In travel writing and blogging circles, there’s one aspect of the work that draws a whole lotta controversy. It picks fights and causes stress and at the same time is dangled like a shiny carrot in front of those considering starting their own blogs. Become a blogger, the gurus say, because you, too, could take advantage of this!
You probably already know what it is:
Glamorized by those who are trying to sell the writing lifestyle and demonized by those who are tired of sub-par stories that are just a little too oozing with praise, this writer-gotten free stuff (also known as press trips and comps) creates a lot of drama.
I don’t want to get into the drama here, but you should know that it exists. That some people won’t take free stuff at all. Some people take some. And some people take every press trip you throw at them and will promote the crap out of that destination till the day they die, even if the place is actually mediocre.
That third category disgusts me, personally, and I get tired of seeing 10 blogs all praising Brussels or Catalonia or whatever other destination all at the same time and until they’re blue in the face.
So I have no interest in that. In being that person. In being some sort of sales rep for travel brands.
But I do take freebies and discounts sometimes. Mostly so that I can stay in and share places that are more in line with what people would want to rent. Because just because I was traveling on an extremely tight budget while starting this new business doesn’t mean my readers can’t afford a place that normally runs $1,000 per month or $100 per night.
And so I do take freebies (or, more often, discounts).
But I also endeavor to always tell you the truth about those freebies. Not only that I took the freebie, but if it had downsides. If the internet at the hotel was slow. Or the traffic noise was unbearable. Or if you can hear the cantina down the street from your living room.
Until recently, that’s worked out really well.
And then I got to one place this summer where the host had graciously extended a monthly rate to me even though I was only staying two weeks.
I was disappointed pretty much from the start. The place was nice, sunny, and in a perfect location right by a park. I could easily walk everywhere I wanted to go. And the hostess was nice (if a bit over-the-top).
But the photos of the place online were very misleading. They had shown a simple, tastefully decorated space. And it was the same space, but now a lot more cluttered. Still pretty, but not as shown in the photos.
And then there was the traffic noise. Because the place was sandwiched between a train line and a main road. If you closed the windows, perhaps you wouldn’t hear, but on hot summer days and nights, it’s nice to have the windows open.
The studio was also very sunny and didn’t have dark shades, so there was no possibility of sleeping past five or six a.m. when the sun started to come up.
Worst of all, though, the internet not only did not work correctly, but was listed as included even though it was actually charged extra.
Now, none of these things are earth-shattering and almost all are fixable. I mentioned them to the landlord and she nodded and said she’d look into getting black-out blinds and would check into the internet thing and so on and so forth.
Then I left and went to my next destination and a few days later left her a review on the booking site. I mentioned all the good things and all the things that needed fixing. I said if she fixed those things, this could be one of the nicest places in town, with its park-side location and its pretty interior.
And the landlord promptly lost her shit.
In a long and dramatic email, she accused me of stabbing her in the back.
I wrote her back calmly and said I was sorry if she was unhappy with the review, but writing a review does not mean lying to people or promoting her no matter what. I also told her the review wasn’t a bad one and reminded her that I had mentioned all these issues to her up front. I also said I didn’t have to review her place here on the blog if she hated the review so much, because here on the blog it would only be more detailed.
She’s still pissed.
And that’s pretty stressful for me. I hate disappointing people.
But I wanted to tell you the story because the story is my promise to you guys:
I’m not going to lie to you.
I’m certainly inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’ll mention if they said they’re working on the internet or the blackout blinds. I’ll tell you about the good things I experienced there. But I won’t leave out the internet outages or sleepless nights. I won’t praise a place I hate. And if the place is really bad, I probably won’t post about it at all. That’s what happened with my place in Chamonix. I never posted it on the blog because the neighborhood wasn’t safe. And I will never send you to a neighborhood that isn’t safe.
So this is my reminder: I do take freebies and discounts sometimes. I do love working with small businesses—tour companies, B&Bs, Airbnb owners—to show you something I otherwise wouldn’t be able to show you. And if the place is amazing—like this one in Zurich or this one in Seville or this one in Toledo (which I didn’t get any freebies or discounts on)—I will say so.
But if it’s not amazing, I’ll say that too.
A review is not an advertisement. And I’m still committed to keeping this place ad-free.