By Christopher Elliott
It’s time to tell the truth about your last vacation — the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Was that hotel or vacation rental overrated? Did that five-star restaurant only deserve four stars — or less? Was the place too crowded, too expensive?
“Dad, it’s time to tell your readers the truth,” my 15-year-old son Aren exclaimed after a recent trip.
“What do you mean?” I asked incredulously. “Haven’t I been doing that all along?”
“No,” he said, “I mean the truth.”
Ah, the truth.
At a time like this, getting all the facts would be helpful. People are planning their summer vacations, consulting social media, review sites, travel agents and friends for reliable recommendations. But relationships seen and unseen prevent these sources from telling it like it is. Wouldn’t it be nice to know the truth?
“What truth should I tell?” I asked my son.
“Portland, Oregon,” Aren replied without hesitating. “You wrote stories about Portland. You said you liked it. You didn’t.”
I scrolled back in my mind to the summer trip to Portland. OK, so Portland wasn’t my favorite place. I failed to mention the city’s homeless epidemic in my coverage. I didn’t say anything about the times I felt unsafe when walking through the city.
How do you write a travel story about a place you don’t like?
“And you forgot to warn people about Voodoo Donuts,” said Aren. “Voodoo donuts are awful.”
Alright, he didn’t use the word “awful.” He used another word that 15-year-olds do.
“You should have told them about Blue Star Donuts,” he said.
True, Blue Star is superior. It’s a small regional chain of donut shops, and they specialize in exotic flavors like Blueberry Bourbon and Cointreau Crème Brûlée.
But after the sugar buzz wore off, I should have written more honestly about Portland, too. It’s not for everyone. Yes, there’s a significant homeless population, according to a recent count.
Travel journalists constantly leave information on the cutting room floor. Sometimes, the omission is inadvertent. Other times, it’s because we don’t want to offend the residents of a place we’re covering or the friends we know there. I failed to tell the whole truth about Portland because it would have taken more time to explore the dark side of the destination. I didn’t have the time to write a hit piece.
If you can’t trust a travel writer to tell the whole truth about a popular destination, consider the advice your friends give you.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why would a friend lie to you? If you ask about that last theme park vacation — how did it go? — you could be putting your buddy in a bind. If the vacation was terrible, he might be reluctant to admit it. After all, your friend just spent thousands of dollars on a family getaway.
People lie about their vacations.
I know. I lived in Orlando for 12 years, and for most of that time, I had an annual pass to all of the theme parks. I saw the meltdowns, breakdowns, and vacation failures firsthand. Some of them were my own.
The truth? Some people come to Disney World and don’thave a magical time. When that happens, they don’t run home and tell everyone to avoid the Happiest Place on Earth. Instead, they use euphemisms to describe their experience.
“It was great,” they say, “We had a few bumps in the road.”
Not to be cynical, but you have to question every source, no matter how reliable they seem.
The internet is filled with review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, which promise you the truth about a destination or travel product. My family has tried them, but we stopped. That’s because the sites are easily compromised by reputation management operatives, disgruntled former employees, or vengeful guests.
Sites that self-host reviews are even less reliable. I’ll never stay at another Airbnb after one particularly negative experience that started with a series of too-good-to-be-true reviews for one property in Colorado Springs, Colo. Let’s just say sites like Airbnb have a vested interest in keeping things positive — too positive to be of any use to the average guest.
How about travel agents? Not all of them tell the truth, either. Some do, but I’ve run into a few who put commissions above customers.
In other words, you might ask your trusted travel advisor to plan a long weekend in Seattle. But your agent might push back and try to persuade you to book a week at a Sandals all-inclusive property.
Always follow the money. Who is compensating your agent? That’s a fair question. If your advisor can’t or won’t answer, move on.
Check with multiple sources before you make a vacation choice, but never make a decision based solely on the recommendation of a single source, even if that source is your travel professional. Or your best friend.
I agree with my son — it is time to tell the truth. But this raises a question: Is anyonetelling the truth?
I’d like to think I am, my friends are, and my trusted travel agent is. But who am I kidding?
I’m sorry, Aren. I should have written something about the Passion Fruit Cocoa Nibs at Blue Star. Next time.
Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). He edits the family adventure travel blog Away is Home.