Using TripAdvisor? Some Advice
Using TripAdvisor? Some Advice
By SETH KUGEL, New York Times, 1/1/2013, original
In October, on assignment to find the cheapest way to spend a few days on a Caribbean beach, I dug up a very budget-friendly package to the all-inclusive Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach resort in the Dominican Republic. Four days, three nights, $561.86 — airfare and airport transfer included. I wondered what was wrong with the place. Surly service? Terrible food? Dirty rooms?
So, I did what any modern traveler would do: I looked it up on TripAdvisor.com. Soon, I was staring down over 1,000 user reviews. Among them were some that substantiated my worst fears: “Very rude staff”; “all-inclusive gruel”; “room filled with mold.” Others were far more positive. I went ahead and booked.
Knowing how to navigate the popular site is as necessary a modern travel skill as packing efficiently or decoding European train schedules. TripAdvisor’s sites attracted an average of 53 million unique visitors a month in 2012 through November, according to comScore, an online analytics firm, to its user-generated reviews of over two million hotels, restaurants and attractions.
It has spawned competitors, like Yelp and Google Places, and most of the globe is now “reviewed” in some form. Trying to decide between two rival satay stands in a remote Indonesian village? Check your smartphone, and you could very well find an online debate raging over which is better.
I travel about 180 days a year, so I think about TripAdvisor a lot. When I’m not using it, the guy next to me on the bus is. And here’s my conclusion: I love TripAdvisor. I hate TripAdvisor. It amazes me. It terrifies me. It has made travel infinitely better. It has ruined travel forever.
But love it or hate it, you’d better use it right. Here are the questions and answers most essential to the TripAdvisor experience.
What’s the best way to navigate all the opinions?
I posed this to Adam Medros, a TripAdvisor vice president. “One of the things that, over the last 12 or 15 years, people have learned how to do online is look at the good and look at the bad and then try to find threads of consistency among the comments,” he said.
That’s what happened to me as I looked at the resort reviews. The negative ones were the ones that first caught my attention, perhaps by chance. But a lot of the complainers seemed, frankly, like unpleasant travelers. A majority liked the resort, and many positive reviewers chided the negative Nellies for expecting luxury accommodations at bargain prices, a sentiment I related to. And everyone praised the beach, which was my main purpose for going.
Still, once I arrived, I had trouble shaking those critical reviews. Though I found no mold in my room, I couldn’t get over the feeling that it must have been there. And though the staff I met was perfectly friendly, I wondered if I had gotten lucky.
Mr. Medros also helped me understand how I could have done it even better. I’ve since learned the benefits of the site’s filtering functions — just reading reviews by solo travelers, for example — and of other options, like signing into TripAdvisor through Facebook, which enables the site to prioritize reviews written by your Facebook friends and friends of friends.
Do fake reviews affect the site’s reliability?
Mr. Medros said the company employs more than 100 people who speak 21 languages, have “backgrounds in credit-card fraud and military intelligence” and work to weed out fraudulent reviews and catch cheating companies. That’s great, but I still encounter lots of dubious reviews.
Just last month I spent a night at the Clarion Resort and Waterpark in Kissimmee, Fla., where a sign at the reception desk offered a gift from something called a “Positive Holiday Tree” to guests who “share your positive experience” on TripAdvisor. (It doesn’t seem to be helping much; two reviews posted in December were negative.) And I recently stayed at a motel whose owner said she had friends write raves after a client left a nasty review.
Both of these are clear violations of TripAdvisor’s fraud policy. But there are also gray areas, as when I praised a cafe owner on the décor and she begged me to share my thoughts online.
What is the site good for beyond reviews?
The site has made itself invaluable in other ways, adding features it has created, borrowed or bought from others, turning itself into a trip-planning juggernaut. Travelers can look for apartment rentals, browse user-submitted photos, and print three-day itineraries curated by (paid!) locals.
You can create a to-do list by clicking on “Save to Trip.” Most impressive is its new City Guides app, which lets you download full TripAdvisor content for 60 cities onto your smartphone or tablet and then use it without a data connection. That’s scary competition for guidebook companies.
Do all these reviews really improve travel?
Before there were online reviews, travelers like me could still arrive in strange places and manage just fine thanks to a combination of curiosity, instinct and local advice. It took a bit more courage, but was more fun and satisfying.
I asked Barbara Messing, chief marketing officer for TripAdvisor, if she thought this sprawling documentation of the world has inhibited exploration and discovery. Not surprisingly, she instead claimed the opposite: TripAdvisor, she said, helps travelers connect with independent, sometimes out-of-the-way hotels and other business they wouldn’t know of otherwise. “The TripAdvisor community thrives in finding gems,” she said.
I’ll grant her that. In fact, scrolling to the bottom of TripAdvisor’s “Things to do” suggestions is part of my bag of tricks for finding lesser-known attractions in a city. And perhaps the larger point is that it democratizes travel, in part by allowing smaller businesses to shine and by providing a meaningful way for travelers to dole out praise and criticism that will actually be heard.
Still, I’m not convinced. Why have my most exhilarating trips of the last few years been to those rare places TripAdvisor and the rest of the Review-Industrial Complex have not yet documented? There was that week spent in San Juan Teitipac, a little town outside Oaxaca, Mexico, that I chose on the advice of a bus driver. (Still not listed on TripAdvisor as of late December: a marvelous 16th-century church that still packs in worshipers every Sunday.) Or that 40-mile hike along an obscure stretch of Brazilian coastline that I made using nothing more than a Google satellite map. It was my lack of knowledge and planning that forced human interactions, ultimately paying off in cheap beds, free coconuts and indelible memories.
Of course, not everyone’s ideal vacation involves such risks, especially if you’ve got only two weeks off a year or have a partner you are trying to impress. But I believe everyone should use the vast online database of the travel world with moderation. Save a day or two for spontaneity: seek advice from a stranger on the Seoul subway; take a day to explore an Italian town just because you stopped there for gas; trust your instinct to find a Parisian bistro to call your own. Maybe you’ll find out later that its croque-madame has been praised 717 times on TripAdvisor. Who cares? You discovered it yourself.