Can you trust travel hacking blogs?


I read travel hacking blogs all the time. Brian, Summer, Gary, and Lucky are my equivalent of The Today Show, blogs I digest with my morning tea. They freely give frankly some invaluable advice and have some engrossing stories, both aspirational (ahem, taking a shower on a plane) and practical.

And yet, I’m wary of much of their advice. How can that be?

Everyone’s gotta make a living

There are quite a few travel hacking bloggers for whom the blog is their primary source of income. The Points Guy states as much, and for Mommy Points, a stay-at-home-when-not-doing-mileage-runs-mom, that’s kind of the point. And that’s awesome, actually. That one can make a living writing for a living, free from the traditional trappings of the employment-industrial complex is really a success story of our age.

But that does sort of depend on how one makes one’s income.

Everyone’s gotta click on my link

At the bottom of this post, there is an admonition:

(In the interest of full disclosure, I earn a referral bonus for anyone approved through the above links. All are for the best available offers. Thanks for your support!)

And another:

Disclosure: I do receive a commission if you are approved for a credit card using one of my affiliate links, as always thanks for your support!

The links in question are affiliate links to credit card applications. The way it works is that when someone clicks on that link and applies for a credit card and is approved, then the person with the affiliate link gets some kind of compensation. (It’s unclear how much, though research suggests perhaps a ballpark of $100. Such figures are a closely guarded secret, which I guess isn’t surprising.)

So what? If you want to support the blogger, you click on the link and apply for the card. If you don’t, you don’t. The blogger continues to provide frequent and free articles full of good deals.

The problem comes when you remember that so much of communication is indirect and under the surface.

Trust, or the lack thereof

When someone is paid by a company, their advice about that particular company becomes questionable. This isn’t at all surprising. You’ve all heard the phrase “never ask an insurance salesman if you need insurance.” (I’d also add, “never ask your car mechanic if you need any car work done,” but that’s a different story.)

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But the problem arises when the free advice talks about the particular products for which the blogger is paid. When someone talks about how a particular product is great, is it really great, or are they saying, “please buy this product so I can get paid?” What else might they be hiding? What are the downsides? Are they giving me a full honest review of something? You don’t know.

And readers know this as a kind of deep-seated but low-level mistrust, which bubbles up occasionally into a kind of odd hostility. Take this post; while most of the comments on the site are positive, this one starts out critical.

“This is starting to feel a bit spammy.”

Then another:

“It’s a verbatim copying and pasting from the previous months with the first and last paragraph changing. I hope people don’t click on his affiliate link and reward him for posting garbage.”

Ouch. Then someone comes to the author’s defense:

“Why are you two somehow ‘wronged’ by [posting] information again. … Just because you’ve read it before doesn’t mean new readers have.”

And on it goes. The only way I can read this is that readers feel a kind of betrayal by the author. I think if the article was just a repost, then people might feel annoyed, but the fact that it’s combined with a financial incentive really bothers people. And I’d imagine the fact that the link is to a credit card company fills people with even more disquiet.

Everyone’s gotta come to my coffeeshop

Now you can argue that if you don’t like it, just go read something else. But I feel like there is something more here that’s important. When we connect with people, we enter into a social contract. It says that, “you will be truthful and will not deceive me.” And this assumption is a good thing, proof to me that people are mostly good and decent and think the best of each other by default.

But this contract is easily broken when you feel like someone is selling to you.

If I were hanging out with my friends, and I talked about how I loved this particular coffeeshop, we might have a good conversation about it, and that would be that. But if my friends knew that I had a financial stake in it, the conversation would feel different. There would be a mistrust, and maybe a sense of deception. This feeling is real and visceral, and it shows up as a kind of hurt. Which one sees displayed in the comments above.

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Everyone’s gotta guard themselves

So, we know now that those who have financial interests in certain products cannot be reliably known to be honest about them. So does that mean we need to completely cut ourselves off from those who are selling things? Should I never read travel hacking blogs again?

Of course not. But I have a rule, and it’s a very simple one: Any time an article’s primary purpose is to promote, review, or otherwise showcase a product that financially benefits the author, skip it. Just move to the next one.

That doesn’t mean that I’m against affiliate links, or that I’m saying you shouldn’t support people who are trying to make a living (though ask yourself if applying for a credit card is the best way to show support). I’m just saying that because there is such a conflict of interest in this information, you should save time and energy by not trying to determine its accuracy. There is plenty of good information out there that doesn’t have a potential conflict of interest; you just need to be aware of the conflict of interest when there is one.

So on balance, I’d say that you can trust travel hacking blogs. Just not everything you read there. And if you know the difference, you can better take advantage of some great deals that can take you around the world, while not feeling betrayed by those who helped you out. Listen to what your gut is telling you, and trust it.

But enough about me: Do you feel affiliate marketing for products colors the advice given about those products? Or do you believe that people can remain impartial?

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