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The Trouble With Trip Advisor

K.C. Summers

I've just had two really nice stays at two wonderful hotels, Hotel D'Angleterre in Paris and Hotel de las Letras in Madrid. The first is charming and old-fashioned, the second edgy and hip, and both more than lived up to my expectations. But you sure wouldn't know it from reading the citizen reviews on TripAdvisor.com.

Am I the only frequent traveler who has a problem with this extremely popular Web site? It sounds so good in theory -- a place to go for unbiased reviews by real people who tell it like it is, as opposed to guidebook authors who may be on the take, or travel writers who make themselves known to the staff and are treated accordingly. But what I find time and again is a confusing hodgepodge of rants and raves by people whose judgment seems questionable at best and downright loony much of the time.

Take the D'Angleterre. Whatever minute faults it has are more than offset by its perfect location in Paris's St.-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, its palpable sense of history, its charming architectural details and helpful staff. Yet you get these nitpickers carping about the worn carpeting, thin curtains (?!) and faded wallpaper -- all of which contribute to the character of the place. If you want new carpeting, stay in a Sheraton!

Same with Hotel de las Letras. The people who focus on its dim lighting or small reception area seem to miss the point that the hotel is well located, full of character and an intriguing blend of old and modern. Yes, the plumbing is a bit dodgy. But how much fun to stay in a centuries-old building with designer touches, a hopping bar scene and bed linens to die for.

I'm not saying that hotel guests should put up with substandard service or shoddy conditions -- of course they shouldn't. I'm talking about nitpicking a place to death and failing to appreciate the intangible qualities that elevate it above the rest. No hotel is perfect, but when a place is trying hard and has the kind of character that most hotels can only dream of, it's ridiculous to focus on the street noise or the non-fluffy towels. I wish Trip Advisor reviewers had to take a personality test so we could weed out all the people who miss the point.

By K.C. Summers |  February 27, 2007; 9:58 AM ET  | Category:  K.C. Summers , Online Resources
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this is why when I stay someplace that I like I try to put a comment on Trip Advisor. I think the people who have complaints are more motivated to write in.

Posted by: SSMD | February 27, 2007 10:31 AM

I often look at comments on Trip Advisor before booking a hotel. I think with anything that allows ratings, you should not just look at the rating but the justification for the rating in the comments. It is unfortunate that some people who use these sites report only when their expectations are not met or expect a 2 star hotel to have the same accomodations as a 4 star hotel.

I personally look more to be advised on chain hotels which I have a current expectation to see if it meets the criteria that I have in mind. I also look at the dates of the comments to see if they are outdated and may not reflect any improvements that may have been made.

Posted by: NAJ | February 27, 2007 10:44 AM

well-thats why anyone who uses the internet to research sites should not rely on one opinion. reviewers are too nit-picky? why-thats just shocking!

Posted by: duh | February 27, 2007 10:49 AM

My wife and I travel frequently and have found Trip Advisor to be an excellent source for hotel reviews in Panama, Canada and elsewhere. As with pretty much any user-generated review site, there are some questionable comments - and one often wonders why some of these people left home to begin with - but overall I think its a really valuable service.

Posted by: Bob - NYC | February 27, 2007 11:08 AM

Whether it's a hotel review, a book review, or a product review, the vast majority of customer opinions fall into one of two categories, 1 star or 5 star. it's difficult to get a good sense of the overall product from these "reviews" when people either love it or hate it.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2007 11:10 AM

As others have mentioned, I look at what reviewers say rather than their star ratings, and I compare that with my tolerances. Street noise is OK for me -- noisy rooms with thin walls are not. Consistent complaints about rude staff is something to note. I do find Trip Advisor very useful, but take it with a grain of salt -- just like I'd take the recommendation of anyone "live."

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2007 11:22 AM

Trip Advisor is an indispensable travel research tool which is one of a four part-website approach that any traveler should utilize. Unless you know exactly where you are going and staying, I suggest that you use Trip Advisor (for user reviews) in combination with the specific hotel or resort website (for the photos, specials and service details), paired with an online travel agent like Expedia or Travelocity (for the lowest pre-paid rates), and a mapping website like MapQuest or the European site Mappy.co.uk (to easily find your way around and see what's nearby).

The reviews on Trip Advisor can be troublesome for those looking for a 'thumbs up or down' indicator. I suggest reading reviews of hotels where you commonly stay to get a sense of how critical some travelers can be. There will be those reviewers who you will think, "these folks need a super-grumpy icon placed next to their username." I would suggest however that even these overly critical reviewers do us all a service by publicly airing their concerns and that no hotel manager should be ignorant of this website. If hotels attempt to attain the standards set by even the most discerning of customers then all travelers will benefit.

I also suggest getting to know yourself as a traveler. When you are reading a review, think to yourself, "Do I really care if the marble bathroom floor is heated?" or "I so agree, I can't stand bed linens that are old and scratchy." We all have differing tolerances for certain aspects of service, appointments, facilities, food, location, noise, and price. Find out what matters to you and while reading reviews look for positive or negative clues from these categories. Occasionally, you keep seeing other like-minded travelers who ate Trip Advisor regulars--we can assume these folks are never home.

There are places, as K.C. describes, that do have 'character'. I can only imagine what the super-grumpy would have to say about my favorite B&B's, country inns, mini-resorts or small urban boutique hotels that are well-placed and have charm that Sheraton can only dream about. Maybe there should be a separate website where the chain hotels and resorts are not included. I'm sure the little guys would like a website to advertise on, as well.

Posted by: Jon | February 27, 2007 11:23 AM

Was this critique of Trip Advisor based on just two reviews? Whether you are talking about professional reviewers or anonymous reviewers on the Web, such things are subjective, and whether they are overly nit-picky or right on the market, or overlook glaring flaws, will vary by the place and the reviewer. Sure, if you want brand new carpets you might go to a 5-star hotel (though I have seen worn carpets there, too), but does that mean one is wrong to comment on worn carpeting? You read a variety of reviews and then you decide. Caveat emptor.

Posted by: Steve | February 27, 2007 11:26 AM

I agree that travelers with complaints are more likely to post, but I do value Trip Advisor and try to post after every hotel stay, good, bad or indifferent. I try to write descriptive, rather than value-laden comments so finicky travelers can make their own judgment about whether the accomodations will meet their standards. That said, I consider whether a hotel lives up to the standards of its class, whether it is budget, luxury, quirky boutique, etc., and will say so if I think it does not (especially for the chains). I can think of only once or twice where I have felt I had to resort to that, though.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2007 11:32 AM

I find the reviews very helpful, provided there are enough of them to provide a balanced picture. I don't find it difficult to get a sense of the reviewers' perspectives and biases. Between the positive reviews that directly address the negative comments, and the negative reviewers' own "tells," you can get a feel for which complaints are legitimate and which are unfair or overblown (maybe the person goes to a 3-star with 5-star expectations, maybe they come off as the princess-and-the-pea type, maybe they give off a bad attitude that makes you think the supposedly rude staff weren't wholly unprovoked). Also, there's often a grain of truth to even the nitpickiest complaint, but you can judge for yourself whether it is something that would bother you. From dingy decor to subpar water pressure to an inattentive concierge, one person's dealkiller is another person's minor peeve, if even that. I have stayed at a number of hotels after checking TripAdvisor, and I have found the overall picture I got from the reviews to be spot-on every time.

Posted by: jane | February 27, 2007 11:34 AM

I agree that Tripadvisor reviews are hard to gauge. In addition, a lot of the posters seem to be serious germophobes who will give a devastating review if they find a bit of dust behind a nightstand or a stain on the carpet. However, if you find a hotel with lots of reviews, the general tenor of the reviews can provide a very good sense of the hotel's pluses and minuses.

I like to supplement Tripadvisor reviews with a more objective information from Fromers or another guidebook.

Posted by: Virginia | February 27, 2007 11:51 AM

"Yet you get these nitpickers carping about..."

Sounds simply like an e-version of the Post's Sunday Travel Section's "Letters To" feature.

Posted by: DC | February 27, 2007 12:31 PM

I rely on TripAdvisor a lot, but I admit I'm mortified by the whiny reviews of European hotels by some Americans, with comments like "the towels weren't nearly as fluffy as they are at the Hampton Inn by my nearest interstate exit at home" or "the so-called Intercontinental Hotel didn't even have the Hallmark Network on TV" or "we had to CARRY our SUITCASES ourselves!! up TWO FLIGHTS OF STAIRS!!!!!!!! WHERE'S AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL WHEN THE REAL ATROCITIES ARE HAPPENING?????????" I just take those reviews with a grain of salt, and make sure to post positive reviews of my own when I find a good place for a nice price.

Posted by: csdiego | February 27, 2007 12:37 PM

Some things to remember using any kind of customer-review website: 1) people are more likely to post a bad experience; 2) some good reviews might be from the staff; 3) the full comments often provide a hint as to what kind of expectations are not met. I read the comments on the two hotels listed here, and came away with the impression that the hotel was old, but reasonably-priced and well-located, as Summers wrote.

Posted by: Doug0 | February 27, 2007 12:46 PM

i rely heavily on tripadvisor to book hotels for travel, both business and pleasure. i often cross-index it with the reviews on travelocity to gain as much input as possible. overall, i find the reviews extremely helpful. it's important to read all the reviews for a hotel to get a genuine sense of the place. if anything, i don't find the tripadvisor reviews to be critical enough.

sorry, ms. summers, but i would never be pleased with a paris hotel with worn carpet or faded wallpaper, regardless of its other assets. i wouldn't stay in a sheraton either. i'd be looking for a well-situated hotel with fresh carpet and wellpaper, plus the bedlinens, plus helpful staff, plus barrels of charm. no reason to settle for less. and i've found tripadvisor very useful in tracking down the 'perfect' place to stay.

Posted by: baltimore guy | February 27, 2007 12:47 PM

It's a mix bag. I went to one hotel that was very popular and given rave reviews and it was not very good. Another time I selected a less popular place and it was fabulous. So you never really know. Sometimes you have to read between the lines

Posted by: AJ | February 27, 2007 12:48 PM

I agree though I have not used the site much. Generally I don't pay as much attention to the rating as I do the comments. Sometimes they can be really useful. For example, one place my wife and I booked (through an agent) for our honeymoon was fantastic. However, TripAdvisor informed me that the hotel (which was great) might try to switch our room from oceanfront to a "Marina" or "Garden" view. So alerted, I double-checked with the travel agent and gently protested when the hotel did try this upon check-in and was given an ocean view room and had a great time.

Chris

Posted by: CDW | February 27, 2007 1:23 PM

I have made the mistake of booking a hotel, then reading some unflattering reviews on Trip Advisor, and getting nervous about my hotel selection. In none of these cases have I ever regretted my hotel choice. I agree with other posters in that disgruntled hotel guests are more likely to post a review. Many times it seems a reviewer was displeased with one aspect of a hotel, or had an unpleasant encounter with hotel staff, and they focus an entire review on one thing, overlooking any positives. I have found Trip Advisor to be very useful for detailed information about hotels and their neighborhoods, and I'll continue to weed through the reviews with caution!

Posted by: Jessica | February 27, 2007 1:48 PM

I use Trip Advisor for each of my trips and have always found the majority of reviews to be 100% dead on. No offense to the author here, but this is just one opinion. What makes this opinion more important than those who had problems with shoddy carpet? Maybe the details like carpet is really important to me - you CAN have it all you know (I know b/c I've found hotels that do it all, via Trip Advisor!). That's the beauty of Trip Advisor - I can read each individual review to get a feel for the majority of responses in the categories (location, level of luxury, hospitality) that are important to me. It's a much better option than just relying on one Washington Post reviewer (as important as she may think she is).

Posted by: Anonymous | February 27, 2007 1:53 PM

I've found it useful to weed out the Trip Advisor comments from people that live in NY and NJ. They tend to be more critical than others..and more nitpicky.

Posted by: Samantha | February 27, 2007 1:55 PM

It is headache-provoking to read such a hodgepodge of reviews - - some people saying it's the only place they'd ever stay in Venice or New York or wherever and others telling you to not set foot there. I think it would be useful, truly, if Trip Advisor had some sort of ability for travelers to rate themselves. For instance, I'm generally happier at newer-type hotels, or older ones that are nicely upgraded, and I do get bugged by things like bad curtains and icky wallpaper - - these aren't deal-breakers, but I notice them. On the other hand, a friend I'm traveling with this spring couldn't care less about such things. If a place is clean enough and convenient enough, she'd probably rave about it. She's just happy to have a roof over her head. I don't know how such a system would work but if people had a way of identifying themselves as "only happy with a five-star experience" or "delighted when a one-star turns out to the a two-star experience"... that type of thing, it would be useful in judging the quality of reviews. Probably impossible, but I've been thinking it a lot lately as I've read tons of reviews on Trip Advisor.

Posted by: Oregonian | February 27, 2007 1:55 PM

I'm going to Anchorage in 2 weeks, and have booked a room at a non-chain restaurant up there. I did check out the reviews at tripadvisor, but really found them to be worthless. Out of the 16 reviews, it had 8 giving it 1 star, and 8 giving it 5 stars. And the reviews contradict each other. So I really have no idea what to expect.

Posted by: BF | February 27, 2007 1:57 PM

Personally, I've found TripAdvisor to be quite useful, but then again, I also look at other sources of information from travel sites and chat areas, guidebooks, etc. On a recent trip to London (my first), a friend and I both used TripAdvisor and other sources to help us with the myriad lodgings available. Amazingly, our individual top 10 lists of lodging yielded the same #1 choice and other matches, and we got our first choice and had a great stay at a charming yet relatively affordable for London B&B. I agree to take it all with a grain of salt and take into account the tone of reviews and also that people have personal preferences. So much better to have options like TripAdvisor than not.

Posted by: Springfield | February 27, 2007 2:34 PM

It would be great if Trip Advisor would ask the reviewer to identify their nationality and place of residence. They readers would have some basis for evaluating the review.

I am a hotel owner in the USA and fully agree with the author of this article. It is obvious from reading SOME of the reviews that some people want a 5 Star hotel model of hotel when the hotel is NOT and DOES NOT claim to be this. Many travellers fail to take into account the uniqueness of the hotel, the environment in which it is located, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, how it compares to similar hotels in the area in the same price range.

Overall, I have found Americans to be whiny and parochial when it comes to evaluating hotels -- Canadians and Europeans are far more cosmopolitian and open than the average American.

Posted by: Sara | February 27, 2007 2:42 PM

Like many of the other posters, I rely on TripAdvisor--but advisedly. First, I throw out all the posts from furious Bridezillas and obvious nutters. Then I read the rest pretty carefully--and I put more reliance on those that have proper spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. If several posters mention bugs, rodents, cleanliness problems, smoke odors, etc., I probably won't chose that property. It's helpful to know that a hotel is right next to the Interstate, or on a charming and quiet street. So, TripAdvisor isn't perfect--but it's still useful to me.

Posted by: Debbers | February 27, 2007 2:48 PM

Oregonian, you may be onto something! I guess my problems with the site really boil down to the fact that there's no way to tell where the reviewer is coming from, so there's no context to put the review in -- the way you'd automatically dismiss, say, a movie review by someone whose views you know you don't agree with. With TripAdvisor, it's hard to know if the reviewer is on your wavelength -- although of course you can try to read between the lines.

Posted by: KC Summers | February 27, 2007 2:49 PM

Hotel reviews, whether done by a journalist or regular guest, will always reflect the biases of the individual reviewer. There is rarely any way to validly discern these from the review. Street noise may be regarded as "nit-picking" by some and a huge problem for others. As long as the information is out there, the potential customer can decide for themselves how important the factor is. For a professional, K.C. Summers appears to have a high threshold for conditions that others could regard as quite troubling, especially above a certain price. Yet, as long as she discloses the "dodgy" plumbing along with her enthusiasm for the charm of a hotel, then the educated consumer can make their own choice. In the end, Trip Advisor and similar resources provide critical raw data and, over time, prompt hoteliers to improve. It seems strange that Ms. Summers fails to acknowledge this important influence.

Posted by: wd | February 27, 2007 3:01 PM

I find Trip Advisor to be an invaluable resource when I am traveling to an area I am unfamiliar with. I have found it easy to weed out the occaisional angry or overly critical review. The majority opinion shared by the reviewers has always been on the mark for me.
As well, I try to write a balanced review with both pros and cons regarding a particular hotel. I also try to include helpful tips about transportation, dining, and other ways to avoid being taken advantage of.
The Post author's comments seem to be as over the top critical of Trip Advisor reviewers as a whole as she states the reviewers are regarding the hotels she personally likes.

Posted by: A. N. Robbins | February 27, 2007 3:50 PM

I use tripadvisor as part of my research arsenal, which includes Frommer's, Fodor's, expedia/orbitz/etc, the website of the particular hotel, a mapping website, and additional reviews from the travel section of top-tier newspapers. Sure, it takes a while, but it gives me confidence that I'm making the best decision with the information available.

And I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one embarrassed by whiny-butt Americans. In fact, I usually search for places with low numbers of Americans.

Posted by: jflo | February 27, 2007 4:32 PM

I did an interesting experiment on Trip Advisor. I looked at the reviews for a very nice hotel in our area and a really seedy, scary highway motel. The reviews were about even with a mix of pros and cons, 5 stars and 1 stars, germophobes and fans. This tells me that Trip Advisor is totally worthless. It provides no useful information. So many of the reviews are by the hotels themselves or by disgruntled staff, competitors and jerks. Before you rely on Trip Advisor try this experiment: Look up the best hotel in your area and the worst. See if you can figure out a difference in the Trip Advisor review. By the way, I also think professional reviewers like those in newspapers and magazines are very unreliable too because they usually push those places where they were comped.

Posted by: Richard | February 27, 2007 5:24 PM

This seems like a good place for me to point out that (a) Post travel writers accept no comps or freebies of any kind, and (b) we travel anonymously. If we're in your hotel, restaurant, cruise ship, etc., you won't know it until after the fact. We pay our own way, always, and don't ask for or receive any special treatment, so that we can report accurately about the industry. Just for the record.

Posted by: KC Summers | February 27, 2007 5:32 PM

Wasnt slamming the Post. I love the Post travel section. But the journalistic integrity of travel writers in general is very low. Often the work is done by freelancers who work by their own rules. There was an article in the New York Times travel or escape section a couple of weeks back. The outline: I didnt think I would like a Disney Cruise; then I tried it; It was great. I have great respect for the Times, but I wonder if that bogus article led to some major advertising or just got some comps for a bunch of staffers.

I really like the idea of reading reviews by Internet visitors on many topics: movies, experiences etc. But I really single out Trip Advisor as a worthless exercise in the effort to review hotels.

Posted by: Richard | February 27, 2007 6:05 PM

Trip Advisor is the same premise as Rottentomatoes.com is for movies. Obviously there are going to be nitpickers in every crowd, but in general the average should win out over time.

Posted by: SWB | February 27, 2007 6:35 PM

My favorite Trip Advisor complaints are from folks who book online for the lowest possible price. Then think they should get the best room in the joint.

Next in line come complainers who don't get their butts kissed in a manner to which they think they deserve during check in. Man, are there are a ton of unhappy VIPs traversing the world.

Then there's the crowd that thinks room service is a rip off. Apparently they want the Old Country Buffet delivered directly to them... and in five minutes, too boot.

Next are the Sofitel complainers who hate hearing French... as in "this is "Merica damnit."

Finally, you have to admire the folks who book Four Seasons, JWs and Fairmonts then sniff that these style hotels are great for the business traveler but quite kid-unfriendly.

A hammer is a useful tool, even after you've banged your thumb. Trip Advisor is a useful tool, but usually only the confident traveler is best served by it.

Posted by: Boston | February 27, 2007 9:26 PM

My favorite reviews are those that post pictures with their review. I've started taking pictures of rooms I want to review just so I can add those. Its one thing to say the carpet was worn, its another when someone posts a picture showing the carpet. Then I can judge for myself if the carpet is up to my standards. I care far more about the cleanliness of the room than I do rude staff, so pictures help me a lot.

Posted by: Ruby | February 28, 2007 11:17 AM

I'm a TA fan and have found it extremely useful. I even met up with a group of users on a trip to Buenos Aires. I agree with Oregonian about the usefulness of knowing the perspective of a reviewer, and often visit the profile and read other reviews by a particular contributor. You can figure someone who joined to post a single glowing post, then disappears, probably represents the hotel.

Consider your physician: she looks at an Xray, an EKG, a lab test, a particular physical sign, no one of which is enough to arrive at a diagnosis or treatment plan. But put it all together, and, voila, the answer emerges. It's the same with travel planning, and if, like me, planning a trip is in itself an enjoyable venture, Trip Advisor can provide you with very valuable information to put together with your other research. And it's fun!

Posted by: Kathy | February 28, 2007 1:44 PM

The reviews on Trip Advisor now include the location of the writer, whether it be "Washington, D.C." or merely "USA". So that should be of some help in your assessment of that particular writer's review.
I don't travel a lot, but when I do I write a review of the hotel for Trip Advisor and I write the kind of review I would like to read--one that is very detailed on all aspects of my stay. In fact, the last review I wrote for a hotel in Pennsylvania was about 10 linear inches. I know that it takes a lot of time to do this, but it certainly helps me when I read similar reviews.
Finally, I hope that you, K.C., will write a lengthy review of the two hotels that you mention so that the next person who reads the reviews on Trip Advisor has a good basis for staying there or not.

Posted by: Ann | February 28, 2007 2:34 PM

You have to take everything with a grain of salt. My husband and I stayed at the Four Seasons in Maui for our honeymoon and it was the most amazing hotel on earth. And it's very highly rated on Trip Advisor. But you will still see people who give it 1 star because they saw a spider or their juice wasn't chilled or something ridiculous like that.

So, I like to use Trip Advisor as a guide but if it's somewhere I really want to stay or someone I personally know has told me it's a great place, I don't really worry too much about it.

Posted by: Emily | February 28, 2007 4:53 PM

TA is an amazing site, but you need to have a bit of the 'TA bias' in reading the reviews. For example, negative complaints generally fall into a few categories:

Bad staff
Bad food
Bad room

Since I never eat at a hotel, I don't worry about the food, and the staff comments I generally take with a grain of salt--everyone has a bad day and in general, I rarely deal with the staff.

I read it most closely for the room critiques. While I don't care about thin curtains, I do care about dirt and grime, and thin linens. You can generally weed out the chaffe in those reviews to get a pretty good idea what you are about to get into.

On the other end, it has saved me from a few places that look good on other sites but have reviews like "don't stay here unless mutants from planet X are invading and your life depends on it." Some of those comments really do help actually, and are not just nitpicks but great warnings to travellers.

Posted by: Andrew | March 2, 2007 2:27 PM

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I work at TripAdvisor. This is a great discussion, and I appreciate all the comments.

A common thread above centers on the the desire to learn more about the reviewer to put their comments in context. The quickest way I do that when I'm looking for a hotel is to click on the reviewer's username at the top of the review to see what else they've posted. There are a few gloomy gusses out there and I tend to discount their reviews in my own travel planning. But if I see a frequent poster whose travels resemble my own, I give their opinions more weight.

We've also just enabled a communications tool where you can send an email directly to another traveler in case you have some follow on question after reading a review.

And the idea that people are more inclined to describe a negative experience than a positive one is actually incorrect. As it turns out , the majority of reviews on TripAdvisor are positive, with more five-owl reviews than any other grade. TripAdvisor, above all, is a community, and people want to share their positive experiences with their fellow community members. The one-owl, extremely negative reviews are in the minority, but of course are very important.

Thanks again to all who've posted for this lively discussion.

Posted by: Brian Payea | March 6, 2007 5:34 PM

I think that the reason there are more five-owl reviews than any other grade is maybe down to self promotion.Ho Hum

Posted by: Stephen | March 19, 2007 6:01 AM

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