freedom does not include gratuities

 

As a travel writer I go on a lot of free trips. This would be a dirty little secret if it weren't so obvious. As a travel writer (a/k/a "resort whore") I am one of a not particularly distinguished group. Destinations (tourism boards, hotels, golf course and real estate developers) fly us in in to play golf, eat, and drink, for the purpose of trying to get me to write something nice about them.
 
If you think it's a perilous perch, you are correct, though not as correct as you may think. Many magazines and newspapers agree with you: it used to be said the New York Times would not accept contributions from any writer who has ever a "press trip" (among travel writers, the preferred term is "boondoggle") and the other day I came across a prominent boilerplate disclaimer near the front of one of the travel slicks saying "Our writers are prohibited from accepting free offers of any kind." 
 
I don't write regularly for any of these outlets. But if I could make a living at it under their rules, I wouldn't hesitate. For one thing, when the magazine is paying your way, you're just freer to do as you wish during your stay -- you don't have to smile at the hotel's PR agent over a pricey dinner. Don't get me wrong, these people are gracious as can be, some of my best friends are PR reps, etc., but apart from making you quite aware of your purpose for being there, and who's paying for dinner -- of course that's why they're taking you out -- it makes it more like a business trip.
 
More importantly, no matter what anyone will tell you -- and believe me, people will tell a publicist anything to get them thinking they're are a travel writer, in case you were wondering what your local Buy-Lines is doing running a travel section -- it's impossible to write negatively about a place that's comped you. 
 
How much difference does that make to the story? Well, speaking as a professional chiseler, if I've enjoyed the golf, stayed in a beautiful room overlooking the crashing Pacific surf a few yards away, dined on delectable seafood -- well, my feature is probably going to be pretty much the same as the one I'd have written if my magazine was covering the expenses, lacking only a Henry James reference or two or some insinuations about the sommelier.
 
But if the golf wasn't all that great -- eg, a very unexceptional course which took five and a half hours to play, featuring some very short, dumb holes, many with intrusive views of seedy clapboard houses -- you won't write that, just as you never say "This sucks!" when someone gives you a moldy old fruitcake. 
 
Should a writer detail the horrors of The Podunk Resort, no magazine would ever publish such a screed. In fact, not long ago I went on a press trip on assignment from a magazine with a no-freebie policy to a somewhat quaint (see glossary below) resort area. The community had launched a press initiative, hiring a big PR firm to entice half a dozen golf writers for a three-day visit. The lodging was subpar, the food worse, and of the four or five courses we played, only one would appeal to the low-handicap and/or well-heeled golfers who read this particular magazine, so the story I turned in was lukewarm, which raised my editor's concerns, and after we went back and forth, he decided to pass on the destination story -- which resulted in me getting only half the fee for the story, and one angry publicist.
 
So the home run and the strikeout are easy calls. It's the tweeners that pose the dilemmas. Say only two out of three components worked -- the golf was great, the food very good, but the wallpaper was peeling a little bit, plus you could hear everything going on the room next door, from the TV to the couple arguing the next morning -- well, in my experience, that's where the fudging enters. Incidentally, this doesn't just apply to us sleazy freeloaders, for in fact, the vast majority of publications which do not allow writers to accept handouts nevertheless permit them to take advantage of substantial industry discounts, typically 80% off high-season rates. Indeed as far as golf writers go, getting comped rounds is I daresay a matter of professional pride -- there are perhaps half a dozen courses in the world which would ever force most golf writer to pay a greens fee, and in the unlikely event Dan Jenkins would ever claim he had to shell out for his last round at Pebble I'd like to see the receipt.
 
So, faced with such a corrupt world, whom can discerning traveler like yourself trust? Well, I've put together a little guide to reading between the lines of modern travel-feature writing. For instance, when you come across a description such as "the charm of the hotel's weathered facade is matched by the hardy appeal of the rooms' rustic furnishings," this means the roof leaked and there was no hot water. Any any mention of "lively staff" ("outgoing" is another tipoff) means either "the bartender wouldn't shut up," or "the waitress mixed up our order but she had nice legs."
 
* any use of the word "medium" is a red flag and should be taken as meaning "completely sucks"
 
* "cozy" = "cramped," obviously
 
* the thought which any golf course "forces you to think" is "of any other course where you can actually see the damned fairway"
 
* my personal favorite golf writer phrase is "shot values:" should you come across this in any course review, consider either the value of what the writer paid to play, or what that writer's own "values" might be
 
* "fun to play" = "they let us bring a cooler even though you're not supposed to
 
I would give more, but I'm up against a deadline and I might need to use them.