Travel: The problem with freebies

People send me free travel offers all the time. Here's why I always decline them
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The Independent Culture
THE THING about normal jobs is that people rarely send you presents. The thing about travel journalism is that people send you stuff all the time: books for review, copies of specialist journals and offers of free travel. This week, I propose to conduct a ramble through this week's postbag.

First, you will know that good reviews in newspapers sell books. With this in mind, the travel desk of The Independent is circumspect about reviews for guidebooks. Only when a travel guide has been thoroughly tested will we venture a strong opinion on it; I think the last to benefit was Frewin Poffley's invaluable and hilarious Greek Island Hopping (and yes, Thomas Cook Publishing, you can quote us on that).

This year promises to be quite a bruiser for travel guidebooks. In a few weeks, AA Publishing will move into the independent travellers' market. In the summer, Virgin is expected to resuscitate its city guide series. And this week, Footprint Guides unveiled a fresh paperback format, sending journalists books on Singapore, Peru and Andalucia.

What intrigued me most was an effusive quote on the back of the Andalucia guide attributed to The Independent. A check failed to identify any such review - for the simple reason that it was not printed in this newspaper but in Saga Magazine. I don't know whether to be more alarmed at the erroneous credit or the implication that our pages are hard to distinguish from a publication aimed at more mature travellers.

DO YOU recall a short-lived experiment on the short-lived airline Dan- Air where meals for both outward and return flights were installed in the seatback trays? Neither do I, but it was alluded to this week in AITO News, a publication for members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. "Some of us will no doubt still remember Dan-Air introducing seatback catering on their BAC 1-11 fleet," writes Alan Murray of Viking Aviation. He then reveals: "With the ingenious use of a nail file or coin, one could open the inbound meal and have seconds." I'm trying to visualise how this worked. Can anyone explain, and supply either photographic evidence or a diagram?

MICKEY MOUSE and his spouse could, according to the latest edition of USA Now, be making for Manhattan. Or at least that's what I infer from the assertion that the recently opened New York Convention and Visitors' Bureau in London "will help tour operators concentrating on MICE itineraries". I called the office (0171-437 8300) but couldn't get a squeak out of them about the meaning of MICE.

IF BOOKS and arcane publications don't sound much like presents, how about this: free travel for you and your family, free insurance, and even the chance to bump fare-paying passengers off planes.

Among the freebies that have crowded on to my desk this week, an insurance company offered me an annual travel policy. This could be handy for journalists planning to take a whole family to Alton Towers Hotel ("the place your children will beg to visit") or travelling by train in France ("complimentary or discounted travel, in return for editorial").

Then, halfway through some complex discussions about an important consumer issue, an airline PR suddenly said: "How do you fancy a week in Monserrat?" - something of a non sequitur because we were discussing the separation- out of passenger service charges at the time, rather than dream islands in the Caribbean.

Strangest of all is the airline that wrote to travel editors offering free top-grade membership of its frequent-flyer club. This doesn't just allow hacks to relax with the help of a drink or two in the airport executive lounge; it also guarantees a seat on a flight which is fully booked. Just how impressed would you be if you were bumped from your reserved seat on a flight to make room for a travel journalist?

I shall be declining all these offers, even though the very same airline had only a week earlier demoted me to the lowest grade of its frequent- flyer scheme because I had failed to score enough points over the year.

Airlines, hotels and tourist offices don't offer all these freebies just because they're nice people; the Spanish tourist board estimates that trips by foreign journalists bring coverage worth over pounds 30m in advertising.

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