Beautiful – but is it real?

Berlin (dpa) - Gone are the days of trawling through brochures and relying on advice from travel agents. Today, the internet offers endless opportunities for researching travel destinations.

The average holidaymaker visits 10 websites before embarking on their travels, according to Michael Buller, head of the German Association of Internet Travel Marketing (VIR).

But while we know very well that brochures show the best side of a destination, many people expect content on Facebook and Instagram to be more authentic - an expectation that can lead to disappointment.

On Facebook, for example, you can’t help coming across inspiring travel content - mainly through friends posting their holiday pictures. According to Buller, every other picture posted on Facebook is linked to travel.

But these days, posts from friends and acquaintances about their holidays can look exactly the same on a Facebook user’s timeline as adverts from tourism companies that their friends have shown an interest in.

If you're worried about being oversold, it’s worth looking closely at travel tips on Facebook. Is there a commercial interest behind them?

"This can happen when one of your friends shares a picture or engages in some kind of relationship with a company or famous person through social media," says Niels Brueggen of the Institute of Media Pedagogy (JFF) in Munich.

Users expect posts from their own circles to be authentic and unbiased - but that is often not the case. If one of your friends likes or shares an advert for a travel company or website, for example, it will show up on your timeline.

Instagram is all about visual impressions of holiday destinations. How to find them? Simply type the destination of your dreams into the search field, says Maximilian Muench, a professional Instagrammer who earns a living posting travel pictures. You will typically be rewarded with a whole array of pictures.

On the plus side, up-to-date pictures will show you whether the castle you were thinking of visiting is in fact currently covered in scaffolding - or what the weather is like in your chosen destination. According to Muench, Instagram photos are also more authentic than those found in travel brochures.

But it pays to look closely here, too. Holiday destinations and tour operators are increasingly developing relationships with so-called "influencers" - social media users with a particularly large following.

The influencer gets a free holiday, and in return they agree to post beautiful pictures.

As Brueggen points out, someone who is being paid to post pictures of their holiday is much more likely to share the beautiful view than the ugly eyesore next to it.

"When there is a financial incentive behind any information, you have to question whether it is neutral," he says.

Some influencers mark paid-for posts with a hashtag, such as #sponsored, or write the official name of the campaign on their pictures.

Instagram can help you to get an impression of a place. "But you should consult other sources to find out about, for example, the location of a hotel, to make sure the reality of a destination is not completely different from your impression," Brueggen says.

Online hotel ratings can also play an important role in travel planning. They are generally trustworthy, says Brueggen - though fake reviews are not unheard of. Ratings that rely on a large number of reviews are more likely to be reliable, he says - and it’s also worth paying attention to what other holidaymakers have written: "Reviews are very subjective."

So, for example, someone might give a hotel a bad rating because the food was too spicy, simply because they personally don’t like spicy food. But for another customer, spicy food might be a good reason to choose that hotel.

What does all this mean for holidaymakers? On the one hand, the internet has freed them from the biased advertising of holiday destinations and tour operators. On the other hand, the internet is also full of advertising - it’s just not always so obvious that it’s advertising.