Tripped Up: What to do if your vacation spot isn’t as advertised

After weeks or months of vacation planning and anticipation, there are few things more aggravating than excitedly arriving at your hotel or vacation rental and realizing it’s nothing like what the website promised — or waking up early for the luxury private tour you booked only to be picked up in a beat-up car by a guide reading random facts off his phone. Things like that can derail a vacation quickly — so here are some expert tips on how to avoid such situations altogether, and what to do if they happen anyway.

Get personal recommendations in advance

One of the best ways to ensure you’ll get what you expect is by talking to people you know who have already been to your destination. You can trust their first-hand experience, and ask them specific questions about how the spot you’re booking might suit your travel preferences. “Booking a vacation, there are a lot of moving parts and it can be very complicated; but I really personally can’t stress the importance of talking to people who have already done the things that you want to do or stayed at the places you’re looking at,” said Melanie Lieberman, a writer at The Points Guy.

If you don’t know anyone personally who’s been to the destination, look for thorough reviews on professional sites like The Points Guy and crowd-sourced sites like TripAdvisor. “One thing I look for when I’m looking at reviews is a long range of reviews,” Lieberman said, suggesting travelers look for places that have been reviewed by professionals or a wide range of travelers. “Make sure you’re looking at something recent, so the time stamp is really important. You want to make sure that there are a lot of reviews; and you want to have a sense also of when something’s negative, whether or not people are reviewing out of spite.” If there’s only one negative review and the traveler seems fixated on one small thing, or this is the only review they’ve ever written on the site, you may want to take that with a grain of salt.

As for vacation rentals, Lieberman suggested looking for hosts who have not only lots of positive reviews, but also experience, like an Airbnb Superhost — which can be a sign that they’re trustworthy even if the specific property you’re booking is a new listing without reviews.

Another option if you don’t quite trust online reviews, Lieberman said, is to look for travel groups on Facebook, like TPG Lounge or Girls LOVE Travel. With those, you can ask specific questions and get specific feedback and suggestions to help plan your trip.

Look for awards, certifications and media coverage

When you’re booking a tour or excursion, it’s also helpful to base your decision off of first-hand recommendations or reviews; but, Lieberman noted, you can also look for certain certifications (such as PADI certification for scuba diving shops), awards and credible press coverage. “Tour operators are very eager to share awards that they’ve won and certifications that they have,” she said.

Be aware of red flags

If anything makes you wary, it may be best to go with your gut and book elsewhere. Being aware of certain red flags can also help you make that call. For example, Lieberman said, think carefully about descriptions like “beachfront” versus “ocean view.” Don’t assume “ocean view” means you’ll be able to step out of your hotel and into the sand. “Having an ocean view room is not the same thing as having a beachfront property, and...those are the kinds of words that people should be really careful about reading on a hotel website,” she said.

And look for what’s not in the description, too. “When you don’t get the description of something you’ve come to expect, that can be a flag that they don’t have anything good to say about it,” Lieberman said. “If there’s very limited description on the website about a certain amenity, it’s safe to assume it’s not there or it’s not something that they want to promote.”

If you’re unsure, she recommended calling the company to ask any questions you have. “If you want to make sure that there is a pool and you don’t see anything on the website, it’s probably safe to assume there isn’t a pool — but definitely feel motivated to confirm that with the hotel directly,” she said.

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Speak up as soon as possible

If you do your due diligence but things still aren’t as advertised or expected once you arrive, the first thing to do is notify someone — whether a hotel employee or tour guide — as soon as possible. “The faster you tell someone, the faster the hotel can work to fix the problem,” Lieberman said. “If you’ve already put all your stuff down and you’ve already unpacked your suitcase...they’re going to be less concerned about how concerned you are.”

While you can request refunds or other sorts of compensation after the trip, Lieberman noted, that “can’t make up for the fact that your vacation experience wasn’t what you hoped it would be; so in order to avoid being disappointed, being very proactive and trying to get things resolved as quickly as possible is always going to be your best bet.”

Take pictures

Document everything that seems amiss, whether it’s a hotel, vacation rental or tour. “If things are not as you expected, and they said they would pick you up on a yacht and what you got was a rowboat, you can very easily take a photo and say, ‘Hey this isn’t what you promised,’” Lieberman said.

If the situation isn’t resolved immediately and you need to deal with it once you’re home, “having documentation is really, really key,” Lieberman said. “It’s your proof that the experience wasn’t what you wanted it to be.”

Find another place to stay if necessary

If your room doesn’t have the view you paid for, you can probably get moved or stay in that hotel but request some sort of compensation. But if your accommodations are vastly different than advertised and you don’t feel comfortable (or safe) staying there, Lieberman said your top priority should be leaving and getting somewhere you do feel comfortable. She noted that some vacation rental companies may help rebook you elsewhere; but if that’s not possible, you can use apps like HotelTonight or look for rental properties you can book instantly without owner approval. “If you can’t come to an agreement with the host...getting a refund should be secondary to making sure that your vacation is what you wanted to be,” Lieberman said.

Get in touch after your trip

If you weren’t able to resolve things during your vacation, you can still contact the hotel, vacation rental company or tour operator after the fact. “Knowing the right thing to ask for is always a great step…[such as] if you’re looking for a refund [or] some sort of compensation in terms of points or [a] complimentary night stay,” Lieberman said. “Be explicit with what it is that you think would actually make the situation better.” If the problem was extreme and the company isn’t working with you, you can consider filing a claim with the Better Business Bureau or contacting your credit card company about the possibility of denying the charges.

And even if you don’t get exactly what you want, sharing feedback can help prevent future travelers from experiencing the same disappointment. “One thing people can do is communicate what it is they were expecting and what it is they actually got,” Lieberman said. “So that way, the tour operator may or may not change the language on the website; they may or may not have a better understanding of who’s booking. It never hurts to communicate what the problem was and see what they’re willing to do for you.”

Maintain your composure

Despite the trouble, do your best to maintain your composure, be friendly and have a positive attitude. “It can be very difficult when you’re frustrated, or you feel deceived or you feel like something’s not living up to your expectations; but it is a lot easier to get people to work with you if you are friendly and approachable,” Lieberman said. “And a lot of times the people that you’re dealing with aren’t responsible for what has gone wrong, which is something important to keep in mind. The front desk agent at your hotel was not responsible for web copy or even necessarily putting you in the room — a lot of this is is an algorithm on the computer. Remembering that these people are here to help; and that with anything, having a positive attitude and being friendly and patient is really key.”