How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love TripAdvisor

The myriad imperfections of TripAdvisor do not go unremarked.

It seems that hardly a week can pass without another scandal about fake reviews. The British Advertising Standards Authority smacked TripAdvisor around last year for its advertising claims. Arthur Frommer hates on it quite regularly. And it doesn’t help, in my view, that it continues to publish dubious lists of the world’s best whatevers.

But none of that matters nearly as much as what TripAdvisor has done for travelers, a boon so big and so meaningful that I think it’s fair to call it historic. TripAdvisor has exposed the bad guys of the hospitality business, the frauds and cheats, the kind of people who have been preying on travelers not for decades or centuries but for millennia. I’m talking about the vicious, greedy restaurateurs and hoteliers who have plagued travelers without regard for their reputations because reputations didn’t matter when there was always a fresh horde of tourists to steal from.

Stealing from travelers has always been safer and easier, of course, than stealing from neighbors, who are likely to take it personally and exact revenge. It’s precisely because travelers are vulnerable that society has always regarded abusing them as a particular temptation to the wicked and a test of morality for the good. Dante placed those who betray their guests in the ninth, final and presumably hottest circle of Hell for a reason, presumably the same one that prompted God to instruct Moses, “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.”

Well, there’s been vexing aplenty and very little to be done about it from the time of Chaucer to the time of Paul Theroux — until TripAdvisor came along. Because whatever else it might fail to do, or might do poorly, TripAdvisor has been extraordinarily effective at identifying and exposing the worst of the worst, the filthy hotels with hideous service and the rip-off restaurants that serve overpriced, inedible crap. And this is a service so critically important to the well-being of the modern traveler that I am prepared to forgive TripAdvisor for a host of other sins.

That includes the fake reviews, and there no doubt are some of those. But then life is full of fake reviews.

Let’s say you’re at a cocktail party, trying to get a fair evaluation of someone who is known to everyone but you. Most likely you’ll get a variety of opinions: he’s a great guy, he’s a little bit conceited, he’s really a jerk. With careful consideration and by consulting many people, you might start to get enough information to make some decisions about whether you want to interview this person for a job or go on a date with him or invest in his company.

This is crowd-sourcing, and when you get enough information coming in, you can start to get some idea of who you’re dealing with. But it could be difficult to get a very clear picture because, admittedly, it’s all subjective and maybe some people are lying because they’re personal or business rivals — or his best friends.

But you can be sure that if he’s been indicted for killing his mother, that information is going to come at you through a number of channels. It may not be conveyed in identical detail by each informant. Maybe his best friend won’t mention it at all and his worst enemy will add that he’s suspected of eating babies. But if you talk to enough people, you’re going to get the idea that this is not somebody you want to spend time with.

And so it is with TripAdvisor reviews. Over time, the really bad apples get their comeuppance. TripAdvisor has ensured that nobody in the hospitality industry, at least not in well-traveled areas, can cheat large numbers of people over any length of time without getting trashed. And no number of fake reviews can overcome the wrath of the crowd.

For that, I love TripAdvisor. And so should you.

As for the reviews of places that aren’t hellish tourist traps, there are ways to evaluate them with perspective. When hundreds of reviewers say a place is unpleasant and a few dissenters say everybody else is crazy, there’s a very high probability that it’s pretty bad.  When hundreds of reviewers agree that it’s a great place and a few dissenters contradict everyone else,  there’s a very high probability that it’s at least a decent place. And in both cases, that’s a much higher probability than anyone would  get by chance or gut instinct or even, perhaps, from a review written by an expert who happened to have a single good or bad experience.

Another point: when there are only a handful of reviews, you have a much higher chance of getting unreliable information. And don’t put much stock in the ratings at either end of the spectrum — the five-star raves or the 1-star trashings — because those are most likely to be faked and least likely to be informative. The most useful reviews tend to be somewhere in the middle. This where to find thoughtful explorations of specifically what the writer liked and didn’t like.

And if you don’t trust TripAdvisor completely, consider this. It doesn’t make any money by lying to you.



8 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love TripAdvisor

  1. Kate

    I. Love. Tripadvisor.

    I also love Frommers and especially Rick Steves, but when I planned our honeymoon I trusted the accuracy of Tripadvisor’s reviews for food and lodging more than I trusted those of Rick Steves and Frommers. That’s because I figure pretty much anywhere that RIck Steves and Arthur Frommer go is going to treat them better than the average tourist. They’d be foolish not to. That said, I relied much more heavily on Rick Steves and Frommers for general travel advice and tips on tours, sight seeing adventures, and the like (because unlike most tourists, they’re particularly in the know).

    We had a fairytale honeymoon with not a single disappointing meal or disappointing hotel because we ONLY at and stayed in places that were extremely highly reviewed on tripadvisor. Rightfully so. Without tripadvisor, our honeymoon would have been a VERY different trip.

  2. Jake

    I agree that TripAdvisor has been a travel industry disruptor and a boom to travelers seeking quality information. However it is now a victim of it’s own success as an increasing number of reviews are from those who are shills for the hotel/restaurant or for competitors (or angry ex-staff).

    You can establish your own confidence rating by eliminating those reviewers who have only contributed a small number of reviews as well as focusing on the two, three, and four star reviews as described in the piece above. However, curating the reviews and establishing confidence in the ratings is the job of TripAdvisor and they are not doing their job.

  3. Lawrence B.

    I have many reviews on Trip Adviser and try to contribute whenever I can. I consult the review of others frequently. Occasionally, there are the planted or hate reviews, but they are few and usually obvious. Most of the really negative are folks who go to a Four Star expecting hamburgers and fries all around. I put a lot of store in the reviews by senior reviewers with profiles like mine. I am puzzled why more establishment operators don’t take advantage of the opportunity to reviewer’s bad experiences. A few minutes can offset a lot of bad karma. As a business traveler, I’ll take the crowdsource reviews anytime over those of professional reviewers like Frommer who are primarily oriented to the leisure traveler and largely irrelevant to us.

  4. Baron

    You suggest we overlook the five-star reviews on Trip Advisor. I disagree. I often give a property five stars if they reasonably meet my expectations as a knowledgeable traveler. A Hampton Inn five stars is, of course, different than a Ritz-Carlton five stars. What we expect from one is not what we expect from the other. When using Trip Advisor for information, and I always do, best to keep the idea of “expectations” in mind during the search. By the way, I never add the “raves” unless they are deserved…

  5. michael hofman

    I have no axe to grind but find the Trip Advisor is a great place to leave reviews, especially for some of the out of the way places we go to. Take the good with the bad but it Trip Advisor gives travellers a chance to see a wide range of reviews. I get a sense of the place, and hope others can benefit from the path I made before them!

  6. Kaleberg

    We’re big Tripadvisor fans. One of us is even a local area expert. In general, Tripadvisor reviews are very useful. You can find out all sorts of things, but you have to read critically and think about who is writing, what were they expecting, and what are they saying. It’s like reading a tale told by not so much an unreliable narrator, but more an uncalibrated narrator. When I read a an Frommer’s guidebook, I know what his team looks for and how they describe things. I used to love the old Birnbaum guides, because Birnbaum had an interesting voice. He wrote for business travelers, but always had his eye on ways to appreciate where one was going.

    When I read Tripadvisor reviews, I have to take into account so many viewpoints. It’s worse for food than for lodging. Different people may have different thresholds for noise, light, nuisance, bad HVAC, rude service and so on, but everyone wants to sleep in a bed, have the use of a bathroom, a place to keep their stuff and so on. Restaurants have a broader range of offerings. One might go for entertainment, the scene, or for the food, or for the view, or to get the best value for one’s money. As I said, one has to read critically. They should teach this better in school, and consider using Tripadvisor reviews.

    The Tripadvisor rankings are sort of its soft spot. Even the Frommer web site let’s you sort by price, quality, cuisine or neighborhood. Tripadvisor tends to have one ordered list with no sort facility. It’s usually a hodge podge, particularly for restaurants. Still, it is a place to start.


    Back in the 1960s, Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day featured reader feedback with letters from travelers suggesting new hotels and restaurants and mentioning problems with some. Arthur Frommer, and his wife Hope, were real pioneers.

  7. David N

    I have found TripAdvisor to be a legitimate and valuable source of information for planning visits while traveling. My only wish is that reviews could be made more objective by adding further review questions and categories; this would improve consistency among reviews and provide an even better means of comparison. So many of us can have opposite experiences at the same place and time, it would be helpful to have a few standard details about an establishment so we can discern how good and bad results occurred.

    Jeanne’s analysis is informative and interesting. Travelers can be very thankful for the comments recorded by TripAdvisor reviewers! No one deserves to be gouged just because they are at the mercy of an inconsiderate greedy proprietor whose values are reflected by the staff. Instead of repeating problems experienced by prior visitors, we can be fore-warned to go elsewhere or to protect our rights as clients. Astute proprietors know that quality is free; quantity results from quality!


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