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When Destinations Disappoint

We’ve all been there. The guidebooks, the Web, the brochures, the eyewitness reports, the magazine articles — all tell you you’re headed for heaven on earth on your next trip. You get all fired up, suffer the drive and the airport and the flight and the shuttle and the car rental and all the rest, and you arrive at a dump of a hotel, on a blight of a beach, and it’s raining.

What do you do when a destination isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

The answer depends on whether it’s just your room or your hotel or your rental car that disappoints, or if it’s the destination itself. Sometimes you can’t tell, as when you arrive at night.

Years back, my girl and I decided on a vacation at the last minute, and opened up a local weekly paper to look for some package deals. We settled on a new resort in Venezuela; sounded interesting enough, and it was extremely cheap for a weeklong air-and-hotel deal. We’d never been to Venezuela, nor to South America at that point — we figured we couldn’t go wrong.

So we got on our flight (at 6 a.m. on December 26, but that’s another column) and eventually disembarked in Caracas. The vibe of the hotel shuttle and the looks on some folks’ faces when we told them where we were going were hardly confidence-inspiring, but I’m a fearless traveler — how bad could it be?

Two hours later, we were plotting our escape.

When I say “unfinished” bathroom, we’re not talking about missing soap dishes, towel racks or the like. No, what I’m saying is that nothing worked. And no one told us that nothing worked, so we found out the hard way, with a flood of biblical proportions. We told the hotel folks, and they went to work on the flood while we took a walk on the beach right outside the hotel.

Truthfully, it was a great night — warm, with an explosion of stars. We lay on our backs in the sand and took it in. Maybe the hotel was a dump, and we probably wouldn’t stay, but the location was great. Right?

Uh, did I say “stars”? I should have said “tars.” Because that’s what we found all over our clothes and shoes when we returned to our room.

In the morning, we woke up to look out at the ocean — and saw nothing but oil rigs. We scooted out of there faster than you can say “Exxon Valdez.”

I had my favorite guidebook with me (“The Surf Report,” a guide to surf breaks that includes minimal information about towns near the breaks, just enough to indicate whether or not there’s a place to sleep and eat safely), so I broke it out, we got in the car and started driving toward the nearest break. The trip developed into one of the most memorable trips we ever took. The rest of the trip was not without its challenges and problems, but at least they weren’t of the sickeningly mundane and sense-dulling type that comprise the “bad hotel” genre.

Following is a mish-mash of tactics for what to do when your room, hotel or entire destination ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

1. Give it a chance.

The first and simplest thing you can do is to give the hotel, attraction, resort, etc. a chance to make good. A polite but firm phone call to the front desk may just result in an upgrade, a move to a better room, a free night or some meal vouchers. Depending on the nature of your complaint, any of these may be enough.

If you can’t find a better room or situation, politely request a refund.

2. Before you threaten to move out, have a plan.

Call other hotels in the area and make sure you can get a room. It might not hurt to tell them what’s up. I ditched a hotel in France last year, but only after procuring a room at another hotel a couple of towns over with the help of the tourist office.

3. Use your disillusion.

When you call the next place, anticipate and get guarantees against some of the problems you’re experiencing where you are.

4. Ditch.

This is my preferred option. I’ve never left a place where I didn’t find even greater adventures on my way out. If you have a place to go, just leave. Let your feet do the talking. If you’re getting no love, respect or satisfaction, there’s nothing better than walking away.

Here’s how I see it: I show up expecting something packaged, reliable, a known quantity. Instead of disappointment and disaster, I see opportunity — a chance to get the hell out of there, to ditch routine and comfort, to stretch out and take some chances, to see things I never expected to see.

5. Don’t just leave your room — leave town.

If you’re far enough afield, as I was on the trip to Venezuela, there was no place within 50 miles where we’d be better off. Not only was the hotel not finished, the entire speculative resort wasn’t finished; it would have been like leaving the pond to swim in the swamp.

And there’s nothing like a clean break — make tracks, splitsville, good riddance to bad rubbish, put them in the rearview mirror, make them eat dust.

6. The grass CAN be greener.

When I ditched a room in France, we ended up in a truly stunning hotel about 15 kilometers south. The town (St. Jean de Luz) was a little less trendy, and prices more reasonable; combine this with a strong dollar, and we ended up in a room on a cliff overlooking the sea on one side, and overlooking the town on the other for the price of a mid-tier hotel in a third-tier U.S. city (about $80/night).

7. Spend your refund wisely or stupidly, your call.

If your suffering has resulted in any kind of refund, you’ll need to apply that money to reestablish not only a commercial, market equilibrium, but a psychological equilibrium as well. Spend it as you would; this one’s on them.

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