To plan a vacation, people around the globe are increasingly seeking out insider tips and recommendations from online review sites. With travel sites in 21 languages and a collection of more than 500 million user-generated traveler reviews, it's not surprising that TripAdvisor leads the pack.
In fact, TripAdvisor reviews have changed the travel landscape dramatically by giving travelers a public platform on which they can gripe about a lumpy mattress, an overcooked entree, an unexpected fee, or lackluster service. But even the most savvy traveler needs to do due diligence to get the most out of TripAdvisor -- or any other online review site.
Earlier this year, the New York Times' frugal traveler, Seth Kugel, penned a column about TripAdvisor that provoked hundreds of reader comments. I've culled advice from those comments (and added some of my own) to help you evaluate the reviews you read. Here are 10 insider tips for using Trip Advisor reviews:
1) Look for trends
Don't be swayed by one or two reviews that are either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. Take the time to read multiple reviews and look for consistent trends.
2) Check dates and timing
Things change. If you are looking at old TripAdvisor reviews, the problems may have been experienced under different management or before a more recent renovation.
Sequence is an important indicator, too. Bad reviews followed by good ones are more reassuring than good ones followed by bad.
Also, see whether the visits took place during the same season when you plan to travel. Perceptions of a seaside resort in winter may be totally different than in the height of the season.
3) Pay attention to specifics rather than global judgments
Look for useful details. If someone hated (and poorly rated) a hotel because the walls are paper thin, that is more informative than an individual simply saying he/she wasn't able to sleep.
4) Look for outliers and negative reviews
Pay specific attention to major shortcomings that may compromise your stay. However, recognize that an especially harsh review may simply reflect the mood of a grumpy reviewer or a competitor. You can vet the negative reviewer's comments by looking at other reviews by the same individual.
5) Evaluate the experience of the reviewer
Give more weight to experienced reviewers. The comments of a seasoned traveler are generally more helpful than someone who rarely travels. Additionally, in the case of restaurants, you may want to give more credence to the experiences of reviewers who are local and know the gastronomic terrain.
6) Know thyself
Not everyone is looking for the same type of experience. For example, if you are a backpacker, you may be more interested in hostels reviewed by backpackers than hostels dissed by luxury travelers.
Additionally, don't forget that people of different backgrounds, ages, socioeconomic status, etc. may have different travel expectations, perceptions and preferences.
7) Evaluate the responsiveness of management
When a negative review appears, does management make a credible attempt to apologize or explain what happened? Or, do they spill out a boilerplate apology or even worse, make believe Trip Advisor doesn't exist?
8) Check the forums
If you have unanswered questions, check out the forums on Trip Advisor where members may have raised the same concerns and where you can pose new questions.
Don't hesitate to contact reviewers and commenters to ask them questions as well.
9) Don't forget to look at the photos
Publicity shots on property websites can be deceiving. On the other hand, photographs taken by real people offer a better glimpse at what a room really looks like. For example, a picture with two suitcases on the floor and toiletries in the bathroom will allow you to better gauge space (or lack thereof) than a room that is staged and photographed with a wide angle lens.
10) Don't rely solely on one review site.
While TripAdvisor, the largest and most popular review site, is a wonderful source of crowd-sourced information, check out other edited review sites (e.g. Frommer's, Fodor's, Lonely Planet and Zagat) where experts weigh in. Also scour books and websites to be a better-informed and more satisfied traveler. I hope you'll drop in here, too:-)