The Hidden Agendas of Travel Sites and Media

travel booking companies

Why is it important to get travel advice (and prices) from different sources? Because almost every source is flawed in one way or another.

The “truth in travel” magazines that brag about not accepting freebies purposely sell special advertising sections meant to fool you into thinking ad copy is really editorial. You won’t read a bad hotel review or negative cruise story in them because they get millions a year in hotel and cruise advertising. They do fashion shoots disguised as travel pictorials because the jewelry and clothing companies pay them even more. They put Italy on the cover twice a year because newsstand sales are highest when they do.

Travel + Leisure and Departures magazines are owned by American Express. Think they want you to travel within your means on a budget? Or would they rather you aspire to be rich and pull out the plastic, cost be damned?

Travel bloggers who are writing about a new country every week or two are generally not paying for that themselves. They wouldn’t be moving around so quickly if they were. They’re on press trips hosted by tourism bureaus or private companies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that (travel writers’ earnings are generally pitiful), but the reason it seems like “everybody’s going there” may not be because it’s the best place to go. Only that they’ve got a healthy media budget.

SmarterTravel, TravelPod, and VirtualTourist are all owned by TripAdvisor, which also owns SeatGuru, CruiseCritic, AirfareWatchdog, and others. So naturally, they recommend each other a lot as a source you should be checking out. They’ll send you to an associated site for a booking—they’d be crazy not to. But just understand that’s going on.

Expedia brands

That parent company used to be owned by Expedia, the largest online booking service by far. Expedia still owns Hotwire, Hotels.com, and Venere. Thus the “Also check rates on…” prompts that are really just sending you to the same company.

The hotels appearing at the top of city searches on these sites paid to be there. Understand that and search by price or neighborhood instead.

If someone is recommending a product or service, do they/did they use it themselves? Or are they just plugging an advertiser or putting up an affiliate link to make money?

Most of the stories on the front of Huffington Post, CNN.com, Yahoo, and the like are not the most important stories or the best-written articles. They’re the ones that are getting the most clicks. Dig deeper or subscribe to The Economist.

Not an Agenda, Just Suspect

People who write hotel reviews for no compensation are people who have a lot of time on their hands and need a hobby. They often haven’t traveled much either, so when they tell you a hotel is “the best in town,” how do they know? I’ve had hotel owners beg me to write a review on Tripadvisor. Others I know have been offered cocktails or meals if they’ll do so before they check out. And if you pay enough, you can get someone to write anything you want.

Ditto for your social media circles. It’s great to ask for recommendations, but consider the source. Do they travel like you do?

The best advice? Consult multiple sources, trust who has earned your trust. And verify.

 

Comments
  1. J. Johnson

    Also,

    1) Paid posts from brands are now more likely to show up in your Facebook feed than brands you really care about and hit the Like button for. You have no control over this except to choose “most recent” posts instead of the default.

    2) I’ve now argued with two kids until blue in the face that the results on top of their Google search page are ads, that they have to look past that barely shaded box to find the real results. They just click away at whatever is at the top, which I’m sure is Google the ad company’s intention.

  2. Anthony J. Namata

    Well said, J. Johnson. The results on top of Google search pages are ads cleverly disguised as search results. These people stoop so low. And Tim, another great post. Thank you!

  3. Jack P.

    Tim:
    Thank you for this very honest commentary! Of all the travel writers out there I most prefer your unembellished yet very informative style. Kudos to you sir and keep up the very good & enlightening work.

  4. Joanna

    You forgot TV. Does anyone really think those shows highlighting the “top 10 beaches in the world” just picked which ones were the best and paid all the expenses to get a camera crew there, no matter how expensive the flights were? Um, no.

  5. Glenn Dixon

    Strangely enough, you’ve made a good case for just running ads. The ad company will figure out which ads are relevant, and you can bring in some revenue while still writing about anything you want.

  6. Lina

    I believe pictures do the justice. When I visit a hotel and believe it was decent enough to be reviewed, I write and share my honest opinion. When you are sincere, readers can tell.

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