Why it’s time to stop reading online reviews

It wasn’t that long ago that travelers who wanted to read up before their trips were limited to paper guidebooks and novels featuring the destination.

These days, there are countless websites and blogs, with information on just about everywhere on the planet, along with reviews of hotels, restaurants, and airlines.

In some ways, however, not all of this information is helpful. Not only can there be too much of a good thing, much of the information can be misleading, controversial and flat-out wrong. Not to mention that people’s opinions differ. My sense is that pretrip reading, rather than getting travelers excited for their trips, often makes them more anxious.

This can start during the booking process. Some people like to do their own research; as a travel agent I understand that and don’t have a problem with it. But sometimes we get someone who comes to us for our expertise, we find flights or hotels or a cruise that feel like a good match… and then come the dreaded words, “I was reading on TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic, fill-in-the-blank…”

The short version of this is that no place pleases everyone. For an example, the Fairmont Kea Lani on Maui, which is one of my favorite hotels, has generally good reviews, but one person thought the recently renovated suites “didn’t look like Hawaii.” Other complaints: The drinks weren’t strong enough at the pool bar, the hotel wouldn’t upgrade when they didn’t pay for an ocean view room, and that parents can’t see their kids in the children’s pool when they’re at the adult pool. (Many people might say that’s a selling point.)

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It doesn’t matter what travel product reviews you’re reading. If you’re reading this, I challenge you to look up your favorite place on TripAdvisor. I guarantee someone will have been unhappy there.

And yes, many people take a few bad reviews with a grain of salt. But it’s easy to get fixated on the negatives, like about a particular cabin type on a ship, for example. There may not be that many specific reviews, so one unhappy person can skew the overall feeling. I recently had other clients who were all set on a cruise until they read somewhere that one cruise reviewer thought the cabin they had booked looked “tired.”

It happens even with airline seats. A client emailed me last night unhappy with a tentative booking because the seats were “angled-flat” and not lie-flat in business class. Now, that might seem like a first-world problem, and it is; flat beds are one reason people pay several thousand dollars for an airline ticket. After some time researching alternatives, it occurred to me that I thought American Airlines had switched over to flat beds on their South America routes. I wondered who told my client otherwise? Sure enough, if you plugged in the flight number on Seatguru.com, it said the plane had angled flat seats. If you call American or go to their website, it’s clear that Seatguru is wrong, and the seats are flat.

The list of examples could already fill a book — and it continues to grow.

It’s not that travelers shouldn’t do any research online. But, at some point, especially when a trip is set, put down the laptop or iPad and pick up a book — a real one — and relax.

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Janice Hough

I've been in the travel industry since I graduated from Stanford. Back in the days when computers were new, and air travel was comfortable. These days I'm also a travel and comedy writer. All opinions are strictly my own, and not necessarily those of Elliott.org

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