thoughts on travelling for free. […]

  • Hi Christine,

    As a former hotelier and a publicist, these people know what they are getting themselves into when they invite writers on FAMS (aka familiarization trips – which are almost always comped). It is up to them to do their homework on you before they extend the invitation.

    Safe travels and keep up the good work – I enjoy reading about your adventures,

  • Fascinating read, Christine, and I really appreciate the great follow-up comments as well, everyone. I don’t believe that press trips are unethical–how else are full-time travel writers supposed to afford to go to so many places and experience so many things (especially those just beginning their careers). I think transparency is important, though, and an attempt to be as unbiased as possible.

    Having not been on a press trip myself, I admit to having had some preconceived notions about them, though. I had pictured them being like tours, only busier, where you are ushered around from activity to activity by your hosts from morning to night, with no free time to pursue your own story angles. This could be a problem for bloggers, who have a variety of different specialty areas and interests. I would be dismayed to go on a press trip and be ushered around to only activities that are best suited to couples or families, for instance, since I’m a solo travel blogger. That’s not going to appeal to me or my target audience.

    If the purpose of the trip is to showcase a region or destination (as opposed to a particular resort), I think it would be to the benefit of the destination if they simply put the bloggers up in lodging, maybe host a few group activities, but then provide the bloggers with lots of free time to sniff out stories on their own. 10 articles about the same luau doesn’t exactly showcase the diversity of a place. But if you set 10 bloggers loose in a region with plenty of freedom to pursue their own interests, I imagine you’d wind up with some very interesting and different articles showcasing the diversity of a region for visitors of all sorts.

    How much free time DID you have on this trip, Christine?
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..5 (More) Things I’m Thankful For =-.

  • Gray,

    It was a fam trip, which means the goal was to introduce the writers to the country, not to the specific resorts. As such, it was sponsored by the Belize Board of Tourism. We saw Placencia, Cayo District, and San Pedro in five days,

    You wrote, “I think it would be to the benefit of the destination if they simply put the bloggers up in lodging, maybe host a few group activities, but then provide the bloggers with lots of free time to sniff out stories on their own.”

    They will do that for certain types of trips, especially if the writer arranges something with BBT in advance. This trip was not like that… because of our hectic schedule, flying from one end of Belize to the other we didn’t have as much free time as I would have liked. However I think if you read the blog entries by each writer, you’ll find that we didn’t come back with 10 identical stories… I specifically wrote about my experiences being pregnant and hiking the jaguar reserve (an event we all did, but I brought my own perspective too, naturally) and about the authentic tourism push at Ka’ana and what this would mean for Belizeans– something I don’t think anyone else wrote about.

    I think the natural assumption is that is 10 people do the same thing, we’ll all come back like little writer robots and produce 10 identical stories. What was interesting was that instead of that happening we all had different takes on our experiences… pieces that we found interesting, stories that we found and others didn’t, or a perspective unique to a single writer.

  • Thanks for clarifying, Christine. I have read your articles on your trip, but not all of those written by the others; I will check them out to see which angles they took on their articles. You did cover a lot of geographic territory in 5 days, so I can see why you wouldn’t have much time to pursue your own interests at each destination.
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..5 (More) Things I’m Thankful For =-.

  • Christine wrote: “’s interesting to me that the two established travel writers who have commented have left similar comments. There’s a certain feeling I get that there’s this “travel writer” right way to do it. Is there a hint of travel snobbery about press trips? Or is there a desire to control how the industry is talked about? It’s curious as I find my own path that I keep hearing these same messages, but on the other hand there is all this talk about being able to “make a living”. ”

    No, there’s not a single-model travel writer right way to do it. I think what the truth is, and just to state it in a general way, is that there’s a somewhat different model for each travel writer. That’s the part you don’t get – you think of all of this very very formulaically like you were still in a regimented day job, and surveying some people in another company doing a similar line of work somewhat differently. You think all travel writers are over here in this zone and work according to this established formula, and all “bloggers” are over there and do that in this community. Very tightly compartmentalized, and not really taking into account the realities of what either medium offers potentially at this point in time although you do a lot of math justifiying the Happy Community Theory elsewhere online. So let me describe how I think it goes at least for the person still okay with the notion of being a free agent without over concern about either “travel journalist” or “blogger” stereotypes you’re preoccupied by: a travel writer is simply aware of his/her potential markets and exploits them as needed according to what the material on-hand is suitable for. Even with online media that’s huge now and there are different terms entirely being offered by different sites. And that, unfortunately, is a truth neither you nor anyone else can escape from – the defining principle of success isn’t just being in control of your own website, being part of a Magic Circle or anything else – you know, the one where you’ve insisted elsewhere is the only one where people can “make a living”. It has much mor to do instead with the law of intellectual property rights and how you choose to exploit those rights. That’s why travel writers will never ignore the internet, but they won’t be defined entirely by it either. Nor will publicists or resort owners buy into an “either/or” proposition to choose between travel writers and bloggers for a press trip. That, in fact, would be weird, since as I’m pointing out – most travel writers are already blogging, ergo exploiting their electronic rights. Publicists and resort operators too realize that it’s unwise to exclude anyone from any credible outlet from a particular medium that’s commissioned someone. That’s all. It seems a bit ironic that in your preoccupation with what travel writers do/don’t do and all the cliches, you miss the point that Belize in fact is a rather good score for anyone writing in any medium – filled with yuppie retirees, opening new flight routes, cheap, has diving and is adding more adventure, and just acquired a North American agency namely BVK which up until now has been rather inert about ever staging press trips (on behalf of other TB’s it represnts). There are many many press trips out there all the time where people are onboard from the full spectrum of outlets – print, online, broadsheet. It’s usually a great opportunity to understand the variations other writers on the trip are pursuing that makes their travel writing life sustainable, because it’s never one hundred percent the same formula as your own.

  • Hi Hal,

    I’m flattered that you’ve been reading my blog for the past six weeks while you stewed over the comments from that Tnooz article that said “Internet is killing journalism” where I commented that the author should look at embracing the internet and building his own site (and I should note I’m a regular reader of that writer’s personal blog). At which point you called me specifically and anyone else who blogs a spammer.

    So I’m flattered, but I’m not rehashing that arguement here or the one you seem to be trying to start now. You’ve made a bunch of assumptions about what I believe, what I experienced, and what I missed out on. I’m sorry you feel like I personally represent something for you, but I’m just someone who you lashed out on in a comment thread and you’re projecting a whole bunch of negativity at me, that doesn’t have anything to do with who I am, or our interactions.

    Go in peace.

  • It’s really interesting to get the insider’s view from professional and semi professional writers. I think it’s great that Lara can call her own shots and make a living out of writing and travelling the way she wants to, however as with any job it tends to take a number of years building up your experience and contacts before you get to that level of freedom.

    I took a Tourism bourd sponsored trip to Istria earlier this year and what I enjoyed was, a. that they paid for my family to come too and b. that we were left to do and see the things we enjoyed that I could then write about. As we were flying on inexpensive flights, I don’t think the overall cost was huge. That’s the sort of trip I’d like to do more of, but I won’t turn my nose up at a press trip to somewhere nice if it’s offered. However, as I’m not a professional travel writer there could be something a bit hollow and lonely about that scenario, if you’d really rather be back home with your loved ones.

    Not too concerned about whether it’s ethical to be stay in a nice hotel for free. We bring our internal ethics with us and as you say, it’s more about bringing the angle that offers entertainment and value to the reader.
    .-= Heather on her travels´s last blog ..Kolkata in India: City of Joy =-.

  • Great post, interesting comments. Just to add my experience – like David Whitley, Lara Dunston and others here, I’m also a professional full-time freelance travel writer with (I like to think) a moderately decent reputation – but, for reference rather than boasting, in the last six-and-a-half years of travel (roughly fifty trips) I have never once paid for my own flights, and hardly ever for my own accommodation other than a night or two of fillers here and there.

    Who pays me is irrelevant: I have never felt obliged to write something positive – unless, of course, the hotel/restaurant/guide/experience/whatever merits it.

    But what I DO do, like Lara, is I try to be scrupulous about staying in touch with the hotels, tourist boards and travel firms who host me – giving them direct feedback (bad where needed), passing on published material… it’s very important, I think – respectful but also honest.

    Travel journos who see a hosted (i.e. paid-for) trip as a kind of holiday in all but name – lazing around on a beach, sipping cocktails, scoffing fancy meals and generally living the high life – are effectively the bad apples in the barrel. Travel is work (or should be): if, like Lara, you write about high-end travel, then eating posh meals should be undertaken as work – as she does, you interview the chef, you ask to see the kitchen, you make notes about the meal, you talk to the maitre d’ – and so on. It’s about integrity.

    On the same theme I blogged here:
    about an attempt I made recently to – in a small way – alter the payment model in the UK for freelance journalists writing for the national newspapers: in short, to disconnect the money from the journalism (while staying clear of the, for me, disastrous fund-yourself model…).

    It failed, of course, but gave some food for thought. I’d be interested to hear people’s opinions…
    .-= Matthew Teller´s last blog ..To the Max =-.

  • Matthew–

    Great post, thanks for sharing that link with us. It’s interesting to see the comments there as well. There is definitely an interesting double standard– full page ads from the related tourism board across from article written by an author that’s required to never take press trips or any kind of comp’d travel by their guidelines.

    I liked this comment from your post by Nathan, “In dismissing the idea that quality is tied to particular funding models, you reduce everything to the calibre of journalist and editor. That is rather nice. What you suggest isn’t perfect, but if it represents a way to keep good writing alive under extreme pressure then so be it.”

    Well said.

  • GREAT post – have been getting into travel photography (accompanying writers and PR people to photograph the stories) and this really brings a new perspective for me! Fascinating to read.

  • Hi, I’ve learned so much about the industry and its very different stands on comps just by reading the comment thread. A very enlightening and educational conversation! Thanks for posting!
    .-= Jen Laceda´s last blog ..Quebec Road Trip with the Equinox – Part 1 Vieux Quebec =-.

  • I really enjoyed your post, it provided an excellent window into what it is like to “make it” as a blogger and your concerns about the whole process.

    FYI, you totally convinced a newbie that it’s a lot of fun and definitely worth investing time throwing words into cyberspace. 🙂
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..What Americans call "soccer" =-.

  • It seems that the issue with paid tours is that you cannot trust the content. “If I don’t like the place I DON’T write about it” was written above. There is a big problem with positive rankings – that is not just limited to travel writing – ebay and amazon are trying to work out how to deal with this. For example: The average ranking of any product on Amazon is 4.5 out of 5. Given the sheer number of products on Amazon, you would expect the rankings to revert to the mean (2.5), but they don’t. Therefore if you want to find an “above average product” you’ve got to look for those that rank 4.6 and above. EBay has a similar problem.
    When I am assessing where to go / where to stay / what to buy (electronic’s) I use the following formula. I decide what my minimum requirements are – in the case of a hotel – a clean bed, clean bathroom and relatively quiet, centrally located and price range. I then read the negative reviews. Is there anything that I can’t live with? Dirt, loud noise. If the complaint is that the room service is too slow – I eat out. If it says the rooms were dirty – it gets deleted. Any positives are a bonus, the negatives will ruin my stay.
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Impressions of North Korea – Visit to Kumsun Palace =-.

  • This was great, Christine. I get so sick and tired of reading what other travel writers post about how taking comps is unethical, so it’s nice to hear the other side. While I’ve never taken a trip (yet) for my blog, I do take 6-8 press trips a year for my job, plus countless other meals + hotel rooms for the three guidebooks I do annually. And I’ve still written some pretty harsh reviews (or just not included the place at all due to space restrictions) regardless of who’s footing the bill.

  • Kim makes a good point. A lot of writers take the approach that if they don’t like something they won’t write about it. But the reader is probably better served by a warts n all review. Like Kim, if something is bad, I want to know, and if you don’t like something, I want you to write about it.

    However, I don’t think this is especially because of press trip bias. It’s also because of travel editors being mindful of advertisers and wanting to project an upbeat image).
    .-= Caitlin´s last blog ..Photo Friday: Hatched turtle eggs in the Great Barrier Reef =-.

  • Caitlin makes a good point about why writers’ criticisms of restaurants/hotels/destinations etc are discouraged or even removed from their reviews – largely due to an editor’s wish not to offend an advertiser – however, I can also cite scores of occasions over the years when my negative criticisms have been removed by an editor because she (or the company) felt readers didn’t want to know about it.

    Interestingly this has happened more to me in guidebooks than magazines, especially (ironically) in the guidebook brands that boast their authors write with authority and opinion. I remember a book we wrote on Buenos Aires where the editor wanted us to remove references to the fact the 2001 economic crisis there was still being felt by a large percentage of the population and that there was a high crime rate (robberies, including armed bank and ATM robberies, occurred daily in our neighbourhood, a popular destination for tourists) because she wanted to paint the city only as a cool, fun, hip destination that was somehow immune to these things. So this kind of editing doesn’t only happen to restaurant/hotel reviews, but to more serious content intended to tell readers how it is. In this case it’s felt that this kind of writing tarnishes the image and thereby reduces the appeal of a destination, which in turn reduces book sales.

    My point is, like Caitlin’s, that writers aren’t always writing with rose coloured glasses because of the influence of PRs/famils/press trips/hotel comps/freebies/discounts etc.
    Often a writer’s balanced, critical review ends up glowing and gushy due to the editor’s changes – which writers rarely see until the book/story has been published.
    .-= lara dunston´s last blog ..An update from the road =-.

  • So much interesting stuff here. And I only just discovered it.
    I don’t think there’s snobbery around press trips from pro travel writers. I think there’s bound to be a very different perspective between someone who has just done one or two (as I think I’m correct in saying, is the case with you Christine?) and someone who has done lots and lots of them. It’s a very different deal if you are jumping on and off planes chasing very specific stories for particular publications writing full time to earn your living in print. You simply don’t have time to go see the other stuff that gets put into organised itineraries. Choices have to be made about what you will spend your very valuable time doing at a given place/destination. Up to you to decide who makes those choices… you or the PR person? Ideally it’s a combination of both… but there is often a degree of tug of war between what PR person wants to try and get you to mention and what you as the writer want to focus on. If you’re just going to see what happens and write whatever evolves from the trip and you’re not under that awful time and money pressure that many travel freelancers work under then, sure a press trip can be useful, fun and worthwhile. But… there is no such thing as a free lunch. To a degree your are being controlled.
    .-= Jeremy Head´s last blog ..How do you get mentions in travel features? =-.

  • >>It seems that the issue with paid tours is that you cannot trust the content. “If I don’t like the place I DON’T write about it” was written above.<<

    If I didn’t like a place, I might not write about it, but it wouldn’t be because I’d been comped or on a press trip–it would be because I’m my own boss and don’t want to waste my time writing about places or things that don’t interest me.

    Fortunately, the issue doesn’t come up in real life (at least for me), for two reasons:

    1) I do basic research BEFORE I go on a press trip, and if the location or itinerary is something I don’t want to write about (spas, nudist camps, executive retreats, or outlet malls), I don’t solicit or accept the trip.

    2) I’m flexible enough to deal with–and even enjoy–the unexpected. (I remember cruising on a 50-year-old steamer where some writers complained about the “tiny cabins,” but their “tiny” was my “pleasantly old-fashioned and cozy.”

    My wife and I spend a lot of money on travel research each year (we’ve just spent three months in Venice on our own dime, for example), but I go on press trips that interest me, and I find them useful in two ways:

    – They make it practical to write about places that might not generate as much revenue as top-tier destinations do, and…

    – They introduce me to places and experiences that I might not get around to trying (and writing about) on my own.

  • I love what you say about how the idea of real travel romanticizes hardship and scorns comfort. I feel like that’s so true – and this especially bothers me when people talk about lodging. Sometimes I feel a little judged because it seems like some people fail to see the difference between a local mom and pop place with a few extra comforts and the Holiday Inn.

    I’ve traveled quite a bit and never stay at big, chain hotels or resorts. However, as I’ve moved out of my twenties and into my thirties I’m also no longer sleeping in dirt-cheap hostels with strangers but rather staying at budget to mid-range places with my husband. And frankly, just because a place comes with some hardship and isn’t comfortable doesn’t mean the local culture is an integral part of it. I’ve stayed at some very uncomfortable hostels that don’t seem to give a damn about the local culture.

    Also, I love you blog and thanks for sharing!

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