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.
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.
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.