I have to admit that I was a little reckless when I started backpacking around the world at the tender age of 18. Back then, it was seen as a “weakness” to refer to a Lonely Planet Guidebook. It somehow went against the spirit of adventure to know what was around the corner. Instead, you relied on the opinions and experiences of locals or fellow travelers you met along the way.
It seems a lot has changed since those days and the essence of asking fellow travelers has taken on a new form with the popularity of sites such as Tripadvisor over the last decade. Time is of more importance than ever and nobody wants to waste their precious time on a terrible experience. This is where sites such as Tripadvisor can help. However, as the practice of posting and researching reviews has matured, so too must your skills in interpreting these reviews. Below I have posted my personal checklist to make the most out of Tripadvisor.
First things first, examine the reviewer. Ebay has been very successful in rating both buyers and sellers. Tripadvisor has attempted to do this with a rating of each reviewer. However, it takes a lot of savvy to look for what is important to you.
1) Top Contributor or First Time reviewer. This is probably the most important thing to look for. Statistics show that more experienced reviewers on average issue lower star ratings than new reviewers. You should always place more weight on a review from a senior reviewer as they have a greater number of experiences to benchmark against. However, beware, they will always be tough markers so be sure to read the review carefully and not just rely on the number of stars. They may enjoy an experience but still only award 3 or 4 stars.
2) First time reviewers. An established property should not exceed 20% first time reviewers. If the business being reviewed is top heavy with first time reviewers, read the reviews for entertainment only but please don’t waste your time or money with them. As an example, at the time of writing, our last 10 reviewers have contributed 273 reviews between them or an average of 27.3 reviews each. However, many of the companies in our category have averages around 1-2 reviews per reviewer. An intelligent reader should be able to notice this type of discrepancy.
3) Where is the reviewer from? Different nationalities have different travelling styles and expectations. Pay more attention to reviewers who have a similar travelling style to you.
4) How helpful are they? Notice how many of their reviews were helpful to other readers. This is a sign of honest reporting
5) How long have they been travelling. Have they just started posting or do they have years of reviewing experience. Years of reviewing will ensure that you are reading genuine reviews.
6) Look at the review rating distribution. Does the reviewer only ever issue 5 star reviews? Maybe they are easy to please. Or maybe the reviewer only takes the time to review when something goes wrong. Look for an even pattern with a healthy mix of star ratings.
7) Read lots of reviews. Don’t just settle on the top businesses in each category. There may be a hidden gem buried a few pages deep which does not receive a lot of reviews due to their diminutive size or length of time in business.
8) Focus on the way you like to travel. The reason why there is so much travel choice around the world is that everyone has a slightly different way of viewing the world and therefore, how to enjoy it. If you hate crowds and love nothing more than to find a quiet spot to read a book, the #1 ranked hotel or restaurant may not suit you if it designed for heavy partiers or families. Look for things which interest you (historic, adventurous, relaxing) and see if the reviews match these interests.
9) Highly ranked businesses will come with higher expectations. There are many famous cases where spectacular businesses which rank very highly are marked down for seemingly frivolous issues (like Al Maha Desert Resort receiving a 1 star review because they didn’t clean sand off the pool deck immediately after a sandstorm). Pardon the pun, but you have to take one-off reviews with a grain of salt. Instead, look for trends. If there is a review that is completely opposite from the others, figure it may have been written by a competitor, a disgruntled staff member or maybe someone trying to blackmail a business with a bad review (yes it does happen a lot to businesses with high rankings).
10) Alternately, lower ranked businesses will come with lower expectations. Reviewers may add a “sympathy” star for businesses which succeed only by not disappointing them. A 5 star review of a backpackers hostel shouldn’t convince you to cancel your reservation at the Ritz Carlton, just because they just received a 3 star review when a reviewer’s steak was medium and not medium rare.
11) Disregard reviews which make irrelevant comparisons. Each destination comes with its advantages and disadvantages which makes side by side comparisons from across the world impossible. Therefore, disregard any reviews which compare two disparate activities or services (like comparing an African Safari to a Desert Safari).
12) Ignore extreme reviews. A survey conducted by Forrester Consulting found that 77% of travelers usually ignore extreme comments about properties and base their assumptions on a general assessment of customer responses (as well as property photos and descriptions).
13) Everyone can have an off day. Every staff member has a first day, sometimes flowers aren’t delivered as fresh as a Florist promised, maybe the receptionist just broke up with her boyfriend and sometimes vehicles get flat tyres. Reviewers can be merciless and not take one-off situations into consideration. If a terrible review is focusing on a specific issue which is never likely to occur again, don’t judge a whole company on a one off, isolated incident.
14) Photos are an important way to match your expectations with that of a reviewer. Maybe their version of paradise is not yours. Beware of properties with very few visitor photos.
15) Look for reviews that seem to be objective; the ones that have pros and cons. Almost no place is all good or all bad. The glowing reviews may also have been written by the business just as the negative may have been written by the competition
16) Use the Forum as a double check. If you can’t find anything written about the business you are interested in, you should ask a Destination Expert for their opinion as they would be more than happy to help. If a Destination Expert hasn’t heard of it or warns you to stay clear, do exactly that.
17) Does the management care? Look for a business which appreciates all reviews and posts a reply to each review, good or bad. You will also be able to gauge the culture of a business by the responses of its senior management. If you only see responses to negative comments, you know that they do not really value their satisfied guests.