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

  • Stuart Falk

    As to cruise ships, I believe the best, most insightful and trustworthy guide book is the annually revised Guide to Cruises and Cruise Ships by Doug Ward. It isn’t influenced by advertising (as is Cruise Critic) and Doug is extremely knowledgable. I recommend it to anyone planning a cuise, whether one’s first or an experienced cruiser (like myself with over 60 cruises on a variety of lines from SeaDream to Carnival). While there are exceptions, unless one has a close relationship with a highly recommended travel agent, known for their objectivity and honest advice, most (I’d say 99%) travel agents, including those relying on membership in large consortiums and or who advertise online, are order takers and are after one thing: maximizing their commissions while doing the least work (and I don’t care how many initials may come after their names). Sure, the cruise lines may give travel agents some carefully capped incentives to offer clients, I have found them not worth trading off the convenience and security of booking directly with the cruise lines.

  • AAGK

    After reading this article, I feel more confident that I should continue to read reviews. In the case of the hotel, none of those items would have mattered to me so I would still book. A review calling rooms tired, reminds me to look up the latest photos or request a room in the newly renovated section. Also, there are hundreds of cases where an information mismatch, flatbed v angled, results in a negative outcome. Unless a travel agent went to a specific property in the last few months, sometimes recommendations can be outdated, or reflect different tastes. The best referral always comes from someone you know and trust, of course.

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    I find online reviews extremely useful. I can ignore the occasional person complaining the sun in Hawaii is too hot, but if a hotel we are considering turns out to have mostly three star or worse reviews complaining it’s dirty, that’s extremely valuable info !

  • greg watson

    The question asked…………is not the correct question………….It should have asked ‘for the most part do you believe the online reviews that you read?’……………….just saying…

  • Koholaz

    Do I read them? Yes. Do I always believe them? No. I look for the number of replies as a starting point. If there are one or two then I tend to ignore them. If there are a large number and they are consistent in either praise or censure than I put more credence in their accuracy. But it’s important to look for clues as well – is the rhetoric almost identical? Then there are posters using different names posting the same good or bad review. Just beware as you read and do additional homework.

  • ChelseaGirl

    I never book a hotel without checking reviews. I totally agree that there will always be cranks on review sites but you can usually tell right away that they’re the type who will never be happy. I don’t put much stock in their comments.

  • The Original Joe S

    You seem to be describing some of the posters on this site…………..

  • Annie M

    I agree with you- we look at all reviews and unless we see the same issues mentioned several times we take them with a grain of salt. If you really read them you can see there are just people who nitpick and will never be happy with anything. So read them all – not just the first 5 or 10.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I like to read the negative reviews.

    If they focus on things like the seat angle, the drinks weren’t strong enough, or it didn’t “look like Hawaii”, I know the travel product is fine and since I have plebian tastes, I’ll enjoy it.

    If they say there are mice in the room, cigarette butts all over, or there is construction noise all night long, I might be more concerned.

  • DChamp56

    I research everything, BUT I disregard reviewers that are way off base with the rest of the reviews. However, if the last 10 reviews said “noise from construction next door is awful”, I’d tend to believe it.
    Travel agents can help in most cases, IF you have a good one.

  • Lindabator

    As a 20+ year travel agent, I find your “review” not only inaccurate but offensive. I always book the best option for the clients’ needs, even finding things they may not have been aware of. The only way to continue in business is to consider the long-term, not the individual booking’s commission or bonuses. And since many on this site who DID book direct run into problems with misunderstandings, perhaps the fact that I go into far more depth with my explanations means that is why I do not run into those issues. I pride myself on the fact that most of my clientele is repeat and referral, and that is because I put the client first, NOT the paycheck. And a lot of agents I know do so as well.

  • jsn55

    Have to disagree with you about TAs, Stuart, when it comes to cruising. My TA is a true expert with the experience and education to back it up. She arranges far more goodies for me than I could do myself.

    For flights and hotels, you are right; booking yourself is far better … if you know what you’re doing! I’m part of the forum, and we continually hear from people who give their CC information to a faceless entity on the internet because it’s cheaper. Those are the people who should use a real TA.

  • Stuart Falk

    As I wrote, though few and far between, there are exceptions and I have no doubt that your travel agent is a valuable resource. That said, if one studies the booking statistics about travel agency sales as regards cruise bookings, it is clear that by a large margin that, direct bookings excluded, almost all are made through “those faceless people on the internet” or on the end of the toll phone number (many of whom advertise on Google or Cruise Critic).

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