Step 1. Ignore TripAdvisor
Every time I plan a vacation, I turn to TripAdvisor for advice, and you know what? It's a baaaaad idea. That site totally messes with my head. I think I know what I want to do for vacation, and then I read awful stories written by pissed off people venting online, and then I get totally confused. Here's an example. For my 10th wedding anniversary, I was going to book a trip with my lovely husband, Brett, to Parrot Cay, a romantic getaway off Turks and Caicos. Everyone I spoke to said it was amazing. Jennifer Aniston was supposedly in love with Parrot Cay. All systems were go until I read ONE REVIEW by a STRANGER saying that there was never enough food to eat at the resort and that I should bring my own granola bars and pretzels to snack on, because that place was so remote it was like vacationing on the set of Survivor.
I did not go to Parrot Cay. I booked us at the Four Seasons, Nevis, which was hit by a hurricane two months before our trip.
We ended up vacationing in freezing cold NYC.
I like to think it's all TripAdvisor's fault. That website should just be called ShutUpAndStayHome.
Last year, I booked a family vacation in Puerto Rico for Christmas break. Because there is seriously something wrong with me, I again read the TripAdvisor reviews of the resort before committing, but this time at least, I did not let the chatter completely influence my decision-making. It was like, I know some of the rooms are old, and I know that some of the restaurants at the resort suck and I know that it's a shlep to the beach, BUT we're going there anyway, and we're going to have an awesome time, goddammit, regardless of what those TripAdvisor crazies have to say because we're traveling on Amex points and this is the best we can do at Christmastime! So there!
We arrived at the hotel on a glorious, hot, sunny day and looked out at the deep blue ocean. All of us Gerstenblatts were beginning to relax and unwind... until we got to our room.
"I requested an ocean-view room in the building on the hill," I told the porter who was bringing us down, down, down the hill to the marina area.
He checked his data. "You requested ocean-view only. You cannot make two different requests."
"But I heard that the rooms in the marina smell like low tide and have had flooding issues in the past, leaving them moldy!" I said.
"You heard?" Brett asked. "From who?"
"From the hoard of complainers on TripAdvisor!" I said. Maybe there had been two.
The porter opened the door to our room, and all five of us -- four Gerstenblatts and one hotel employee -- held our breath, waiting to see how awful it really was.
The room was beautiful. It was light and airy and newly renovated. A sliding glass door opened to a deck with chairs overlooking the expanse of ocean, with islands in the distance. It was so bright that I had to squint.
And even though my eyes were telling me one thing, my brain was still telling me another: this room was no good. The BEST ones were up the hill. We were somehow missing out.
We unpacked and headed to the pool, but it took me all day to shake the notion that I was somehow being screwed out of a perfect vacation by not being in a room on the hill. And then I realized that TripAdvisor had inadvertently turned me into one of their minions, a complaining, negative Nelly who wouldn't settle for being satisfied when they could strive for being disappointed.
Forget any website's comments, my negativity was the thing that was going to ruin my family's already perfect vacation. So I backed off, jumped in the pool and realized that I was with my family in a tropical paradise with great weather, and there was nothing anyone on the World Wide Web could say to make me doubt myself any more.
Step 2. Read TripAdvisor
Call me crazy (you wouldn't be the first one!), but I still feel that sites like TripAdvisor do offer helpful information -- as long as you can remain calm and take all advice with a grain of salt. Or sand, as the case may be. Many people who write reviews online are the ones at both ends of the spectrum, because they were either extremely satisfied or extremely disappointed with an experience. Knowing that makes me slightly more sane. But only slightly.
Step 3. Always vacation at the same place
There is an adjustment period when you travel to a new locale. How long does it take to get to the hotel? What's the best spot by the pool? Where should we eat breakfast? How potent are the margaritas and how many can mommy drink before she goes snorkeling? You can avoid all these issues by returning to the same resort year after year. The people who we met at the airport and who were returning to our resort in Puerto Rico for the second, fourth or 11th time were already chillaxing at the baggage carousel. They knew what they were heading towards -- their favorite water slides, the nightly outdoor movies, beach volleyball -- and had already gotten over the hump of those first 24 hours. Although I love to try different hotels on for size, I can see the appeal in returning to a known destination and just saying "ahhhh."
Step 4. Bring a great book
I just read the cheesiest, badest, couldn't-put-it-down book and I think you should read it on your vacation. It's called On the Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves, and it's a sexy survival story of a 16-year-old boy and his 30-year-old female tutor whose plane goes down in the Maldives. On the Island is like The Blue Lagoon (cheeseball 1980 romantic movie) meets Hatchet (a children's book about a boy who is lost in the Canadian wilderness for 54 days), and my friend Suzanne recommended it to me. If you hate it, feel free to blame TripAdvisor.
Safe travels, everyone! See you in 2013!