Hotels, like life and boxes of chocolate, are unpredictable. You never really know what you're going to get. But what if you could inspect the view from your hotel-room balcony, stroll down surrounding streets, and check out the size of the pool-all before you check in? A set of innovative online resources, from video vaults to social networks, can help you achieve a satisfying feeling of deja vu-and avoid any unpleasant surprises-when you walk into your next oceanview suite or deluxe guest room.
Review websites like our sister site TripAdvisor are, of course, instrumental in getting the dirt on hotels. But if you look beyond the traditional travel-review model, you'll find even more ways to scope out a property prestay. Here are five essential resources for getting the scoop on prospective hotels.
Last year, the Travel Channel invested $7.5 million in Oyster.com, a hotel-review start-up launched in 2008. Oyster.com runs counter to the power-of-the-people user-review model with hotel analyses written by individual travel journalists. Every property on Oyster.com has received a personal visit from the site's legion of review writers.
Why should you trust the opinion of a single journalist who may or may not share your personal preferences? I spoke with Kelsey Blodget, Oyster.com's editorial director, who explained: "Our writers are hotel experts and have an in-depth understanding of how the hotel stacks up against the competition. Our review style is objective, not subjective, and the writer's personal preferences don't come in to play. If something is not objectively good or bad, we just state the facts and let the readers decide for themselves." The objective data that Oyster.com provides on hotels is as follows: quality of amenities, services, room quality, and cleanliness and condition of hotel.
Oyster.com also provides photos-masses of them. I checked out the review for a property where I've previously stayed (and enjoyed), The Ritz-Carlton, Denver. There are more than 400 photos of just that one hotel. Plus, the listing includes pros and cons, a chart of amenities, room details (with more photos), a map, and information about the surrounding area. According to Oyster.com's review of the mile-high Ritz, the property features the "largest standard rooms in Denver, starting at 550 square feet," and offers a complimentary shuttle to anywhere within five miles of the hotel-some useful scoops.
Oyster.com is worth a quick browse if you're looking for the skinny on a prospective property, especially if you'd like to see some quality hotel photography. But don't be surprised if your hotel of choice isn't listed on the site. Oyster.com's biggest drawback: There isn't a lot of coverage for many destinations. But that may change. Said Blodget, "Oyster.com is growing extremely rapidly. Last year at this time we had 900 hotels on the site in 14 destinations; today we have over 2,500 hotels in 100-plus cities (and counting)."
Online Mapping Software
Inadvertently revealing just how comprehensive mapping technology has become, two friends took a virtual road trip via Google Maps. They "drove" across the country using mapping software, arrow keys, and ample imagination. You can read about it on their blog, Google Maps Road Trip.
You too can leverage the slightly creepy omniscience of online mapping software to check out your hotel before you check in. SmarterTravel editor Anne Banas has successfully used Google Maps to learn more about the surrounding area of a potential property before booking. According to Banas, "As a solo female traveler, it was important to know that I was staying in a safe (and charming) Parisian neighborhood. I used Google Maps to take a virtual 'walk' around the nearby streets of an apartment I was considering renting. It looked like a safe place to stay, with bustling streets and plenty of nice shops and restaurants. And it was."
To get a read on your hotel's environs, type the hotel's address into the Google Maps search field and choose "satellite." You can also use Google Earth, but this requires a downloaded plugin. Zoom to street view, and then you can "walk" down the street by clicking your mouse in the direction you want to go.
Photo-sharing site Flickr also offers mapping software. The site features a world map interface that displays user-submitted photos taken in various destinations. Use it to search for photos near your hotel; this probably won't help gauge the safety of a neighborhood as well as a search on Google Maps, but you could come across photos of interesting attractions nearby, as well as photos of the exterior of your hotel.