Background Recent UK government documents have stated that, within the National Health Service, consumers should be more involved in decision-making. This study considered the technique of discrete choice conjoint analysis (DCCA) for eliciting community views regarding the importance of reducing waiting times. More specifically, the study aimed to establish whether residents living on the Isle of Wight are prepared to travel to the mainland for elective surgery where waiting times are shorter but travel costs may be greater, and, further, if residents are willing to travel, what reduction in waiting time and increase in travel costs would be acceptable. Method A DCCA questionnaire was sent to a random sample of 1000 individuals living on the Isle of Wight. Results Seventy-eight per cent of respondents were willing to travel to the mainland for elective surgery. Of these, 48 per cent always chose the mainland and 30 per cent traded between island and mainland, depending on the levels of waiting time and travel costs. Whereas 'traders' preferred the Isle of Wight, they would forgo their preferred location if waiting times were reduced by at least 3.9 months, and they were willing to pay over £12 for a 1 month reduction in waiting time. Different combinations of waiting time reductions and travel cost increases that were acceptable to traders were estimated. Conclusion Carrying out elective surgery on the mainland offers the potential to reduce waiting lists for island residents. The majority of respondents would be willing to travel to the mainland. However, one-fifth of respondents were not willing to travel to the mainland for elective surgery. The preferences of this group are important in policy decisions. More generally, the paper demonstrates the potential application of DCCA to public health issues.