When a beach isn’t really a beach, and other travel disappointments

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Christopher Elliott

Alan Kraft/Shutterstock
Alan Kraft/Shutterstock
To call Smathers Beach in Key West, Fla., a beach might be a little stretch.

The sand is imported from the Bahamas. On a recent windy day when I visited, there were no waves. Mostly, this island’s signature beach doesn’t have the scene you’d expect from a tropical resort, such as a boardwalk with concession stands.

So when a reader on Washington Post Travel section’s online chat recently asked if I could recommend a beach in Key West, I said not really. The natural shoreline in the Keys is dotted with coral rocks and mangroves that are beautiful in their own right. Tourists don’t come to this island for its beaches, and if they did, they’d be disappointed.

The complaints came in almost as soon as my response was published in the paper. Coincidentally, the answer appeared on Labor Day weekend, just as Diana Nyad finished her record swim from Cuba to Key West. And right there, on live television, readers saw Nyad coming ashore at Smathers Beach, which looked real enough on camera.

How could I say that Key West didn’t have beaches?

Well, I’ll say it again: There are no real beaches in Key West, at least not in the traditional sense.

As it happens, the travel industry routinely overstates its product in ways large and small. It’s these little disappointments — the hotel pool that doesn’t exist, the outdoor amenities that were Photoshopped into the promotional images, and yes, the beach that turns out to be less than the wide-angle lens suggested it to be — that diminish your vacation. But they don’t have to.

Ken Barth remembers one chain hotel in Statesville, N.C., that prominently advertised a pool. It was a hot summer day, so the idea of relaxing in the water appealed to him. The hotel did indeed have a pool, but it had been drained and was being repaired — a fact that Barth, an analyst from Monroeville, Pa., didn’t learn until he’d checked into his room.

Barth improvised, using another hotel’s pool while he stayed in town, and he also let the general manager of his hotel know about his disappointment. “The next time I saw the property, it was an independent hotel,” he says.

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Christina Conte, a food blogger from Los Angeles, recalls one hotel in Santa Barbara, Calif., which she’d booked because it supposedly had an “awesome” pool. That pool, too, was closed, and the hotel dispatched her to a different property to use its pool — which was anything but awesome. “We were horrified to find that the hotel was like an apartment building with a pool in the outdoor area, and that was it,” she says. “No seating, landscaping, trees, flowers — nothing.”

But that pales in comparison with Bruce Kane’s experience when he checked into a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., several years ago and found that the pool was a “ huge pile of dirt.” A resort employee insisted that a notice of the construction had been posted on the hotel Web site. “But I never saw it,” says Kane, a consultant from Charlotte.

Both Kane and Conte complained and received a voucher for a one-night stay.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) receives occasional guest gripes about amenities promised but not delivered. But spokeswoman Kathryn Potter says that since the group is a trade association, there’s not much it can do except forward the complaints to the hotels and encourage customers to get in touch with organizations such as their local Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce. Although AH&LA doesn’t track the number of missing-amenities cases, Potter estimates that the number is relatively small.

“I would be surprised that amenities promised weren’t there, since guest service and customer loyalty are such huge priorities for the industry,” she says.

But it turns out that beaches and pools are a special area of concern when it comes to resort amenities, at least if the infamous “photo fakeouts” on the online travel site Oyster.com are to be believed. These before and after images, which show an allegedly doctored photo next to the real one, document hotel pools and beaches that are definitely not as advertised.

Among the gems: a closely cropped photo of a man holding a surfboard in what appears to be a pool, but is actually a hot tub, at the Aqua Hotel in Miami’s South Beach, and an allegedly empty beach at Gran Bahia Principe Punta Cana, which, when the site’s photographers found it, was crammed with beachgoers and chairs. The Sofitel L.A. even allegedly Photoshopped an entire mall out of the picture of its pool.

The remedy is obvious. Learning about the missing amenity before you make a reservation can save you from a disappointing vacation. Find a source you trust, such as a competent travel agent, a site like Oyster.com or, ahem, a travel journalist who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, and take their advice into account when you’re planning your next trip.

Once you’ve checked in, your options are limited. A polite complaint should get you an apology and maybe a voucher for a one-night stay. If the hotel charges a mandatory “resort” fee to cover the use of a pool or an exercise facility — a fundamentally dishonest practice that the Federal Trade Commission frowns upon — you should reasonably expect the charge to be refunded immediately. But don’t expect a full refund on your room.

Or you could just improvise. When I visited Smathers Beach with my family, we enjoyed the half-mile strip of sand for what it was. But just a mile or so down the road, we stumbled upon an observation deck that looked out over a saltwater pond. The tropical hammock teemed with exotic birds and flowers. Beyond it, the vastness of the Straits of Florida unfolded in what seemed like a hundred shades of blue and green.

As good as the beach? No, better.

Is Smathers Beach a real beach?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Tokyo.

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