Traveling in the digital age, there is no shortage of people offering advice on which hotels to book and which ones to avoid. But with this massive influx of information, who can you trust?
Is it better to go with an old-school, traditional guidebook that might only convey one person's experience but is at least a trusted source? Or should travelers use a Web site that combines hundreds of hotel guests' comments and experiences but leaves you to guess about these users are and motivations?
There isn't a simple answer. Most travel experts say that both have their place and that savvy travelers will use both. But there are some tricks to be aware of.
The granddaddy of user-generated online reviews is TripAdvisor.com, which now includes 25 million reviews of more than 450,000 hotels in 70,000 locations around the world.
That's a lot of information, but it might not suit everyone's needs. A traveler from Australia who rarely goes on vacation might have different standards than a road-warrior from Los Angeles, which can color their impressions of a hotel or a city.
Sometimes people have gripes or might even be hotel owners posting about their own properties.
"My suggestion to consumers reading these is to look at the outliers -- which are either overly good or excessively bad -- and eliminate them," said Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at New York University.
He said sometimes you just need to look out for the excessive wording to weed out reviews from the "overly-angry, difficult guest."
Hanson also warned to be aware when there are five to 10 postings in a two-day period for a smaller hotel.
"Consumers aren't that spontaneous," he warned.
Hotel Reviews Not Always Balanced
Josiah Mackenzie, who runs the blog Hotel Marketing Strategies, said the most helpful reviews are balanced.
"It is not going to include obscure details that only a hotel owner might know, like the name of the linen brand," he said.
Mackenzie predicts that someday soon there will be a split of reviews by business travelers for business travelers and separate reviews for families.
Bain Capital recently invested $10 million in a new site, Oyster.com, which employs about 20 undercover reviewers, mostly former journalists, to rate hotels. Currently the site only reviews seven destinations, but it promises to grow quickly. The reporters stay anonymously, follow a 65-page manual and take vivid photos that accompany each review. It promises professional, unbiased reviews, not a hodgepodge of random guest reviews.
But TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik said their site's random reviews are exactly what make TripAdvisor so valuable. Most of the reviews are positive, he said, and the company has plenty of tools in place to ensure that reviews are legitimate. Every post is screened by a human before posting. Suspicious reviews are investigated and software detects automatic postings.
"We have tools in place that ensure for the legitimacy of our reviews," he said.
(The average rating on TripAdvisor is 3.8 out of 5.)
Ferencsik said TripAdvisor allows real travelers from around the world to add all of their perspectives on a hotel. For instance, the Bellagio in Las Vegas has roughly 3,200 reviews. The mega-resort averages almost one posting a day.
"It's the collective wisdom of crowds," Ferencsik said. "The scale and freshness of the content you find on TripAdivosr really make it unique."
Guidebooks Use Impartial Reviewers
David Lytle, editorial director for Frommers.com, said travelers using more mainstream guides know that the reviewer is completely impartial. Frommer's, which has been publishing since 1957, doesn't accept free rooms and performs anonymous inspections.
"Our reviews are written by somebody whose job is primarily reviewing hotels. So they look at a lot of hotels," Lytle said. "They can tell you in their expert opinion how this hotel compares to that hotel."
Still, Lytle said sites like TripAdvisor do have value because it is "the great gathering place."
"You can sort of think of it as a public swimming pool: Everybody can come in. Everybody can have an opinion. Everybody's opinion, everybody's behavior shapes the experience," he said. "The problem with something like TripAdvisor is that the system can be gamed if somebody knows how to use it the right way. A competing property can post fake reviews complaining or you can encourage your guests to post positive reviews and you can them ideas about what they should say."
User generated reviews can provide more information, he said, but "you have to work harder" to get the full story.
Frommer's authors visit each property. They might not stay there, but they will ask to see a room and will talk to guests in the lobby, look at the overall facilities and judge things like the noise levels, Lytle said. He added that the author will check out the room bathrooms, beds and do just about everything short of jumping on the bed.
"There is nothing like paying $400 a night for a hotel room and finding out that the bedding feels like it came from Wal-Mart," Lytle said.
One of the largest collections of reviews comes from AAA, which last year reviewed 31,000 rooms in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Of those, only 103 received the highest five-diamond rating, and only 1,224 received the four-diamond rating. AAA has 65 full time inspectors that visit the 58,000 rated hotels and restaurants each year, according to spokeswoman Heather Hunter. While most properties just get one visit a year, those that receive complaints can have multiple visits.
AAA Hotel Inspections Thorough
AAA inspectors do not spend the night at each property. They show up unexpected, identify themselves and ask the managers to show them a few rooms.
The inspection checklist includes everything from adequate lighting in the park lot to having plants and flowers in public spaces to the availability of vending machines and ice. They also evaluate the laundry facilities or services, gift shops and restaurants, pool, fitness center and other recreation areas and even the amount of closet space and quality of towels.
For the four- and five-diamond properties, the inspectors anonymously spend the night at the hotel.
"AAA's team of professional inspectors evaluate and inspect restaurants and hotels every day. They bring a professional level of service," Hunter said. "The reason we invest so much in maintaining a staff of inspectors and conducting on-site evaluations is to ensure that our members have a positive travel experience."
Tim Zagat, co-founder of Zagat Survey, said his hotel guides target at frequent travelers.
The surveyors spend at least 30 nights a year on the road and are either frequent travelers or people in the industry, such as travel agents and meeting planners.
"Most people think they are doing pretty well if they have one travel agent," Zagat said. "We target a very avid and knowledgeable group of people."
The surveyors spend time at the hotels, experience the service and have plenty of other hotel stays to compare it to.
"It's not one person walking in, doing a checklist and walking out two hours later," Zagat said.
Zagat's staff then fact checks and edits all the responses into a short review. He said it's an thorough write-up instead of other services, which are like "having 500 people on the street corner to see who can shout the loudest."
Zagat's advice for people looking for a guidebook: "Look at the things we say about the places you know best."