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Truth in Travel Blogging: Hosted Trips, Media Previews, & My Promise to You

One of the writers over at TravelingDad wrote a pretty eye-opening piece about visiting Universal Orlando’s new water park Volcano Bay last week. He visited on one of the first few days it was open to the public. He had a less than stellar experience – ride breakdowns, never-ending waits, equipment not working, and customer service missteps at nearly every turn.

The most interesting part of this article was the contrast he pointed out between his own experience as a paying member of the public and the experience had by media attending Universal’s media preview day a few days prior to his visit. The media reports were glowing – nothing like his experience.

I’m sure if you do a web search, you will see plenty of great reviews of Volcano Bay. Beautiful pictures and wonderful descriptions. What you have to keep in mind is that all of these stories come from people who were there for the press previews before the actual opening of the park.

The distinction is a very important one.

Naturally, since I attended a media preview of my own that very same weekend (at Disneyland for Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!), I first wanted to make sure my own house was in order. Had I raved without justification as to what opening days would be like for regular guests? Had I been swayed by the special access I was granted?

Guardians of the Galaxy Mission BREAKOUT - Ride Exterior

Was my media preview experience at Disneyland’s Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT inauthentic?

After reviewing my blog posts and social media shares, I breathed a little sigh of relief. First, unlike most traditional media who attend these preview days, I actually disclosed that I was there for a media event and not as a paying customer on a regular day. That’s something. Newspapers, TV, radio and other media rarely do even that. Most ethical bloggers (including a number of my friends who were in attendance) are already light years ahead.

Second, I leveled with readers in my blog post about what the pitfalls were going to be on real opening day – namely, the lines. I based my advice on my past experience as a paying customer when Disneyland has opened similar E-ticket attractions. I offered crowd avoidance tips and Fastpass strategies. I even shared on my Facebook page opening day wait times to keep things in perspective.

Travel Blogging Truths

Enough patting myself on the back. I was still at a media preview and not really roughing it like my readers have done in the ride’s opening weeks since then. I was able to ride Guardians of the Galaxy 7 times in a single day. That’s not exactly authentic.

It inspired me to make sure my readers know a bit more about how the sausage is made for those of us in the travel blogging space so you can read all of us with a more critical eye. I want you to know what you are reading from other people in my field and understand how and when those sources can be biased or misinformed.

The bottom line: some of things I do as a travel blogger are not 100% authentic.

Sometimes I attend a media preview. Sometimes I receive a media discount or a comp. Sometimes I am being hosted by a destination or hotel who knows who I am when I arrive. What do you think the chances are that they probably make sure I get exceptionally stellar service? Pretty high.

Being comped and invited to these special media events is how travel journalism works these days. Without the funding of the New York Times Travel Section or Conde Nast behind most of us, travel writers and bloggers cannot do this job without some special access and perks. (Well, a very few of them do, but most of them are independently wealthy or already stupendously successful with millions of readers). And losing that independence means the introduction of potential bias.

Travel Blogging Truths - Southwest Flights are not comped

All my raving about how much I “luv” Southwest? Totally uninfluenced. I pay for all my flights myself with cash or points.

A Promise to Trips With Tykes Readers

So what does this mean about the stories that you read here on Trips With Tykes or elsewhere on your favorite travel blogs? I can’t speak for everyone else, but I have been inspired to go on record publicly with the standards I expect to hold myself to when I’m comped or given special privileges because of my blog. Why? I want you to call me out if I ever slip up.

All of what I write is driven by one unifying theme: You, the readers, come first.

I will never rave about a destination just because I was comped or had some sort of special treatment. I will give my honest opinion of the pros and cons of any place I visit whether I’m paying myself or not. I will always disclose when I was hosted or had special media access. I will always look closely at what a regular visitor would pay for the same experience and analyze whether a destination or attraction provides a good value for traveling families. I will never accept a hosted stay or an invitation at a place that I wouldn’t seriously consider for my own family vacation as if I were paying out of pocket.

Disneyland with Preschoolers Tomorrowland Entrance

Although Disneyland invites me to press events, I also pay for my family to visit Disney parks on our own on many occasions.

Too many bloggers and influencers view themselves – or at least act like – mouthpieces of the marketing and PR departments of the destination, hotel, or attraction that is hosting them. My first responsibility is to my readers. Without them (you!), what I have built here on the blog doesn’t count for much. I didn’t start this blog for the free travel. I started it to share my wisdom and experience with other travel-loving parents who didn’t want to give up seeing the world just because kids entered the picture.

One reason I feel I can be more transparent is that I pay for a lot of travel myself. Even though this is my “job,” my family values travel and lives pretty frugally to save a lot of our disposable income for it. I could be hosted and comped a lot more. But I also enjoy traveling without writing obligations and like maintaining as much independence as I can.

I also am a devotee to travel hacking so I fund a lot of our travel through miles and points. That means I’m not beholden to anyone for many of my flights or hotel stays.

Frequent Flyer Miles News You Can Use in 2015

My frequent flyer account balances help keep me independent.

Finally, I also don’t accept a lot of press trips that I find inauthentic for me as a family travel writer. If I can’t bring my young kids along, can I really recommend a place to families with little ones? No way.

Will I be perfect at this? Nope. Will perks of this job probably sway me at times without me realizing it? Yep. But I promise to my readers to do my darndest to tell you what you need to know about the places I visit so you can decide whether they are right for you and worth your hard-earned cash.

Please, let me know when I don’t live up to this promise.

And with that, back to our regularly scheduled programming. (Plus, let me know what questions you have as readers about how all of this works!).

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