The trouble with travel in Freebieland

These days, virtually all newspaper and magazine travel pages are filled with features by journalists who have been on all-expenses-paid press trips, so how objective, let alone useful are they?
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The Independent Online

Yesterday, being a bank holiday, was a quiet day on the travel desk; only a couple of invitations to press trips came in, compared with a dozen or more on a typical day.

Yesterday, being a bank holiday, was a quiet day on the travel desk; only a couple of invitations to press trips came in, compared with a dozen or more on a typical day.

There are two good reasons why the travel industry is so free with its favours. One is purely practical: often, the journalist will be filling an aircraft seat and hotel room that would otherwise be empty. The other is the concept of "equivalent advertising spend". This is the amount that each freebie is calculated to be worth compared with buying, in the conventional sense, the same impact in press, radio or TV advertisements.

Travel companies are reluctant to discuss the subject, not least because it upsets advertising sales teams. But the Scottish Tourist Board estimates that the average value of the hundreds of free trips it organises for journalists each year is over £10,000 each in equivalent advertising spend.

Coverage in a newspaper or magazine also buys something that advertising cannot: the appearance of objectivity. As a marketing executive from Australia's biggest airline once told me bluntly: "If a journalist recommends Qantas, the consumer is going to believe that more than our advertising."

Freebieland can be threatening territory for people who believe that the role of the travel journalist is to provide straightforward consumer advice for readers, which is one reason this newspaper refused, for over a decade, to accept free facilities, and why Condé Nast Traveller has never taken them. The Independent's policy was relaxed last summer when travel became a "stand alone" section, and our coverage greatly expanded. The only way the figures could add up was to accept some free facilities from the travel industry.

But the portion of the travel section headed The Independent Traveller continues to be a no-freebies zone. I am still more likely to be found sleeping in a field rather than a five-star hotel, while other travel editors enjoy a jolly good laugh at my expense - and insist that neither they, nor their writers, are swayed by the free facilities provided by the travel industry.

The British Guild of Travel Writers concurs. Its code of conduct says members will "accept facilities necessary for work offered to the press only on the understanding that they are in no way obliged to publicise any or all of the operation concerned and that the provision of such facilities will not influence their judgement".

Nevertheless, when I find my way out of a foreign field or cheap hostel to the nearest internet café to re-establish contact with the office, I try to make sure that the editorial independence of the section is not compromised by the tricks of the travel-writing trade. These are just a few of them:

The 'exclusive mention'

In return for free flights, some airlines insist that rivals are not mentioned in the fact file that accompanies the story. Example: a double-page spread on Australia recently appeared in another newspaper. Competition on flights Down Under is fiercer than to any other destination. Yet only one airline was mentioned, together with its direct reservations number, and a lowest current fare of £692. Cheaper fares on the same carrier can be found through any decent discount agent and, among the 20 other airlines that fly Down Under from Britain, fares are available for under £500.

That's not what I do on my holidays

A journalist's perception of a journey or a destination may be very different from yours. For a start, it is customary for upgrades to be sought and often granted; I gather a flight to LA in business class is less gruelling than in economy. Next, there is often a quid pro quo attached to a press trip: if a tourist board or chamber of commerce is paying for the jaunt, it may set up meetings with local dignitaries or inspections of hotels, not normally part of a holidaymaker's trip. The resulting story may not entirely address the concerns of the paying public.

Virgin territory

The freebies on Sir Richard Branson's airline are legendary. Since the maiden flight from Gatwick to Newark in June 1984, when journalists drank the jumbo dry, the trips have been steadily improving. For the latest, the inaugural service to Las Vegas, journalists were provided with more than just the usual flights, hotels and glasses of rosé Champagne; they were given mobile phones and unlimited calls.

Don't you know who I am?

A week in the Caribbean, flying business class to Antigua and staying in a luxury beachside hotel - all for free. That is what one enterprising fellow managed to arrange for himself, by saying he was writing a story for The Independent. The PR company did not check his credentials with us until long after his trip, only to be told that we had never heard of the chap and had no intention of running a story by him.