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Dear Nora: Is Free Travel With Mystery Shopping Companies a Scam?

Dear Nora: Is Free Travel With Mystery Shopping Companies a Scam?

Credit Walk - August 19, 2014, Nora Dunn

Mystery shopping seems too good to be true: free hotels, discounted flights, and free swag, all in return for submitting a report. Although you need to be choosy about the mystery shopping company you work with, I can say – from personal experience – it’s the real deal.

    Reader Question:

    What’s the scoop with mystery shopping? I heard I can get free flights and hotels by filling out a questionnaire about the experience. It sounds too good to be true. Is it a scam? - Chris

Mystery shopping isn’t a scam, but it also isn’t money for nothing (you work for it). A few months ago, I flew from Toronto to Lima for less than half the listed price, and I’m about to do it again.


Travel Mystery Shopping for Canadians

Although Toronto-based company EvaluateIt by SQM features largely Canada-centric mystery shopping opportunities, citizens of any country can take advantage.

Here are the kinds of mystery shopping assignments currently available with EvaluateIt by SQM, which offers solely travel-related deals:

    * Discounted Airfare (mainly Air Canada flights, with domestic and international destinations; reimbursed at 50% off the listed fare, including seat sale fares)
    * Free Hotels (throughout North America, usually for 1-2 free nights)
    * Bus Trips (mostly in the Niagara Falls/Buffalo area)

You’ll also occasionally find car rentals, train travel, and other transportation or travel deals. EvaluateIt provides email updates when new assignments and when special deals come around.

Special Deals

Speaking of special deals, they can be killer when available. Recently EvaluateIt came out with two specials that are downright delicious:

    * Economy class flights from Toronto to/from Santiago or Sao Paulo for a net cost of $375 – round trip
    * Pay the regular economy pricing (which is 50% off the listed fare), and get a free upgrade to business class

(Note: these deals may not be available any longer but EvaluateIt periodically releases similar offers).

Mystery Shopping: Getting Paid

EvaluateIt by SQM operates all its assignments on a reimbursement deal; you pay full price for the service in question, buying directly from the hotel/travel operator in question as any regular customer would (except for flights which you pay EvaluateIt for as they need to book your flight through special means). Once you submit your report after the experience, you are reimbursed the negotiated amount (which is 50-100% of the money you paid). Your report usually includes receipts and an invoice.

Mystery Shopping Report Requirements and Reimbursement

For my flights from Toronto to Lima (each way), I printed a 5-page detailed questionnaire covering things like boarding and pre-departure, cabin service, duty free service, cabin crew grooming, food and beverage, cabin environment, irregular situations (like delays), pre landing, and after landing. Each section had both yes/no questions as well as space to rate each category and describe the service in detail.

It was detailed enough that I wouldn’t have been able to remember everything, so I filled in a draft report on the flight itself (all the while of course, hiding the questionnaire from flight staff since mystery shoppers are supposed to be incognito). Although on my outbound flight I found the questionnaire a bit overwhelming, it was much easier the second time around on my return flight.

Once each leg of my flight was complete, I had three days to submit the report online. When flying return, reimbursement doesn’t occur until the return flight is complete. In the case of airfare, reimbursement is directly to the credit card you paid with; other assignments are reimbursed via cheque or direct deposit.

Flying as a Couple/Group While Mystery Shopping

EvaluateIt by SQM only accepts one mystery shopper per flight; so if you’re flying with a companion, they’ll have to purchase a full fare to join you on the flight.

Mystery Shopping isn’t a Free Ride

Although it’s a highly lucrative job if you break down your “work” requirements for mystery shopping flights into an hourly wage (considering a reimbursement of hundreds of dollars), don’t forget that it’s just that – a job.

Mystery shopping requires keen attention to detail, since it’s your job to report exactly what your experience was in order to help the service provider in question ensure their procedures are being adhered to and their quality of service is top notch.

In fact, EvaluateIt by SQM doesn’t let just anybody be a mystery shopper; you have to apply to be accepted to their roster of shoppers, and then apply for each assignment, sometimes completing a questionnaire showing you’ve read the terms and conditions of the assignment and understand what your task is.

Other Mystery Shopping Opportunities

EvaluateIt is a subsidiary of SQM (Sensors Quality Management), which offers a broader range of mystery shopping assignments that both include and go beyond travel opportunities. With SQM, you’ll find (mainly Canada-based) assignments in restaurants, clothing stores, parking and auto services (like oil changes), spas, gas stations, banks, attractions, gyms, retail stores, and more.

The scope and reimbursement plan for these assignments vary; in some cases you’re paid a flat fee to perform the assignment (from $5-$100), in others you’ll get paid and receive a free or partially reimbursed item (clothing store assignments, for example).

Some mystery shopping assignments (such as the travel assignments) don’t pay you a fee; instead you’re simply reimbursed for some or all of the cost of the service (such as a reimbursement of 50-100% of your restaurant bill). Generally speaking, the higher the compensation, the more work the mystery shopping assignment entails.

If you want to broaden your horizons beyond SQM (and beyond Canada’s borders), Volition.com has a page listing mystery shopping companies around the world, where they operate, and what types of assignments they offer. Although some of these companies offer travel mystery shopping assignments, EvaluateIt by SQM is the only mystery shopping company that specializes solely in travel.

Mystery Shopping Scams

While you’re busy shopping for mystery shopping opportunities, a cautionary note:

Word on the street is that some “mystery shopping” companies are scams. Although I don’t know anybody who has been ripped off, nor do I know of any specific companies to watch out for, here are some guidelines to ensure you’re not the next victim:

    * Beware of mystery shopping companies that advertise in dodgy classified sections, or solicit your services via email.
    * If it really sounds too good to be true (more so than the assignments described in this article!), then it probably is.
    * You shouldn’t have to pay more than the listed retail price for anything. Beware of companies charging extra fees or deposits to mystery shop or become a member.
    * Most mystery shopping companies require some sort of application process.
    * Since mystery shopping is indeed a job, the company in question should be both professional and explicit about their requirements of you.

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How to Sign Up for Half-Price Flights and Free Hotels

Wise Bread - May 8, 2014, Nora Dunn

How to Sign Up for Half-Price Flights and Free Hotels

 

Looking for a unique way to save money on flights and get free hotels? How about car rentals, bus rides, and even restaurant meals? You can save big bucks on travel by becoming a mystery shopper.
I recently took a flight from Canada to Peru for a 50% discount. And this summer I expect to fly to Switzerland (also for 50% off), and later in the year possibly to Australia — or maybe even Japan — for another 50% off.
I did this by flying as a mystery shopper. So it wasn't a discount for nothing. But overall, it's great value. Here's how to get started.

Travel Mystery Shopping Basics
The company that hooks me up with these travel savings opportunities is called EvaluateIt by SQM. They feature travel-related mystery shopping opportunities, mostly in North America, and to a lesser extent around the world.
Travel providers approach SQM wanting to ensure their customer service and quality management is top notch. SQM then finds mystery shoppers (like you and me) who are willing to experience the product or service as a normal customer, but with an evaluative eye. After submitting a report about our experience, we receive a discount or refund for our efforts.

What You Get
EvaluateIt is a Canadian company, and thus many of the current available flights are with Air Canada in and out of major Canadian cities, and flying to places around the U.S., Europe, South America, and even Australia and Asia. They are currently adding new airlines to their roster, which will open up more U.S. destinations.
They also have opportunities to mystery shop hotels (mostly in North America), with a resort in Hawaii being their most in-demand placement. In addition, they feature a couple of long-distance bus routes, and the occasional car rental deal.
What you get is a reimbursement (of up to 100% of your cost) of your expenses once you've completed the travel assignment and submitted your report and receipts.
In the case of airfare, you pay EvaluateIt directly for the flight tickets; in all other cases you pay directly for the service in question just as any other customer would. (Remember, as a mystery shopper, the travel provider is to be none the wiser that you're on the job).

What You Have to Do
For my flight from Toronto to Peru, I had to fill out a detailed, five-page questionnaire about my experience, including categories like boarding and pre-departure, cabin service, duty-free service, cabin crew grooming, food and beverage, cabin environment, how they dealt with irregular situations, pre-landing, and after landing. For each category I had to answer 10-20 yes or no questions, plus provide detailed explanations and an overall rating. Although it would be possible to complete the questionnaire from memory after the fact, I found it helpful to print and fill the forms out as I went, given the detailed level of observation required. Within three days of the flight, I hopped online and completed the official questionnaire and uploaded my electronic boarding pass.


 

 

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Financial Travel Tip #112: 50% off airfare with mystery shopping

The Professional Hobo - April 5, 2014, Nora Dunn

 

Financial Travel Tip #112: 50% off Airfare With Mystery Shopping

I recently flew from Toronto to Lima (Peru) for a 50% discount, as a mystery shopper. Here is my experience.

How to Get Mystery Shopping Airfare

Last year, I signed up as a mystery shopper with EvaluateIt by SQM. This gave me access to see available mystery shopping assignments, which included airfare around the world (based mainly out of Toronto), hotels (mostly in North America), and transportation (currently coach bus fares, with the occasional car rental assignment).

I received an email notification when new assignments or categories came available, so I didn’t have to lurk the site all the time.

Finally, an assignment (with Air Canada) came up that was perfect for me, given my upcoming trip to Peru, so I applied for it. Only one mystery shopper is allowed per flight, so it pays to book mystery shopping airfare as far in advance as possible.

For airfare, EvaluateIt by SQM reimburses you 50% of the retail cost of the flight. Thus, if Air Canada is having a seat sale, you get 50% off the sale rate – a pretty spectacular deal.

Once approved, I paid EvaluateIt directly for the tickets (which is the case for only airfare; in all other cases you book the travel arrangement yourself and get reimbursed by EvaluateIt). I had to pay full price for the tickets; you receive the 50% reimbursement only after the mystery shopping assignment is complete and the report submitted.

Mystery Shopping Airfare: What You Have to Do

Although not totally onerous, I did earn my airfare reimbursement.

Prior to flying, I printed out a 5-page detailed questionnaire. I also saved an electronic copy of my boarding pass, which would eventually be submitted with the report/questionnaire.

The questionnaire required me to evaluate all aspects of my flight experience, including boarding and pre-departure, cabin service, duty free service, cabin crew grooming, food and beverage, cabin environment, irregular situations (like delays), pre landing, and after landing. Each category had 10-20 yes/no questions, and space for a (required) overall rating and detailed explanation of notes pertaining to that category.

Although the actual report is submitted online after the fact, I found it necessary to work off the printed sheets during the flight due to the level of detailed observation required. (And of course, none of the airline staff can see the questionnaire or know that you’re a mystery shopper).

Within three days of taking the flight, I went online and submitted the questionnaire and my boarding pass.

That’s it.

Had I booked a one-way flight, I’d have received the 50% reimbursement from EvaluateIt after submitting the report. But because I booked a return flight, I won’t receive reimbursement until I’ve completed the last leg of the trip and submitted the corresponding report (EvaluateIt allows return flights within 90 days of the outward flight).

The Downside: No Frequent Flyer Miles Allowed

As a frequent flyer mile junkie, I take pride in accumulating frequent flyer miles whenever I have to pay for a flight. So it was slightly painful to fly and not be allowed to use my frequent flyer memberships.

But of course, my pain was assuaged with the 50% discount, so I can’t complain (too much).

How to Qualify and do a Good Job as a Mystery Shopper

You need to be a detail-oriented person for mystery shopping. The report I filled out was quite involved, and required me to observe and evaluate every aspect of the flight. In some ways it was a bit of a hassle; for example instead of just enjoying my meal, I had to note every aspect of what I was served, the temperature, quality, etc. Although the value received from mystery shopping airfare is huge, there’s no doubt about the fact that mystery shopping is work.

Going Deeper With Mystery Shopping

EvaluateIt by SQM is a subsidiary of a larger parent company: SQM, which has a much broader selection of mystery shopping opportunities.

EvaluateIt focuses solely on travel assignments (flights, transportation, and hotels), and works on a reimbursement basis, whereby you get a refund of at least 50% once you submit your mystery shopping report.

But if you want to go deeper with mystery shopping, you can sign up for SQM and get access to mystery shopping assignments that include everything EvaluateIt offers, plus restaurants, oil changes, massages, haircuts, gym memberships, banking, clothing, attractions, parking, and more. Some of these opportunities work on a reimbursement basis (like EvaluateIt) and/or might include a shopper fee – which means you’re actually paid (anything from $5-100) for performing the mystery shopping assignment. The more complicated the assignment, the more you’re paid.

I’ve been lurking these other mystery shopping assignments through SQM for a while;  however I haven’t found anything that fits the bill, nor am I  overly inclined to go out of my way to do one.

Would I Fly as a Mystery Shopper Again?

Yes. EvaluateIt by SQM has lots of long-haul mystery shopping airfares including fares from Toronto to Japan, China, Australia, and Europe. To get a 50% discount off these flights is huge value, and even a detailed report is well worth the time spent.

The only down side for me is that I usually like to travel on one-way tickets, and Air Canada (EvaluateIt’s main customer) doesn’t have good rates for one-way tickets; it’s much more cost-effective to fly return. But I’m working it out; I’ve got a return ticket from Peru to Toronto for June, and am already thinking of booking a (return?) mystery shopper airfare to Europe for the summer. Then….maybe a return trip to Asia or Australia? Who knows. Let’s see what life deals me.