It was our last night in Arequipa, Peru, and after a week of brain-tenderizing Spanish lessons, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. We wanted to try some Peruvian specialties, but not a dark-alley chifa serving lomo saltado (as good as it is) in Styrofoam containers. Knowing there was an extreme range of quality even among the classy restaurants in touristy Arequipa, we turned to TripAdvisor for some direction.
“The most beautiful food in the loveliest family-run restaurant.”
“Deserves a higher ranking.”
“Do not miss this restaurant.”
Zingaro, a classy joint on Calle San Francisco, a popular restaurant stretch in Arequipa, had glimmering reviews. I mean, if one guy thought this place was perfect, it can’t be bad, right? Sorry if the ending is all too obvious.
The fish in the ceviche was still frozen. The cuy chactado (deep fried guinea pig) and side of dry, roasted potatoes were mediocre at best. My rare steak was raw and still cold in the middle and had to be sent back, and served with a lackluster pasta. The dessert was old crystallized ice cream with stale, chocolate-ish bits. And for Peru prices, at $65 it was an expensive meal.
Thanks for nothing, TripAdvisor.
As Seth Kugel, author of the New Your Times column Frugal Traveler wrote about the online service, “I love TripAdvisor. I hate TripAdvisor. It amazes me. It terrifies me. It has made travel infinitely better. It has ruined travel forever.” Travelers seem to either hate TripAdvisor or use it religiously. Here are some reasons why TripAdvisor and other review sites should be used with care.
How TripAdvisor ruins travel: Exaggerate much?
One reason not to trust online, crowd-sourced reviews is the tendency for people to exaggerate both praise and criticism. Like this one-star review of Guest Inn Muntri, a George Town, Malaysia, guesthouse we stayed at for three nights:
“Mosquito-infested bathrooms, soaked with water (shower was combined) with sliding doors that didn’t always lock. Wooden floors and paper thin walls amplify the noise: when other guests walked by, it literally sounded like a herd of rhinos!”
Literally like a herd of rhinos? It’s possible that this reviewer stayed during a lumberjack convention, but likely she was ticked off and cranky from lack of sleep and decided to tear Guest Inn Muntri a virtual new one.
When people have a negative experience, or an overly positive one, their reaction tends to be emotional. Think lots of superlatives, all caps, and superfluous exclamation points (SUBLIME!!!!!! DON’T go there!!!!). These types of responses may not be based on fact but more on the emotional experience of the reviewer. In the world of anonymous online reviewing, talk is cheap.
How TripAdvisor ruins travel: Faking it
In 2004, Canadian Amazon somehow revealed the identities of online reviewers, exposing the nasty truth: many 5-star online reviews were written by publishers and book authors themselves.
Online reviews have become so important to the economic survival of authors, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and tourist enterprises that phoney reviews have become more commonplace than we think. According to a 2011 New York Times article, there’s evidence that businesses hire freelance writers to post positive reviews on popular review sites.
TripAdvisor claims to have a stringent policy preventing businesses and their friends from posting fake reviews. But it’s difficult to enforce when anyone can sign up for a TripAdvisor account, use a fake identity, and remain anonymous. Even harder to enforce is the practice of businesses soliciting positive reviews from customers. A hotel in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, where we stayed, offered free key chains in exchange for a TripAdvisor review. They didn’t say it had to be positive, but when there’s a reward involved, guests are less inclined to share criticisms.
The fact that fake reviews exist invalidates the integrity of an online review system. The point of sites like TripAdvisor, Amazon, and Yelp is to empower consumers and provide a forum for honest feedback, not as marketing vehicle for businesses wanting to win the popularity contest.
How TripAdvisor ruins travel: Everyone’s a critic
Remember how we did all of this before the internet? We tended to rely on professionals for advice. Restaurant critics—people with training and experience evaluating all aspects of a dining experience—wrote reviews for newspapers and travel magazines. Travel agents suggested hotels with good reputations they knew personally from years in the business. Guidebooks written by seasoned travelers helped ferret out the good from bad around the world.
These days, everyone’s a critic. But not everyone is a good critic. A good critic focuses more on the restaurant’s food than the availability of toilet paper in the restroom. A good critic evaluates a hotel’s quality and service and not whether the receptionist spoke perfect English. A good critic writes well and doesn’t make sweeping statements.
With crowd-sourced reviews we have a lot of the opposite. Does this mean that only the professional critics have anything relevant to say? No, but it means that for every one review that’s objective, honest, and thoughtful, there are five that are petty and biased. There’s a lot of crap to wade through to get to the quality advice.
How TripAdvisor ruins travel: Great expectations
The moment we read a review about a business, our experience with that business has already begun to change. This is unfortunate, because Tony G. from Ft. Lauderdale and I don’t have the same tastes. But once I read about The. Best. Meal. of. His. Life, I’ve started to form an opinion about something I haven’t yet experienced, based on opinions I may not share.
What I’ve found while traveling is that I have very different tastes from other tourists. When I go to a restaurant, I’m mostly concerned with the quality of the food. A clean bathroom is great, but if the food is exceptional, I’ll deal with a stinky hole in the ground and no TP.
I realize not all people feel this way. A filthy latrine will warrant a poor review no matter how good the food is. There are reviewers out there that don’t eat a lot of high-quality, flavorful, fresh food so a night at a restaurant like Zingaro is probably SUBLIME for them. But when we read reviews about restaurants and hotels we sometimes forget that what bugs us doesn’t bug others, what we like is not necessarily the same as everyone else. Yet the impression their review leaves, and the expectations we now have about a particular business, are the same.
How to use TripAdvisor like a boss
Given the problems with using TripAdvisor as a traveler’s handbook, is it of any use to us travelers? Some. Here’s some ways I’ve learned to use it to my advantage.
- I rely on TripAdvisor to get my bearings and see what’s around. Lately, especially after my experience with Zingaro, I’ve stopped using it to make decisions about where to go.
- When booking a hotel, I cross-check reviews with other sites. For example, I do a lot of reservations through Booking.com and I usually take a look at couple of other review sites (like TripAdvisor) to see if there is any consistency in complaints.
- When encountering extremely positive or negative reviews, I look for signs that the person is exaggerating. (Superlatives. All caps. Multiple exclamation points.) Was this person’s experience typical? Did they hate/love the same things I would hate/love about a place?
- I search travel blogs, and newspaper and magazine articles about places I’m visiting for information, rather than relying on big travel review sites. In most cases, travel bloggers are more like me and like the same things as me, and typically write more thoughtful reviews.
The other night we popped into a restaurant in Cusco, Peru, we knew nothing about. As I glanced at the menu, Peter asked two couples leaving what they thought. “Excellent.” “Our favorite place in town.” We went for it, not having a chance to read what people who hated it had to say. We enjoyed an excellent meal. Not a SUBLIME meal or The. Best. Meal. of. Our. Lives, or a flawless experience in every aspect, but we enjoyed the hell out of it. I wonder sometimes if the prevalence of online reviews hasn’t made us more critical, more demanding, and less able to relax and enjoy the good in a less than perfect world.