Go undercover for free travel?

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.

A good memory. For obvious reasons, you can’t take notes or fill out questionnaires while people are watching. You’ll need to make “mental notes” for later.

Good communications skills. Are you articulate, and can you express your ideas clearly and concisely? Good language skills are essential not just for interacting with service providers, but also for filling out those reports.

Professionalism. Are you good at following orders — and keeping a secret? You’ll be working according to someone else’s specifications, policies and deadlines, not to mention confidentiality agreements.

Experience in customer service. Have you been on the other side of the counter? Previous experience in customer service, especially a background in business or hospitality and tourism, is an asset.

Access to technology. A computer, internet connection and email are required, but you may also need a fax machine and PayPal account. Skill with a digital camera — like photographing the condition of a hotel room — can also come in handy.

Avoid the scams

Wary of the offers? You’d be smart to take a closer look. While mystery shopping is a thriving and legitimate business, it’s also used as a cover for some clever scams. (We found a few researching this article, in fact.) Crooks are eager to take advantage of people who need work — or who simply love free stuff.

How can you tell if it’s a trap? Watch out for these red flags:

Unsolicited emails or communications. Legitimate recruiters don’t need to send spam and faxes or call up people with job offers. Use your common sense and contact companies yourself.

You have to pay. Asked to buy something first or send in your payment information? Just say no. Scammers may try to sell you “certification” and a directory of employers, or charge you to register. Legitimate companies will cover costs for any training and materials and won’t ask you to pay any fees.

There’s no screening process. As with other employment scams, crooks often claim that “anyone can do it” without any experience or skills. That’s a tactic to target vulnerable people — real companies want reliable and experienced workers.

You’re asked to cash a cheque. Fake cheque scams — where you’re “overpaid” with a forged cheque and asked to send money back — often masquerade as mystery shopping jobs. The story sounds plausible: the company sends a cheque in advance to cover your costs, and you’re asked to send back what you don’t use. However, legitimate companies pay you after the work is complete, not before — and accounting departments rarely make such mistakes.

Too-good-to-be-true offers. It’s reasonable for a company to cover your travel costs — but offers to pay you hundreds or thousands of dollars for an assignment are hallmarks of scams.

How can you protect yourself? In addition to knowing these warning signs, do some research on any service you’re considering — and say no to any requests for cash.

Lack of information. No way to call the company? Can’t find their address in the listings — or any information about them online? Don’t understand how their service works, or how you get paid? Pay attention to what you don’t see — it can mean there’s something to hide.

Where can you dig up the dirt? Check out companies through the Better Business Bureau and find opportunities through the Mystery Shopping Providers Association of America (a trade organization with regulations for its members). Check with reputable consumer organizations and media too, but beware of “watchdog” sites that claim they have the answers. These sites often use fake testimonials to look credible — and to point you to their scam only.

Could mystery shopping save you money on your next trip? If you think you’re a good candidate, it might just be worth a look.

Sources: The Better Business Bureau, The Globe and Mail, Mystery Shopping Providers Association of America, mystery shopper company websites.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Amriphoto

First class seats for less
7 ways to save on your next trip
Top mistakes travellers make (and how to avoid them)
7 travel myths
Beat boredom at the airport