How Do You Decide What Travel Content to Trust?

By Nomadic Matt | Published November 21st, 2013

Ink pen and journal for writingEvery so often, a debate bubbles up in the travel blogging world about the ethics of taking sponsored trips or posting sponsored content or links (i.e., content or ads that someone paid you for). The debate rises to the top, the opposing sides argue about why they’re right, and the discussion fades away, never really resolved.

Recently that debate surfaced again, and while I normally never blog about blogging on this site, I’m breaking my cardinal rule because I want to know what you, the regular reader, think about all this.

What does someone outside the travel business think? How do the regular readers we try to help feel about this subject?

I don’t typically read other travel blogs. I read a handful regularly (I’ll post a list of my current favorite blogs shortly), but for the most part, I avoid most of them. I feel the content is all the same: they read like daily journals, they don’t offer a lot of deep, practical information, and everything is always sunshine and rainbows. I never get a sense of place or emotion from the stories.

Once in a while, I’ll come across something that really catches my eye, but lately, I’ve sort of been avoiding travel blogs, especially since this note appears too frequently on them: “Thanks for the trip, Destination X’s tourism board.”

When I see that, I become a lot less interested in the blog.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think anything is inherently bad about taking a press trip, which is when a destination invites a journalist or group of journalists to visit for free. I personally don’t like them simply because I hate being herded like cattle to see things I have no interest in writing about. I like my autonomy. Press trips aren’t my cup of tea, but I don’t think being invited to visit a place by a destination means your opinion will be bought.

But I think scope and scale do matter and that perception is reality. When I read a blog in which every trip is sponsored by a tourism board, PR firm, or travel company, I begin to wonder about that disclaimer.

When you develop personal relationships with the people at the tourism boards or PR firms, are you really going to make negative comments when you know it will sour your friendship? Or will you sugarcoat the situation? We’re all human, and our natural inclination is to help our friends.

So I begin to wonder just how many of those thoughts are really your own.

And how relatable is your experience? Having been on paid trips in the past, I know my experience on that trip is NOT the experience a regular consumer will have. I get special treatment, seven-star meals, direct access to a manager in case anything goes wrong, and wine and food in my room. Being pampered is definitely going to make you love a place a lot more.

Press trips have been happening for decades, but at least in traditional travel media (newspapers, magazines) there was an editor to act as a firewall and rein in any excessive cheerleading, misinformation, lack of depth, and one-sided posts.

In blogging, that doesn’t always happen, since bloggers have sole control over their content.

If you develop a long-term partnership with someone, that’s OK with me. But when you bounce from free trip to free trip and all your posts are about how amazing every place you visit is, I unsubscribe.

BUT…

What do you think?

When you see those disclaimers, do you know that it really means “Thanks to Destination X for paying for everything AND paying me a daily fee for being at their destination?”

Because yes, many bloggers not only got that trip for free, but were also paid a daily rate to be there.

Does seeing a disclaimer make you trust the information less? Does seeing it all the time make the website unrelatable/less trustworthy/etc.?

Is it a turn-off?

Or do you not care?

Leave a comment and tell me your opinion.

P.S. – This is not a personal attack on anyone specific. If you are a blogger and take trips, I’m not telling you to stop. I write this post to ask how non-bloggers feel about the subject.

comments 79 Comments

well.. no all are trustable… when im planning a trip i read and read and read.. im tripadvisor fan, i read few blogs like yours and Lee Abbamonte, I loan books from the library… and then take decisions about places to visit… I DONT TRUST any review from ppl in honeymoon! hahahah when you are in honeymoon all is beutiful and amazing… that ones dont count.

Tannis

I don’t care :) I may read the sites, but I take the information that is valuable to me and leave the rest. I want my own experience, and the best way to get a sense or feel emotion of a place is to just go and embrace everything it has to offer. And each person will have a difference experience. Often that experience is based on their ability to accept and be open to all it has to offer, good or bad. I like blogs that give informative information and tips that are useful for that particular place. But as far as that person’s experience, it won’t be mine so I don’t absorb it. As for paid vacations for journalists, I don’t trust the information any less, but the only way to be able to filter through the information is to JUST TRAVEL! Soon you will know for yourself what information is valuable or trustworthy. And if you trust information that turns out not to be what you expected, just consider it part of the adventure.

I take it case-by-case. If all the content is sponsored, then I might use it as a starting point for my own research but I won’t really rely on it. If the writer has a mix of independent and sponsored, then I’ll perhaps give it more weight. There are so many factors, such as when you mentioned special treatments during a trip. For people who don’t travel for a living or with much regularity, I imagine it could serve as an introduction to an area they’ve never heard of that may not seem new to more seasoned travelers. It boils down to reading between the lines and the overall tone and quality of the other posts.

Very fair critique. As a traveler I agree, sponsored content cannot be fully trusted (such as mainstream media haha).

As a lifestyle entrepreneur closely tied to the travel industry, I see value in press trips for getting access to regions that might be too expensive, too inconvenient, etc (such as Antarctica). As well as paying the bills to keep providing useful information to readers.

That being said, the reader comes first! When in doubt, put yourself in your readers shoes :)

For me, personally, whenever I research about a trip, I want to know what it’s REALLY like being there, where to go, what to do or where/ what businesses to avoid. So it will be useless for me if a blog is full of sponsor trips when a normal traveler’s experience is not covered.

But with that said, I dont see anything wrong if you mix in a small ratio of paid trips and at the same time, find creative ways to work with the PR firm or whoever is sponsoring it, to make the trip unique in terms of exploring new areas or trips thats not offen talk about thats also possible for a regular traveler like us to explore.

Its all how and what you do it and I am sure you can create a win win win situation for yourself, sponsors AND your readers somehow. I guess maybe thats why you are asking us? :)

Mig

This is a tough and one has to really look to read between the lines. The content can be like a page in a magazine or newspaper that looks like a story, but in fine print it states advertorial. I look to see if there is a balance of truth or fluff, not only on the content, but the entire site.

All reviewers have to establish themselves and their credibility. As you stated, if all they do is gush about every place they go, it’s suspect.

On my website, I review many products that may be of interest to light travelers. In most cases, those products have been sent to me for review. It would be cost prohibitive to attempt to buy everything I write about. However, after doing this for many years, my readers know I will point out any problems I find with a product or suggest ways it can be improved in the future.

Because of this specialized niche, I’ve developed a good working relationship with many manufacturers of travel bags, goods and accessories. Some ask my opinion of designs prior to manufacture to see if I would change anything. Some also send me products prior to their official announcement so that I can use them and have a review ready when the product is available for purchase. However, no one sees my reviews prior to publication.

As someone who has finally decided to retire early and start a nomadic life, I too will expand my reporting to not just products and services but to places as well. I plan to use the same ethics I’ve been using, and learned as a journalist over 30 years ago, in my future endeavors.

I like the sound of your ethics Frank!

Hi Matt,

Even with the countless sources of internet travel sites I think it’s hard to find reliable unbiased backpacker information. The majority of printed travel articles and even well known travel gurus, such Rick Steve’s seem to be targeted at a different travel audience. LP does an great job, but their free content is a bit limited. I personally enjoy Tripadvisors rating system on ‘things to do’ complimented with loads of user comments. Although I have a few other blog sources I haven’t met any one who comes close to the great content and insight you provide! Sponsored bloggers give me tidbits of ideas that I’ll research online to support or dispute their reccomendation. Thanks for everything and hope my opinion can be of some use.

-MikeSwiggy

It’s tough to build a business that both accepts payment (or free stuff) from an industry and remains objective and detached from that industry’s interests. That’s why places like The New York Times expressly forbid their travel writers from accepting such gigs – even if they’re unrelated to anything written at the times.

At the same time, consumers of free content (which includes most if not all travel blogs) need to understand that if they’re not paying for the product, they ARE the product. If they really value objective reporting, then they’d be willing to pay for it.

At this point, we’ve never accepted paid or complimentary anything. Not because we’re above it or fear it will wreck our brand, its just we don’t like our travels dictated by someone else. If we ever do accept such things, we’ll institute a section on each piece answering the question “Would we have paid for this ourselves?” and keep track of our yeses and nos as a way of keeping ourselves honest.

Colleen

I’ve been reading a half dozen backpacker travel websites regularly for several years and another half dozen irregularly. The trend I’ve observed is that success can kill the likability and usefulness of a site for many reasons.

It seems obvious that if a blogger aspires to freebies of any kind, it will cause that blogger to only say predominantly positive things about the source in order to encourage more sponsors to sponsor them. There’s very little room to be objective if a blogger is hoping for more free stuff to come his or her way, because any negative remarks could deflect another sponsor from choosing said blogger to invite for a free vacation, hotel, meal, etc. I’ve noticed that most bloggers who take free stuff seem to throw in one minor negative comment in an otherwise glowing review to leave the impression that they are indeed being objective.

The freebies are very often at a much higher price point than the travel blogger’s developed readership could ever consider. The backpacking community is predominantly economy-minded. Most of the free lodging, travel packages and restaurants certain travel bloggers are taking and posting about are a completely different style of travel and at a much higher price point than what backpackers do. Personally, I’m not at all interested in fine hotels, fine dining and extravagant adventure packages. I enjoy learning from backpacker travel websites more about how to travel in the way that makes me happiest, which is simply, connecting with local people, staying in simple and cheap accommodation, eating cheaply and often on the street and traveling as economically as possible. By the time a travel blogger is accepting free stuff and writing about it, that article usually holds no interest for me. I can just buy a Conde Nast Traveler magazine if I want to learn about that world of travel. Those bloggers end up promoting a travel lifestyle unsustainably expensive for long term travel, which is at odds with most backpackers goals anyway. Could they themselves afford those places if they weren’t getting them free?

Yes, I have lost respect for a few travel bloggers this year, though they really haven’t done anything wrong in accepting those freebies except to sell out and compromise their credibility as objective participants and observers of the backpacker travel scene. By promoting more high end hotels, restaurants and packages they put their travel lifestyle out of reach for many of their readers. But maybe they want to attract a more ‘flashpacker’ readership. Maybe these bloggers are growing up and their readership will change. That just makes more room for new, younger bloggers, who are still excited to show their readers how to do things economically and in the backpacker style. Backpacking is not just for the very young and short of cash. In my opinion, it’s the most rewarding way to travel on every level regardless of the traveler’s financial resources.

Hi Colleen.
“Yes, I have lost respect for a few travel bloggers this year, though they really haven’t done anything wrong in accepting those freebies except to sell out and compromise their credibility as objective participants and observers of the backpacker travel scene.”

I think your comment above, says it all as to why – maybe this is a moral question. Selling out and compromising your credibility is a huge factor. It promotes a loss of trust. Which we are founded on.

Personally, I’d have a hard time being completely unbiased if someone paid for me to go somewhere. I wouldn’t lie, but downplaying the negatives wouldn’t seem so unreasonable. That being said, I pay for all my own trips so maybe they’re the ones with the upper hand… :) I don’t usually look that closely at who sponsored what, but I have read a few reviews where the bubbly , over happy voice from the movie Clueless popped into my head and finished the rest of the entry for me. It’s hard to take those seriously. I think the more info and opinions, the better. Tripadvisor comments are great for that. Plus, no one’s looking for the exact same experience you are, or will get the exact same one you did.

I’m 3 months in to a 15 month trip around the world, so you better believe me when I say I have spent the last year or so pouring over many different travel blogs for all kinds of info.

I don’t begrudge anyone taking the free trips – the information is usually at least mildly helpful. As one commenter above pointed out, they are rarely the kind of trips or excursions I am personally considering, so they really just serve to give me a sense of a destination’s vibe anyway. I can’t remember a post that I felt was misleading, but I also can’t remember any that have inspired me to go on a similar trip.

In fact, I don’t even care if they disclose that a trip or product was sponsored or not. It’s really easy to tell a fluff piece from a legitimate one. I’m working on my own blog right now…there is one popular site I continue to subscribe to as a perfect example of “how NOT to write a travel blog.” It’s full of pie-in-the-sky posts with little practical information and tons of sponsored trips.

It’s all about content in the end…I care way more about the information provided than how the post originated.

Dana

I recently read Chuck Thompson’s look at being a travel journalist and he makes it pretty clear just how skewed the truth can get (not just cause you are getting paid, but also cause of your editor), when everything is being paid for for you. Nonetheless, this really isn’t any different from any other type of journalism, I think it is not so much about whether they take the money as the ethics they hold themselves to, when portraying their trip and the effect the perks may have had on how their trip went. If they are honest about having taken the money and had their trip paid for, you as the reader then have a responsibility to take what they have written with a grain of salt. Responsibility lays on both sides of the equation.

Patrick Smith

Good post, Matt. As always, you do everything you can to provide information without a bias. Even in asking our opinions, I sense your lack of bias. The commenters above are all excellent writers, and provide good view points. My viewpoint is that I too read multiple blogs, as well as books, etc. I gleem what information I need or want from each entry, without really thinking about whether it is biased or not. I have traveled enough to know that a place one person loves, another detests; one method of travel may appeal to me, but annoy another. Equally, some bloggers have a boring writing style, whereas others make even mundane locations seem interesting. Each provides a perspective that we can choose from.

Scott n Emily

Non-funded crowdsourced information is my favorite way to get a fairly accurate picture of a place or aspect of travel, but that isn’t always true.

When it comes to general information, how to get around, places to see, I really love wikivoyage.org (NOT wikitravel.org, which is now commercial) for a skin-deep, objective overview. Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forums are often pretty useful for more detailed information and specific questions. Reddit/Quora can be good too. But sometimes I’ll post a question to those forums and get pretty garbage advice, even from supposedly seasoned travelers. Because of that, I’ve found that the average of all given opinions seems to be the most accurate experience, while keeping in mind that my experience can also be like that of the outlying stories/advice.

Applying that to a travel blog, I’ll always check whether the content was sponsored and generally disregard it if so (unless the pictures are pretty). If it isn’t sponsored and I read something about, say, frequent flyer points, I’ll search for that same specific topic in google and find 5-10 other articles from experts/bloggers and aggregate their views, as well as read some of the comments (oftentimes when the post leaves me with questions they’re answered there). So far this method hasn’t failed me too much.

Sheralyn

I honestly don’t mind reading about press trips, IF it’s only once in a while. It seems the press trips show bloggers around to some really cool spots, so when they write about it, it’s usually a good overview of the sights in an area. At the very least, it’s a good starting point.

That being said, if the majority of a bloggers posts were all press trips, I’m not sure if I’d be as interested in reading about it.

One thing I saw a while back was a blogger writing a sponsored post about a destination they’d never been to – it was kind of a “wouldn’t this be cool to see?” “I’d love to go here some day” “Look at the photo of this, it looks amazing” etc. That didn’t appeal to me at all – I prefer the commentary to be on somewhere they’ve had personal experience with hehe

Margaux

Sponsored trip reviews are great for getting a feel for the types of activities that you can do there. No, you’re not going to afford that awesome hotel room with the gourmet meal, but chances are that gourmet meal has at least SOMETHING to do with the local culture, and there are probably activities that you can find for cheaper elsewhere in the area.

When travel bloggers I like review sponsored trips, it gives me a better idea of whether or not I’ll like the place. I know my travel style, and gravitate toward blogs whose writers travel in the same style. Were all of the activities fun but too high energy for them? That area might be for me too.

The information is good, not necessarily the thumbs up.

I’ve read sponsored posts on a blog, and haven’t realized it was sponsored until the end. Key ingredient: honesty. I can understand you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you (or puts you up for free, or gives you some nice perks, etc etc), but something that seems too good to be true…is. Be realistic.
Like some others have mentioned, if it’s a review of a place I’m interested in going to I can usually find some good information I can use. If it’s not…sorry but that’s probably not going to happen. Did the blogger just waste their time writing about it? If the objective is to make money off the visit, no. If the objective is to grow readership and make money off *me*, yes.

KT

As somebody who enjoys traveling, I tend to subscribe to a lot of travel blogs for ideas. Anytime I get an inkling that the blogger received a free trip, hotel, tour, etc I look for the disclaimer and if I find one I skip the entire article and if I see too many of these I just unsubscribe. Personally, I can’t trust what they are writing for the very reasons you point out. I don’t care what the disclaimer says, I’ve never seen a negative review on a sponsored post. They might point out one little negative as to appear objective, but cmon. It’s human nature, you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, but while you might get something free or discounted, you definitely lose credibility in my eyes.

Some of the travel bloggers you mention has a line at the end of their post mentioning the sponsor, others may not. The press has a tradition of more or less keeping an ethical standard. Journalists are often part of a system with some kind of checks and balances. Travel bloggers are outside that sphere. Frankly, I do not really care that much.
You mention G Adventures yourself, and so do a lot of other full-time travel bloggers. That does not impress me much. Guided group tours? No, thanks.
When I plan a trip, I scan a lot of sources: Lonely Planet and other travel guides, travel blogs, Wikis, tourist authorities, plain Google searches and so on. I do not rely fully on any of them. They are all subjective, but as a whole these sources will get me an impression of what to see, do, eat – based on my own fields of interest.

Jim

Honesty and integrity are the keys. If you aren’t willing to write a negative review, don’t go on the trip.

I don’t do a lot of press trips, but I do a decent amount of free admission for a review type of deals on one of my sites. While I do generally try to look for the positive (places are rarely entirely negative and there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the demographic that will enjoy it), I have written articles on several occasions that give a pretty negative overall opinion.

I’ve found that if you write the articles honestly and give credit for the positives where they exist, travel pr reps won’t be upset. I’ve even had them thank me on several occasions for writing what they always wanted to say.

It doesn’t really bother me too much to see the disclaimer. Sometimes it seems that a post might be sponsored because it’s too cheery but there isn’t a disclaimer, and that’s what I don’t like. It feels tricky, whether or not it really was sponsored, I start to question them more. If they do put a disclaimer, then I take everything with a grain of salt, and if I’m interested in the places they describe, I check them out on other websites as well before making any decisions. I prefer to read articles that are more open about the fact that travel can sometimes be difficult or even bad, because it feels more real. When I write, I like to talk about real life, so I gravitate more towards that style. So if a sponsored post mentions a few things that weren’t 100% amazing, I’m more likely to believe them over some one who rah-rahs everything. Some people have written about how they were offered a trip but were told what they had to say so they refused, and that makes me feel like they are more credible when they do write a sponsored post.

Susane

Even travel bloggers need to eat as well as finding ways to fund their travels so taking sponsored trips is understandable. It is up to the reader to ascertain if every article is full of butterflies and rainbows or if it contains some really honest opinions. Tourist boards want the participants to see almost every sight there is to see thereby providing a good overview of a destination. However, as mentioned previously, sponsored trips leave little to chance and almost always include perks not available to the average tourist on a trip. Many sources are better than one.

Marsha

Google street view is a great way to get an good look at a location. I’ve planned vacations just by virtually wandering around an area. Of course, by virtual wandering you only get the visual feel and not the human vibe (how friendly the locals are, how it smells, how noisy it is, etc.). Travel is so subjective and personal that two people on the same trip may not have the same opinion about a place. So I take it all in, try to find the gold nuggets, and then take the plunge and go. In my travel’s, I’ve found the more information I have, the fewer nasty surprises I get and the more satisfied I am at the end of my trip. Good surprises are, of course, always welcome.

I know that making a living as a writer- particularly through blogging- is a difficult endeavor, and I would understand needing to take a press trip occasionally to save money or boost one’s income. However, anytime that I have read a blog post about a sponsored trip, I can always tell that the post seems a little less genuine. I prefer very honest writing, even personal writing; consequently, I don’t even like unsponsored blogs that just rave about backpacking and traveling but never show its downside. It’s okay to not like a place or to be going through something shitty! Thus, how can one be totally honest when their relationship with a company is on the line?

It’s all very dependent on the situation but I think that most readers will be able to smell a rat if the sponsored content are too positive. The best blogs are the ones that will write sponsored content but report everything, warts and all.

As a blogger and travel writer I really enjoyed the article and the feedback. Our destination reviews always include “What’s to love” & What’s not to love” as our readers want to know the real boots on the ground information.
Even though I have had a few discounted or press comps I adhere to the same principle of honesty and integrity.
People want to know the good and the bad and it is up to us as bloggers, travelers and writers to share our honest experiences.

Lauren

Some extremely lucky people are able to travel the world on their own without press trips. But if the options are between no trip and a press trip, I would gladly take the press trip and can’t bash someone else for doing the same. I love traveling and unfortunately don’t get to do as much of it as I would like–due to finances and a busy work…but I do everything I can to travel when and how I can. So I totally understand others doing the same.

I agree with a lot of what’s already been said, but one additional thing I always think makes a difference is how a blogger makes a disclaimer – specifically, whether they’re up front about it and put it at the beginning of their post, or whether they tuck it away at the end, often in smaller type. When it’s the former, I appreciate the honesty and am more likely to trust them, even if the content is sponsored. When it’s the latter, the blogger looks a bit more suspect, and it’s also sort of annoying because I get to the end of the post, see that it was sponsored, and suddenly have to question everything I just read.

I understand and agree with your assessment that you have to approach these things with a skeptical eye. However, I think maybe you’re separating yourself from that group more than you should. Although you don’t take trips that are paid for, there are many places on your site that can attract the same kind of attention and questions of whether it is there because it is great or because you make money off of it. For example, on your resources page, I counted 17 referral links where you make money if somebody buys from that company. I by no means resent you doing that as you have every right to make money and I take you at your word that those are companies you use. You have properly shown that you can make money depending on the link. You’ve done everything right, but as a consumer who looks to your site for advice, I’d be lying if I said I don’t question at times whether these are great products or just that you make a lot of money off of those links.

I think the other side of this is that you are one of the few bloggers who makes enough money that they don’t have to take those trips and can do a trip how you want to do it without financial concern. You’ve publicly at least hinted at the amount of money you make from the site and it’s at least 3 times what I make as a teacher and I’m sure a large portion of that money is made from those links. Again, I don’t begrudge you making that money. To be honest, I’m more than a bit jealous, but this article seems to position you as somebody who’s operating without financial interest in the choices you make and I think the same questions you bring up about their trips are valid questions to ask about links posted on your site.

Angie

I don’t really take blog posts seriously if I know they are sponsored, but I do appreciate the bloggers point of view about other things they may write about. For example, when you wrote about Japan, I didn’t think of it as a “G Adventure: Japan” tour review… I thought of it as more information about Japan.

I know that travel vendors directly cater to the press (bloggers included!) so anything less than an excellent review seems almost pointless. Essentially, what they are providing is a highlighted ad. I don’t blame bloggers for accepting comped tours, though, and just b/c the vendors can’t be trusted doesn’t mean that a blogger can’t learn about the culture or glean anything from the tour guide that would be valuable to the blogger’s audience. I just think that the idea that sponsored anything is no-strings-attached is naive.

I have been reading a lot of travel blogs over the last couple months in prep for backpacking in Europe next month. I agree that the ones I find most useful are the blogs that offer a lot of practical travel information.

I’m split on press trips and it really depends how they’re written. They can be good to get a sense of the area and provide small bits of info but I do take them with a grain of salt. The travel style that’s usually written about in these articles (group tours, hotels, adventure packages) isn’t one that I’m really interested in reading about.. I prefer the backpacker posts & lots of off-the-beaten path wandering.

Firstly, I was a bit shocked to hear that you don’t read too many other travel blogs. I definitely respect the fact that you’ve found your favourites over the years, I think it’s important to read widely and be fully immersed in your own writers’ community – even if it’s just to learn from the mistakes of others in order to hone your own craft.

But to your question – I, as a reader of quite a few blogs, don’t mind reading sponsored content as long as 1) the author is outright about the sponsorship, 2) the sponsorship does not directly affect the author’s views and 3) the post is not for the purpose of the sponsor. If the author is transparent about the sponsorship, doesn’t hesitate to share their true (whether positive or negative) views on the experience and has a subject larger than the sponsor (e.g. if your sponsor is a car-share company in Australia, write a post about your road-trip through Australia, not just the specific car-sharing company), then, sure, go ahead and take the sponsorship! It’s encouraging for fellow travellers to see their favourite authors receive some free perks. It’s also a great way for readers to learn about some amazing (or not so amazing) products & services.

Maybe the art is how to write a constructive article without losing your own voice or compromising your credibility amongst your readers – Its a balancing act for sure!

Kate

I read a lot from TripAdvisor. The thing I screen is I will tick the bad comments and read what people say about. Excellent is what remains and we will enjoy it. I just would like to be cautious on what we might not be expected from that property. :)

I don’t care whether a post is sponsored or not, or whether a trip was paid for by someone else. It’s no different to me than reading blogs full of guest posts from writers who’ve never set a toe in the country they are writing about. Readers get a feel for the sites they like and unsubscribe when they don’t like them anymore. I’m interested that most of the commenters don’t seem to mind as long as it’s not every single post. I wasn’t sure what the response would be!

It comes down to really trying to read between the lines. You’ll have some bloggers who praise a terrible product because they were paid to try it out. You’ll also have bloggers give a honest review. Some of my most negatively written reviews have been on paid trips, etc. If a company, etc. wants to pay for me to try something out, that’s fine–it doesn’t mean I’ll write anything remotely positive about it.

Matt, have you been at WTM conferences in London two weeks ago? Because a few of them focused exactly on this issue! ;-)

Journalism ethics says it clear: you are not allowed to get any personal advantage by writing an article. The problem is that money tends now to be tight and sponsored trips are now the norm as the only way for correspondents to write in newspapers and magazines.

The same thing is valid for bloggers. On the WTM conferences where a few travel bloggers have talked, the general idea was that it was OK for bloggers to accept free trips, as long as you clearly state that you took them (and besides, many newspapers don’t state this…). Getting paid, though, could be acceptable only on an activity non directly linked to blogging (i.e. producing a video or some nice pictures for the resort, working on their websites etc).

Some bloggers also said that, if their experience on the resort was quite bad, they’d talk to the resort marketing people telling them that the post would be a negative one and offering not to publish it. And marketing people would accept it most of the times.

Having said that: do I trust a post written during a sponsored trip? Well… it depends on what it says. If it is “too good to be true”, it probably isn’t so… (true). And the blogger who wrote it will loose credibility. I am sure that bloggers (just like journalists) can be very objective, if they have strong ethics, see what they do as a job (and the relationships they build as job-related, not friendships) and make it clear that their opinion is theirs and not the on of the resort PR people…

NomadicMatt

I’m not surprised a bunch of bloggers said what they do is OK. Of course you will say “hey my business practice is legit.” Everyone justifies what they do.

Bloggers haven’t a fixed code (besides, even journalists, who should have it, quite often don’t respect it or find loopholes). So, you are right: everything is legit, lacking a binding rule.

But doesn’t the “market rule” work? Do serial-post-sellers get less and less favour from the public and eventually disappear?

I’m not a regular reader, since I blog about travel for a living, but I’ll throw in my two cents.

I prefer to follow blogs that are about independent travel. I understand why professional bloggers take press trips, and am not against it, but if that makes up the *majority* of the content, I lose interest. That’s not to say the content may not be valuable.

The author can claim neutrality, but like you said, the typical press trip is *not* the typical consumer experience, unless you’re a luxury traveler, but even then writers and photographers often gets access to people and experiences not available to the general public.

And that’s a good thing, because it allows for better stories, but it also means it’s not the same experience as an anonymous person paying their own way.

Now a counter to that is that bloggers are held to a MUCH higher standard in terms of disclosure than traditional media. NYT and Lonely Planet authors have accepted stuff for free (dig deep enough and you’ll find the dirt on this topic), but you won’t see it disclosed because it hurts their credibility, let alone all the other publications of lesser circulations and standards.

You don’t see disclosure statements at the end of every newspaper article, magazine article, and TV segment. The audience understands it’s a business, and that to create those stories, whatever the format, requires special access and support at the destination level. If there were those disclosures it’d get old quick, and they’d be so ubiquitous, we’d start ignoring them altogether.

Meanwhile, bloggers are expected to disclose everything on a post-level basis. As a result, it’s easy for people to get the wrong impression about bloggers’ intentions and judgement.

Knowing what I know now from older journalists, I’m more inclined than ever to stop featuring those disclosures at the end of every post. A good article is a good article, and while well intentioned in the beginning, I’m starting to feel like readers don’t really care as long as the content is inspiring or useful, and that all these disclosures only serve to cast doubts on our collective credibility.

Interesting points, Dave. And since I am not the type of person who listens to others who claim to know what my readers like or not, I just recently did a reader survey and asked my readers specifically what they think of sponsored travel and if they like it or not.

I had over hundreds of replies from loyal followers of my blog and surprisingly only 2 said “NO”, a few are 50/50 and said they are fine as long as its not all sunshine and rainbows and the post has helpful tips and info, some don’t mind at all and a few others even said they are fine with it. (I’ll release the full result next week on my blog).

So I guess you have to listen to what your actual loyal readers like and not to other people who claim to know what your readers like or don’t like.

NomadicMatt

But even in your results you can see people were not super excited about. Seems the majority view sponsored posts with trepidation, which would be line with the comments here and surveys run by other sites.

Angel

The only travel blogs I read are those from people who travel by their own means. I would be immediately turned off if I read that a trip was sponsored in any way because it would be an absolutely biased report.

It depends on the amount of sponsored content. I’ll trust an author with some sponsored content, and I don’t begrudge those receive some sponsorship, but once it reaches a point of more than 15-20% of their content being “bought”, I won’t put as much worth in what they have to say.

Brandy

It’s one of those things where it kind of depends. I don’t begrudge bloggers for trying to make money or go on a free trip – I get that they have to find a way to pay the bills, and I enjoy reading a lot of their content for free, so no big deal. When I read a sponsored post, I keep that in mind – not that I necessarily distrust the information (and most people try to at least appear unbiased, usually mentioning one negative-but-not-too-negative thing that happened on their trip) but that I recognize that their experience wouldn’t necessarily be my own.

What I probably like the least about sponsored posts is that they’re usually not very entertaining to read. That, and what I enjoy most about my favorite travel blogs are the more personal posts, not necessarily posts that give a detailed overview of what they did and saw in a particular destination. Like with your blog – I do love the section where you link to your posts/information about each destination you’ve visited, but my favorite posts that you’ve written are usually more personal, like when you talk about settling down (or not) or wanting to sometimes have a travel partner. Things like that really resonate with me, so when I read a travel blog that just got back from a sponsored trip, and it’s basically post after post that just talks about the sites they saw/amazing meals they ate, I’m not always interested in reading it.

J Crowley

I think if a paid/sponsored trip is the only way they got to that destination, then I wouldn’t give their opinion as much weight as a blogger who paid their own way, chose their own attractions, and itinerary. The whole point of paying someone to write nice things about you and your country is just that – the Payer controls what you see, where you eat and stay, and it’s human nature to be nice to people that provide you with things you wouldn’t ordinarily have. The down side of that is that you miss the negatives that good press can help fix – a rundown worthwhile museum that needs financial help to turn an economic corner, changing/improving environmental impact on historic sites, sharing the darker side of the native peoples and how they are impacted by tourism.
Having multiple, varied views on everything will help the world change to be a better place. Just one opinion, that is suggested by a tourism board, is good… but many, and unbiased, is better.

karen

I go to traveltruth.com that is how I found you. Been in the travel business for years so love Richards site and now yours.

I think something to keep in mind is on press trips: if the person had to save up for a year while working some crappy job to go on the trip, would they have gone, and would they see it as a valuable use of their money and recommend it to others?

It’s easy to be enthusiastic about something you didn’t have to pay for…

In general for me it’s a turnoff. From reading several travel blogs, it becomes obvious in many case that the review is not written from an impartial standpoint.

Having said that, I have also come across people who have repeatedly stressed, and it has become evident over time, that they only promote someone or something that they would use themselves, weather paid or not. It’s these type of people that I am interested in following, as I genuinely value their opinions, but it does seem there are far more spoofers out there..

I guess I just use common sense when reading blogs. For example, I read one travel blogger who was raving about North Korea and how he didn’t see any poverty, etc and thought it was a great place to visit – of course this was sponsored by North Korea and it was almost like propaganda, so I didn’t believe that!
Sometimes when bloggers write negative things you have to be careful too. Another blogger recently slated a third world country because she was robbed there and yet this was just one experience – I didn’t feel she was being just in writing off the whole country.
I thought it was interesting that you said you don’t read travel blogs because they read a lot like journals – much of this personal information is the reason WHY I read travel blogs. For practical information I could just turn to a travel guide instead. I love the human angle of travelling.

NomadicMatt

Thanks everyone for the comments. It was really interesting to read your deep perspectives on this. It was really insightful!

Sam

Interesting topic Matt, I have read your blog for a while before I decided to start up my own blog… We have recently been hosted by hotels and have been asked to review a product or activities in exchange for a review however (and I know every blogger says this) we are always 100% honest, if the stay was rubbish we will say it was rubbish, we look at the great things about the hotel but we also (actively) look for negatives, we have both worked in hotels and tend to have a very high expectation of them (as we know how easy or hard something is to do) and having travel a fair bit we know what we like and we know what customers look for and what bug them.

I still read a fair few blogs and at times I will not pay too much attention to them going on a press trip or having a stay paid for, i sometimes find it hard to believe everything was fluffy and prefect – to me thats just not real.

I couldn’t do it, personally. I pitched a truth in beauty column to a major news publication (I was given free stuff as was the standard practice)– I wrote one very truthful article where I gave some positive reviews and some meh reviews– and I quickly learned that was a major faux pas. I was literally shunned by someone I wrote about– he crossed the street and walked in the other direction. I was done, I decided not to take the position. So I have no idea how anyone getting free stuff can do so and not feel bad about writing anything but sunshine and rainbows.
Which as you point out, is incredibly boring to read. I want a real opinion, not someone else’s epiphanies or aimless musings. Would love to read your recommended blogger list.

I think like with everything, you have to sift thru to see what information is valuable and what information is subjective. I’m not turned off by press trips – I actually get jealous when I read that disclaimer that they travel for free! I’m mostly on the travel blog to look at the pictures of the locale and from the pictures I decide whether a place is “on my list” or not. As a seasoned traveler, I don’t put too much stock in what anyone says – whether blogger, tripadvisor or whomever. Mileage will vary whether someone paid for the trip or not.

Tom

Having been fortunate enough to have traveled when I was younger, I find myself in the process of making the loop back. I have been reading a lot of blogs as I get ready to sell everything and start traveling full time in the next year. If I find a blog where all the posts look like a travel brochure or post for a resort I am off it in a heart beat. Don’t get me wrong, I will be working from the road and I understand the need to monetize your site in some way. But I don’t believe that means you have to sell your soul; you might as well just be a paid employee for the travel industry.

I enjoy reading the “journey” why a personal travels, what led them to that lifestyle, the fears, trials and tribulations and the sleepless nights that got them there. I can relate to that on a personal level.

I also like to see the personal growth and inner freedom I once had and feel I have lost as I did what we are trained to do “work and accumulate stuff and debt.” I like to experience why someone loves a city, the Christmas Markets in Germany, the street vendors in another city. the family that took them in and let them stay in their house a couple of days and the relationships that are built during that lifestyle. Not how great the Sheraton and beach views were. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE soft beds and room service, but that’s not how I learned to “experience” traveling.

There is a difference between “traveling” and “experience traveling.” Matt, what I like about you and your posts is I “feel comfortable.” Yes you make some money off links and I do own your book. But I feel comfortable reading you, like I wouldn’t mind pulling up a soft chair, a beer and sit and just trade stories about experiences.

So for me it’s about the “feeling” of a site and what I learn from the site which hopefully saves me money and headaches down the road.

Before we started our own blog, we were really disappointed by disclaimers at the end of pretty nice posts of our favourite bloggers. We asked to ourselves “why?” and “what for?” quite often.
Well, one needs to train his eye to spot a “paid” post and distinguish it from an honest one. But as someone here already said, some bloggers and media do not even bother to mention sponsorship at all, which later results in fully packed pubs, restaurants and overpriced resorts with rather average service.
At the end, in my opinion, blogs full of fake reviews will either lose their old audience or create the same fake readers who do not bother read his/her posts carefully or follow someone just to get into a “vip club”.
Or, in better case, s/he will keep or build their own honest audience who will mirror the truthful attitude of the blogger by honest commenting and following him/her without aiming any advantage from it.

Bill Bray

You take endorsements from G Adventures and you think that other people taking multiple sponsored trips is sleazy.

You are saying that a single endorsement is OK, but multiple endorsements are not.

What a hypocrite.

NomadicMatt

Bill,

What I’m saying is creating a long-term partnership is one thing but hawking free stuff because someone paid you is bad. If it’s all “flavor of the month” stuff, then I think you lose credibility. I trust someone less if it’s “I love every company that’s paying me money.”

We are a lot of cynics, but probably with good reason. My pet hate is Tripadvisor and the comments people leave. Having said that I have used it, but excludde the best and the worst.
Just imagine a man you have never met comes up to you on the street and tells you why you should or shouldn’t eat at a particular restaurant, and should or shouldn’t stay at a particular hotel. Do you accept what this stranger says?
I suspect not, but many of us trust and act upon reviews of hotels and restaurants written by strangers on websites like TripAdvisor. We make decisions that can involve us in spending thousands of dollars on a vacation based entirely on such reviews. Some time ago The New York Times ran an article entitled ‘5 Star reviews Go for $5′ a real indictment of all holiday review sites.

Then there is a website called I think Oyster showing Holiday fakeout photographs which can be staggering.
Frankly the only reviews I trust are on websites like Expedia because you actually have to have been there booking through them to write the review.

Thank you for the article

If I see the disclaimer too much on a blog, yeah it will be a turn off. But if I only see it once in a while, it doesn’t stop me from reading the blog.
I myself am a blogger, but rarely go on press trips. But when I do, I don’t write all rainbows and sunshine, unless that’s what I really experience. I’m lucky to have had mostly good experiences on those few press trips. But I think there’s always a way of telling non-pleasant experience in a constructive way instead of bashing about it.

Oh and there are bloggers who don’t reveal that their trips/gadgets/experiences are paid for. This kind is what readers should be more careful about.. :|

I think it has te be very clear if you got paid for the trip or not. It your responsibility as blogger to be fully transparent about this.

amber118

I always read a few reviews , in addition do my own research and likes sometimes to read between the lines…if the reviewer provides too of a Rosie report – that really makes me think twice how accurate this is ….as an experienced traveller – I can suggest to do ur own research as per the sites and interests u have …happy Holidays and Traveling

I think it’s always good to get a second opinion (and a third and a fourth and so on), which is why I never base my travel plans on only one source. Even after checking the Lonely Planet I like to check out a place online before I go there. I’ve been burnt before by some bad information!

NomadicMatt

That’s a good strategy.

Sponsored stays/travels are on the rise, I don’t think it can be helped. However I’d rather read a sponsored stay that has disclosure vs one that is obviously sponsored but has no disclosure. Sadly I still see bloggers who do not disclose and it really cheapens and makes the travel blogging industry ‘dirty’. But like most people, to me it doesnt matter if its sponsored (as long as its disclosed) because when I do my research , I don’t just go for one resource and take every review with a pinch of salt

Sammi

As long as the disclaimer is there, I’m not bothered. I might take it with a pinch or salt & not take a lot of notice of it instead of posts that are all their personal opinions. At the end of the day everyone’s trying to earn some money, and if that’s how they’re doing it, then good luck to them.

I don’t really care if the content I read is sponsored in any way. At the end of the day, I decide whether I like the content or not, and if it was worthwhile.

This is a good Blogs in a Tours and Travels , looking for an online reputable agency with a valuable package?

Hi Matt,

I’m a huge fan of yours because of the fact that you offer informative posts, ideas, suggestions etc. I’m a new blogger who started in August based out of St. Pete, FL. As a new blogger, I’ve been told by others to add the Press Trips etc on my Media/PR Page, but after reading this post, I’m going to step back a little and rethink this idea.

I was recently invited by a major resort in my area for an exclusive dinner to showcase not only one of their restaurants but the resort and the City of Saint Pete because they noticed how much I promote the area on all of my SM platforms. With that said, it gave me more exposure on Twitter by writing about it and photographing the event on my blog.

I follow you on all SM platforms and I will continue to rave about NomadicMatt!!

Thank you,

Ruthie

Hi Matt,

really interesting article and very thought provoking. I think there shouldn’t be a doubt about it when a trip is sponsored and it should be declared as such. Though I thought it was an interesting comment earlier whether all print media are held to this standard, but alright that is not really my problem.

In terms of content I am just thinking that the way I write my stories, I barely write about negative things as they are. I am not a review or travel guide, I tell travel stories usually and I tend to focus on positive aspects of travel or will re-tell mishaps in a funny way were it is pretty clear that it doesn’t really reflect negatively on the destination per se. That is just the way I write. Needless to say that no place is perfect, but generally I chose to focus on the parts I like and just not talk about the things I didn’t like. I guess one could argue that this gives a false review by omission as I tend to do the same for any sponsored trips. I haven’t been in a situation when I thought something was so horrible that I couldn’t find enough positive content and will cross this bridge when I get there. But I was wondering what you thought on how sponsorship effects content that is not a review or a pro/con list; content that is personal story telling, a 24 hours guide, a top tips in NYC or such. I personally don’t think that sponsorship effects such content without making it biased, it just makes it possible in some cases to even write about it at all. What do you think?

Cheers,

annika

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