Travel Web sites have taken the place of a trusted travel agent when it comes to shopping for a vacation. But a "20/20" investigation found that when it comes to the Web, what you see is oftentimes not what you get.
Visiting Washington, D.C.? The Hyatt Capitol Hill Web site claims it's "just steps away from the U.S. Capitol." Online photos appear to confirm this. But when you look at a map -- and a more realistic image -- you see it's a lot farther away. Actually, it's about a third of a mile away.
Elie Seidman, the founder of the hotel review Web site Oyster.com, sees it time and time again: hotels using tricks to make their properties look as desirable as possible. The discrepancy between a hotel's Internet image and reality is all too widespread, according to Seidman and his staff. "We found that it's, unfortunately, all too typical," he said.
Oyster.com is trying to expose marketing tricks that spin reality.
A photograph of the MGM Grand hotel pool on its Web site shows a huge pool with hardly any sunbathers. It looks like a great place to get some alone time, but cropped out of the shot are endless rows of lounges filled with people.
Perhaps an even more dramatic example is a romantic scene on Hotel Riu's Punta Cana resort homepage is real when it reflects a private wedding at its seaside gazebo? Unfortunately, a little wider shot on the Oyster.com site reveals that it's not so private after all -- it's smack in the middle of the resort's beach with dozens of uninvited guests in attendance!
Another is the Web site photos of the fitness center at the Nash Hotel in Miami. After seeing a spacious fully stocked gym in online photos, what Oyster reviewers found was a rude awakening: a closet-size space with one treadmill.
"You show up and it's not reality ... it backfires," Seidman remarked. "But you know ... you don't travel that often on vacation." Hotels don't have to sweat the concern of complaining with repeat customers.
Oyster's Seidman warned that the accommodations one encounters when they arrive at the hotel may look completely different from what the hotel's slick Web site shows.
That was the case at the Manhattan Broadway Hotel in New York City. The guest rooms on its Web site look sleek and modern -- filled with chic furniture and big flat-screen TVs. However, one expert told us those room pictures are likely not real photos, but computer simulations. When our reporter went to the actual room, it was quite a shock.
The television was the size of a hand. There was no closet -- just four hooks in a wall. The green drapes in the photo were nowhere to be found. It was just a bare, ragged window. As for the modern furniture revealed in the online photos, there was dilapidated mismatched furniture of an unknown period that was missing most of its handles.
We found some unadvertised amenities: cracks in the walls, an old dirt-encrusted air conditioner, a plywood box spring and something that can only be described as a generally grungy feel to the room. And what did we pay for this down-and-out room? The decidedly nonbargain rate of $220 a night.
We found other who shared our reaction. A Michigan tourist who gave us this assessment.
"I would probably rate this room a 10 (pointing to the Internet image), and I'd rate my room a 4," the tourist said.