Flip through any glossy travel magazine and you’ll find photos of luxe hotels, decadent spa treatments, bespoke private tours and expensive excursions (like heli-touring the Grand Canyon). The average travel writer barely makes what a primary school teacher takes in – but without a 401K, union, or health insurance. What gives? How do these writers afford to write about thousands of dollars worth of travel for an article that pays a few hundred dollars?
It’s not entirely a secret but if you’re not a travel writer you might be surprised that nearly all of the travel writing you read is sponsored travel. There are a few exceptions, like the New York Times. However, since the 1980s the shift has been steady – as advertising prices dropped, publications scrambled to find a workable model. For travel, that means the expense account they used to give writers is now largely picked up by hotels, tourism boards, PR agencies and travel brands.
Is it ethical? Well, if you act unethically and give great coverage in exchange for hotel stays, that’s unethical. You’re misleading your readers. But the reality is that as writers we often have to compartmentalize our efforts and when there is no wall between the business and editorial sides, it’s up to us to mentally erect one.
So… if you’re writing a blog, should you take free travel? It’s up to you! Your gut will be your guide. I think the main considerations are whether it makes sense to write about the hotel you stayed in. You don’t necessarily have to write a full review – in fact, unless you’re writing a city guide, I’d avoid that – but you do HAVE to mention them and find a way to make them part of the story that will feel natural and feels like coverage to the hotel. You’re playing both sides. When I do it, I try to find a story in the hotel. In Oaxaca, there’s a hotel called Azul and each room is designed by a different Mexican artist. Boom, instant story. Or I might just write an essay about having a mini-writers retreat in the luxe garden space at a certain hotel in Bali (done that). How you use the space, or the stories you find tucked inside, can all be used to craft a post that doesn’t read like: “Here’s a review of my stay at this hotel.”
If you can do that, read on.
So what opportunities are there for writers to get free travel? Well it depends on your connections and how much work you’re willing to put in.
Types of opportunities
1. Contact any tourism board or destination bureau – usually the Visit X website (like Visit Seattle or Visit Mexico) and get in touch with the marketing manager. Let them know you’re a visiting journalist and you’re looking for activities for x audience – and see if they can connect you (and get you tickets). This is a good way to skip entrance fees and there’s very little barrier to entry on this.
2. Contact hotels and ask for a free stay. But don’t say free! And not just any hotel! The key here is to ask hotels that have a marketing department. If you’re backpacking across Costa Rica, that bungalow you want to stay in for $30/night is not going to have a marketing department. They aren’t working with a PR firm to bring in writers. They will look at you sideways if you try to get free travel. Instead look for the moderate luxury places. The Hilton is more likely to work with bloggers than Hotel 6. Another trick: look for hotels in the destination that have already been reviewed by bloggers – and who have received a free night stay. If you google “destination name + *all opinions are my own* (in quote)” you’ll find those blog reviews where the blogger was comped.
How to approach? Tell them you are a blogger who is coming to town on X dates and you’re writing a story about Y. Ask if they provide SUPPORT to writers and specifically you’d like to stay there for 1 or 2 nights.
- Plan ahead… you can’t wing this 3 days out
- Always say support instead of free
- Contact the marketing department
- Keep your stay to a day or two, get other hotels if you need more
- Be unfailing polite, professional and unfazed. Act like you do this all the time. And if they say no or ignore your email? Their loss, no big deal.
3. Get on a blogger trip. IDK, this is a mixed bag. I did one in Belize and it was terrible I never did another. I didn’t get to TRAVEL. I was carted around to do coverage all day. I wasn’t writing a guide book so it was a mismatch. However, there are lots of travel blogging trips out there. Some are great! Part of it is getting into the travel blog network and hanging around the TBEX folks, going to conferences, making friends with PR folks, doing Twitter chats etc. If you are interested in doing this kind of free travel, then TBEX is worth the cost of admission (there are several per year). Pro tip: save the cash and just reach out to the sponsors of the latest event (they are on the website) and be like, “Just wanted to touch base after TBEX. I’d love to work with you guys! Insert spiel about your site and what kind of content you want to create” Notice I didn’t say I attended, just that I wanted to touch base! You can check the Twitter hashtag for the event to find the specific people who attended on behalf of their PR agency or Travel brand.
4. Get a sponsor. TBEX is also good for getting sponsors but you can reach out to anyone. Again, the key here is to ask for support. In this case, you might get money for your epic trip and you can purchase what you need – or they might arrange travel for you (like tourism boards) – or they might just give you gear. It depends. When I did my bike trip across Europe, I got sponsored by the Catalunya Tourism board by simply emailing the director there and pitching my project and asking for support. They hooked us up with 10 days of travel, bikes, a kid bike trailer and more. It was great. You can also reach out to gear companies (get lots of lead time on this). Knowing if that brand does sponsorships helps, so you can look around to see who is sponsoring other projects around you and contact just those who are working with bloggers. I would ask bloggers via email to help me by sharing their email contact (I’m kind of brazen about asking – but I feel like we’re all in this together and should help each other out) or I would follow the brand on Twitter, message them, try to get a contact person.
5. The media rate: even if you don’t get totally free travel, you can always ask for the media rate at any hotel. Obviously, it needs to be a bigger hotel, but this is 50% off they offer journalists and it’s kind of standard.
If this is something you want to turn into a permanent part of your business model, there is a book for this! Beth Blair wrote the guide to this exact kind of travel writing.
Or you can get Tim Leffels book
(Or go to his website and ask for a review copy, I’m 100% positive he will give you one if you promise to review it.)