Wednesday, February 13
Getting the most from travel review sites
One of the exciting aspects of travel is the chance to explore new destinations and enjoy new experiences. But the flip side of that is that you have no way of knowing which local restaurant serves amazing swordfish, whether the hotel you are considering has comfortable beds, or if you're likely to find less-than-clean facilities. Travel review sites can help fill in the gaps, giving you insight into feedback from other travelers and even locals.
But how can you sort out the good advice from the bad? You have to recognize the chance that reviews may be written by business owners and are just commercials to try to get you in the door. On the other hand, I often see reviews that appear to be written by either a competitor or maybe a disgruntled former employee and show the business in a completely unfair and undeserved light. How can you tell the difference?
One of the things you may consider is the number of reviews available, but this is less help than you might imagine. It is a fairly simple matter to create 3-5 fake reviews, especially if they all appear within a fairly short time period. If the reviews are stacked on top of each other, time-wise, and use similar language and express the same opinion, it might be wise to take them with a grain of salt. On the other hand, if you find 50 reviews of a business, it is not likely that they are all from someone with ulterior motives.
The language of the review can give clues as well. If it reads like a commercial written by the owner ... it could be. I am always especially doubtful when the review reads like a laundry list of services or available options. Someone who actually stays at a hotel is much more likely to comment that the linens smell fresh or the staff is rude than they are to give a rundown of ALL of the hotel's amenities. I'm also suspicious when I hear comments that read like a travel guide ... "as you enter beneath the charming antique hand-carved doors, the cool refreshing scent of limes and the melodic notes of classic harp greet your senses ... " Normal people don't write comments like this. They COULD be bucking for a position as a travel writer, but more likely, this is simply a commercial poorly disguised.
Language of the opposite sort is just as suspect. I have read scathing reviews of a local restaurant, claiming that the establishment reeked of ... shall we simply say "bathroom odors" and charging them with all sorts of nasty uncleanliness. Anyone who read the review might have vowed never to set foot in so much as the parking lot. To be honest, the place is a bit aged and run down, but in that particular small town, ALL of the restaurants are in that general condition, and the one I mentioned is clean enough. The reviews were so critical, I suspect they were written by someone who had been fired, someone who disliked the owner, or a competitor. The anonymity of writing online reviews will lead many people to be less polite than they would be if asked in person, but most won't cross a certain boundary of ugliness.
Most of the time, a person's experience with a place of business will be mixed. If they are a conscientious and honest reviewer, you will usually get an overall impression that may range from 0-5 stars (or whatever the range allowed by the rating site), but in the comments section, you will usually read something like "the food was delicious, portions were ok, cost was good, but the service was slow" or some other mix of good and bad, with a few specific mentions.
Sometimes you run up against a site that has a "star reviewer" ... either they comment on EVERYthing to be found, or some sites allow their reviews to be rated by other visitors and they emerge over time as knowing what they are talking about. I will sometimes check out a number of reviews by one person, if I have the time. If that person rates EVERY establishment as 5-stars, then either they are inflating their reviews, or they are not willing to comment on the worse experiences. Human nature is usually quicker to complain than to praise though, so I tend to be suspicious of their opinion if they have only good things to say.
If you want to be adventurous about it, you might find it interesting to check out one business that is very highly rated by a site, and another that receives consistently low marks, just to compare your own impressions. If you want to try this, I'd recommend saving the "low rating" for something that doesn't require much of a commitment, like a quick diversion, or a visit to a shopping destination. No one wants to check into a hotel for the night or be faced with dinner only to find that the reviewers were all right and the place is horrible! But if that shopping mall DOES turn out to be overpriced and uninteresting, you have gained a little confidence in your reviewers and it only cost you a little time to make that discovery.
One more important point - travel review sites are only as valuable as the opinions provided by travelers! Do your part to help everyone else find the gems and steer clear of the pits by providing honest feedback on as many experiences as you can. Remember that wherever you live, others may be traveling to or through your area, and the information you can provide on places you visit (or avoid visiting!) every day can be invaluable to others. The more feedback provided by everyone, the more useful such services become for us all!