Travel: pounds 20,000 a story? Not a chance

The Independent owes no travel company any favours, and we intend to stay out of their debt
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I was younger and even more naive, I asked a senior, much respected travel writer whether he could recommend a particular travel agent.

He looked puzzled. "But I haven't got one - I don't need one."

Imagine this: on every trip you take, from the airport to your accommodation, from beach to bar, someone is organising your travel and paying your way. At the very least, you can expect to be insulated from the hassles of the journey that afflict the rest of us, such as being "bumped" from overbooked flights and being billeted in substandard apartments. With a bit of luck, you should also get an upgrade on flights and hotels so you don't need to mix with us riff-raff in economy.

Every other national newspaper in Britain enjoys unlimited free travel facilities. Some of my best friends are travel writers who take lots of press trips. They say they can, and do, write impartially. Other pals work in public relations, and insist that they don't expect favourable coverage in return for free travel.

I respect their views. I just don't feel comfortable about a branch of consumer journalism depending for raw material wholly upon the largesse of the industry about which it reports. This unease is shared by the magazine Conde Nast Traveller , which operates a similar no-freebies policy.

As a marketing executive for the leading Australian airline once told me bluntly: "If a journalist recommends Qantas, the consumer is going to believe that more than our advertising". Accordingly, the travel industry pours millions into providing free facilities for journalists.

When you land that freebie, you have to ask yourself: "Why is this holiday company/tourist board/airline being so jolly nice to me?" (and, often, your partner and family, too).

No doubt it is because you are a fine person. But another possible factor is "equivalent advertising spend". This is the amount that the stories published as a result of a freebie are reckoned to be worth in terms of buying the same impact in press, radio or TV advertisements.

Holiday companies are reticent about the financial value they place on editorial coverage. But, handily, a quango, the Scottish Tourist Board, has published the average value of the hundreds of free trips it organises for journalists every year: more than pounds 20,000 each in equivalent advertising spend.

Big money - but not every holiday company can afford to lavish endless hospitality on journalists. A story doing the rounds in travel-writing circles tells how a small, specialist tour operator announced plans to introduce a nominal charge for journalists on press trips. A travel editor (not from a national newspaper) was so incensed at what she regarded as a dangerous precedent that she vowed never even to mention the company in her pages again.

freebies can also cause that fact file at the end of the story to be economical with the facts. The same Qantas executive told me that the airline would demand an "exclusive mention" in return for a free flight. In other words, even though there are 50 ways to leave the UK bound for Australia, the travel information accompanying the story would mention only one airline.

The Independent owes no travel company any favours, and we intend to remain out of the industry's debt. We believe you have the right to get a fair picture of the options.

We spend a lot of time researching fact files, to try to find the best deals. We may not always get them absolutely right, but our intention is always to dig out the best value for you.

careful study of those "exclusive mentions" can lead you to speculation about office politics at other newspapers. Earlier this month, one page of a rival's travel section credited "the five-star Kempinski Hotel Corvinus... rooms from pounds 140" in Budapest. Is the writer who enjoyed that one more in favour than the journalist who travelled to Skegness "as a guest of East Lindsey District Council's Leisure and Tourism Department"?

The travel section of The Independent might not be able to afford too many five-star places, but neither are we so strapped for cash that we have to ask a local authority to cough up pounds 17 for a night in a B&B.

Meanwhile, our file of people who have hoodwinked the travel industry into providing a freebie because they claim to be writing for us grows ever fatter. This week, a hotel in Ireland got in touch to check a writer's credentials, but unfortunately only after the guest had checked out. Clear winner, though, remains the chap who enjoyed a week of luxury in Antigua while purporting to work for The Independent.