Spot a Bad Hotel – Before You Book

Becky Worley
Special Contributor, Yahoo! Tech
Upgrade Your Life

The hotel you book could make or break your whole vacation.And yet, online ads and even user reviews may be misleading. Fortunately, there are some tricks for decoding online listings and finding the best hotel or vacation rental for the money.

Nearly 150 million travel bookings were made online last year, and that number keeps growing by about 10% a year. Without a human travel agent to help, we are increasingly tasked with trying to find the best accommodations for the best price by ourselves.

Tip #1: Don’t Get Taken In By Fancy Prose

Descriptions of vacation lodging can get pretty ornate. I’ve seen everything from “Our designers have made the rooms punch-drunk on color and light” to “We’ve included every luxury – and invented some of our own.” But what does that all mean? These descriptions are designed to evoke feelings rather than convey facts. So dig deeper; what are the actual, specific luxuries they’re talking about? In the case of the hotel this ad line came from, one luxury is a whirlpool tub – fair enough – but another is “twice-daily housekeeping service.” Is that really worth paying for?

Tip #2: Read Between The Lines

Even if the descriptions are in plain language, look at what the words don’t say. “garden view” could mean “no ocean view.” And “windows open for cool breeze” could mean “no air-conditioning.”

Tip #3: Read Between The Pictures

Pictures can reveal what the written descriptions don’t, and you can find photos of pretty much every accommodation available online. But here, too, look closely at what the pictures aren’t showing you. If you’re hoping for a romantic getaway and there are images of the lobby, the pool, and the beds – but there are no pictures of the view – red flag. If you want a family lake vacation, and they only show you the cottage, not the cottage in relation to the lake – red flag.  You get the idea; it’s the pictures you don’t see that should make you worry.

Tip # 4: Know Which User Reviews to Trust

User reviews have made finding a great hotel – and more importantly, avoiding a bad one – a lot easier. But when a single hotel may have one guest writing, “Best hotel ever” and another guest saying, “Don’t even think about staying here,” how do you know which reviews to trust?

·     Start by throwing out the top 20% – the glowing positive reviews, which might have been written by the owner’s brother – and the bottom 20% – the scathing bad reviews, which might also have been written by the owner’s brother, but who now hates him and has bought the hotel across the street.

·     Listings with only one or two reviews don’t give you enough information, so treat those reviews with a grain of salt.

·     Look for recent reviews. Factors like hotel service, cleanliness, near-by construction, remodeling, or other inconveniences, can change a lot in a short time.

·     Pay special attention to reviews that give an opinion about the amount of value you get for the money. If a hotel is inexpensive, you shouldn’t expect luxury, but you should hope to get a good deal.

Bonus Tip: How To Cancel Without Losing Any Money
Usually, it’s not a problem to cancel a reservation within a certain period, but what if you need to cancel at the last minute, and you want to avoid a cancellation fee? First, call the actual hotel – not the 800 number – and politely explain the circumstances. See if they will let you cancel without a fee.  If that doesn’t work, try calling the 800 number and changing your reservation to a few days later – outside the cancellation-fee window. Then call back to the 800 number – you’ll likely get a different reservation agent – and try to cancel it.  I can’t promise it’ll work, but it’s worth a try.

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