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You just found out you have a business meeting in Santa Fe or your family is planning a vacation to Paris, and you have no clue about picking a suitable hotel in these cities. TripAdvisor hosts more than 75 million reviews and opinions written by travelers, and most of them are geared toward helping you pick — or avoid — hotels in your destination city.
They say there is wisdom in numbers and with 60 million unique monthly visitors to its sites around the world, TripAdvisor definitely attracts legions of travelers, but the company has also been widely criticized for the untold numbers of fake reviews that creep into its ranks and rankings.
Although TripAdvisor has a team to wean out suspect reviews, and asks reviewers to stipulate that they stayed at the property, travelers don’t have to show receipts or otherwise verify that they are writing based on their real experiences at the hotel.
The following is a guide to getting the most out of TripAdvisor hotel reviews as a means to using the site and its mobile apps for picking a place to stay.
» Strength in Numbers
You can consider user reviews most reliable when there are lots of them for a particular hotel. It is much harder for hotels themselves or their competitors to skew the reviews if there are dozens or even hundreds of critiques. For example, the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas currently has 1,723 reviews. To be safe, ignore the reviews that are most gushing about a property — especially if they are in the clear minority — and those that bash the hotel in an incendiary manner because they may be suspect. Instead, look for those reviews in the middle of the pack because they may pack more credibility.
» Take advantage of TripAdvisor’s BFF Facebook
Make sure you are signed into TripAdvisor through Facebook and then you will view your friends’ reviews, which hotels they’ve stayed at, and the cities they’ve visited. If you know your Facebook friend Archibald has impeccable taste in business hotels or Molly-Sue only stays at properties that feature spas specializing in seaweed baths and that’s what you are looking for, then you are ahead of the game in narrowing your hotel choices.
» Pictures are worth 1,000 reviews
Don’t put a lot of effort into going through the hotel-submitted professional photos, but pay real attention to the user-submitted traveler photos, which can tell you in an instant whether the room bathtubs are spotless or the exit signs are lying in a heap on the hotel-hallway floor. They even state the date they were posted. Then, as an extra precaution, leave TripAdvisor for a few moments and open Street View in Google Maps to see what the hotel exterior and neighborhood really look like.
» Profile the Profiles
If you read some hotel reviews and find them particularly appealing or galling, read the reviewers’ TripAdvisor profiles. You’ll find out how many reviews they’ve written in how many cities and whether other TripAdvisor members consider them helpful. You can also find links to every review the members have written on TripAdvisor to get a feel for their overall perspectives.
If someone has only written one or two reviews, and they are bashing a hotel or drooling over it, then move on and read other people’s reviews because maybe the reviewer with the one or two reviews has a hidden agenda. And, if the reviewers’ profile is mostly blank, then that doesn’t add much to their credibility or help you determine if the reviewer is a kindred spirit in terms of his or her travel style. You can also email reviewers to follow up and get more information about their critiques.
» You are what you write
Pay attention to the linguistic style of the reviewers for hints about their expertise or personalities. References to the quality of the wine in the hotel restaurant or to the feng shui of the lobby let you know that the review-writer may have more discerning tastes than the reviewer who raves at how the pork-fried rice “came in a silver plate thing and it was a great.”
» Red Badge of Scourge
Since 2006, TripAdvisor has been giving a figurative scarlet letter to hotels that it believes may be gaming its hotel-review system. Next to the targeted hotel’s listing, you’ll see the following:
“Message from TripAdvisor: TripAdvisor has reasonable cause to believe that individuals or entities associated with or having an interest in this property may have interfered with traveler reviews and/or the popularity index for this property. We make our best efforts to identify suspicious content and are always working to improve the processes we use to assess traveler reviews.”
» Management Responses and Unresponsiveness
Look for a different hotel if the property gets skewered in user reviews, and the hotel management never responds. It’s a good bet that a hotel’s management that actively responds to reviewers’ concerns tends to take customer service and the guest experience more seriously than a management that ignores criticism.
» A Forum for Additional Information
You can also pick up some additional information and tips about a hotel by perusing the TripAdvisor forums for each city. You can launch searches in “all forums” or a particular city’s TripAdvisor forum and obtain information about parking at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, or saving money in Cabo, for example.
» Compare and Contrast
Don’t look at TripAdvisor reviews in isolation when scoping out a hotel. Take a look at other websites for comparison purposes and peace of mind. Oyster features journalists’ reviews of hotels they’ve visited, sites such as Expedia and Priceline only publish verified reviews from people who have booked that hotel with them, and Room 77 provides tips on getting the best room at specific 4- and 5-star hotels, for example.
» Popularity Index
TripAdvisor ranks hotels by its Popularity Index, which is based on an algorithm to capture travelers’ likes or dislikes about the property, and is not influenced by advertising relationships. If you know you want to stay in Chicago in a 4-star property and haven’t narrowed your search yet, the Popularity Index can be a nice shorthand way of searching for a hotel in the city as you will see which properties are ranked first or 165th in the city, for instance.
» Sorting Resorts and Hotels
From the TripAdvisor homepage you can enter the name of a city (or hotel) in the search box, and then on the landing page you can refine your search anew by looking at users’ rankings of the best value, family, business, luxury or romantic hotels in that metropolis. This is another way to fine-tune your search if you know you are looking for a property where wowing your honey will be almost guaranteed in the case of hotels classified as “romantic.”
» Slicing and Dicing the Reviews
If you are single-minded about traveling solo, tend to travel for business, or are only interested in family vacations, TripAdvisor segments a hotel’s reviews for you to investigate according to your interests. You can choose to “see reviews for” families, couples, solo and business travel etc. to find hotel reviews from people with like-minded interests. Reviews are also lumped together by traveler ratings (excellent, very good, average, poor and terrible) as well as by keywords such as “room service,” “very nice,” “great location,” “best hotel,” “first class,” “full kitchen,” and even “pillow menu” to streamline your review searches.
» Hotels in the Neighborhood
If you find yourself in a city without a place to rest your head for the night, TripAdvisor’s mobile apps plot the hotels closest to your current location on a map, and sort them in a column at left by popularity (the default sort), the highest priced, or the lowest priced. Tap on a specific property and you can view its TripAdvisor reviews, photos, amenities and rates. You can also view nearby restaurants and things to do, from walking tours to shopping options.
» Online or Offline
TripAdvisor’s Offline City Guides, which cover about 80 cities from Moscow to Marakesh, can be downloaded and used offline when you don’t have an Internet connection for your mobile device. You can access maps, and view information about hotels, restaurants, attractions, nightlife, shopping, tours/tickets, and even suggested itineraries. You can save interesting places and craft your own trip journals.
» Lodging alternatives
If hotels aren’t necessarily your thing, for most cities you can also search for B&Bs, specialty lodging, and vacation rentals, although the reviews may be less reliable than the hotel reviews on TripAdvisor simply because there aren’t as many of them for these accommodation types and thus they are more prone to potential manipulation.
Note: This guide is by no means exhaustive so feel free to add your own tips and other advice in the comments below.