Disclosures & Disclaimers
As of 1 December 2009, the Federal Trade Commission requires that writers, including bloggers, must disclose to their readers any "material connections” with providers of goods or services that they "endorse," or might potentially be construed to be explicity or implictly endorsing.
As a full-time professional travel writer & photographer since 1984, a prominent member of the Society of American Traveler Writers, and a founding member of Bay Area Travel Writers, I have long advocated for disclosure of "freebies" and travel discounts by writers and publications, in the fashion of travel publications in Britain. Hence, here's a full disclosure:
I make my full-time income from writing, photographing, consulting, and lecturing about the destinations I visit, as well as other destinations about which I am contracted to write.
I write for many leading magazines, newspapers, etc, and am paid a set fee for my magazine features. I write or update numerous guidebooks on a work-for-hire , including titles for, but not limited to, such publishers as Dorling Kindersley, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, and the National Geographic Society. I have no financial interest in any of these books. I also write the following royalty-earning guidebooks: Moon Costa Rica and Moon Cuba (plus extracted Spotlight titles) for Avalon Travel Publishing; separate guidebooks about Palm Springs and the Dominican Republic for Countryman Press; Travelers Companion Costa Rica for Globe Pequot; and Puerto Rico: A Beautiful Island for Macmillan Caribbean. Plus, I earn royalties from the sale of Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro's Cuba and Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles. I am vested in the sales success of these royalty-earning books.
I speak publicly about Cuba and other destinations, as well as addressing miscellaneous professional institutions, for which I may or may not receive a honorarium. I occasionally lecture aboard cruise ships and typically receive paid air transportation and cruise-ship berth in exchange. In addition, I currently escort cruise-tours to Costa Rica and Panama for National Geographic Expeditions and am paid a per diem fee for my services while on board ship, plus expenses. Since I have a vested interest in ensuring that these tours receive enough sign-ups for the individuals tours to actually happen, I promote them on my websites, blog posts, and other writing. However, I receive no commissions or payments for any sign-ups, and I am not a paid affiliate or outside sales agent for National Geographic Expeditions or their affiliates, nor for any of the other entities to which I speak on a professional basis. I am a faculty member of the Society of American Travel Writers Institute of Travel Writing & Photography, and I promote the annual two-day Institute on my Website, blogs, and other writings. I receive a honorarium as a faculty member. However, I genuinely believe that this program is the finest in the industry, and I would choose to promote it even if I had no personal involvement.
Many travel publications publish disclaimers to the effect that their contributing writers have not accepted discounts or "freebies" from suppliers of travel services they mention, on the assumption that free or discounted travel services for travel writers might be construed as being given in exchange for promotional consideration.
Prior to the launch of Conde Nast Traveler, in 1987, the question of travel writers and editors accepting "freebies" was a non-issue. We policed ourselves to tell the truth, and to avoid a direct exchange of free or discounted travel in exchange for promotional consideration on the implicit understanding that our duty was always to our readers. But Conde Nast Travelers' marketing tagline "Truth in Travel" implied that because it ostensibly didn't permit its writers to accept freebies or discounted travel, only it could be trusted to tell the truth. Thereafter, "freebie" became a dirty word–and the skeleton in the closet of travel writing profession. Unfortunately, the policy opened up a whole can of worms of hypocrisy at every level, epitomized a decade ago when an editor of the Los Angeles Times called me to ask me to write a story about Cuba. She asked if I'd ever been hosted. I truthfully told her that I'd never been hosted in Cuba, but had once accepted a free flight to Havana with Air Jamaica. She replied that she couldn't take my story, even though I'd never been hosted by Cubans and had spent about $10,000 of my own money while researching in and reporting on Cuba. Then, three months later her assistant called and asked me to write a story on Jamaica, where I've been hosted by dozens of hotels and travel supplies, and on too many times to remember. "First, though, I have to ask you if you've ever been hosted in Jamaica," she said. "But before I do, the answer is 'No!'"
So don't ever trust a publication that tells you its writers haven't been hosted. That goes for Conde Nast Traveler, too!
My guidebooks (and, to a lesser degree, my magazine stories) include hundreds of reviews and recommendations for hotels, restaurants, tour companies, airlines, etc. Many of these have provided free or discounted hotels rooms, car rental, air transport, etc. Almost always, such offers are exactly that–offers that have been extended by hoteliers, etc., rather than being solicited. They're also the norm in my business. Such offers are extended to every professional travel writer and editor, as well as travel agents and other bona fida travel industry professionals. They make it possible to experience destinations, hotels, etc. that would otherwise be beyond our budgets.
I don't feel compromised. Since my professional standing relies upon the integrity of my writing and my reviews, I seek to be as honest as possible. I operate with the philosophy that my duty is always to my reader and never to a travel supplier, and that my opinion can never be bought. Hence, I write positive reviews of entities which have never hosted me or provided any kind of discount service. Equally, I frequently write negative reviews or comments about hotels, restaurants, and/or other travel-related companies that may have hosted me or provided discounted services but where I feel it important for my readers to know of my negative experiences or impressions. Occasionally my experience with a hotel or other travel supplier who may be hosting me is so negative that I choose to pay the full retail price and refuse to recommend them at all; on those occasions, I typically write a reason why that entity is to be avoided. On many occasions, I pay full price at a hotel. Whether I am hosted, receive a “media rate” discount, or pay full price has no bearing on my review. (Imagine it to be like a professional car reviewer who is given use of the latest car for a week, instead of having to rent the hot new Jaguar sedan or Mercedes sports car to produce a review. Even though the value of "free use" of the car may be equivalent to several thousand dollars of rental equivalent, it's hard to imagine the reviewer writing that the brakes will stop you on a dime if, in truth, the brakes really suck.) In short, trust me to tell you if the brakes suck! As an example, I once reported on how one of the most deluxe hotels in Costa Rica was watering down the orange juice. The hotel was owned by a personal friend. Watered down orange juice is a minor matter, and not one I would normally report on. But I felt that guests paying big money to stay at this otherwise superb hotel deserved better
I'll let you make your own judgments about which travel suppliers may or may not have hosted me or provided a discount service.
In Cuba, I pay my own way almost 100 percent. The exception is with two families who host me in their casas particulares (private room rentals), although this they do because I am considered "part of the family." Even if they didn't host me, they would receive glowing reviews because I happen to sincerely believe in the quality of their product and the warmth of their personal service. For what it's worth, they are Casa de Jorge Coalla Potts, in Havana; and Casa de Julio Muñoz, in Trinidad.
I have never received payment for placement of advertising, or for promotion of any product in my guidebooks or other writing, nor would I ever accept such an offer. However, Avalon Travel Publishing (ATP) provides one free page or advertising in Moon Costa Rica for me to barter with a travel supplier of my choosing, subject to ATP's approval. Since the biggest cost associated with researching the guidebook is 4WD jeep rental over the course of two or three months, I typically barter the page (which has a shelf life of two or three years) for use of a vehicle. The travel supplier has full responsibility for the content of the advertisement. However, I have always sought out quality companies that I can trust to offer good service, well-maintained vehicle, etc.
Although many of my guidebook author peers claim to travel incognito in the fear that being recognized will somehow distort their experience and how they are treated by travel service providers, that's always appeared to me as utter nonsense. I almost always identify myself as a travel writer to speed things along. It opens doors and permits me to cover more turf than false mustache and wig ever could. I always ask to see a "standard" room in hotels. Rarely am I treated with undue deference. When I am, I can usually spot it immediately. Except for where I choose to lay my head, my inspection visits are almost always impromptu and unannounced. I record notes and impressions on the spot.
My Websites feature third party advertisements of companies, or direct links to specific products (such as sold by Amazon.com), that pay me commissions on generated sales via affiliate networks and/or brokers. Most advertisements have been selected because they match criteria I believe will be of direct relevance to people visiting my Web pages. Often, specific ads that appear on my Website are chosen by advertising networks and brokers, or are otherwise randomly chosen by advertising sources beyond my control. I believe it self-evident which portions of my Websites are paid advertising and which are my own opinions. If it's not clear, please don't hestiate to ask. Also, please let me know if you have a specific problem with any company that advertises on my Websites, or which I otherwise recommend.
Lastly, as an established professional in my industry, I am frequently invited to promotional functions and am gifted pens, tote bags, and similar trinkets. I also receive (sometimes at my request, sometime unsolicited) free review copies of books, as well as the occasional CD or DVD. Where I solicit such books, etc., it is usually for use as a travel reference, such as an invaluable new source of information, or to review the book on my blog or in my own guidebooks' bibliographies. Just as frequently, I stock my professional library with books, etc. purchased directly. Whether I purchase or not has no bearing on the review I give the item in question.