Some travel books, magazines, and fewer Web sites contain disclaimers to the effect that the authors accept no "freebies" or discounts from suppliers of travel services they mention. The assumption is that free or reduced-rate transportation or other travel services for travel writers are given in exchange for implicit or explicit promotional consideration.
Because I can't say I receive no discounts and write about nothing in which I have a financial interest, and because it's required in the USA by Federal regulations, here's a full disclosure. Making a living as a freelance writer or self-employed consultant tends to require diverse sources of revenue. I apologize in advance if this is necessarily lengthy. My goal is openness and honesty, not fine print. If you have suggestions for how I could improve these disclosures, please let me know.
I write the "Practical Nomad" books for Avalon Travel Publishing on a royalty basis: my publisher pays me 15% of the wholesale price of each copy of my books that is sold. Typically the wholesale price is 50% of the retail list price, so my royalty is usually 7.5% of the price you pay. The publisher and the bookstore each get a much larger cut than the author, even on books sold at a substantial discount from the list price.
For most of my career, writing hasn't paid my rent. (The first advice I give would-be travel writers is, "Don't quit your day job!") Since 2006, I've been paid a monthly consulting retainer and have had some of my business-related travel expenses reimbursed by the Identity Project, a tax-exempt nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization carrying out research, education, and litigation to support and defend the rights to freedom of travel and movement. I was already doing much of this work at my own expense, and would be doing it, to the extent my finances and time commitments permitted, whether or not I was getting paid to do so. I'm also an unpaid (except for occasional reimbursement of expenses) policy analyst for Travelers United (formerly the Consumer Travel Alliance), a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational and advocacy group which was founded by two of my fellow travel journalists and is one of the member organizations of the Consumer Federation of America.
From 1998-2006, I was a full-time employee of Airtreks.com. I remain a paid affiliate and outside sales agent of Airtreks.com. That means that if you buy your tickets from Airtreks.com through this link or other links on my Web site, or if you tell Airtreks.com that I referred you, I get a referral fee. I had multiple job offers -- some for a higher salary -- when I first chose to work for Airtreks.com. I went there, stayed there, and continue to recommend them because I believe they offer good value. As long as that remains true, I'd do so whether or not they paid me. After considerable thought, I've decided that the value of their services to you, the reader, should be more important than my fear of appearing self-serving by recommending them. Feel free to ignore what I say about them if you think that it's motivated solely by self-interest.
At one time, as an employee, I had options on Airtreks.com stock, but they expired long ago, unexercised and under water. I don't currently own shares in any individual companies, or any mutual funds that, so far as I know, have any substantial percentage of their assets invested in primarily travel-related companies. My companion in life and travel owns some stock in individual companies, but none in primarily travel-related companies.
I get paid by companies that advertise on my Web site, either directly or through advertising brokers and affiliate networks including Linkshare, Commission Junction, and the Google Affiliate Network. They pay me to display their advertising, not to recommend them, and I regularly turn down offers to pay for my endorsement for one or another product or service that I don't really believe in. (On the other hand, I continue to recommend at least one company that I think offers good value, but that turned me down without explanation when I applied to join their affiliate program.)
I hope that it's obvious which portions of my Web site are paid advertising, and which are my opinions. If it's not clear, please let me know. If you have a problem with Airtreks.com or any other company I recommend or mention, or that advertises in my books or on my Web site, please let them know and let me know about it. I don't choose all the ads that appear on my Web site -- some of them are chosen by advertising brokers and networks -- but I can and do block ads from several particular companies that I recommend against, even if they are the highest bidder for the advertising space on my site.
Airtreks.com subscribes to the Amadeus, Sabre, and Galileo/Apollo computerized reservation systems (CRS's), which I've written about extensively -- although not in a way anyone would be likely to take as an endorsement of them or of their fourth main competitor Worldspan, or of any other CRS.
As a travel agent and travel writer, I've occasionally been given free or reduced-rate transportation (although far less than most people might think) on various airlines. This has more often been as partial compensation for having sold tickets or potentially selling tickets on those airlines than in any expectation that I'll give them a favorable write-up in my books, Web site, or blog. Some of these airlines have known that I was a travel writer as well as a travel agent, but others probably didn't know I was a writer, or cared only about my status as a travel agent. (For what it"s worth, An IATAN travel agent ID card is much more valuable than a press pass.) I don't feel compromised: I'm not writing comparative reviews of airlines, and I'll let you make your own judgments about which ones to fly with. I have airline preferences, when the price is the same, but in general I choose whichever is cheapest. Were I to make recommendations, I'd pan some airlines that have given me free tickets and praise some others that I'd have to pay to fly.
For what it's worth, airlines currently still in business that have given me free or discounted tickets include Aeroflot, American Airlines, British Airways, China Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Ethiopian Airlines, JetBlue (despute my previous criticism and investigative reporting about JetBlue), Korean Air, Malaysian Airways, Qatar Airways, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic. I've probably fogotten a few others, espeically those from years or decades ago. I've paid the same price anyone else would have to pay, equally or more recently, for other flights on most of these airlines. Some of these (e.g. Malaysian and Aeroflot) I'd choose, and some of these (United) I'd go out of my way to avoid, all else including price being equal. I've gotten occasional free Southwest Airlines tickets for my travel on on usiness for Travelers United, as part of the airline's in-kind charitable contribution to that organization. I've also been given occasional discounted or free space-available (standby) travel on United Airlines thanks to a friend and sometimes fellow traveller who worked in their San Francisco maintenance base. Some travel agents, including retail agencies (Exito Travel) and wholesale consolidators (Mill Run Tours and others), have sold me airline tickets at their wholesale cost, as a sort of "professional courtesy discount" from their regular retail prices. Most of the time I pay normal retail prices for airline tickets, although of course I follow my own advice to buy my tickets from discounters whenever I can.
I sometimes get discounts on hotels, most often at upscale places where I wouldn't otherwise stay. Most of the hotel discounts I get are offered to all qualified IATAN card-carrying travel agents, not just to me. The hotels don't usually know that I'm a travel writer, much less what, if anything, I write about their particular hotel. I've also occasionally gotten free beds in Hostelling International hostels where I've been giving travel seminars -- but where I would have stayed, and which I would recommend, anyway. I paid full price for my life membership in Hostelling International, and I've never been paid more than my expenses, or provided with anything more than a free place to sleep and/or commemorative souvenirs, for speaking at an HI hostel or HI event. In general, I try to avoid identifying myself as a travel writer, lest that distort my experience and how travel service providers treat me. I mostly recommend local hostelries of the sort that don't give discounts, or pay commissions, to travel agents or travel writers. I rarely if ever write about specific hotels; if I chance to mention one that gave me a discount, I'll let you know. The same goes for car rental companies: like all card-carrying travel agents, I often get offered discounted car rental rates. It happens with all the major companies, and I honestly can't remember which were the ones that most recently gave me discounts. There are differences in service, but to me, car rental companies are about as fungible as airlines flying the same schedule, maybe more. I make my choice almost solely on price.
As a member of the Bay Area Travel Writers, I've gotten a lot of free lunches at Bay Area restaurants and hotels that host BATW meetings. I've also eaten lots of forgettable (and, yes, some memorable) free food at other travel industry functions, both as a writer and a travel agent. I get swag along with brochures and press releases: tchotchkes, pens, tote bags, flash drives, candy, the occasional bottle of wine. And I've gotten free admission to conferences, industry and other events, museums, and other attractions as a published travel writer with a press pass.
I sometimes get my travel expenses reimbursed by the sponsors of my talks, and occasionally get paid small honoraria. My opinions are not for sale, and while of course I consult with event organizers about what topics they want me to address, I do not and would not allow them to dictate what I say about those subjects. When I'm invited to speak, it's generally by people and organizations who want me, and who trust me, to speak my own mind.
I don't require people to identify themselves in order to post comments on my blog, and I often don't know who the people are who send me feedback by e-mail, review my books in their blogs, or post reviews or comments on Powells.com, Amazon.com, or other book sites. Of course, I encourage people I know, and people I don't know who like my books, to post favorable reviews and comments. I and my publishers sometimes give book reviewers free copies of my books. But I have never paid anyone or provided anyone with any compensation or consideration whatsoever in exchange for a favorable comment or review, and people who get free review copies are free to write and publish critical reviews.
Finally, a few publishers give me complimentary copies of books, CD's, or DVD's (sometimes at my request, sometime unsolicited), slightly reducing the amount I spend on compiling my library of travel references and keeping the 100-page resource guide in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World up to date. I'm grateful for their assistance. But I don't list any resources that I wouldn't be willing to pay for; I don't list some that I was sent for free; and my highest recommendation goes to some of those that are most expensive and for which I paid full price.
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