Just make sure what you see is a reality once you get there
As you dream about your next vacation and look at photos of the hotel and beaches on the Internet, can you trust that the photo is reality?
Many hotels are doctoring the photos they post online. Some may just accentuate their amenities, while others may be downright lying.
For a magazine story in the May issue of Smart Money, Senior Editor Leigh Gallagher followed a hotel photographer as he worked on some shots for a Jamaican resort.
She described how a photo of a woman in a bamboo soaking tub filled with flowers and floating candles was really a freshly dug hole in the sand lined with plastic and cold water. She also wrote that the photographer admitted he once digitally added a water view to a room because the hotel chain told him it would have a beach there -- someday.
Gallagher said consumers should assume photos -- whether they're from the hotel Web site or a third-party travel site where you can book hotel rooms -- have been doctored. She understands the practice -- to a point.
"In some ways, it's not any different than Cindy Crawford having a lot of makeup on when you see her in a print advertisement. If you saw her walking down the street, she'd probably look different. You can't blame these companies for wanting to put their best foot forward,'' she said during a phone interview.
But some are going too far.
"Moving a trash can or erasing an electrical outlet on a wall is one thing, but air-brushing a water view when there wasn't one is something different.''
Booking hotels online is risky, said Bill McGee, who has completed extensive research of online travel sites for WebWatch. Booking an airline ticket or rental car online is much easier because you know what to expect.
"You don't really need to wonder what a seat looks like on United's Chicago-to-San Francisco flight,'' he said.
But you want to take extra steps to ensure the vacation you've been planning goes as planned. You don't want to be disappointed by the hotel or the view.
"I think this is one area where traditional brick and mortar travel agents may be helpful,'' said McGee.
Consumers might even do a combination of Web searching and working with a travel agent.
Although traditional travel agents have started charging customers for issuing airline tickets, booking hotels and cruises usually are free services, said Kevin Thomas, vice president of the Akron AAA Auto Club. Airlines no longer pay travel agents commissions, but the hotels and cruise lines still do.
Thomas said for consumers who want to book or shop through AAA's Web site, www.aaa.com
, the association's diamond system of rating hotels also is a confirmation of a hotel's amenities. Thomas said photos could probably still be doctored by a hotel, but the diamond system will ensure that the hotel was physically inspected by someone with AAA.
Another way to check out the reality of a hotel is going online to forums of other travelers. You can usually type in the place where you're going and "forum'' in a search engine, like www.google.com
and come up with reviews.
A site that boasts more than 1.6 million travel reviews and opinions from real travelers is www.tripadvisor.com
Spokeswoman Michele Perry said the founder started the site five years ago after getting disappointed by the hotel he booked online.
"He wanted the real inside scoop and wanted to be able to see, as he describes it, `the back of the hotel,' '' she said.
Revenues for the site come from ads and referral fees it gets if a consumer follows a link and books a hotel through partners.
Peer-to-peer reviews can be helpful, Gallagher and McGee said. Just make sure you read the reviews with a critical eye. One traveler may rave about a hotel, while the next one hates it.
But know that reviews on forums could be written by hotel employees or relatives.
Perry said the site takes steps to minimize fraudulent reviews, such as not allowing the same IP address to post multiple reviews (an IP address is like an individual phone number assigned to an Internet connection).
"We have tremendous confidence that the vast majority of our reviews are authentic,'' she said. Many users, she said feel a loyalty after reading reviews before going on their trip, to write their own reviews as part of a community, she said.
At TripAdvisor.com, consumers can either search for user reviews on a specific hotel or go to the forum section for a particular destination, which is general discussion.
Here's some other advice:
• If the hotel doesn't show you any photos of the room and only some artsy shots of a tree or some vase on a table, take that as a clue that maybe the rooms aren't something worth showing.
• Look on the sides of the photo to see if there's any distortion -- that might be an indication that a wide-angle lens was used to enlarge a small room.
• If the bed takes up most of the photo, that might be a sign of a small room.