On complimentary travel

By Armond Noble

Like the sunspot cycle, there is an issue that periodically rises up among our readers, so every five years or thereabout I address the topic.

Within the text or immediately following some articles written by ITN staff or columnists there may be a notation that the author’s travel was complimentary or provided at a discount. The host/provider might be a travel company or a national tourist office.

After printing such an article, we at times hear from some readers comments like “That whole article was just an advertisement” or “We don’t get to travel for free!”

Please hear me out.

First, as you are certainly aware, book reviewers don’t pay for all the books they read. It would be impossible to do so. Movie reviewers don’t pay to see all the movies they report on. Radio stations don’t pay for all the records they play.

A great many media reporters travel on what are called press trips. (Your travel agent also goes on what are called, for them, familiarization trips, or “fam trips.”) However, quite different from a great many other publications, when an ITN reporter goes on such a trip, we (with the principle of full disclosure) mention that fact to you.

Granted, there are some publications that don’t allow their staff to go on these trips. Such are giants like The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler and a few others. ITN’s income is but a tiny sliver of theirs. Our total income about equals their lunch bills.

For us to be able to travel (and have an understanding of travel, which we should have in order to do our job for you), we have to accept the generosity of those who wish you to know of their offerings and so offer such trips to ill-paid journalists as a conduit.

Since ITN mentions the complimentary basis on which the trips were provided, you are thus able to judge if we “gushed” too much (which I don’t think we do — our objective remains to describe the destination itself and give candid reports of travel firms and facilities).

As for “free,” often we pay our own airfare from California to New York. We also burn up far more film and have processing costs in excess of what most travelers would have.

Next, a press trip is not the kind of travel most people would want to engage in (at least, not sensible people). Reporters almost always have to travel without their spouses. We don’t get to sleep in if we want to. A press trip is like being back in the Army! Every moment is crammed with something — no free time. Wandering off on our own to see something we would prefer to see is essentially verboten.

I remember one time getting up with three hours’ sleep to catch a flight. Press trips are no picnic. One that I was on was so bad that those on the trip called it “The Press Trip from Hell.”

Lest I “protest too much,” let me say that we will continue to go on them. It’s the principal way we can have any idea of what travel is about. And if a trip is sponsored, that will always be revealed to you.

Next month we’ll have here the list of countries that ITN readers voted on as their “least favorite.”

— Armond