I rode a teenage elephant through the Thai jungle, partied till dawn from Ibiza to Reykjavik, and joined a Buddhist monk meditation ceremony as thousands of lanterns were released into the sky. I've hung out at a vegan Rastafarian farm in St-Martin and shacked up at the world's finest hotels. (To my delight, Bjork and Iron Maiden performed an impromptu duet in the piano bar of one of them.) Here's the thing: travel writing is one my freelance specialties, so most of these trips were free.
Yes, free. The freebie question is controversial in journalistic circles, the ethical assumption being that by accepting goods or services, a journalist is compromising objectivity and creating conflicts of interest. That's why many top publishers (Lonely Planet, for example) downright forbid freebies, a policy I strictly respect when contributing to those brands. Idealistically speaking, I support the philosophy behind no-freebie rules. But media has changed so drastically in recent years, I gotta say, this approach no longer serves the noble purpose it was established to achieve.
We don't exclusively consume content from major media companies who can finance staff writers' expenses, but also from many smaller sources. While more outlets means there's also more crap out there (and perhaps more scribes with dubious agendas) equally significant is that more professional journalists have gone the freelance route.
If we all had to pay our own ways, travel writing would be reserved for the rich, resulting in a limited point of view that contradicts what I feel is the point of travel journalism: to make the world's mysteries and personalities accessible to everyone, even if it's by vicariously reading about someone else's experiences. To know that if another person like us exists in some other place, we are less alone.
So in this new reality, more ethical responsibility belongs to the journalists, and to editors to use writers they trust. Because travel writing isn't about racking up frequent flyer miles (though I have a few) but striving to tell great stories.
Knowing how I travel best, I'm selective about which trip invitations to accept and prefer solo missions. But let's be realistic. Without freebies, there's no way I'd be able to bankroll my editorial gallivanting. $10,000 cruises? Yeah, right. $700 hotel rooms? Hilarious. Lucky for me, many respectable outlets I write for share this outlook. Some jaunts and articles are commissioned to me by editors, or I pitch them after being in touch with a PR firm representing a destination, property, or other travel product. The PR's client usually foots the bill. (Generally, this is disclosed.)
I confess, rereading my work with skeptical eyes, the occasional piece I've written may seem a tad fawning. But even if, from a certain perspective, this suggests I have a toe in bed with the travel industry, I tell the truth, sucky or sublime. I've worked hard to build relationships and credibility with not only publicists, but more importantly, editors and readers. I've worked even harder on growing as a writer and becoming someone who can travel the globe alone and spot that spark of humanity, truth, silliness or edge that makes a story -- then do the work to tell it. To trust my instinct about people.
I've sacrificed stability for freedom and wanderlust, made mistakes, been scared, taken all kinds of crazy risks. I've vanquished leeches, fainted at airports, attended disastrous press junkets with warden-like guides screaming in my face at 6:00 a.m. I've witnessed spectacles of gourmet gluttony and wasteful indulgence that pique my constant (if latent) guilt about encouraging excessive consumerism. I've held colleagues' hands during emotional breakdowns and had a few of my own, endured property tours and dinners making small talk on zero sleep. Which, as other closet introverts know, is torture. Why don't we just pull out my toenails and call it a night?
But no one wants to hear my jet-set problems when it's all so worth it. I've also taken tango lessons from a transvestite in a Buenos Aires warehouse, explored the ancient Greek ruins of the first Olympic games, snorkeled Australia's Great Barrier Reef and coerced a table of diplomats into a rousing match of Rock Band in the back room of a Palm Beach restaurant. Best of all, I've had countless adventures and life-affirming surprises, fallen in love with strangers and friends.
And for the record, I do pay for some stuff myself.
So here's the bottom line as it applies to real life and media in 2010: for a professional freelance journalist, accepting freebies shouldn't mean signing away soul nor objectivity. Because once the jet-lag lifts, all I have is my byline, credibility and conscience. I take those seriously. Whether you agree or not, I wouldn't trade this lifestyle for the world.