Go Undercover for Free Travel

www.50plus.com - January 25, 2011 , Elizabeth Rogers

Can travel mystery shopping save you money on your next trip? Find out how it works -- and what pitfalls to avoid.

Alas, the days of steep travel discounts and perks are coming to an end.. or are they? With more travellers hitting the road, deals could get harder to find - but if you're willing to do a little work, there's a way to earn some discounts or even free travel.

No, it's not a joke or a scam. Mystery shopping - where companies hire people to evaluate their experience as a customer for market research - has hit the travel industry in recent years. While it won't provide a steady income, it can help stretch your travel budget.

How it works

Consider it an undercover assignment: companies bring in mystery shoppers to act as detectives. You shop or travel as usual and report on your experience. It isn't just customer service they want to evaluate - companies also want to know about things like cleanliness, comfort and compliance to health and safety standards.

What's the pay off? Some mystery shopping services pay a flat rate per assignment, but with travel you're often reimbursed for part or all of your costs instead. In other words, you could enjoy a free gourmet meal or a great discount on your flight. You choose your assignments, so it's possible to find good deals for your trip.

How can you get in on the action? Here's how the process works.

- You apply to a marketing research company or reward program by filling out its online application. You're dealing with a company, not specific providers like airlines or hotels. For instance, travel rewards program Evaluate it by SQM (recently featured in The Globe and Mail) offers assignments from VIA Rail. You take the train, but you report to SQM.

- Once the company approves your application, you can use their online database to search assignment offerings. (There are opportunities close to home and abroad.) You'll have to check early and often as assignments are often claimed on a first come, first serve basis. Remember, jobs often cover one aspect of travel (like transportation) rather than an entire trip.

- When the company approves you for the assignment, you'll receive the instructions and paperwork (like questionnaires). You then travel as any customer would, only you're paying extra attention.

- When you're finished, you submit copies of your receipts and your paperwork and the company compensates you accordingly. How much can you expect to get back? It depends on the research company, the assignment and how much work is involved. For example, SQM's website notes it pays up to half of your costs. That could mean an inexpensive meal out or a decent discount on a plane ticket. Are you a good candidate?

Like any job, you'll have to meet certain criteria to be considered - and you'll need more than just a love of travel. Companies also look for:

- Strong attention to detail. Are you observant and objective? Do you pick up on the "small stuff", and can you be fair in your judgments? The more details you can share about your experience, the better.

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