text ©2007 by Scott W Clemens

I’ve been planning a family vacation to Ireland. In the past I used Frommer’s travel guides to research our destinations and lodgings, as well as brochures provided by my travel agent. This time I decided to do most of my planning on the internet, and what a boon to travelers this resource has become. I’ve made some fun and useful discoveries that are worth passing on to my readers.

First, let’s start with Google. I’m sure most of you know that googling your destination will bring up links to all of the usual tourist boards and business associations at your destination, maps, online booking for accommodations, restaurant reviews, and the historical background of your destination. This is where I start my search, and there is enough information in that initial search to keep one busy for a week.

Arches, Abbey aux hommes, Caen, Normandy, France

Arches, Abbey aux hommes, Caen, Normandy, France

You may be less familiar with Google Earth (www.earth.google.com), which allows you to use satellite imagery to actually see your destinations. I was able to pick out our hotel and bed-and-breakfast inns in Dublin, Limerick and Galway, and to do a virtual fly-over of the Beara and Dingle peninsulas. Some areas are amazingly detailed, and here I zoomed-in to an altitude of about 1,200 feet, tilted the picture to change the perspective, and passed over the landscape as if in a small plane. I could fly over farms and pick out the cattle and sheep in the fields. I was also able to ascertain that some of the roads which appear straight on a map, actually follow a more meandering course.

My most important discovery, however, came when googling for hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. I had already bought a travel guide to Dublin and had an idea of where I wanted to stay — the Harcourt, a three star hotel that was once the residence of George Bernard Shaw. The photo of the lobby looked like a set from My Fair Lady. When I googled Dublin hotels, Expedia was one of the sponsored links. Expedia has this to say about the Harcourt Hotel:

“What to expect: Guests enter the Georgian townhouse hotel lobby, which has marble columns and pictures of a former resident–critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw. The hotel is popular with businesspeople as well as vacationing families and small groups.
Amenity highlights: The hotel’s Italian restaurant, Little Caesars, serves lunch and dinner. There is also a nightclub, and the hotel has a house in the garden for groups. A pretty beer garden at the rear features a waterfall and deck seating.
Insider tip: Behind the hotel are the Iveagh Gardens, among the finest and least known in Dublin. Created in 1863, they were formerly called the Coburg Gardens, and include a grotto, a maze, and woodlands.”

That sounds great, doesn’t it? However, another link pointed me to Trip Advisor, which had another take on the same property. In case you’re not familiar with it, Trip Advisor is a compendium of reviews from travelers like you and me who have stayed in these establishments. I looked up the Harcourt Hotel to see what fellow travelers had to say. About half the reviews complain that the noise from the nightclub is unbearable. One traveler wrote, “There are 6 night clubs on the street, hundreds of inebriated people roaring and shouting…. When the night clubbers eventually ceased at around 5am, the street cleaning machines started.” Another said, “the main issue is that the disco booms away until 3am five nights a week and every room in the hotel gets an earful.” Still another complained that “after closing, all those who were drinking and sweating inside there, come out to the street and continue the freakiest show ever for 2 hours more! Trying to sleep is useless, even using the auricular protectors PROVIDED BY THE HOTEL!” Several disgruntled customers complained that “customer service is appalling,” and that the breakfast was poor. Even the best reviews noted that television reception is fuzzy at best. To be fair, many reviews said the noise from the nightclub depended on which room you had, and a few praised the friendliness of the staff. But with the number of negative reviews, who would take the chance?
Our next stop after Dublin is Kilkenny. There are several B&Bs in Kilkenny that get rave reviews from every guide. But look at the difference in the reviews of Kilkenny Bed-and-Breakfast on Dean Street in The Lonely Planet guide and Trip Advisor:
Lonely Planet review by Catherine Le Nevez:

“’Traditional, timeless Irish hospitality.’
Run by the energetic Philomena Heffernan, who opened Kilkenny’s first B&B near here in 1969, and who is something of a den mother to her guests, this classic little B&B houses five frilly rooms. A full hot breakfast (not including black or white pudding, as Philomena’s found from her years in the biz that no matter how exotic foreign guests might find it, they don’t really like it) is dished up in a dining room lined with shimmering silvery-blue self stripe wallpaper and curtains to match. Upstairs, a couple of the guest rooms have basins in the rooms but share a bathroom, while others have tiny en suites in the rooms. Rooms at the back of the house have lofty views of St Mary’s Cathedral and Black Abbey across the car park (it’s a prime place if you’re travelling with wheels, with a full acre of free parking out the back).”

Reviews from Trip Advisor (spelling and grammar somewhat corrected for readability):
#1: “What a shock; it was the coldest, dampest, place I’ve ever been in. The rooms were filthy, stank of vomit and cigarette smoke; our friends’ room was a kitchen with beds pushed in. We found out that this establishment is also a hostel for homeless people with mental health problems. One room had a mouse in it. The others had no curtains on the windows and broken locks on the doors. The landlady demanded we pay up front and said we couldn’t have the rooms otherwise…And to cap it off one of my friends brought home fleas from sleeping in one of the beds… I wrote the Bord Failte, [the Irish Tourist Board] and they said they can’t do a thing as this place was not a registered establishment, but they had a huge amount of complaints about its standards.”
#2: “I would just like to say that in the last two days I had a very nasty incident with the landlady of this bed and breakfast. This B&B is as terrible as all the reviews have said. Stay away. She is the rudest person I have ever met. I work in the hospitality industry and I have met some unpleasant people in my time but this lady tops it all. In fact the tourist board should really pay a visit to this place!!!!!”
#3: “I wish we’d read the reviews before going to this little piece of hell in Dean Street, Kilkenny!!!! I would advise anyone not to go there…unless, of course, you like…sleeping in a kitchen, being overcharged and not to mention the dog. Oh yes, the dog resides in the breakfast room; we found dog hair in the sugar, the milk and on the toast! I’ve seen hostels and even college houses with a better standard than this. The woman who runs the B&B is rude and less than obliging and a tough cookie…stay clear!”
#4: “I’m being very generous in giving this B&B one star. I would give it a minus rating if I could. The previous reviews are spot on. This is a very dodgy set up. … On arrival our reservation requests were not adhered to… I have stayed in hostels with much higher standards for half the price… very unsanitary conditions. Avoid this accommodation.”
#5: “Reading what happened above is exactly as what happened to me…., reserved room over the phone…. She needed a bank draft as they did not deal with credit cards. Posted this on Monday – Thursday morning we get a call to say the draft has just arrived and the room was given away … but there was a larger family room available at 50 yoyos more… accepted – called back to cancel as I knew I was conned and she got so strappy – I asked for my deposit back and she said she would consult her lawyers!!!! I duly took a claim in the small claims court and got my deposit back some months later… I would love to report this one to everyone who falls for this scam!!”
#6: “Hi, I can’t believe this happened to someone else too. My friend had booked a room at Kilkenny B&B on Dean Street and the lady also said to send a postal order…Then I rang up 2 days later and she said she had given the room to someone else… She then slammed the phone down on me… I just couldn’t believe how rude she was on the phone.”
After reading these reviews I think it’s obvious that you can’t reconcile “the energetic Philomena Heffernan…who is something of a den mother to her guests,” with the incredibly rude lady mentioned by actual customers. Nor can you reconcile the description of “this classic little B&B [that] houses five frilly rooms,” with the descriptions of unsanitary, flea-infested rooms. I contacted Lonely Planet about the discrepancies. Trent Paton responded that while “we do stand by the opinions of our authors…there does seem to be a problem with this B&B…so I’ll suggest to the appropriate people that this place needs to be reviewed again.”
Now, I don’t want readers to think that Trip Advisor is all about bad reviews — far from it. What makes Trip Advisor so useful is that you don’t have to rely on any one review, as you do in a guidebook. You may have a dozen or more reviews, most in agreement, perhaps some of them contradictory and pointing to flaws that other reviewers had overlooked. I’ve found Trip Advisor to be invaluable in finding special places to stay. All of the hotels and B&Bs we’ll be staying in were highly recommended by Trip Advisor members (you can sign up for free at www.tripadvisor.com to become a reviewer yourself). I’ll be adding my two cents to the reviews on our return, and I’ll follow up on this article with a real-world account of how our planning worked out, for better or worse.
Trip Advisor forums have also been useful in figuring out the driving times between cities (a lot of roads we’ll be traveling on are two-lane secondary roads that may prove slow going).
In addition to Google and Trip Advisor, I’ve found Rick Steves’ site (www.ricksteves.com) has a lot of useful tips on how to take the hassle out of traveling. He should know; he travels three months a year.
Readers are encouraged to write in with their own recommendations for internet travel resources.

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