I get asked regularly which travel websites I use for recommendations on where to stay, where to eat, where’s good for wi-fi, the best place for breathing. If there’s an activity out there, then you can place money on the likelihood of there being a website capturing people’s opinions on whether the thing in question is good, bad or downright ugly.
Trip Advisor, Yelp, Four Square, Hostel World and Hostel Bookers, an entire market has sprung up for review sites telling you not only where to go, but what to eat, drink or do when you get there. I’ve even found one site designed to help you find a decent toilets (Sit or Squat – love the age check on the way in!). The point is, there’s so much information out there, how do you know which information to trust?
My cynical answer: trust none of it.
I accept that isn’t helpful, but I say this having been approached by sinister companies to write reviews for hotels I’ve never visited, restaurants I’ve never dined at, and although I’ve not yet been asked to review a loo, it wouldn’t surprise me if the practice went on (while we’re on the subject, the roadside bucket in Tunisia close to the Libyan border rates as possibly the worst toilet I’ve ever been to, but I digress).
Of course, I’ve never produced fake reviews, but not everyone is that concerned with ensuring the integrity of review sites.
Only today, I saw this news piece on Travel Mole reporting that www.airlinequality.com has been caught out by the UK Advertising Standards Authority for not being able to prove that the reviews on its site were genuine.
Equally, I’ve just checked out of a hostel that got top reviews on Hostel World with other travellers claiming that it had ´Great staff and a great atmosphere,’ when I found it had neither. But that was simply because I’m the kind of person who likes fewer rules, more fun and an atmosphere that extends beyond 9pm.
So, where does that leave us world travellers who are keen for inside information or any other method that can make our trip better?
Here are my tips for cutting through the excess of information to get the closest version of the truth that you can.
And if that approach doesn’t work…
1. Always ask another traveller first…but not any other traveller. For two people to like the same restaurant, be comfortable in the same hotel or, hell, even enjoy the same toilet, they have to be like minded. Don’t ask the person you swap SLR photography tips with for a party venue if they like to spend their night on geek sites. Equally, advice to avoid a hotel or hostel because of uncleanliness might not be the most reliable tip from a person with a tube of antibacterial gel on a string around their neck…unless you have the same tube around yours.
2. If you can’t find a like-minded traveller, reach out on Facebook or other social media sites. Yes, another traveller currently on the road will have more up to date information, but the travel friends you collected on Fakebook (ahem, Facebook), may have been to or know someone who has been to your intended town and can probably help.
3. Next, try Hostel World and Hostel Booker reviews, but beware as you’re now straying into stranger territory so more caution is needed. Keep in mind that you know little to nothing about the people leaving these reviews so they’re only one step up from sticking your finger in the air, but checking a few details like age, country they are from and number of reviews given, you can try and scrape together a sense of whether they are your kind of traveller. The upside it, if you’re backpacking, most of the people on these sites are likely to be indie travellers too. Reviews for the same spot on a more generic site like Trip Advisor is less likely to be reliable.
4. Weed out fake reviews. Yes, they do exist and statistics dictate that the more popular the site, the more likely they are. Here’s my advice on what to look out for as indicators of being fake: good grammar and exceptional punctuation, a description that looks like it might have been crafted from the venue’s website marketing material, an unlikely number of reviews across a particular country or chain of hotels (does anyone really stay in every x brand hotel in Vietnam?), or completed in a particular time period (did someone really eat in 30 restaurants on a 3 day jaunt to London?).
5. Apply a huge pinch of salt: We’re back to traveller profiling, except on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, you have a broader range of traveller types to sort through – the resort go-ers, five star hotel users, luxury expecters will all rate down a place that doesn’t come with a turn down service and immaculate bathrooms. Likewise, a budget traveller might be delighted at the quality of a 2 star hotel that doesn’t quite have the ring of romance you’re looking for on that special weekend away. Read the reviews, consider the poster and apply a huge pinch of salt before making a decision.
6. Just turn up: accepting this approach may not be feasible or desirable if you’re planning your honeymoon or birthday dinner for 20, but if at all possible, showing up and sussing the place out in person is always the best way to figure out if a hotel, restaurant or other is for you. There is no substitute for sliding your own finger over the toilet seat to check for cleanliness (if that’s your thing) and sticking your nose in the kitchen to check for dining appeal. Keep you plans fluid, try not to book more than a trial night for accommodation and have a nearby back up plan in place should also help.
7. Remember, weather sites aren’t immune: Eating and sleeping aren’t the only thing we tend to research to death before a trip and the one thing that holds true about sites predicting (and reviewing based on experience) the chance of sun, rain, or snow is that there is no real way to tell what the weather is like other than stepping out under the sky in the relevant country. I’ve been in India during monsoon and not seen a drop of rain for days. I’ve been in the Caribbean during peak sunshine hours and sat brooding over the clouds. Ok, check that you’re not hitting Scotland during midgy season and hitting Russia in the depths of winter won’t be ideal if you’re hoping to come back more tan, but the same rules apply. One person’s hot can be another’s cold (arriving from Rio to Miami in January I found the water tepid at best while my fellow European travellers found it to be the warmest water they’d seen for months).
As with all of these experiences, the only way you’ll ever know is to see for yourself…and then you can leave your own review for other people to pour over.