Travel

By Kelley Granger

An undoctored image of the Rockhouse Hotel in Jamaica, taken by an Oyster Hotel Review reporter

They scour bed sheets, test for defective electronics, recount tales of old, dirty rooms, and duly note when a bar of soap is the only toiletry provided. And they never, ever blow their cover.

These are the reporters of Oyster Hotel Reviews, a strictly editorial website (i.e. there’s no relation to any booking engines and no bias when it comes to their analysis) dedicated to providing its readers with the most accurate appraisal of hotels possible. Armed with a camera and a list of criteria, they show up at hotels anonymously and rate the property’s pros and cons, one by one. Will Begeny, senior editor and reporter for the website, brings a degree in English, travel experiences ranging from Laos to Serbia, and a former post leading investigations into police brutality for the Mayor’s Office in New York City to his job at Oyster. This combination of literary talent, travel savvy, and investigative chops scored him a role creating the “Hotel Investigation Manual” that Oyster uses. Here, Begeny provides valuable insight that could rescue your next vacation from doctored property photos and outdated accommodations.

BN: What are some of the most important things people booking rooms online should be aware of before they put in their credit card information?

Begeny:
1) Find out when the hotel was last renovated. People abuse hotels – that’s part of the reason staying in a hotel is so much fun – and in as little as three years time, a hotel room could look dramatically different from what it looks like in the hotel website’s photo gallery.

2) Talk to someone at the hotel (not just the reservations agent, they may live a thousand miles from the hotel) and make sure that the reasons you’re booking – be it that great spa or restaurant they promised on their website – still exist.

3) Talk to someone at the hotel directly (again, not just the reservations agent) and double-check to make sure you know exactly what room you’re getting. Often, the online “deals” will put you in the cheapest, least-desirable room in the hotel. Sometimes, that’s no big deal (you’ll just get the “standard room”). Other times, you’ll end up sleeping in a windowless closet with nothing but a twin bed and a tube TV that dates back to the Reagan administration.

BN: What are some of the sneaky tactics hotels use to make themselves look more presentable online?
Begeny: Some hotels are honest, others are pretty sleazy – it all depends on what they’re trying to hide. Personally, I never trust what a hotel says about its location on its own website – what is “steps from the beach” might actually be on the other side of an interstate. On the sneakier side, there are hotels that will manipulate their photos by doing such things as Photoshopping in a fake blue background beyond the window to make it look like the room overlooks the ocean (when it actually overlooks a condo building). But the biggest, most universal trick is what they don’t show. Ever see a single picture of a bathroom on a hotel website?

BN: What’s the problem with using user reviews as a barometer?
Begeny: User-reviews are an important step in the research process, no doubt, but they’re only one step – it’s hard to use them as a barometer. First off, they don’t act like a barometer – there’s no clear measurement. To carry over your meteorology metaphor, reading user-reviews can sometimes feel like a weather forecast that says: Tomorrow, the weather is going to be just swell, 40 with possible acid rain, and bright skies that are just perfect for a picnic. There’s little to no consistency, the hard-facts are few and far between (and even then, they’re hard to trust), and I don’t know how many times I’ve come across someone writing: “After reading all the reviews, I wasn’t sure what to expect…” That said, I think user-reviews can be helpful – such a large collection of people bring a lot of important experience, most are honest, and some have some great tips – and that’s why we invite our users to post comments and reviews on our website. But our professional reviews are different. They’re not about whether we happened to personally like the hotel or not; they’re about relating clear information about the hotel, identifying where it stands against the competition, and answering the question: All things considered, is this hotel worth the money?

Oyster Hotel Reviews’ senior editor, Will Begeny

BN: What was one of your most disappointing hotel stays, and what went wrong?
Begeny: On our site, we have what we call the “Hidden Gems” hotel lists. A lot of work goes into finding these properties. Let’s just say that they’re not all gems – insect infestations, spoiled milk, rampant prostitution, we’ve seen it all. At one hotel in Jamaica, for example, I forgave the fire ants in my room, I forgave the wad of hair in the drain in my sink, I forgave the fact that I spotted the security guard sleeping and the gate wide open, but when I pulled back my bed sheets after a long day of photographing the neighborhood and found a large blood stain in the middle of the bed – that was all I could take.

BN: On the flip side of your experience, which hotel most impressed you?
Begeny: The Rockhouse Hotel, also in Jamaica. Great food, a gorgeous setting, superb beds, a socially-conscious mission (its small-scale owners have already donated over $1 million to help rebuild the local schools) and still, it’s in about the same price range as the hotel with the blood stain. (Though, I feel the need to add that my colleague would argue that the Rockhouse’s neighbor, Tensing Pen, is an even better value.)

BN: When you book a hotel for personal or business use, what are your top three must-haves?
Begeny: First, it’s got to fit with its environment (using that term loosely) – be it a swanky boutique in L.A., a historic mansion in Georgia, or a tree house in the jungles of Puerto Rico. After that: a great bed and a nice, clean bathtub (for my wife-to-be).

BN: In your experience, what are some of the amenities that woo people to a hotel, but that they don’t really use?
Begeny: Tough question. I’d say that a fancy restaurant in the city is about useless – there’s good food that abounds everywhere, and you’re never stuck eating at (or not eating at) any hotel. Beyond that, hmm… how about TVs embedded into the bathroom mirror (it seems to be all the rage in Vegas) or hotel clubs that are so exclusive, the guests can’t even get in.

BN: Any other pertinent advice for travelers?
Begeny: Take care of yourselves! Flu season is here, and that means swine flu, and that means airlines, cruise liners, and foreign nations are getting pretty selective about whom they let inside. Don’t let a sniffle ruin your holiday.

BN: Do you prefer/recommend any online hotel booking sites?
Begeny: We’re not booking anyone directly – we’re not trying to sell you a hotel. It’s always good to shop around for the best price – there’s no one site that gives better prices than others. That’s why on our site, when you check the specific rates for your travel dates, we’ll send you to see the rates offered at several different providers.

Check out your next prospective hotel on Oyster.com – currently serving New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Jamaica, Hawaii, Aruba, and the Dominican Republic, with more to be added soon.

Originally published November 2009
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