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The Rising Trend of Travel Freebies and Incentives

The adage goes that if an occurrence happens once, it’s chance. Twice, it’s a coincidence. Three times makes it a trend.

What about four, five, six times or more? A craze? Fashionable? Repetitive?


Whatever it is, the travel industry is caught up in a sudden wave of free offers, discounts, and incentives being offered by everything from specific destinations to airlines to cruises.

Hong Kong, which recently lifted its strict COVID-related travel policies, is open for business again and has an airline deal. Well, more than just a ‘deal’ – it’s free plane fare.

A region in northern Italy has a train ticket bargain. Fares for cruise line bookings have become so cheap – and incentives like free drinks and excursions being thrown in – that a story recently circulated about some people who have booked back-to-back weekly cruises just to turn off their power and other utilities to save on bills.

So, TravelPulse asked our trusted travel advisors to weigh in on what has seemingly become de rigueur over the last few weeks.

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“It’s an interesting question,” says Kelly Nadir, travel agent and owner of New Day Travels in California. “Suppliers are trying to entice those that are still hesitant to travel but can’t pass up an amazing deal.”

Stephen Scott, Luxury Travel Advisor at Chicago’s Pro Travel International, also said supplier issues are driving part of this trend of deals and incentives.

Suppliers of all kinds are dealing with is basically considered a ‘perishable product,’ Scott noted.

“So, if a room is not sold by the departure date it’s a lost sale. Their revenue management teams can see ahead if there is open space that is not seemingly being filled on pace,” Scott said. “As a travel agency, we don’t have that sort of restriction to deal with. We can simply sell another product, or another date, and it doesn’t affect us the same way. So, they may be offering promotions, but to where, and when is the key. They may be trying to expand wave season. I would if I were them after such a rough period.”

Emerald Cruises decided to launch wave season early with a new promo. Since wave season kicks off in January of the new year, it’s quite the early launch here for Emerald Cruises, but that’s where the industry is now.

In the case of Hong Kong, for instance, Scott said “You cannot factor out competition from non-cruise destinations that are now open, and in even higher demand.”

Nadir, of New Day Travel, agreed.

“Suppliers in regions that have not had the success that the larger, more-known sites have, are trying to get in the travel frenzy,” she said. “(They do) not want to miss the opportunity to make long-term connections.”

That would explain the recent incentive coming from officials in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in Northern Italy. Area officials are offering to refund train fare to travelers to the area who arrive via the Trenitalia line and book at least two hotel night stays in cities like Trieste and Udine.

Trieste, Italy, canal
The Grand Canal in Trieste. (Photo via Stefano Merli)

But the region is not as well-known as the many other areas of Italy.

“The region’s name is long, complicated to pronounce and is often overlooked, but it should definitely be on everyone’s radar,” says Robin Locker-Lacey, owner of New York-based Melange Travel and a specialist on travel to Italy and France. “As one of the least-visited regions, it’s a perfect destination for those who want to avoid crowds, mingle with locals, and see a unique part of Italy tourists normally skip.”

If the destination decides to follow up on the train travel offer with something extra, Locker-Lacey said there’s plenty to choose from. A marketing campaign could include something for history and culture buffs, for sure.

“They will find plenty of famous art, museums, Roman ruins, grand architecture, castles, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.,” she said. “Culinary itineraries can be filled with vineyard-hopping, sipping Fruili’s fine white wines and dining, on the region’s unique cuisine. The proximity to Austria and Slovenia heavily influences the food, so expect to find pork – especially Prosciutto San Daniele.”

Spain is another country that has extended offers for free train travel, but it’s not just destinations. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines is bringing back its popular ‘Kids Cruise Free’ promotion, just one part of industry sales that are underway this fall.

“If you’re looking to book a fall vacation, you’re unlikely to find a better value than at sea,” longtime industry watcher Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of online cruise site Cruise Critic told The Points Guy. “We’re seeing some truly incredible deals right now from the Pacific to Atlantic.”

Promenade deck on a cruise ship
Promenade deck on a cruise ship. (photo via chert61/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Airlines have also unleashed a barrage of deals and incentives as well. In addition to fare sales, Delta Air Lines for instance announced a new home-to-airport transportation service. But cruises might be the best deal going right now.

“In my opinion, airfare is such a terrible cost right now for most destinations. European destinations may be offering those free perks to help offset the big sticker costs travelers see right off the bat on the air ticket,” says Ryan Doncsecz, Groups Manage at VIP Vacations.

Doncsecz said that up until recently the cruise lines were holding firm to needing vaccinations or a lot of COVID testing – requirements that only recently were lifted. But prior to that, ships were having issues getting the rest of their usual market to sign on for a cruise.

“While the newsletters and promotions are spreading very quickly about the new ease to travel via a cruise, I know the word takes a bit longer for the general consumer,” Doncsecz said. “I also believe the nightmare news stories that were widely spread a few years at the height of the pandemic may have really scared travelers from going back to this type of trip. The combination of seeing ships not being able to dock, hearing about how easily COVID-19 could be spread on board, as well as an annoying number of covid pre and during travel tests really hurt the cruising industry as a whole.”

Hence, the need for sales and incentives in what has become a game of catch-up.

“I do expect it to also bounce back, and these low fares may soon be a thing of the past,” Doncsecz said. “As we continue to close 2022 though, there is a current huge savings and ‘deals’ can often be found in the cruising market for travelers looking to escape. Fingers crossed the demand doesn’t cause costs to go the other way soon.”

It remains to be seen if this current rising trend will carry over into 2023 for the full term, or if things will return to the time of only featuring the occasional free offers here and there.

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