Traveling (and Writing) Free and Easy

Tom Swick: On press trips and the ethics of travel writing in the digital age

01.21.10 | 11:50 AM ET

bus passengers looking out windowiStockPhoto

As the press has withered, the press trip has flourished.

Twenty years ago, the situation was quite different. Condé Nast Traveler had recently appeared on the scene—with its motto of “Truth in Travel”—and sparked an industry-wide debate on subsidized trips. The newspaper where I was the travel editor, the Tribune-owned Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, changed its policy from identifying articles that were the result of free trips to banning them altogether. Whenever I found good stories from freelancers, I had to call the writers up and ask if they’d been a treated guest. Rarely did I get a “yes”—not, I believe, because people were lying, but because the kinds of stories I liked didn’t result from freebies.

In the spring of 1990, a featured speaker at the annual meeting of newspaper travel editors was a freelance writer who pleaded that she and many of her colleagues were at risk of losing their livelihoods. I felt little pity for her. Yes, travel writing was a notoriously unprofitable profession; the fee a newspaper paid for a story rarely came close to covering the expenses of the trip that had produced it. But the ranks were full of hacks who had discovered an unbeatable gig of sponsored travel followed by mindless typing. A cleansing, I thought, might elevate the genre.

That didn’t happen. Newspaper and magazine editors (though not all) objected to subsidized travel on the grounds that it constituted a conflict of interest. A writer who accepted gifts—especially ones as large as airfare and lodging—was inevitably seen as compromised, and destined to write an uncritical piece. Yet these same editors were strangely oblivious to the artificial rosiness infecting most travel journalism, even that which didn’t result from free trips. The publications that stood on high moral ground still made generous use of the word “paradise.”

The press trip had a professional as well as an ethical disadvantage. It put writers in groups and bused them around (rather like schoolchildren); it introduced them to local tourism officials; it showed them what the officials wanted them to see. This was anathema to many travel writers. “The best way to write about a place,” I wrote in a column in the mid-90s, “is to go alone, anonymously, and talk to nobodies.”

That remains true, but much has changed. Newspapers have kept their ethics but lost their clout (and sometimes their travel editors with it). The New York Times still insists that its freelancers be gift trip virgins. (A secular newspaper with a belief in original sin.) But why pitch to the Times when you can have your own blog? (And then get interviewed by a travel columnist for the Times.)

Writers on the Internet are not bound by the rules of old media institutions; they can guiltlessly go on junkets. They are mostly of an age group not known for its loyalty, so it’s possible that they’re less swayed by swag than people who were brought up to write thank-you notes.

The press trip remains a kind of virtual travel, but now for a virtual generation. For the most part, the web’s travel writers are in the information, not the truth and beauty, business. And, since they’re addicted to speed, an organized tour suits their purposes much better than aimless wanderings and chance encounters do. You don’t need to be Wilfred Thesiger to compile a list of Mexico’s 10 Best Spas.

And it must be said, subsidized travel isn’t always the enemy of art. Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious “Labels” is about a Mediterranean cruise he had gotten for free. My favorite chapter in “The Pillars of Hercules” describes a luxury cruise that Paul Theroux never paid for. “I was a guest of the shipping company,” he writes, coming clean while at the same time employing a grandiose name for what was in fact a cruise line. “There was no disgrace in that.”

But it helps if you write as well as he does.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

16 Comments for Traveling (and Writing) Free and Easy

Annie Bennett 01.21.10 | 2:01 PM ET

I would never be able to be a full-time travel writer without free flights (sometimes) and accommodation (usually) and meals (occasionally), but this does not affect what I write. As I specialize in Spain, I get substantial help from the Spanish Tourist Board, but they are usually happy to organize the kind of accommodation that I specify as the most appropriate or interesting for a particular article. While press trips are indeed usually hopeless for generating interesting stories, they can be useful for basic research to get an idea of an area, before going back to follow up a particular angle. If I go on a press trip (not often), I usually stay on for a few days at my own expense - at a more modest hotel, obviously.  I think this is probably the reality for a lot of travel writers, and most have enough sense and experience to make it work. I don’t see it as a problem, and suspect most travel writers are far more concerned at the moment about falling rates, being commissioned to write ever shorter pieces and how to monetize online content. Still a great job though!

Dick Jordan 01.21.10 | 2:16 PM ET

I’m a newly-minted freelance travel writer.  My two stories about Southeast Alaska published last year in major U.S. newspapers garnered me less than a tenth of the trip costs (paid entirely out of my own pocket).  Even if I can sell ten more stories based on that trip this year, I’m unlikely to break even. 

I spent a month in Europe last fall.  Income from twenty to forty published stories might cover my trip expenses, but won’t fund my 2010 travels.

My travel writing colleagues bemoan the shrinking number of newspapers and magazines buying freelance stories.  These days it seems that you have to be independently wealthy to run for Congress.  Will the same soon hold true for freelance travel writers?

I write two travel blogs.  My bags are packed, I’m ready to go, on a jet plane, anywhere you want to send me on a press trip.  I’ll even fly in Coach.  I can drive a stick shift rental car.  I’m not too picky about what I eat.  But I’d like a room with a view, please.

Thanks, in advance, for your support for the growing ranks of freelance writers.

Melanie Waldman 01.21.10 | 2:44 PM ET

I ‘m definitely of an age group brought up to write thank-you notes, and am of the mind that even when stories are the results of a press trip, information, truth and beauty can coexist. 

As a travel blogger, I see most of the press trips I’ve taken as a means of exploring places I might not have gone in ways I might not have traveled.  Within this context, I’ve seen it as my responsibility to find ways to inject my own travel style and point of view into the equation. 

So far, I find that PR companies and their clients are usually willing to to leave open time in itineraries and even postpone a return flight to allow me to meet non-press trip folks (some of the best sources of info for the story at hand) and go exploring off-reservation.  Never hurts to ask, and makes a great contrast to a more packaged experience.

Terry 01.21.10 | 4:02 PM ET

That chapter in “The Pillars of Hercules,”  was my favorite, too, Tom. I loved this excerpt, describing Theroux’s exchange with a fellow (paying) passenger (with the author clearly feeling no debt to his host):

And Mrs. Betty Levy of London and the Algarve was on her thirtieth cruise and had been up the Amazon. “I love your books, I’ve read every one of them,” Mrs. Levy said to me. “Are you writing one about this cruise?”

“Not unless anything interesting happens,” I said, so confused by her directness that I realized I was telling her the truth.

Robert Earle Howells 01.21.10 | 7:33 PM ET

I read your piece three times, Tom, and still don’t understand what your current point of view is. Your mid-1990s viewpoint is clear, but what about now? Has it changed, or is your point only that Internet writers can do as they please? Fine, but I’m curious to know what you think about that.

I see press trips as a somewhat necessary evil. I wholly agree that they present professional disadvantages. A dedicated journalist has to break away and try, sometimes desperately, to have a genuine experience worth writing about. But that’s better than NO experience. And increasingly, this is what publications are basing stories on: phone interviews, Web research, etc. THAT’s virtual travel. Way more virtual than a press trip.

It’s a sad state of affairs. Few professional journalists can afford to wander off and have those anonymous experiences you describe, much as we’d like to. Rates and down time just don’t justify it. Those who can…well, do they represent Mr. Every Reader any better than a writer on a junket does? Because those who can might themselves be privileged well beyond the ordinary traveler.

One more thought: Do the moral publications that disparage press trips also shun advertising from destinations they cover?

JoAnna 01.21.10 | 7:57 PM ET

As a travel writer and blogger, I feel no guilt for accepting press trips. I believe my readers know and trust me to be honest in my coverage, which I am. I never make promises about what I will and will not write. The pay for travel writing is minimal today, and I would not be able to travel to many of the places comped travel has taken me. I continue to pay my bills through other means, but that doesn’t make me any less honest when it comes to writing about travel, which is where my true passion lies.

Terry Gardner 01.21.10 | 10:17 PM ET

I’m very leery of press trips after doing my first one this past fall.  I blogged a bit about the trip for Huffington Post but they only wanted me to cover it since I had paid for my flight.  Generally, Huffington Post tries to have the same rules as the newspapers - no freebies or discounts. At least that’s what I was told by my previous editor.  I prefer the freedom of being on my own and not locked into an itinerary where I’m bossed around by a 20-something anxious PR person.  I also grew up writing thank you notes and I do find myself feeling obligated to write stories after being shown amazing hospitality.  Even though I paid for part of my trip last fall to New Zealand, I couldn’t pitch any stories from the trip to my editors at the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune b/c a good portion of the trip had been comped.  The newspapers consider an entire trip tainted if even a portion is a freebie.  Overall, I think the rule prohibiting freebies is a good one.  If I’m recommending readers spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a trip, I think it matters that I scrimped and saved to go rather than getting a free ride.  I wish I felt differently, because it seems the more I’m published, the more tempting offers I receive.

Nancy D. Brown 01.21.10 | 11:47 PM ET

While the press trip has flourished, so have a plethora of travel bloggers.

The world of ‘citizen journalism’ has lowered the bar on quality writing. Indeed, “Mexico’s Ten Best Clothing Optional Spas” would rank better for SEO. Change the title to “Tiger Wood’s Ten Favorite Spas” and you’ve got a winner!

Sites such as Examiner (dot) com are not helping our cause. Isn’t it also true that Huffington Post doesn’t pay for editorial content?

The publishing industry is changing, as is my writing style. While the AP style book is no longer relevant, the press trip is here to stay.

tom swick 01.22.10 | 10:24 AM ET

Thank you all for your comments. Robert, to clarify: I have moved from strong opposition to grudging acceptance. A press trip is far from the optimal way to travel, but, as you say, it is better than no travel. And so much depends on how you write about it.

Donna M. Airoldi 01.22.10 | 12:43 PM ET

I had no idea press trips existed until I was assigned to participate in one after landing a staff job at a travel trade publication several years ago. The traveler in me was excited—I was about to enjoy a long weekend of experiences I never could have afforded on my own and get paid to write about them. The journalist in me was mortified.

I’m still conflicted about the trips, but unless you’re a company with big money behind you, I don’t think you can ignore them. Editors I know at some publications that supposedly ban them simply don’t want to hear that you’ve been on one. And I increasingly see bylines in those pubs from individuals I’ve met on press trips! (The most recent was a piece in the NYTImes travel section this month.) They’re now almost necessary given deep budget cuts and minimal writer fees. At the online travel site I last worked for, I initially wanted to accept only pitches that came from non-sponsored trips when we were getting ready to launch nearly three years ago. But that was unrealistic, especially given the low rates ($100/article on average) I was able to offer—although those rates now look generous compared to what many in the online market currently pay.

As for being able to stay objective after having been on a press trip? It’s possible, but it’s harder than you think, even for the most honest of experienced journalists. Which is precisely why editors prefer to ban them, even when they no longer can.

Trisha Miller 01.23.10 | 2:34 PM ET

Any writer who feels compelled to write glowing, non-critical articles on a destination after accepting a press trip puts that obligation on his/herself.  After many years of both self-paid and sponsored travel, I’ve yet to work with a sponsor who made any attempt to influence what I wrote.

While I think most would agree that a critical article might determine whether or not a writer is invited on a future press trip, I think it’s high time we writers push the issue in the direction of the genre of restaurant reviews.  Many restaurants live or die by their rating in popular guides, but do they ask to not be reviewed? No.  They assume responsibility for the experience of the diner who is rating them. 

Travel press trips need to be treated the same way - it’s the responsibility of the destination to ensure that there is nothing (or little) that can be written of them that is critical, not to punish the writer who is telling the truth.  That will help ensure unbiased journalism, not antiquated policies that the dinosaurs of publishing are clinging to.

Gypsy Girl 01.25.10 | 9:25 AM ET

Good point Trisha- that would be a personal obligation!
Anything with moderation or variation can be refreshing! Face it- all of us travel lots and even the repetition of such can get under your skin at times.

Like Anais Nin proclaimed, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.’
If you look at a press trip as an opportunity for experience- there are always new unique angles to go about one!

Tim Patterson 02.01.10 | 4:30 AM ET

Nice post, it’s always a joy to read your thoughts on travel writing, Mr. Zwick.  When I was researching a Patagonia guidebook, the company gave me a “magic letter” to use for some lodging.  Sleeping at Estancia Helsingfors was much nicer than sleeping in my tent.  It gets windy in Patagonia.

Tim Patterson 02.01.10 | 4:33 AM ET

Sorry for misspelling your name!  It’s late…and I’m a press-trip hack.

Austin Beeman 02.07.10 | 2:27 AM ET

I think the issue here is thinking that Travel Writer are really ‘journalists.’  Most of the best (even at newspapers) are more ‘story-teller’ and less ‘Edward R Murrow.’  I know that is how I see myself, however I’ve yet to be taken on a press trip.

Alison McGowan 02.18.10 | 5:05 AM ET

I’m not sure what the problem is here. We don’t believe everything we read in the press, so why should it matter if somebody got the trip as a freebie. I do know that there would be no way I could run my own business- if I had to pay for all the wonderful places I stay at in Brazil. They don’t get on the site if they have not been visited and approved, but the cost of travel and subsistence would be prohibitive if I had to pay it all myself.

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