On How to Parse Review Websites and Pick Hotels

On Twitter, USA Today columnist Laura Bly passes along this tweet:

laurablyMore choices: control, or confusion? RT@MindlessMuse: Why can’t finding a hotel be easy…so many sites, reviews, opinions.

I guess I don’t really have this problem, I know what sources match my travel preferences the best.

Once upon a time people would work with a travel agent on these questions. There were good travel agents and bad travel agents, travel agents familiar with the destination or not, travel agents who would push particular providers because of higher kickbacks, and travel agents who happen to understand your travel style and those more suited to other styles (luxury vs. backpacker, and huge gradations in between, different sorts of details matter to different people).

True full service agents offering actual travel strategy and advice are now few and far between. In the luxury segment they do still exist, Virtuoso is a good example but even there the quality ranges. For actual advice on where to stay and how to get the best value out of high end properties, I do think very highly of David Ourisman (DavidO on Flyertalk).

Most of the time though, and outside of high end travel, the structure of the industry has changed so the only way to make money as an agent is with really high volume which means compromising service. The business travel segment has become commoditized but still remains as one which offers the service of agents. There you’re not usually getting especially tailored service unless you’re high up enough in the company hierarchy to have some decision-making authority over the travel department, or over those who do. There are exceptions, of course.

Unless you know an outstanding agent, you’re usually on your own. And indeed there are a myriad of different sources out there, most folks don’t know how to pick and choice amongst them.

For me, and especially because my travel style tends towards the higher end, getting the best bargains, and maximizing the use of hotel program elite status, my best bet is Flyertalk. I may want to know which hotel to visit in Bangkok, I’ll visit the Starwood forum on Flyertalk and search out the thread which compares the different Starwood options. I’ll probably need to visit each hotel program’s forum if I’m interested in potentially more than one chain. But I’ll get a good rundown of what to expect from the hotel, what elite benefits are offered, and a comparison of the locations of each property within the chain. That’s really what I’m looking for.

I use TripAdvisor, but never for their overall rankings in a city or average traveler ratings. Leave aside questions of whether a handful of reviews are bogus meant to boost a property’s scores. The median TripAdvisor reviewer is unlikely to have the same travel preferences that I do, so their scores aren’t meaningful. And some of the better properties are frequently knocked in favor of low end ones precisely because their value propositions don’t match a traveler’s preferences — you see, for instance, the Ritz-Carlton Central Park in New York City knocked down because room service is really expensive. Well, yeah. It’s the Ritz-Carlton Central Park. In Manhattan. I do believe a property needs to be judged on its own terms, with those terms clearly explained.

Instead, I use TripAdvisor for (1) the myriad of photos, a picture does speak 1000 words and (2) consistent comments across reviews — not normative judgments of good or bad, but frequently repeated data points. If reviewers frequently note mold in the bathtub, peeling wallpaper, stained carpets, that’s useful information. I disregard the outliers when a property is frequently reviewed.

In essence, I value the opinions on Flyertalk and I value the photos and mass volume on TripAdvisor.

But if I were a different style of traveler, I might well approach things differently, and use a different mix of sites. in the comments, would appreciate your contribution of (a) what style of traveler are you (what are key factors in your decision) and (b) what sites you use. Would be interested to see if these things do vary as I suspect, or if my basic model is generally applicable.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The NYTimes profiled oyster.com yesterday and their website is awfully promising. Through, professional reviews, tons of photos. Limited scope so far but showing promise.

    We are high-end travellers so we like the Luxury Hotel section at flyertalk but I don’t like how the hotels are segmented on flyertalk and you don’t get discussion of high-end chains (like Starwood’s St Regist) there.

    I don’t really find the pictures at tripadvisor that useful, but I like the timliness of their reviews. If someone last week is complaining about construction noises, you can plan accordingly.

    Finally, for interesting hotels, tablet hotels is quite useful. I like their designation of style and ambiance (lively, quiet, etc). and they cover the world really well. Sure they want you to book through them, but that’s cool. We found the Nimb in Copenhaven through them.

  2. I’m totally with you, Gary. I love the photos on TripAdvisor, and I otherwise use FlyerTalk to read actual reviews. The limiting factor for me is that I’m extremely loyal to certain hotel chains (right now IC), which limits the options for me. If I’m going to a city with an InterContinental, I’ll probably be staying there, even if there are better overall options. The elite benefits make a huge difference, and earning points is pretty nice as well.

    I do read the reviews on TripAdvisor, though, mostly for entertainment.

  3. I am a tourist, not a business traveler. So I prefer small, locally owned hotels, pensions, B&B, good quality hostels, and private rooms in local homes (Zimmer Frie – surely misspelled). For the hotels and pensions, I start with Lonely Planet, then look up the facilities mentioned and of interest on the internet. I try to find a home page for the facility, and look at TripAdvisor the same way you do. Sometimes I look at what Frommers has to say about the place.

    For hostels, I rely on the hostel organizations of the country of interest, and hostels.com. The local organizations tend to do a good job of screening out the worst of the hostels. The New Zealand organizations have been particularly good at maintaining standards. Then I contact the hostel of interest and ask specific questions important to me: Private room? Two beds, not bunk beds? Etc. An out of date, but still probably useful list of links to hostel organizations can be found on the cheap lodging part of my website at http://home.earthlink.net/~pgary/TravelFrame.html (click on Cheap Lodging)

    For rooms in private homes, I rely on the local tourist office, if there is one, and sometimes the local chamber of commerce. I have been very successful with the tourist offices in Europe and Canada. Some will reserve in advance for you; others require that you arrive in person (presumably so they can screen you). But some of my best rooms were obtained by simply stopping at a nice looking place advertising a room. I just look at it before committing to it.

  4. Couldn’t agree with you about flyertalk being one of the best places to find information on the best hotels to stay in. I’m pretty loyal to Marriott, and will often check the Marriott forums first.

    Although I do put some weight in to the good/bad rankings on tripadvisor. For example, if a hotel is in the top 20 or 40 in a city with 200 hotels, it is still pretty decent. I don’t necessarily have to go with the number one property. And yes, tripadvisor is most useful for the repeat information in the reviews — I’m a light sleeper so if I see repeated comments about noise in the hotel then I avoid that hotel

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