Travel advice from the pros: How to prevent your dream vacation from becoming a nightmare

Here's how to make sure your dream vacation doesn't turn into a nightmare.

Never underestimate the power of good research to help you avoid headaches while on holiday

Creative online searches from multiple sources can steer you away from the pitfalls of getting a biased review paid for by a resort. (Cassie WIlliams/CBC)

Despite the sunny weather and ocean views, some recent "nightmare" Caribbean vacations have left more than a few Canadians feeling stranded after they went without running water or electricity for days at a time.

Earlier this year, one Nova Scotia family said their resort was without water for nearly a week, leaving people unable to flush toilets during a Sunwing-booked holiday. 

In February, another all-inclusive Sunwing trip to the Dominican Republic left about two dozen Nova Scotians without power and air conditioning in sweltering temperatures. 

To keep your dream vacation from turning into a nightmare, here's some advice from two travel experts.

Jo Fitzsimons is a travel blogger based in the United Kingdom. Chris Elliott is a consumer travel expert and journalist in the U.S.

Number 1, do your research

Whether you ask family and friends who have recently returned from down south, or you rely on online reviews and pictures, it's important to get a recent review you can trust.

Creative online searches from multiple sources can steer you away from the pitfalls of getting a biased review paid for by a resort.

"If you're looking at a particular resort, you might do a search online for the resort and … terms like 'scam' or 'worst vacation ever', something like that, or 'worst resort ever' and then see what pops up. You'll find all sorts of different reviews," says Elliott.

"Don't just go to one source, like TripAdvisor; cast a wide net."

Different tour operators may offer better customer service — but at the same price point.

"Actually do a bit of an online check for the tour operator you're going with, because when things go wrong, that's the person you're going to go to — it's going to be your tour operator," says Fitzsimons.

"If they've got a terrible history and awful reviews of dealing with people who are having an awful holiday, then you might actually want to go with a different tour operator." 

Consider the area

Water and electrical interruptions happen from time to time just about everywhere. But some countries are better equipped to deal with such problems more quickly.

"That kind of thing happens all the time [in some Caribbean countries]. Normally these resorts are used to it; they have backup generators — but not always," says Elliott.

"If you're going to a country that doesn't necessarily have the infrastructure, you need to have in your head that when things go wrong," says Fitzsimons.

A quick fix, she notes, may not always be available.

Ben Nanton says he's not giving up on his battle for a full refund of his all-inclusive vacation to Cuba, booked through Sunwing, after spending almost a week without running water at the Starfish Cayo Santa Maria resort. (Ben Nanton)

Look at pictures from real people

Fitzsimons says looking at other vacationers' recent pictures will give a more honest, non-Photoshopped view of what your resort destination looks like. 

"You're going to get those pictures of the cracks in the bathroom, and the ant infestation, and, you know, the balcony that's hanging off," she says.

What about a sister resort?

If the resort you book has a sister resort, as many larger companies do, you may be able to more easily move to the other location if yours ends up having water or electrical issues.

"This happened to me recently in Thailand. It wasn't the hotel's fault, but they had a bit of a renovation due to the monsoon — it was raining inside my hotel, so that wasn't great," says Fitzsimons.

"But they were part of a sister group, and so they were able to move us within the same island." 

Avoid the 'all inclusive'

Going on a vacation where your flight, hotel, food and drinks are taken care of is very convenient, but it also makes it much more difficult — if not impossible — to leave a bad resort. 

"Over recent years, I've become a bigger fan of not going on all-inclusive holidays for exactly these reasons: you're pretty much beholden to the scenario. Whereas if you book your own trip, you have a bit more control," says Fitzsimons.

Michelle Murray, seen with her husband, Joe Murray, says passengers were so relieved to return to Halifax, they clapped when the plane landed. They were among Nova Scotia residents who spent a week without power at a resort in the Dominican Republic. (Chelsea D'Entremont)

Elliott agrees.

"They often are too good to be true," he says.

Resorts have to make a profit like any other functioning business, and that could mean corners are being cut — whether that's in terms of food quality or not paying workers a living wage. 

"There's no such thing as a free lunch. You are paying for it in some way — or someone else is paying for it," Elliott says. "You may find a better deal by not going to an all-inclusive resort." 

Be polite — but don't back down

"Don't lose your cool is the really obvious [tip], because nothing gets done when people start shouting," says Fitzsimons.

"But I think the most important thing is to not back down, and to make it clear to the people you are dealing with that you're not going to back down.

"You're in an unacceptable situation, they need to solve it. Whether that is to have you move hotels or to move resorts."

Turn to social media 

"These days a tour operator can ... easily ignore your phone call or even your email, but if you're making your complaint public, say on Facebook or Twitter, I personally find that these things tend to get addressed a lot more quickly," says Fitzsimons.

Can you trust star ratings?

"Absolutely not. No," says Fitzsimons.

"The better thing to focus on is the facilities included. So the hotels that are going to include free slippers and high-end brand toiletries … are more likely to be in the higher-end stars, compared to your places where you need to pack your own soap."

Checking out the amenities available is a better indicator at the quality of a resort, she says.

A travel agent may be the way to go — maybe

Elliott says having a trusted travel agent can help.

"Agents do have contacts in the industry that if something has gone wrong, they can pull in a favour and maybe get you a voucher or something like that. Or a partial refund. A lot of these all-inclusive resorts are heavily dependent on travel agents, and they don't want to disappoint a travel agent," says Elliott.

However, he cautions that travel agents may also have a "vested interest" in selling these vacations because they get "very generous commissions and other incentives."

Norm Payne, a travel agent and consumer rights advocate based in Ottawa, disputes that travel agents receive "generous" commissions, especially in recent years with the rise of online bookings. But, Payne agrees travel agents have influence over operators when it comes to helping vacationers when they run into problems.

It's important to look at more than one source when considering reviews of a prospective vacation spot. (Cassie WIlliams/CBC)

Finally, if you've taken these precautions and you're still in a nightmare vacation situation, Elliott says you can try disputing the charges on your credit card — though admits that's not a guarantee. 

"That said though, there is an expectation that there will be water and power — basic utilities; that the food will be safe to eat; the water safe to drink. And so when that doesn't happen, you do have some recourse," he says.

About the Author

Cassie Williams


Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. I live in Halifax. You can reach me at