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What you don't know about lodgings could keep you up at night

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The guidebook described the inn as a former private estate with "beautiful courtyards, narrow brick paths and adobe archways" near the heart of Santa Fe. Guest rooms, the description read, had a "fireplace, Navajo rugs and other regionally crafted art."

At $135 a night, the price wasn't exactly cheap, but it wasn't bad, either, for what was described as a suite in a historic estate.

Reality presented a wholly different picture. The "suite" was a kitchenette in dire need of major renovation. The "beautiful courtyard" was, in fact, a large, gravel parking lot. The only rugs were of the fuzzy Kmart bath mat variety, a species removed from the fine Navajo weavings touted in the guidebook. The "regionally crafted art" turned out to be a couple of mass-produced clay figures from Mexico. The final disappointment: The fireplace was useless because despite cold, rainy spring weather, the management refused to supply wood, saying it was too late in the season.

Looking at the place, which was no more comfortable and less well-appointed than a budget motel, I wondered if the guidebook author who wrote so glowingly of its virtues had ever actually laid eyes on this overpriced establishment.

An avalanche of travel guidebooks is poised on the nationUs bookstore shelves these days. And while the profusion of guides offers travelers a world of information, it also makes it more difficult to sort out which ones are reliable, particularly when it comes to advice on what is likely to be the single greatest expense in travel: lodging.

It's important to distinguish between recommendations and actual ratings. The vast majority of guidebooks, including the major players such as Fodor's, Frommer's, Berlitz and others, don't actually employ a rating system. Rather, they merely make recommendations in various price ranges.

To find lodgings that have been rated according to specific criteria, travelers have to navigate "Mobil Travel Guide" star system and the American Automobile AssociationUs diamond ratings. Both are similarly structured. Mobil awards one to five stars in various lodging categories, including motels, hotels and resorts. AAA awards one to five diamonds in different lodging categories.

Their rating procedures differ slightly. Mobil employs 94 field representatives covering 70 territories. The reps personally visit each lodging unannounced and then contact the manager for a tour of the property. They update information, note the condition of the facilities and submit the evaluation with a suggested rating to a committee, which awards the actual rating.

"There's no way you could rate a property based [solely] on a tour led by management," says Alice Wisel, managing director and editor in chief of the "Mobil Travel Guide." "They [the field reps] also don't give advice. They are there to listen and observe. Not criticize. I don't see it as our job to tell a hotel how to upgrade itself. They're in the business. They should know how."

AAA's 60 full-time field inspectors are on the road 180 to 200 xTC nights a year, evaluating lodgings and restaurants rated in the 23 AAA TourBooks, says Kris Krause, director of inspections for the auto club. Inspectors show up unannounced at the establishments and examine 10 areas of operation, she adds. Unless the lodging has slipped or risen in the ratings from the previous year, the inspector submits the report with a note that the rating should stand. If there's a change in rating, a senior staffer reviews the report.

"We want [our inspectors] to look at the big picture," Ms. Krause says. "We want people to see what the experience is going to be like for the guest. We're not just out there with a little checklist."

Both AAA and Mobil staffers stay anonymously at five-diamond and five-star hotels on an annual basis, since service, which can't be evaluated on a cursory tour, is a determining factor in the highest-rated properties.

AAA inspectors also stay overnight at four-diamond establishments annually. At Mobil, staffers check in to four-star establishments every other year, or every year if they're being considered for an upgrade to five stars.

But in the vast majority of guidebooks, time and budget constraints prevent the writers from actually staying at the lodgings they're recommending. Reputable guidebooks will require their contributors to make an in-person visit, even if they don't stay the night. However, any tour led by management is sure to show off only the most positive qualities of a hotel. Moreover, there's little opportunity to rate service if you havenUt actually stayed in a place.

In the worst cases of guidebook abuse -- and these are more likely to involve bed-and-breakfast guides -- the lodging owners have paid a fee for inclusion in the book or have been allowed to write or approve the entries. It isn't always easy to distinguish between the guides that consist solely of paid listings and the ones that contain honest reviews, says Bobbi Zane, publisher of a newsletter on B&Bs; and contributor to several B&B; guidebooks.

However, she notes, the bogus guides tend to include long lists of inns and are heavy on descriptive words like "charming" "historic" and "quaint," without being very specific. Another B&B; guide [now out of print] was compiled by sending out survey forms to the owners. The authors never stepped foot in the places they were recommending, Ms. Zane says with a chuckle, "but they wrote real well and everybody believed them."

But sometimes even assurances that writers have made anonymous visits aren't necessarily so. One guidebook contributor noted with dismay that a guidebook he was writing assured readers that all lodgings had been stayed in anonymously by evaluators. When he notified the editor that he wasn't being paid enough to pick up the tab for 30 or so nights in hotels, he was told to gather the information in whatever way possible. So much for assurances.

To further complicate matters, one traveler's "rustic" is another traveler's "rundown." And, as Ms. Zane points out, "Nobody has ever been able to tell me exactly what a 'gourmet' breakfast is, even though they [B&B; operators] all say they serve them."

Michael Spring, editorial director for Fodor's Travel Guides, notes, "You can say whether a place has a swimming pool, but whether it's charming is in the eye of the beholder."

The 500 contributors to Fodor's 160-plus titles are not required to actually stay in a lodging but they must make an in-person inspection. "We encourage them to find details that make a place unique so the readers can make up their own mind. For example, at a Holiday Inn you wouldn't say, 'You can find this anywhere in the world so don't stay here' We'd say, 'If you like the predictability of a chain motel, this is the place for you.' We've tried to get away from the idea that travel writing is promotional. That's what you get a brochure for. You get a guidebook for objective information."

Contributors to guides published by Ulysses Press (including the Hidden and Ultimate series and the new Virago Woman's Travel Series) are given guidelines, though they too, are not required to actually check in for the night.

"We recommend they look for a place that's comfortable, that they consider ambience, price, size of rooms, the comfort and appearance of the furnishings, the interior design and the facilities," says publisher Ray Riegert. "But they're not rating them. They're trying to capture the essence of the hotel in their description. So we will not say this is a three-, four- or five-star hotel. But you will come away with a mental image of how it stacks up with other hotels."

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