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Travel

The world is your Oyster.com: Internet travel sites prove both boon and bust


ScreenShot from Oyster.com
Finding accommodations is a key component of the travel experience, and online sites like Oyster.com aim to provide honest testimonials. Others, however, raise travelers’ expectations with idyllic images that may prove bogus.

It’s easy to make mistakes when selecting a place to stay. That’s why people take cruises or engage travel agents to organize their trips.

But if you’re taking a last-minute vacation or need a place to stay for a night or two on the road, you may have to rely on the Internet. That’s when smooth but subtle marketing tricks can take a toll.

On the Internet, one lodge we stayed at recently looked cozy and bucolic. It was close to Interstate 5 and Lake Shasta so that we could conveniently explore the largest manmade lake in California.

The website photo showed the lake’s beautiful waters sparkling in the sun, giving the impression that the lodge was on the water.

For only approximately $100 per night, it was a steal compared to the hotel prices we had paid in Ashland, Ore.

Expectations can rise with just a few images.

By the time we arrived, it was dark. We had to rouse the owner, a tattooed man who looked like he worked out a lot.

Our room sat at the end of the motel, which I had envisioned to be a kind of Yosemite Lodge. But that was my travel fantasy.

The reality? Our room was dreary and barebones, without essentials like a coffeemaker and utensils. The bathroom was cold, and there was no room for our toiletries. Noise from the train and freeway kept us up all night.

I couldn’t wait for morning to see the lake view but was disappointed to discover that the place was not on the water.

Avoiding the old bait and switch

Most hotel reviews display property photos, and readers assume they are accurate.

A hotel review and booking company with a twist, Oyster.com, started posting the pros and cons of lodgings, even sending out its own investigators. There’s controversy about whether or not some reviews on some travel sites are real or just marketing tools.

Oyster.com – whose tagline is “The Hotel Tell-All: The Only Site That Inspects in Person. Like Your Mother-In-Law” – hires reporters to stay in hotels and list the benefits and drawbacks.

The site runs a regular feature, “Photo Fakeouts,” that shows hotels’ photos of rooms compared with reporters’ undercover, undoctored photos.

The exposés are meant to educate consumers about marketing techniques that hotels use to promote themselves. With skillful photography and cropping, for example, small pools can look bigger than they actually are, and a serene beach scene in reality may be overrun and overcrowded.

The pros and cons of Solage Calistoga seem accurate. Starting at $505 a night for a studio, the reporter states that the rooms include two bikes and amazing views. The on-site spa boasts a variety of over-the-top treatments, and there are two adult pools. Oyster.com also points out that it can get noisy during weddings or other events. Solage receives Oyster awards for Best Luxury Hotels and Boutique Hotels in Napa Valley.

A search for the Huntington Hotel on San Francisco’s Nob Hill reveals that a 2009 renovation updated the rooms. Pros include the spaciousness of most of them, while cons include the dated quality of the furnishings.

Other sites

TripAdvisor.com posts thousands of reviews, but sometimes it’s hard to determine which ones are accurate. When searching Estancia Cristina ranch in Argentina, for example, one reviewer described the place as “boring” and just a dreary farm.

Andrew McCarthy, in his book “The Longest Way Home,” however, gushes for pages about the natural wonders of the place and the nearby Upsala Glacier. As he hikes, he writes, “I experience four distinct seasons – a typical Patagonian afternoon.”

Another site, VRBO.com (Vacation Rentals By Owners), allows one to rent private rooms from property owners across the globe. Reviews from past renters give tips about how quiet the neighborhood is or where to catch public transportation.

A similar site, Airbnb.com, states that it provides vacation rentals in private homes and apartments in 34,000 cities around the world.

It can be hard to figure out where to stay wherever you go, but try not to be swayed by photos. Many sites, however, do post readers’ authentic pictures. Take reviews with a grain of salt. It may not be possible to please everyone in your party in this age of instant gratification and constant plug-ins. Some psychologists argue that boredom can be the mother of invention.

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