The hotel's brochure hooked us. A glowing blurb in a guidebook reeled us in. Off we went to a hot new couples resort in the Turks and Caicos Islands, southeast of the Bahamas. But wait. The brochure cover had shown a wide, airy balcony with an unobstructed vista of turquoise ocean. Yet the tiny terrace from our "ocean view" room mainly overlooked the block of rooms in front of us, with a thin sliver of the Atlantic barely visible over the rooftops. And the blurb did not mention that this "balmy Shangri-La" had such a chronic mosquito infestation that the delicate netting over our canopy bed had to be used nightly, along with a smoldering antibug coil that left our throats sore each morning.
Again and again over decades of traveling, we have found that the deceit often is not so much in what a resort says, but in what it doesn't say. Those omissions can make what should be an idyllic escape a disappointing ordeal.
Another resort in the Turks and Caicos provided no refuge from noise. Our room faced the hubbub in the gargantuan main pool. At night, the soundtrack switched to deafening disco music from the dance lounge and bingo numbers yelled out from the recreation center next door.
Our resort on the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, Calif., permitted no private vehicles up the long, steep cliff leading to the guest lodgings, to keep the look pristine. But the shuttle carts run by the hotel were so few and far between that guests -- particularly older and physically challenged individuals -- often were stranded for as long as 45 minutes.
How do you determine the real story? Ask questions before you book and again before you go (because things can change at the last minute). Get all guarantees in writing -- by mail, fax, or e-mail -- and bring that documentation with you. If what you get is not what you were promised, demand to be moved to a room equal to or better than the one you were guaranteed. If no good rooms are available, insist on being moved to another resort, or, if you don't want the hassle, ask for a room discount or credits toward meals, drinks, or resort activities for which there is a fee. If you get no satisfaction, you might challenge the charges with your credit card company (always pay by credit card).
When you are looking or booking, here are some points to consider, from A to Z:
Ambience. Who is the place designed for -- families, couples, tour groups? Is this a big high-rise hotel or an intimate retreat? Is the hotel on a busy street? Are the public spaces quiet or bustling?
Beach. Is there one? How far a walk is it from your room, or is it even on the same property as the hotel? Is the beach a long one where you can stroll for miles, or just a patch of sand? Can you walk into the water comfortably from the beach? Is the water rough or calm, warm or cold? Are there any waterborne bacteria or stinging creatures to be aware of?
Construction. Is there any at or near the resort, and if so, how near is it to your room and other guest areas?
Distances. How far is the hotel from the airport, popular tourist attractions, restaurants, the main town, night life, and interesting natural areas, such as snorkeling and hiking havens? How long is the drive time based on road conditions? Is your hotel the kind of place where most people find all they need to entertain them right on the property, or do guests head out on day trips? If you are staying at a large resort, are there plenty of shuttles to and from your room?
Extra charges. Does the hotel impose a surcharge for activities on the property, such as use of canoes, snorkeling equipment, the spa, or the gym? Is there an automatic laundry service charge added to your bill? At some resorts, that can be as much as a 25 percent surcharge -- in addition to any taxes.
Food. Does the hotel have a selection of restaurants, and how close are other interesting places to eat? Is there a market nearby where you can stock up on basics? Is there room service?
Getting around. Do you need to rent a car, or can you get around the area easily and inexpensively by taxi or public transportation?
Help with selection. The Internet is a great place to start. By typing in keywords -- such as Mexican beach hotels or Caribbean family resorts -- you can pull up maps and tourist-board information as well as newspaper and magazine articles and chat rooms with no-holds-barred analyses.
Insects. What times of the year are mosquitoes, bees, or other annoying insects most or least prevalent, and what does the hotel do to protect you?
Jackets and ties? How formal is the place? Do you need to dress up for dinner, or can you wear shorts or a swimsuit?
Kids. Does the resort provide plenty of activities, supervision, and baby-sitting for children, as well as adults-only zones?
Lighting. Are the walkways and grounds well lighted at night?
Medical services. Is there a doctor on call, and where is the closest hospital? How good is it? Will your insurance cover emergencies or do you need to buy travel insurance?
Night life. Is there any on the premises or nearby? What kind?
Opportunities. Are there special activities offered on particular days, such as manager's cocktail receptions, beach barbecues, or snorkeling trips? Are there local events for which you might want to time your visit?
Protection. What kind of security is there? Can anyone wander onto the property from the beach, or are there guards to keep outsiders out? If you have a balcony, is it accessible only from your room, or from the roof, ground level, or other rooms? Does your balcony door lock?
Questions. Establish a contact person at the resort (get the full name and title) who can answer your questions and has the authority to make guarantees.
Recreation. Does the resort have a pool? (Will it be open during your visit? Is it heated? Is there one indoors?) Is there a gym and, if so, how is it equipped? If there is a spa, what services are offered? What activities are available on or near the property?
Shopping. What kind of stores and handicraft shops are around?
Terrain. Is the property flat or hilly?
Updates. No matter what you were told when you booked, call again a few weeks before you go and again the week before departure to make sure that no construction is underway and there won't be any bad surprises.
View. What exactly is the view from your room? Is it straight onto the ocean, or are there any obstructions?
Weather. Are you visiting the place in the dry or rainy season -- or worse, the hurricane season? Is the temperature uniformly hot, or is it cold at night and in the early morning? Is wind a problem or a relief? Are the rooms air-conditioned? Do they have ceiling fans? Can you open the windows?
X, Y, and Z. Consider your personal hopes and peeves. Be sure to check with travel companions as well. Their tastes may differ from yours -- a good thing to know when planning any trip.
Judi Dash is a freelance writer who lives in Beachwood, Ohio.