As you may know, I am a big fan of TripAdvisor. I was previously a Director of Engineering for TripAdvisor’s Flights and also went back to work there later as a contractor for 3 more years in both the Flights and TripAdvisor for Business groups. But like any website, TripAdvisor is a tool. It is great at somethings and not as good at others. Here is how to get the most out of TripAdvisor.
The bulk of the content at TripAdvisor is created by users like you and I. To read the press or listen to hotel owners you would think that the majority of content is created by people trying to create fake reviews. I don’t believe that. I can’t tell you all of what TripAdvisor does to find fake reviews because I know somethings that are not public knowledge, but just trust me when I say that they do expend a fair amount of energy removing fake reviews.
The real issue with user-created content has nothing to do with fake reviews it has to do with personal taste. Turn on your TV and look at the TV schedule of what’s on now. I see maybe 90% of that content as things I would never ever watch. People like different things than I do. So one person might give a hotel a poor review because the hotel has too much of a party atmosphere, but that might be just what you are looking for. So you should not just look at the number of stars a hotel gets but also read some of the reviews.
For example, we had a great experience at a hotel in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. One of the negative reviews was from someone who was incensed that after they changed their reservation to check out early the hotel was not willing to store all their luggage for free for 5 days. Yeah, hotels are not in that business. Ignore that review… unless you are also an idiot.
If you are looking for a hotel, start with the star ratings. I like to look for hotels that got 3 or more stars for their overall quality. I am just trying to weed out the hotels that most people did not like. One problem you will see with star reviews is that people sometimes stay at a 2-star hotel and expect 5-star service. This is something you can tell better from reviews than from just the star ratings so don’t filter out too many hotels to start.
Throw out the best and worst
One recommendation I have heard Steve Kaufer (TripAdvisor’s CEO) give is when you read reviews is to ignore the best and the worst reviews. Some people like everything and some hate everything, so ignore these. But if most people who review the hotel say that it smelled musty and the carpets were dirty, then it is probably a dirty hotel.
Back when TripAdvisor used to publicize the 10 dirtiest hotels list each year, one local TV station noticed that a San Francisco hotel was on the list and so they went over with a film crew to take a look. Was it really that dirty? Yes. Oh, and they also had the surprise that when they went to look at a room they walked in to find a homeless man lying on the bed who had snuck in the window. Some hotels really should be avoided.
Look at recent reviews
Hotels change over time. Some get better and some get worse. We stayed at a hotel in Napa, California and it had very mixed reviews. Some said that the hotel was tired and worn but the most recent reviews raved about how great the hotel looks now that they have updated it. The new reviews were right and we were glad we realized that the hotel had changed.
Reviews raise questions
One hotel where we stayed in Hong Kong had reviews that said it was close to the subway and other reviews that said that it was far from the subway. Some people like to walk and some don’t. What this does is raise a question you need to answer elsewhere. We brought up the hotel on a map and saw that it was about a quarter of a mile from the subway. For us, we would consider that close.
“Recommended” by TripAdvisor
If you are walking down the street and see a restaurant with a sign in the window that says “recommended” by TripAdvisor ignore the sign. That just means that the restaurant has a listing on TripAdvisor. That’s like putting a sign in your window that “our restaurant is on Google.com!”
The signs you want to look for say “Certificate of Excellence” or “Traveler’s Choice”. This distinction is only given to the best-rated businesses. Certificate of Excellence, in particular, is given to a business that routinely is well rated.
One of the best uses we have found for TripAdvisor is to find the hotels that don’t have a big marketing budget, places we would not otherwise hear about. I don’t need to use TripAdvisor to know that I will have a great experience at a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton. But look for the hotels like the one where we stayed in Merida, Mexico that was a small simple hotel but had great touches like two cold beers in the fridge, a huge bottle of filtered water, a great pool and free liquor for a nightcap. The hotel was close to the central square and just the sort of gem I find on TripAdvisor.
Leave a Review
After you have a great experience, help the hotel where you stayed by leaving a review. People remember to leave a review after they have a bad experience, but don’t forget to recognize people who do things right.
One way that TripAdvisor gets a great amount of press is periodically announcing things like Top 25 Destinations in the United States, Worst Hotels, Best hotels, etc. It is wonderful press for a smart company but I think also points out one of the things that TripAdvisor and user-contributed content, in general, is not as good at.
The top 5 destinations according to TripAdvisor are New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Orlando. These places are great. But they got the most votes in part because that is where people go. I don’t look for new and undiscovered destinations on TripAdvisor. Listen to a travel podcast, subscribe to travel blogs for inspiration, then use TripAdvisor as a great tool for travel planning.