Here's How User Reviews Actually Help Savvy Travelers

by Seth Kugel |November 14, 2018

You probably know by now that not all user reviews you see on travel sites are reliable.

Some are pure fakery or are coerced by business owners. Quite a few are written by people who somehow expect butler service at a budget motel or simply cannot believe they have to wait in line at the Eiffel Tower in August. Even among the vast majority of reviews that are honest and sane, few are written by people who share your taste.

Yet you use them anyway. I do, too. They're irresistibly convenient! And the alternatives are full of flaws, as well. No guidebook writer stays in every hotel he writes about. Many magazine writers, bloggers and influencers accept freebies or go on luxurious junkets where they're spoon-fed a soft-focus, marketer's version of a destination and regurgitate it for their readers or followers.

However, user reviews do offer something of value no other form of travel writing can: vast oceans' worth of free, easily searchable data on just about every restaurant, hotel, tour operator and attraction around the globe. You just need to know the right ways to tap into it.

Beautiful buildings built into a cliffside over looking water

Just the facts, ma'am

User reviews may read like pure opinion, but what you should do is train your eyes to glide over the rants and raves and sift out valuable facts. If five tourists complain of rude service in a Mexico City restaurant, disregard. Maybe restaurant culture there is different, or maybe their definition of rude is "They didn't understand my motormouth English and I made no effort to slow down."

On the other hand, if five people write that there's no seat on the toilet, or that the lighting is bare-bulbed and fluorescent, you probably don't want to take a date there. Reviews are great for detecting concrete problems, particularly in hotels: Wi-Fi goes down frequently…Only rooms above the third floor have an ocean view…The airport shuttle leaves only once an hour. Such valuable facts can mean the difference between a view of sparkling water or a drab parking lot.

Strength in numbers

Don't fall for it when company spokespeople talk of how they hire ex-secret agents to seek and destroy all fake reviews. Entire (shady) companies exist to help businesses game the system.

The simplest technique to avoid fakes is to pay careful attention to the number of reviews a place has. Fewer than 50, and there's a decent chance some are fake — just enough to swing the average review score or star level.

It's much harder for a business to game the system if it has hundreds or thousands of reviews. There may be one or two fakes in there, but it's likely the rest are real.

man taking notes while browsing the internet

Deep dive

How about ignoring these ranking systems altogether, and diving into the meat of the results — say, the ones that appear on page 13 or 42? Different services have different algorithms, but sometimes hotels, restaurants and attractions appear lower not because they have bad reviews but because they have too few reviews. TripAdvisor's "Things to do" in New York City include Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge in the top five. But if you think you need to read the reviews of the Brooklyn Bridge to know it's a cool place to visit, I have a bridge to sell you.

Instead, take advantage of TripAdvisor's most amazing feature: the sheer number of attractions. The 1,200 for New York essentially comprise a list of everything to do in town, including some cool under-the-radar stuff. I just went to page 10 of the results and found appealing places I've never been to in two decades living here, including the oldest reform synagogue in the city, Temple Emanu-El, plus another I love but know few others have heard of: the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where George Washington not only slept, but used as his headquarters for 37 days in 1776.

The same exercise can turn up new or lesser-known guesthouses on, for example. And are you one of the roughly 100% of Yelp users who always pick a restaurant from the first 20 that appear on the map?

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.