Last year, my aunt was thrilled to book what she thought was the deal of the century: a seven-day all-inclusive holiday in Cuba with airfare from Toronto for just $500. But it turned out the deal was too good to be true. When she got there, the resort was under construction, the food was inedible, the mosquitoes were biting and the beach was filled with prostitutes and condoms. She vowed never to make the same mistake again. Here’s how to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you:
Don’t trust the star rating system for hotels
Travel agents are quick to point out that a Caribbean hotel rated at five stars is not really a five-star by North American standards. A five-star in the Dominican Republic, for instance, is more like a three star here—a Holiday Inn, say. To find out what a hotel is really like, seek out reviews by other travelers on sites like Tripadvisor.ca. Steer clear of resorts that have a wide variance in opinion. “Consistency is what you want,” says Toronto travel writer Ilona Kauremszky. “A review that has mostly three or four stars by almost all travelers is the one that will help eliminate nasty surprises.”
Look out for renos and hotel name changes
A resort’s own site is unlikely to mention noisy renovations and pool closings, but on review sites, guests who have been woken up in the middle of the night by jackhammers will be more revealing. As well, be wary of hotels that change names. “The hotels that get negative publicity often go through a name change to make it appear as though they’re a brand new location,” says Nuno Alves, marketing manager for the Flight Centre in Toronto.
Watch out for the nightlife
It’s a well-known fact that many beaches in Caribbean countries, especially hotel beaches near areas where locals live, can be frequented by prostitutes and their clientele. How do you avoid these hotels? Make a quick phone call to a local travel agent and enquire about whether they know of any reason you should avoid the hotel you’re interested in. “We hear the verbal reports from clients,” says Alves, “and if they keep coming back negative regarding certain areas, we’re the first to know and tell travelers to avoid them.”
Crunch the real numbers
We all know that $399 cut-rate deal is a teaser, so calculate how much you’ll really be paying before you get too excited. Add in the taxes, surcharges, airport fees, baggage fees, security fees, exchange rate fees, travel health insurance, and the odd day trip to check out the local sites. Keep in mind that resorts close some of their restaurants during off-peak times, so you’ll likely get bored with monotonous cuisine and blow your budget to eat elsewhere. You’ll see that it’s very easy to get costs up to $1,200 or more per person when all incidental fees are included. Make sure your budget can handle that before booking, and you’re ready to roll.