Hotels, like life and boxes of chocolate, are unpredictable. You never really know what you're going to get. But what if you could inspect the view from your hotel-room balcony, stroll down surrounding streets, and check out the size of the pool—all before you check in? A set of innovative online resources, from video vaults to social networks, can help you achieve a satisfying feeling of deja vu—and avoid any unpleasant surprises—when you walk into your next oceanview suite or deluxe guest room.
Review websites like our sister site are, of course, instrumental in getting the dirt on hotels. But if you look beyond the traditional travel-review model, you'll find even more ways to scope out a property prestay. Here are five essential resources for getting the scoop on prospective hotels.
Last year, the Travel Channel invested $7.5 million in Oyster.com, a hotel-review start-up launched in 2008. Oyster.com runs counter to the power-of-the-people user-review model with hotel analyses written by individual travel journalists. Every property on Oyster.com has received a personal visit from the site's legion of review writers.
Why should you trust the opinion of a single journalist who may or may not share your personal preferences? I spoke with Kelsey Blodget, Oyster.com's editorial director, who explained: "Our writers are hotel experts and have an in-depth understanding of how the hotel stacks up against the competition. Our review style is objective, not subjective, and the writer's personal preferences don't come in to play. If something is not objectively good or bad, we just state the facts and let the readers decide for themselves." The objective data that Oyster.com provides on hotels is as follows: quality of amenities, services, room quality, and cleanliness and condition of hotel.
Oyster.com also provides photos—masses of them. I checked out the review for a property where I've previously stayed (and enjoyed), The Ritz-Carlton, Denver. There are more than 400 photos of just that one hotel. Plus, the listing includes pros and cons, a chart of amenities, room details (with more photos), a map, and information about the surrounding area. According to Oyster.com's review of the mile-high Ritz, the property features the "largest standard rooms in Denver, starting at 550 square feet," and offers a complimentary shuttle to anywhere within five miles of the hotel—some useful scoops.
Oyster.com is worth a quick browse if you're looking for the skinny on a prospective property, especially if you'd like to see some quality hotel photography. But don't be surprised if your hotel of choice isn't listed on the site. Oyster.com's biggest drawback: There isn't a lot of coverage for many destinations. But that may change. Said Blodget, "Oyster.com is growing extremely rapidly. Last year at this time we had 900 hotels on the site in 14 destinations; today we have over 2,500 hotels in 100-plus cities (and counting)."
Online Mapping Software
Inadvertently revealing just how comprehensive mapping technology has become, two friends took a virtual road trip via Google Maps. They "drove" across the country using mapping software, arrow keys, and ample imagination. You can read about it on their blog, Google Maps Road Trip.
You too can leverage the slightly creepy omniscience of online mapping software to check out your hotel before you check in. SmarterTravel editor Anne Banas has successfully used Google Maps to learn more about the surrounding area of a potential property before booking. According to Banas, "As a solo female traveler, it was important to know that I was staying in a safe (and charming) Parisian neighborhood. I used Google Maps to take a virtual 'walk' around the nearby streets of an apartment I was considering renting. It looked like a safe place to stay, with bustling streets and plenty of nice shops and restaurants. And it was."
To get a read on your hotel's environs, type the hotel's address into the Google Maps search field and choose "satellite." You can also use Google Earth, but this requires a downloaded plugin. Zoom to street view, and then you can "walk" down the street by clicking your mouse in the direction you want to go.
Photo-sharing site Flickr also offers mapping software. The site features a world map interface that displays user-submitted photos taken in various destinations. Use it to search for photos near your hotel; this probably won't help gauge the safety of a neighborhood as well as a search on Google Maps, but you could come across photos of interesting attractions nearby, as well as photos of the exterior of your hotel.
For visual travelers, photos trump written hotel reviews, and video is king. Take a virtual head spin in a hotel lobby, scan the swimming pool, or peek out the guest-room window via a cache of videos on TVtrip.com. The videos, for the most part, are one to two minutes long, but you can skip ahead to whatever particulars you want to see: restaurant, pool, fitness center, etc. Peppy Muzak chimes along with the footage. An easy way to upgrade your viewing experience is to turn the volume off.
TVtrip.com, like Oyster.com, has an inventory issue. This is to be expected with any site that relies on original editorial reviews, photos, or videos. The site's search turned up only 10 hotel videos for properties in Boston, but we found more video results for bigger cities, such as New York, Chicago, Paris, and London.
There are also hotel listings without videos that feature photos, maps, and a description. With photos supplied by hotel websites and unintelligent snippets of information (on the Hilton Boston Logan Airport page: "This hotel offers a unique service: near golf course. This hotel is part of the HH chain. Practical information: This hotel has a pay parking"), the site has few practical applications without its army of videos. Still, if you're staying in a major hotel in a big city, TVtrip.com is worth a browse.
Seeking even more expert reviews and videos? How about videos of reviewers giving tours of hotel rooms cut with running commentary? (We found a good one for Boston's Lenox Hotel.) Search for your hotel on YouTube and you'll likely unearth a list of footage, from videos from the properties themselves to reviews created by amateur hotel reviewers armed with a camcorder and an opinion.
The videos can go beyond standard property tours, and you might even find yourself wasting the better part of a lunch break watching the amusing and unexpected adventures of resort guests and staff. The Grand Del Mar resort in San Diego offers videos of, of course, the resort, plus a bartender shaking up a Thai basil blueberry martini and tips on pairing chocolate with wine.
Twitter and Facebook
Hotel social-media sites often offer a hodgepodge of customer comments and marketing-speak, plus real-time updates on everything from construction projects to deals and discounts; all this can prove useful for prospective guests.
A recent look at the Holiday Inn Twitter page turned up a Twitpic of the view from a Holiday Inn in Liverpool, a snippet on what's for breakfast at Holiday Inn Express (cinnamon rolls), and information on a new hotel that just opened, Aruba-Beach Resort & Casino. On the Four Seasons Facebook page, I was drawn to one photo gallery in particular: "Bathrooms You Have to See to Believe." Most of this information gives travelers a better sense of an entire brand as opposed to what to expect at an individual property, so check to see if your particular hotel location has its own Twitter handle too—some do.
Twitter and Facebook are also useful for asking questions about hotels. Travelers with a Twitter account will likely get a response to queries tweeted at social-media-savvy hotel brands. And now that Facebook Timeline pages allow users to send private messages to companies, travelers can use the social network to lob questions about everything from amenities to current specials.
Facebook can be especially helpful for digging up information on obscure guesthouses and B&Bs, as well as bigger name-brand hotels. Some smaller properties post more information on their Facebook page than they do on their websites, including photos and contact details; this is probably because it's often easier for modest hotels to manage and update a Facebook page than it is to maintain an independent website. Try entering the name of your property and "Facebook" on a search engine to see if anything turns up. Good luck!
What resources do you use to research hotels?
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(Photo: Shutterstock/Jose AS Reyes)