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!!
When 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.