Why I Take Press Trips and Free Stuff

By Nomadic Matt | Published December 21st, 2009

Taking a Press TripOver the next coming months, you’ll see me talk about a lot of different travel products and companies and disclosing how I got the stuff or tours for free. I wanted to explain ahead of time why I take press trips and freebies. Yes, I get stuff. And yes, I take it. I pay for the majority of my travels. No one covers my flights, my food, my drink, my hostels, and most of my tours. In fact, I only get about 15% of my expenses covered by trips or freebies. However, lately, I’ve been getting more and more stuff offered to me. I don’t see anything wrong with taking things that relate to my website, audience, or budget travel. For full disclosure, here are my thoughts on press trips, free stuff, and the ethics of my writing:

I’m honest about it.
I’m not going to hide the fact I get free stuff from my readers. On the internet, all you know about me is what you read from my blog and twitter account. All our relationship boils down to is my integrity and the trust you have that my writing is transparent. I’m not going to ruin that trust by being deceptive. If I did, you wouldn’t read my site and the last 20 months of my life would be wasted. I always plan to tell you what I got for free.

I am NOT a cheerleader. I have turned down stuff because companies told me I’d have to give them a good review. If someone wants to give me their product for free, that’s fine so long as they understand I’m going to write an honest review about them. If I don’t like it, I’ll say so. If I like something, I’ll say so. I’m not going to be bribed with free stuff. It’s not like I’m Tom Delay!!

I’m fair and balanced. The above being said, I can appreciate a product that might have an audience other than me. Just because I don’t like something, doesn’t mean you won’t. You could love it. I once wrote how I would never Contiki but also said I could see why people would. In my review of Eurail passes, I was totally open about the prices and what was and was not cheaper. I’m here to inform so you can travel better, longer, and cheaper.

PR trips are not unique to travel. Do you think TV critics, music critics, or movie critics are biased when they give a review of a product you know they got for free? Roger Ebert doesn’t pay for movies but no one says he’s biased. Why? People trust him to be honest. I would hope you think I am honest too. In the end, it’s the story behind the trip that interests me, not who paid for it.

I don’t take things I wouldn’t use. I often get requests from people to take some luxury tour or stay in some fancy hotel. I turn them down. Why? Because my site is about long term budget travel. Saving money so you can stay on the road longer. Free stuff for the sake of free reduces my credibility and my credibility is far more important. If I don’t think it’s relevant, I turn it down. I’ll take a Eurail Pass or the Kiwi Experience because budget travelers and backpackers use them but you won’t see me writing about a luxury resort just so I can stay in one!

Who doesn’t like free? I don’t know one person on the planet who doesn’t like the word free. If someone offered you a product you are going to use anyway, would you turn it down? Probably not. If Eurail, a hostel, World Nomads, REI, Stray, Lonely Planet, or anyone else wants to give me products to try for free, I’m happy to take it! It saves me money- money I can use to travel longer with and what’s wrong with that? As long as I follow the above rules, then I’m not doing anything wrong, deceptive, or misleading and my reviews stay honest.

Everyone has their own view on PR trips and questions how objective someone can be when they write about free stuff. However, in the end, it comes down to trust. Do you trust that the reviewer is honest? If you trust the person to be fair, balanced, and honest then whether they got it for free or not is irrelevant. What matters is what they write- the story about their trip and experience. I don’t care that Roger Ebert got to see the movie for free or that a bunch of travel bloggers got a free cruise. I trust all of them to be fair and that’s what matters to me. If you don’t think that person can give an honest opinion, what are you doing reading them anyways?

I’m going to keep taking free stuff and press trips but you have my guarantee that I plan to be honest in my reviews. Our relationship is based on trust and there’s no freebie in the world that would cause me to ruin that. And if you don’t think that I can be honest and truthful- well, then why did you just spend all this time reading my post?

(For full disclosure, I paid myself to write this post. I paid by check too even though myself wanted cash!)

comments 31 Comments

I should have really picked a blog that people handing out freebies would want coverage on, shouldn’t I?

I agree with just about all of what you say though. I take free stuff when I’m writing about places, but I disclose it, and I’m honest in my appraisal. You can’t ask for too much more than that, surely?

I say take a freebie where you can get it!!! As readers i think we are better informed because of it. You get the opportunity to test out products and give us the real hardcore truth about it good or bad. What can possibly be bad about that, i don’t think anyone really could criticize you for that!!!

Totally agree with this post. If I didn’t take free stuff, I couldn’t afford to be a travel journalist. I specialise in luxury (and eco), and I don’t know a single travel journo who could afford to pay regularly for nights in luxury hotels.

Even when my hotel and some meals are covered, even a short trip costs me £££, and I usually get paid ony ££, so it’s a loss leader. I hope to make more by writing about the trip multiple times over the years (i.e. go to Stockholm on free press trip, then discover a hidden gem while I’m there, which gives me an idea for another article, and so on).

I truly wish magazines and newspapers still paid expenses for freelancers so I wouldn’t have to spend AGES trying to sort out hosted accommodation, etc, but the only mag I know that pays expenses is Conde Nast Traveller. Otherwise, staffers get expenses (sometimes), and the rest of us have to do what we can to keep doing the job we love and make enough money to pay the bills. (And there are only about two full-time staff jobs left in the country, so that’s not an option for most of us.)

Abi

I agree! As long as bloggers reject freebies that have nothing to do with what they write about, appraise things critically and retain editorial control then accepting freebies should actually benefit readers. My friends who work in other industries have been very confused when I’ve told them about the freebie debate in travel writing…

Amen! That’s all I can say. More power to the blogger!

I agree Matt. Travel is expensive, and I think that as long as you – we – are honest about where our travel comes from, and as long as we continue to uphold sound journalistic principles, there is no reason that we shouldn’t be able to accept freebies.

Matt,
Just wanted to say that you’ve worked hard to gain a following and a “brand identity”. You should, by all means, take full advantage of all of your hard work and so long as you keep your integrity about it, then I say “good on ya” for it.

On a related note, I wanted to bust your chops about giving Bruce Poontip and GAP Adventures space on your blog, but in the end I figured you hadn’t compromised your integrity and the things he had to say were quite interesting and even a bit educational.

NomadicMatt

I love Gap Adventures! They are a great company that I have used in the past and will use again in the future. If they screw up, I’ll say so but I still like them. Brand loyalty.

James

Good post – just have one of the interns you always talk about proof-read! No offense, just saying. It’s pretty hard to read at times.

NomadicMatt

Thanks for the comment. Could you point out something more specific? What’s actually hard to read?

Agreed. We have accepted gear and a press trip (only one so far, but would love more:) also. We just make sure to give an honest review. It is our blog after all and I would never recommend something that I didn’t believe in. The companies that have approached us have been very focused to our niche and when they send us over some gear we make sure to give and honest review. They have never asked us to review it favorable in return.
And I am with you on the PR trips point. People see concerts for free, movies for free and travel writers have been going on press trips for years. There is nothing wrong with a Blogger taking free trips as long as they are honest. And who wouldn’t want to be honest? It is your blog after all and no Blogger would want to put their reputation at risk. At least that is my thought. Great post.

Well said ! And understood. Thanks for sharing and for putting that all out on the table.

I just think you could have done a bit more negotiating with yourself. ;)

Fida

Good for you! We are all in business to make a living. If we don’t sell stuff then we sell ourselves (and if it is only with an excellent resumée ;-).

Happy Holidays and a wonderful travel year!

Andrew

Well said Matt. A majority of my trips are through press trips and such. I make sure now to inform my readers of this when writing a review. When I first started my blog I did not disclose that information, but as I become more well known and received more readers, there came a time when I just felt the need to inform people that what I am writing about has been paid for by a tourism board, pr company or a hotel.

I also agree with taking a freebie when it actually means something to your blog. I have a section dedicated to hotel reviews and will only feature the ones that I particularly enjoyed. I always inform companies that send me somewhere that I do not guarantee a positive review and also do not guarantee that everything on the itinerary will be reviewed.

I would say that 99% of them had no problem with that and were open to criticism and honest reviews. Bottom line is that as travel writers/bloggers, it can get expensive. If a company is willing to provide us with a discount or a freebie, I can why not? But to just “sell out” and take stuff for the hell of it is pretty lame.

Safe travels Matt and look forward to meeting you at TBEX in June.

Andrew

Rob

Taking quality free stuff if offered only makes sense. Anyone who has a problem with that is either jealous / envious or a combo of both.

Nice work and enjoy the tours / trips / whatevers.

NomadicMatt

Thanks for the support!

Ditto. When I become big enough to start accepting such goods, I think I’ll adopt the same policies.

what a great post… another article to ponder for newbies like me…

by the way, happy holidays!!!

-flip

Eric W.

Just found your blog and am enjoying it, but I agree with others that grammar and proofreading are lacking. Maybe pass everything through a virtual copyeditor? I bet the increase in quality would pay dividends in the long run, from increased visits by people like me who’d otherwise have a hard time taking you seriously. Also, I know you’re getting a flood of extra traffic from the NYTimes.com article, but the site is essentially unusable now, with internal server errors on every page. (Took me five tries to post this.) Some extra money toward reliability would be another good investment.

NomadicMatt

I’ve fixed my server issues. Interesting to know about what grammar errors you found. You don’t mention any so I’d love to be sent some. Blogging is more informal than the NYT but spelling and grammar is still important.

Hi Matt

Great site.
In defence of the grammar/ spelling issues, I am a stickler for both.
However, once I started blogging regularly on assignments realised that the need for sleep always overrides my desire for perfect copy. In fact, by 2am, after a long day I tend to think, WTF, they must know what I mean otherwise they’re too stupid to read this. Of course in the light of a bright, shiny new day I regret this, but by then I’m onto the next gig.

Freelancers simply don’t have the time in a day to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’. It’s more important to keep the info flowing which you are certainly doing!
So ditto Corbin.

Excellent post, NomadicMatt! I agree with you completely and couldn’t have said it better myself — in fact, I will direct people to your post if I hear them dissing press trips.

Next time, please pay yourself with cash instead of a check because you deserve it :)

Dave S.

Nice site. I don’t blame you for taking free “stuff” , but if you honestly believe that the freebies have no impact on the way you report, you’re kidding yourself. Even if you make an honest effort to be fair, which I’m certain that you do, you simply percieve things differently when you’re not paying.

For example, I once had the opportunity to stay at a luxury resort for free (not a junket, just a simple gift from family members), and I thought the place was shangri-la. But, I was surprised to read many negative reviews of the place on the internet when I got home. Basically, people were down on this resort because they had paid $300 per night, and thought it wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t writing about the experience, but if I was, my review would have been much different if I had paid full freight. You can try to imagine you paid, but it’s not the same. There is no substitute for a light wallet.

Same goes for a meal in a fine dining restaurant- it always tastes better when someone else is paying. Go ahead and take your free trips, but be honest with yourself about how you will cover them.

I’ve no problems accepting free stuff under the same conditions you discuss – disclosure, integrity & honest appraisal are the watchwords.

Most people reading your article probably wish they had as many freebie offers as you.

Nice work Matt. Great site and barr humbugg to critics of your grammar; its not War and Peace.

I’m with you matt, I’ll take a freebie any day so long as the company knows I’m not going to be their bitch. Haven’t had the opportunity for any serious freebies, but I say bring ‘em on.

As for these nay-say-ers commenting on grammar and language. Eff ‘em. Writing while on the road is like crapping while being attacked by monkeys. It’s tough. It’s way too easy to miss a word or some punctuation. In this day and age I thought people had kind of grown to accept the occasional bout of crappy spelling and grammar. We have MSN and Facebook to thank for that. We’re just a product of our environments, and what’s happening on the internet is forcing the english language to evolve in ways unexpected. If they can’t handle the fact that I didn’t capitalize your name they should drop the internet and limit their reading to published books.

Blue

Hey Matt,

Stumbled on your blog and I thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read so far!

Freebies is perfectly fine, in my opinion, as long as you disclose it so that the reader is aware of it. There caveat is there. Readers are not that gullible to swallow everything they read, I’m sure (…. and I hope!). People get a lot of tips from your blog (for free!) and apply that when they’re planning their own trip. I don’t think they would complain about getting freebies then!

There is absolutely nothing wrong with how your blog is written. I love it! I like that it’s not completely grammatically perfect or spelling-error free. I like the expressiveness of it all. I like that there are little mistakes here and there. It makes me feel more “connected” to the writer, that he is someone normal just like me, that what he experiences on the road is most likely what an average person would to. That’s the whole point of blogs as opposed to publishing a travel book. That is why I read travel blogs more than nicely-printed, perfect grammar, editor-approved travel books.

Thumbs up for a fantastic job!

Sean O'

15%. All that for 15%?

I don’t see anything wrong with accepting “free stuff”, not a bit. And you’ve earned such offers.

Although…I don’t think “free” is ever the right word. It’s a bit misleading, frankly. It’s bartering as opposed to paying cash. Companies hand out things (gadgets, books, services etc.) because they are looking for some kind of return, however vaguely defined. They’re wanting expert, fair-minded opinion, or reputable exposure, or the zillions of other benefits of working with bloggers.

What makes me sad….and hell, what *annoys* me, is when people presume that getting things for “free” equates to selling out. I’ve yet to go on a press trip, but I know from talking to enough people who have that taking part in a press trip in the spirit that a press trip is offered….is *hard work*. You’re there for a purpose and you have a role to play that isn’t just for your own benefit. A working holiday. It shocks me how many people seem to forget that when they start with the “oh, you lucky git” comments…

Let’s get rid of the word “free”. It’s leading people astray. :)

NomadicMatt

How about a “comp” trip? Maybe that might be the better word. I don’t think a free trip equates selling out either. Personally, I think getting ALL your stuff free can be an issue for me personally but taking the occasional trip is not selling out, it simply helps lower costs so you can explore more destinations and get back to people on what is good. If you think some one is a sell out, then you shouldn’t read them in the first place.

Nothing wrong with press trips if you’re showing the real deal.

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