Trying to be a regular bloke

Most of the newspapers I write for don’t allow journalists to take any sort of press trips, press rates, or any sort of subsidies. The ethics of subsidized travel is a huge topic in the press and travel industry. I do think it is impossible to take “freebies” and not feel somewhat beholden to the giver. But my top argument for traveling as a traveler and not as a “travel writer” is that I want to get the full experience, as any “regular bloke” would, thereby providing, I think, a much better service to my readers.

I did go to tourism officials for non-financial assistance when I planned an early-October cycling trip with Wessel and two Dutch friends, Victor and Marlene Benard (who co-own Free Spirits, a smashing travel/outdoor store in Amsterdam). I wanted information on the route, lodging, and bike hire (“rental” for you Yanks). I said I wanted no discounts whatsoever. Because I was writing an article on the Hadrian’s Cycleway, tourism officials would have been happy to set me up with heavily discounted or perhaps free bikes, lodging, and probably even meals.

I used the bike-rental company recommended by the tourism folks. The company,  it turned out, subcontracted to another company, therefore increasing the price. Annoying!  They did know I was a writer, so in that way I realize I’m not completely “regular.” But I did ask for services and prices that “any regular bloke” would receive. Wessel and I rented bikes, while Victor and Marlene brought their tandem over on the ferry from the Netherlands.  The bikes cost $220 each for the week. I made sure they’d be equipped with water bottle cages and front and back panniers, as we would be carrying our own gear.  I also arranged transportation for us all from Newcastle, on England’s east coast, to Ravenglass on the west, and the official start of the Cycleway — that cost $550!! 

Diane packs panniers in Greenhead, UKWhen we met our driver and got our bikes, we discovered that Wessel’s bike had no front panniers or water bottle cage. Had everything been free or discounted, would I have expressed my annoyance? Maybe a little, but maybe not. But because I was a regular bloke, I felt free to raise a little hell. It didn’t get me far. Wessel went without front panniers, and Victor and Marlene loaned us one of the water bottle cages from their bike.

What I found ironic was that the bike company, which had been willing to give me a steep press discount, didn’t do for free what would have impressed me most — provide  great service.

In the end, after our marvelous trip was finished, I contacted the company and ended up getting a refund for one of the bike rentals — $220. They offered to refund both, but I felt that was excessive, and likely special treatment based on my being a travel writer. I will say that the bike company has a very good reputation and I think my experience was unusual.

Despite my pleas to be treated like a regular bloke, here’s the final irony. Although the bike company owner said he wasn’t making excuses for the service issues, he did say this: “We don’t normally do just transfers [as opposed to shuttle service *and* accommodation arrangement] because by the time we have paid for the driver, fuel, vehicle costs there is no margin to cover any of our costs. Given you are a journalist and the fact we are keen to promote our region, we were keen to help despite the fact we knew we weren’t going to make money on your tour. “

The moral of the story: when someone knows you’re a travel writer, they’re probably not going to treat you like a regular bloke, even if you ask them to.

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