If you’re looking for the best travel advice, your first instinct might be to go online. I know because you are online right now, reading this story about how to find the best travel advice.
But are you getting a full picture? Is the advice trustworthy? Are you missing anything? Let me answer that: No, you are not getting the full picture, even if you read this article to the end. The advice you find online may not be worth anything. And unless you do a lot of research, you’re definitely not getting the full picture.
How did the pandemic affect travel advice?
The COVID-19 pandemic instantly rendered most travel advice obsolete. Hotels and restaurants closed. Attractions shot down. From one day to the next, great insider tips about day trips and lesser-known destinations became outdated.
Sifting through the wreckage of the travel advice landscape, it’s still difficult to know what is and isn’t accurate. And although this may sound like a cop-out, it is also the only thing that is true: You must assume that everything you read, see and hear is wrong until proven otherwise.
I repeat, post-pandemic travel advice is like the X-Files. Trust no one!
The best travel advice isn’t in one place
Many of the dominant online review sites, such as Google, TripAdvisor, and Yelp, position themselves as definitive guides to everything from accommodations to dining. Other resources, such as blogs and guidebooks, would have you believe they’re one-stop resources for travelers who need to know the “best” hotel, restaurant or destination.
Consulting just one source can be a serious mistake. Why? Because any single source — and that’s especially true of a user-generated site where travelers write the reviews — is prone to manipulation by innkeepers, shady reputation-management operatives, or just bad judgment on the part of a reviewer. You should never trust a single source for making a buying decision when it comes to travel. Instead, you have to use multiple resources to triangulate the right decision for you. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
What’s out there?
- Guidebooks such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guides are traditional paper books written, researched and regularly updated by professional travel writers. Some of the information from these guides may also be available online. These have traditionally been the “go-to” source for travelers.
- Review sites like Google, TripAdvisor and Yelp are free “crowdsourced” guides you can find online. They are more dynamic, in comparison to guidebooks, and in comparison to guidebooks, and are still developing and evolving as information resources.
- Social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, connect you to your friends and colleagues, but they can also put you in touch with a broader community of travelers who might offer reliable and customized advice.
- Travel pros. Thanks to social media and email, you can also get connected with a reliable travel agent or with a friend who knows you and can offer a word-of-mouth recommendation. Don’t overlook these resources, even if strictly speaking their advice isn’t published online.
- How to triangulate a travel recommendation. In journalism, facts must be verified by at least three independent sources. But the same rule applies to reliable travel recommendations. Don’t believe just one review (or many reviews) from one source. Ideally, you’ll want to make sure three sources that are independent of each other confirm the review.
Printed guidebooks have seen better days. But they can still be an excellent resource for your next trip. Spend a little time online — or at your local bookstore, browsing through the hardcopy guidebooks. Look for the following qualities:
- Updates. Check the last time the book was updated. Did they simply slap a new date on the cover, or revise the entire book? Updating only the cover is a time-honored guidebook trick that only lines the pockets of the publisher. The only way to tell is to look at the previous version and, perhaps, to read some of the reviews of the guidebooks on a site such as Amazon.com.
- Focus. Does the guide cover the aspects of the destination that interest you? For example, if you’re retired, you probably won’t want to take a Let’s Go guide on your next trip to Europe. That series is written for students. If money is no object, you might prefer a Luxe City Guide over a Rick Steves tome.
- Credibility. Look for guidebooks that at least give a nod to ethics. For example, authors for the Moon Travel Guide series “do not accept payment for inclusion in our travel guides, and our authors don’t accept free goods or services in exchange for positive coverage.” Too often, guidebooks rely on an army of underpaid — or unpaid — contributors who only write about hotels and attractions that offer them free product. Needless to say, it incentivizes them to write nice things about those businesses, and to ignore other deserving places that refuse to play the game.
Don’t do this with your guidebook
Most guidebooks are available as ebooks. I recommend downloading yours to your tablet or smartphone before leaving. If not, leave the book in your hotel. Not only does the guidebook peg you as a tourist — making you a mark for any number of crimes — but it can also distract from the enjoyment of a destination. Visitors who constantly consult their guidebooks risk missing the best part of their vacation: the spontaneous experiences no book can anticipate.
What about “star” ratings?
The best known of the American ratings is AAA’s “Diamond” Ratings, which represents a combination of overall quality, range of facilities, physical attributes, and level of services offered, according to AAA. These can be useful in identifying first-rate hotels and restaurants — the “five diamond” businesses. For the rest of us, they’re a minimum standard of cleanliness and service, represented by the “AAA Approved” sign out front. Outside the United States, star ratings are sometimes regulated by the government or an industry group, and have a more specific meaning. Any ratings system that has a methodology will probably be more credible than something cobbled together willy-nilly, online. More on that in a moment.
Should I trust user-generated reviews? The short answer is: not entirely. Let’s take a minute to look at the dominant user-generated reviews, and how they can be used to make more informed booking decisions. I’m dividing user-generated reviews into two general categories: forums, or sites that don’t use any discernible methodology to review and rate a travel product; and review sites, which use a numeric or star rating to classify travel products.
Should I turn to a forum for help or advice?
Forums such as TripAdvisor’s Travel Forums (https://www.tripadvisor.com/ForumHome), or FlyerTalk (www.flyertalk.com) are unstructured, in that they are usually not organized around a particular cruise ship, individual hotel property, or restaurant. Instead, they’re loosely organized by topic, and follow a discussion thread based on the poster’s personal interest.
Forums have some inherent weaknesses.
- They’re subjective and disjointed. If you’re looking for information about a particular product, you have to sift through a lot of posts to determine what’s relevant to you. Also, most of the information is highly subjective — one person’s opinion versus another person’s. It’s like a guidebook, minus the research and journalism
- The trolls often rule. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of forums is that the discussion often devolves into name-calling and negativity. The comments of contributors who want to help are too often drowned out by angry know-it-alls, who drive away the members who could actually help someone like you.
- The information is sometimes inaccurate. Finally, there’s the problem of fact. No effort is made to verify any of the content on these forums, so you can never be entirely sure if the information is accurate. For this reason, I would advise extreme caution in using or believing anything you find in a forum. The information may be correct, but how do you know?
How about review sites? Aren’t they believable?
Sort of, but even though these sites use a methodology like stars or number ratings, the reviewers are still unverified and often anonymous. Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp do their best to convince us that they comb through their reviews looking for fakes, but they often miss the bogus write-ups and delete real ones. The sites assume that because they have so many reviews, and the ratings appear to be so legitimate, that their credibility can’t be challenged. That’s incorrect.
How about the star ratings used by some online travel agencies?
Some travel sites use aggregate “star” ratings based on their own reader feedback and user-generated reviews to classify hotels. This is particularly important for sites like Hotwire, because they don’t reveal the name of the hotel — only its star rating and location — before you make a nonrefundable reservation.
Although there’s said to be a methodology to these ratings, they are too often called into question by travelers. These are, by far, the least credible of the user-generated reviews, and while the travel sites that publish them almost always stand behind them, they usually can’t tell you how they came up with a particular number.
Should I just ignore the reviews?
No. The reviews, just like the blog and forum posts, are just isolated data points. Individually, they are meaningless, but put them together and they may guide you to a reliable recommendation. Here are some methods used by smart travelers to ferret out true from false.
- Disregard the top and bottom 5 percent of the reviews. Assume that the top reviews are written by employees or relatives of employees, and the bottom 5 percent are penned by competitors. The rest are probably real people.(For more best travel advice see: This is how to easily spot fake reviews)
- Develop a baseline of a reviewer’s posts. If someone posts a favorable review about a restaurant or hotel you’re considering, check the person’s previous posts. If they’ve reviewed another establishment you’ve been to, and you disagree with what they’ve said, odds are you’ll also have a problem with their current assessment.
- Look for suspicious patterns the “algorithm” missed. The review sites and their vaunted fraud-detection algorithm are deeply flawed. If you see an obviously suspicious account (for example, someone who only posts once and only has something very positive or very negative to say), then ignore the advice. It’s probably bogus.
- Watch for a reaction from the business. If a hotel or restaurant responds to negative reviews in a responsible and non-dismissive way, it’s a pretty good sign the owners care what its customers think, and will try to do better. That’s a good sign.
- Use common sense. Look at the writing style. A review that is borderline illiterate has much less credibility than one that is well written. Also, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Sure, it’s well-worn advice, but you would be surprised at how common sense and reason go out the window when you’re researching travel online.
What should you do with the intel?
User reviews can be helpful in other ways. Say you find a hotel that everyone loves except one guest, who claims there’s a problem with street noise. Why not use that information to request a quiet room away from the street? Or, if you’re a light sleeper, use that comment to rule out a reservation at that property? Also, pay close attention to the reviewer-posted photos, which often show the true look of a hotel, rather than the glossy professional pictures on the property’s website.
Which social networks have reliable travel advice?
Social networks are only as reliable as the people who are on them. You might have a sizeable presence on Facebook or Twitter, but if none of your “friends” have any firsthand travel experience, it makes no sense to ask for advice there. On the other hand, you could be on a smaller social network like LinkedIn or Pinterest, but if you’re buddies with a few experienced travelers, it can be a gold mine of useful advice.
Generally speaking, here’s what you’ll find on each network:
- Facebook – As a standalone network, Facebook isn’t the first place I would turn for travel information. Friends post their travel experience in random and often unhelpful ways. You can find special interest, travel-focused groups on Facebook. But you’re unlikely to find guidebook-level content on them.
- Twitter – Even if your network lacks travel-savvy followers, fear not. You can build a fairly quick list by following Twitter hashtags like #travel and #vacation and following useful accounts. Look for the blue “verified” badge, which Twitter uses to denote official and verified accounts. After a while, the Twitter algorithm will begin suggesting other travel-related accounts to follow. Use a more specific hashtag to find users at your destination. So, for example, if you’re visiting Orlando, try searching for and using the #orlando or #visitorlando hashtag in your tweets.
- LinkedIn – Although LinkedIn is known as a network for “professionals,” some of its content can be valuable for travelers. You can get an insider perspective by joining the Travel & Tourism Industry Professionals Worldwide group or hang out with the Travel Bloggers.
- Pinterest – It’s easy to get lost among the boards, but staying focused on a travel search will lead you to other like-minded pinners to follow. Pinterest is great for window-shopping for a beautiful destination, but for exchanging ideas and tips, it’s probably the least useful of the major social networks. Another great place to look at the pretty pictures is Instagram, although it’s not a go-to destination for travel advice.
There’s a vast universe of photos, personal observations, and opinions that can be useful in deciding where to go (and sometimes, where not to go). Like social networks, you don’t want to base your purchasing decisions on a single blog or blog post. Instead, use the information you find online as a data point that will lead you to an informed decision. Although you’ll find plenty of destination blogs, there are relatively few credible sites that cover travel from a consumer perspective. Be particularly wary of blogging networks for frequent travelers, many of which are set up for no other reason than to sell affinity credit cards that allow you to earn loyalty points with each purchase. Obviously, their advice is tainted by commercial interests.
How about a travel agent or friend?
That should go without saying. The most credible advice comes from someone who knows you, something known as a word-of-mouth recommendation. This is not the same thing as advice typed into a PC or phone and shared online (people say the darndest things on the Internet); this is advice imparted in person by someone who knows you.
Although word-of-mouth advice may carry the most weight, at least according to researchers, it’s not all created equally. Not by a long shot. A few questions to ask before considering any such advice:
Has the person actually visited the place you’re going to? If not, then the information may be less than accurate or reliable. Make sure the person has actually been there.
When did they travel there? Destinations change, and often the restaurants and attractions that were in one place years ago are no longer there — or worse, they’re just a shell of their former selves. Make sure the advice you’re getting isn’t dated.
How well does the person know you? If it’s a close relative or friend, chances are they’ll know what you might like, and more importantly, what you dislike. An acquaintance or a co-worker might not know that you have a peanut allergy, don’t like hot weather, or that you can’t stand spicy food. Taking that person’s advice could be disastrous.
By now, you should have a really good idea of who knows the most about the place you’re visiting. You’ve collected tips from guidebooks, the internet, your social network, your travel agent, and your immediate circle of friends and relatives. Let’s rank the advice in order of credibility.
1. Word-of-mouth advice from a close friend, relative or a trusted travel advisor.
2. Personal advice from your social network.
3. Advice from someone within your social network who lives at the destination, or has recently been there.
4. Published advice in a guidebook, or rated by a professional reviewer, like AAA.
5. Advice from a blog or travel publication (in which the writer is named).
6. Anything written on a forum where anonymous posts are allowed or from a user-generated review site.
What if the travel advice is not the best?
If you have a problem with the advice given to you by a travel agent or a friend, you can go back to them and tell them they were wrong, and the next time you need advice, you can ignore theirs. You can contact a guidebook author (or more likely, the publisher), and take them to task for publishing inaccurate or incomplete advice. But once you enter the domain of anonymous reviews and forums, you’re on your own. You can’t ask TripAdvisor for a refund. Your only option is to leave a negative review for the hotel or restaurant, and that may be removed. If you do, try not to rant. It upsets the fraud-detection algorithm.
I’m here; whom do I believe?
So far, we’ve focused on the information you need, pre-trip, to make an informed decision, but many smaller decisions will be made on the fly, with the help of some or all of these resources, plus a few others. There’s nothing quite like asking a local to recommend a favorite bakery or restaurant, or is there?
A personal friend. A local who knows you and lives in the place you’re visiting is generally the most reliable source of information.
Friends of friends. If you know someone in town who knows someone — in other words, if you have a friend of a friend — then you might be in luck. They’re far less likely to offer bad advice.
Asking a random person you meet. You’re taking your chances, but in many places, even strangers will do their best to offer sound advice. Usually.
A convention and visitors bureau or tourist information center. These visitor centers, usually located close to the major attractions, can offer reliable advice, maps, brochures and information about attractions that may not be available online. But not always. Often, they only recommend the services of “members” and not all information centers are official. Orlando, for example, has more than a few fake “visitors” centers that offer misleading or incomplete information to tourists.
Your hotel concierge. Many hotel concierges will offer unbiased advice, as well as other services, to hotel guests, but don’t count on it. Concierges are sometimes offered kickbacks from establishments they recommend. How do you know they’re on the take? If they give you a card that promises you a discount, or a free drink or appetizer, odds are the restaurant is using it to track the referral.
What if I received misleading advice while I was at a destination?
Because you’re there in person, you have more options than when you’re researching a place online. You can go back to that friend and say “that restaurant wasn’t so good,” or “that museum was boring,” but the feedback is most effective when you’re dealing with a third party like a visitors center or a hotel concierge. If they point you in the wrong direction, they can be held accountable for it, and they should be.
- If a visitor center gives you bad advice: Revisit the center and let them know you’ve had a negative experience. Revisit the center and let them know. If your bad experience was at a member business, the center should have have the wherewithal to address your grievance — if not with an apology and a promise to do better (which is a given), then with a refund or a future discount. Remember, these centers often have a direct relationship with the business, and if the product or service is found to be sufficiently lacking, it could lose its membership.
- If a concierge gives you bad advice: First allow the employee to resolve it — again, an apology, a partial refund, or a discount on a future purchase could be offered. If that doesn’t work, then reporting the concierge to a supervisor at the hotel, or to a professional association like Les Clefs D’Or (http://www.lcdusa.org/) may yield the desired result.
- Warn others: Either way, you owe it to yourself and future visitors to warn friends and family, as well as your extended social network, when you’re misled by bad advice. In fact, the only reason bogus visitors centers and crooked concierges can continue to mislead travelers is that those who are duped never bother to complain about their negative experiences.
Bottom line: Although there’s more information about travel available than at any other time in history, it’s not all reliable. You’ll probably never be able to determine what is true and what isn’t, but by using basic research techniques and knowing which information is more trustworthy, you can make the smartest travel choices. And if you don’t, be sure to write a review, so you’ll warn others.