Here’s How User Reviews Actually Help Savvy Travelers

by Seth Kugel November 19, 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.

Pick your poison
 

Expedia or Booking.com for hotel reviews? Yelp or Foursquare City Guide for restaurants? Google or TripAdvisor for, well, everything under the sun? There are dozens of sites that offer their own reviews and hundreds of others that funnel reviews from them (Kayak is funneled from Booking.com and also has their own reviews, for example). You should find and use the apps whose reviewers share your tastes. And it’s easy to reverse engineer the best one for you. Here’s how to do it.

First, think of a destination you recently visited, or even your hometown. Make a list of a half-dozen spots you feel strongly about: a restaurant with great atmosphere but small portions and a  so-so wine list, a tourist attraction you think is overhyped or a hotel where you loved the staff. Now go through the major apps one by one, reading a dozen or so reviews for each of the businesses or attractions. Whichever one best lines up with your opinions, you’ve got your go-to.

Warning: it’s quite possible you’ll find that almost none of the reviews match your personal tastes — a lesson in itself about the quality of user reviews. I just ran the test on some favorite spots in São Paulo, Brazil, including an Italian bakery where I just love the sweets and espresso but find the pasta dishes sit like a lead balloon in my stomach. Alas, I was disappointed to find nearly everyone who mentions the pasta raves about it.
 

Just the facts, ma’am

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You should find and use the apps whose reviewers share your tastes.
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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.

No filter?
 

You’re not looking for any old hotel in Florence, Italy, so why did you just type “Florence” into Booking.com and read down the first page of results? Check off just a few filter options — free Wi-Fi, breakfast included, near the Uffizi Gallery, with air conditioning, elevators — and you just narrowed 2,510 places to 81.

Then filter the reviews themselves: read only those by solo travelers, or families or business travelers. Some sites even allow you to search specific terms within reviews (“bedbugs,” “late check-out”) — take advantage.

Looking for a legit Tuscan restaurant but concerned foreign tourists wouldn’t know good crostini di fegato if it hit them in the face? Then here’s my all-time favorite trick: Filter for reviews written in Italian and see if the overall rating changes. (TripAdvisor is set up perfectly for this.) You can also hit the translate button and read the Italian reviews in English.
 

Break ranks
 

Most if not all online travel agencies and apps that feature reviews are for-profit companies. The hotels or restaurants or attractions that pop up first — and how those entries are presented —`are not always the result of an impartial algorithm.

If you search for hotels in Berlin on Booking.com, for example, the results page defaults to showing “Our Recommendations” – a list prioritized not by score or price but rather by which hotels participate in the site’s Preferred Partner program. (They’re identified with a thumbs-up icon.) Partner venues agree to pay an elevated commission to the site for the sales it brings in. To reshuffle, click or tap one of the other ordering choices, like “Top reviewed” or “Lowest price first.” On TripAdvisor’s “Things to do” pages, you often have to scroll through the paid tours on offer to get to the old-fashioned reviews. And Yelp offers businesses a paid option to upgrade their pages so they can feature their own photo slideshows (otherwise pages will display user submissions only).
 

Deep dive

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Looking for a legit Tuscan restaurant but concerned foreign tourists wouldn’t know good crostini di fegato if it hit them in the face?
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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 Booking.com, 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?

I was, until about five minutes ago when I did a Yelp search on my own neighborhood in Queens, NY. I was shocked to find I had to scroll and scroll and scroll all the way to #111 to find my go-to Tibetan spot, a place I take out-of-town visitors all the time, and always to rave reviews.
 

Seth Kugel is a travel writer and the author of Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.

 

 

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