Today you have the chance to win what is probably the least appealing prize ever offered by a newspaper travel section. To celebrate 10 years of Independent travel, you can compete for a place on a writing assignment to East Berlin with me. It is offered on usual Independent terms for this sort of trip: strictly economy. And that, I believe, is the way it should be.

The first Saturday travel section of the Independent covered less than a page, yet it changed the agenda of travel journalism: fresh, sharp writing, looking at destinations and issues with critical faculties undulled by hospitality. Glasses of rose-coloured champagne in the first-class cabin no doubt ease the rigours of travel, but sometimes they have strings attached. The key to distinctive and defiantly independent travel coverage is freedom from the constraints of the "freebie".

In case you are unaware of the extent to which travel coverage is dictated by the provision of free flights and hotels, just one example of the sort of invitations I receive may shed some light:

"Please call me on my direct line if you like the idea of a long weekend in the Bahamas before Christmas. We will be able to enjoy Caledonian's new premium 'Highland First' service, offering long-haul comfort seats in a separate front cabin. We will stay at the Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island, the new property developed by Sun International. The four-night trip will give time to enjoy some of the beauty of the Bahamas, maybe testing your sporting talents with activities as varied as deep-sea fishing to golf, scuba-diving or some relaxed research of the beaches."

Yours for the taking, so long as you promise to write about it. At least one freelance journalist has secured a free Caribbean holiday by persuading a PR company that he was writing for us (the subsequent offer of a story was declined).

The reason hotels, airlines, tour operators and tourist boards are so keen to give away such expensive trips is summed up in one phrase: Equivalent Advertising Spend. This is the amount that each freebie is calculated to be worth compared with what it would cost to buy the same impact in press, radio or TV advertisements. You, the consumer booking a holiday, are paying for something rather less straightforward than advertising.

The Independent prefers not to have its integrity compromised. In the real world of travel, as our postbag and experience testifies, things go dreadfully wrong all the time. We buy tickets on the open market, as you do, and ask no favours. The person shifting uncomfortably in the seat on the 27-hour charter flight from Melbourne via all stations to Manchester may well be an Independent journalist.

Sometimes it all goes horribly wrong, such as when Cityzap (a bus company I recommended last March) runs off with our money. But incidents like that keep us focussed on providing clear advice on an extraordinarily complex industry. We may not be holier-than-them, but we are certainly as travel weary-as-you. Our terms of trade are straightforward. We are pleased to receive and read unsolicited travel articles, but before we publish yours you will be grilled on the provenance of the trip.

Perhaps a senior airline executive for a leading airline should have the last word. She was explaining the principle of "exclusive mentions", where an airline giving away a free ticket insists the newspaper does not mention competing carriers. She said bluntly, "If a journalist recommends our airline, the consumer is going to believe that more than our advertising." And that is the reason The Independent will remain so.

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