If you read a lot of travel blogs, you’ve probably seen mention of how they travel for free. Naturally, this has spurred a big growth in travel blogging. I mean who wouldn’t want to travel for free? Recently, I went to Thailand on a press trip, and I wanted to share a bit more about this idea.
Before I begin giving you a glimpse of what it’s like, I do want to point out that trips can vary quite a bit. This one was highly tailored by the sponsors whereas the one I’m involved with in Luxembourg later this year has much more open space for the members to explore on their own, etc.
Generally, but not always, press trips include transportation. When I’m traveling on my own dime, I’m able to change dates, destinations, situations, etc., to ensure it’s a schedule I’m comfortable with. When someone else is organizing it, the only input you often get is the departure and arrival locations.
On one of our days of travel, we were expected to meet the shuttle at 5:45 AM. Any time between 2-7 AM is generally my “oh hell no” zone. Had I planned and paid for the trip, there is no way that wakeup would happen unless it meant a significant monetary savings.
I’ve been known to stay another night somewhere just to avoid having to get up too early for a flight.
As an independent traveler, I select the type of airport transfer that works best for me. On our press trip, however, the sponsors had arranged all transfers. Unfortunately, one time their choice didn’t make the most sense given Bangkok traffic, and it ended up taking a LOT longer to get to our hotel. Added on top of a bunch of snafus, this made an already long day even longer.
I prefer to travel a bit more slowly so that I have more time to try to absorb a place, its culture, its foods, etc. When I’m in control of the situation, I plan my travel accordingly. I generally have no itinerary other than when I’ll arrive and occasionally when I’ll be departing. I like to leave things open to spontaneity. If I like an area, I can stay longer. If I don’t, I can up and leave.
I also want to avoid travel fatigue, so I make sure to allow for daily downtime. I’d rather see less of a place and have a deeper experience.
One day’s itinerary for us looked like this: 7-8 AM breakfast, then check-out of hotel room and ride to the pier. Take a speedboat to a small island and walk around or swim for 45 minutes. Get back on the boat and ride for about 40 minutes to a marine national park and snorkel for 45 minutes. Ride in the boat to another small island and hang around for about 45 minutes. Ride in boat for 40 minutes to another island and have a leisurely lunch. Ride in bouncy boat on choppy water for around an hour to another island. Ride in van to the hotel and do check-in.
Now you have a couple of hours of time that isn’t planned, but since you’re there to check out the place, you spend a good deal of that time walking around taking photos, talking to staff, guests, etc. Then it’s dinner with some tourism officials. After that you have a couple of hours before you need to crash because you have an early start the next day as well.
Of course, since you haven’t had any time to really sit down and do stuff, you need to check your emails, do your social media stuff, take care of your photos, etc.
When the itineraries are packed for you, there isn’t a lot of room to say “I’m not really interested in this.” For example, we were expected to spend a couple of hours doing coconut shell carvings, something none of us wanted to do. We would’ve rather had the time to explore the island more, but the people paying the bills had other ideas.
At the end of our whirlwind trip, we were all too tired and burnt out to want to attend the bar hopping activity they had planned for that night. It was so tiring keeping that pace for a few days and being in near-constant motion.
As noted above, there are some press trips where you are able to kind to select more of the activities you’re interested in, but it isn’t always possible, so you have to make a choice.
Travel for Free
When I see people claiming that a press trip is “free travel,” I have to bite my tongue hard. It may be “free” in the sense that I didn’t have to pay for my airplane tickets, transfers, most of my meals, my lodging, etc., but we were also expected to share things on social media and are expected to write about at least some of the places we visited. I have no problem doing that, but if I give you something in exchange for a service, I’m not doing it for free. It’s work. And often it’s uncompensated.
When you consider that you’re also taking time away from other things, it definitely isn’t free. I do some freelance and independently contracted work during the week to help pay our bills. While being involved on the press trip, I had no time to do any of these things which means I made no income for the time I was gone. Since I’m self employed, I don’t get vacation time, so if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.
During the trip, we were essentially in motion or involved in official business for 12 hours or more a day. That doesn’t include the time you spend after all that’s done, or between meetings, to do all the tasks associated with not only the trip but your business.
And when the trip is done, you still have your content to write, etc.
I’m not complaining. No one forced me to go. I’m just pointing out how things work.
Yes, there are definitely pros for doing these trips. For instance, it enabled me to go to Thailand without having to pay for my airfare. In addition, I normally travel low-budget airlines, but they had me on a traditional carrier which also meant a level of service I don’t usually enjoy (comfort kits, meals, no charge for checked baggage, free food and beverages (including alcohol), etc.).
Normally it’s up to me to figure out EVERYTHING when we travel. On a press trip, though, they take care of arranging the essentials. I didn’t have to worry that I’d get off the ferry to discover I now had to figure out a transfer that didn’t go as planned. Someone else made all the calls.
On our way to lunch, our guide notified them we were en route, so we sat down and a minute later plates were being put down in front of us. I didn’t have to deal with a language barrier since our guide handled it all.
I didn’t have to arrange boat rides. When we checked in at a hotel, I pretty much only had to sign a form and that was it. Often I had a welcome gift in my room that a typical guest wouldn’t receive.
I also enjoyed a level of luxury that is extremely rare for us. If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know that we typically do an Airbnb apartment. Four- and 5-star accommodations are generally not in our vocabulary, and we usually don’t like them anyway because for some odd reason their WiFi usually is crap.
I also didn’t have to make the decision between getting a massage or enjoying an activity based on my budget. A 1-hour massage was actually part of my itinerary (bless the organizers!). Yeah, it was rather nice having a massage as part of my official schedule.
That did not suck.
I also ate food I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Partly because I wouldn’t have understood the menu to know what to order so would’ve just pointed at something and hoped for the best (which honestly I do enjoy). Also, during our stay in a 5-star hotel we took part of an absolutely amazing Sunday brunch. I later learned it cost about $100 USD per person, so I probably would’ve skipped it if that was coming out of my own pocket. And I would’ve missed out greatly! I can tell you if I go back to Bangkok, I WILL be going back for that brunch. I’ll be saving for that splurge.
Press trips definitely have their pros and cons, like anything else. As with so much of life, it comes down to choices. I certainly have no regrets about this Thailand press trip. I definitely enjoyed being flown there and back, being wined and dined, chauffeured, and being able to stay in luxurious places I wouldn’t normally while not spending even $50 USD directly out of my pocket for a week of travel.
It was worth losing some of the other income.
In my opinion, though, writers/bloggers who do these trips need to stop saying they travel for free. It’s misleading to readers and is a poor business attitude. These trips are work. And I’m extremely grateful this is something I can call “work.”