The Photoshop-Effect: How Hotels, Resorts & Cruises Trick Travelers

Have you ever booked your vacation lodging online, only to arrive at a space that’s cramped, defunct, or downright disappointing?

Unless revisiting a favorite spot, most of us make reservations based on a picture or brochure. However, gone are the days when rooms are simply staged with extra knick-knacks or, at worse, captured with a wide angle lens. With the prevalence of image-altering software comes an increasing number of photo-fakeouts.

How to avoid getting stuck spending your days (and budget) on an experience that’s so far off from your expectations that it could ruin your vacation? And what to do if you show up to a hotel, resort, or cruise cabin, and are severely disappointed?

We’ll take a look at the three main offenders—hotels, destination resorts, and cruises—in hopes that you’ll never again have to deal with a disappointing vacation.

Cruise, Hotel & Destination Resort Photo Dangers

Teensy pools cropped to disguise their size. Beach chairs cleared out to create a false sense of serenity. Those are just two of the tricks used to lure would-be vacationers into expecting their vacation will be a Shangri-La.

Many hotels are equally guilty of artfully cropping cramped spaces, such as pools or gyms. Photo-fakeout offenders have also been caught altering images to make desirable landmarks appear closer, subtly encouraging sightseers to choose their location.

How To Do Your Research

Spend some time reading reviews! is a great hub for finding honest reports of guest experiences. If you don’t feel like fishing through them all, search Google for “hotel name + photo.” This way, it’ll be more likely to find relevant reviews mentioning a difference between photos and reality.

To conduct a thorough search, also check for a mention of any establishment you’re considering. The website visits hotels and resorts in person, takes hundreds of photos of each, and posts them with honest reviews. Here are a few notable works of photographic fiction:

An Empty Beach is Anything But

Photo of Gran Bahia Principe Punta CanaGran Bahia Principe Punta Cana's Photo vs. Oyster's Photo. Image:

The above photo of Gran Bahia Principe Punta Cana shows a pristine and people-free beach. The reality? Anything but!

When shopping around for a mega resort, remember that they tend to stay true to their name and be mega-crowded. Be realistic and know that there’s no chance of having the beach to yourself—you’ll be sharing it with a hundred other strangers instead.

What’s the lesson? Don’t let images of a deserted paradise factor into your decision.

The Zoom & Crop

Aqua Aloha Surf​Aqua Aloha Surf's Photo vs. Oyster’s Photo. Image:

Ever visit an online dating profile where the person only show pictures from their neck up? It generally makes you pretty suspicious. Well, using the magic of photo cropping, hotels, cruises, and vacation destinations are just as guilty of omitting their less-than-attractive features.

Check out this example Oyster gives of the Oahu hotel: The zoomed-in, cropped section of the lima bean-shaped pool on its website gives the illusion of more pool than there actually is.

The reality? If it’s hidden or cropped, you should probably assume the worst.

It’s Not Actually That Close

Hyatt Regency Washington'Hyatt Regency Washington's Photo vs. Oyster’s Photo. Image:

The U.S. Capitol appears much closer to the Hyatt Regency Washington in the hotel's shot than in Oyster's. The beauty shot, most likely taken with a long lens, distorts the real distance to the famous monument.

While most tourists map out their itineraries, this case of potential photo manipulation is an important reminder to double check distances with Google Maps when proximity is important.

Review Alternatives to Set Your Mind At Ease

No available online reviews of the destination or cruise that you’re considering? No problem! But, before you take an establishment at their word (or photo), take the time to ask questions about what matters most:

  • Room dimensions
  • Room amenities
  • Distance to landmarks or points of interest
  • Stipulations to complementary services, such as buffets 
  • Hours when additional services, such as a fitness center, are open

The last point is particularly important when planning a cruise. While you might be dazzled by the wide array of listed activities, chances are that they come at a cost. Whether Zumba or wine-tasting, extra activities on cruises are usually between $10-$15 per person (similar to what you'd pay at home). The ship's daily bulletin usually lists the classes that are being offered, and whether or not there is a fee. 

Want to learn more about booking a cruise? Check out “A Beginner's Guide To Choosing a Cruise.”

For land-based destinations, a simple Google search of the area you’re considering can yield some telling information. Often brochure-style images are edited to bring out their best, including adjusting the color saturation and removing undesirable aspects. Check out Google Street View for a chance to virtually walk around your next vacation destination before you even arrive.

How To Seek Help If You’re Dealt a Dud

If you’ve already arrived to find a room, cabin, or resort that looks nothing like the pictures, there are still a few ways you can attempt to salvage the situation.

Be Kind To the Front Desk

But don’t be bashful, either! Clearly state what has caused your disappointment and what you want—then hold firm. If they don’t have what you want at that moment, such as an upgraded room, you might be able to get it later as other guests check out.

Keep in mind that some problems are beyond their control, and some take time to fix. If you have a specific time frame (e.g., you have a dinner meeting and need to use that broken shower), ask them for a backup plan (using shower in another room or in the spa).

Do Your Homework

Before you complain, figure out what your expectations for a solution are. Do you need something fixed in your room? Need a new room assigned? What's your timetable?

Be realistic about compensation for problems. You shouldn't pay for services you didn't receive. But you are unlikely to have your entire stay comped because one thing wasn’t working in your room. One helpful approach is to tell the manager that you aren’t looking for compensation—you just wanted to let him/her know there is a problem so it can be addressed.

Speak Out on Social Media

Online presence is everything, so mention you'll write a review. Often, posting your issue on a company’s Facebook page or Twitter will get an immediate response! Also, nothing breeds bad business like a negative Yelp review.

Join Their Loyalty Program

If a company sees that you're a returning customer, they'll be more apt to keep your business. Many also offer incentive programs, where members are more likely to receive an on-the-spot upgrades.

Dress For Success

Yes, it's superficial, but if you look the part, you’re more likely to be taken seriously. Particularly at hotels, professionally-dressed travelers tend to earn more respect.

Finally, Take It Home

It's best to resolve the problem when you’re still at your destination. Even in the best hotels, resorts, and cruises, things go wrong occasionally! Patience, persistence, and a smile go a long way toward getting results when you have a valid complaint.

However, if that’s not possible, do your best to keep notes of what happened, who you talked to, when you talked with them, and what was said. Your best bet? Go the extra mile to get evidence if you can—a photo snapped with your cell phone can be a powerful image. 

Then once you’re home, you can further dispute a portion (or all) of charges, depending on the severity of your disappointment with your vacation experience. And don’t forget to take steps to review the destination accurately to save others from the same experience!

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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