Updated Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 10:54 AM
Searching for a warm-weather getaway in the Dominican Republic, I did what any modern traveler would do: I looked it up on TripAdvisor.com. Soon, I was staring at more than 1,000 user reviews of the Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach resort. Among them were some that substantiated my worst fears: “Very rude staff”; “all-inclusive gruel”; “room filled with mold.” Others were far more positive. I went ahead and booked.
Knowing how to navigate the popular website is as necessary a modern travel skill as packing efficiently or decoding European train schedules. TripAdvisor’s sites attracted an average of 53 million unique visitors a month in 2012 through November, according to comScore, an online analytics firm, to its user-generated reviews of more than 2 million hotels, restaurants and attractions.
It has spawned competitors, like Yelp and Google Places, and most of the globe is now “reviewed” in some form. Trying to decide between two rival satay stands in a remote Indonesian village? Check your smartphone, and you could very well find an online debate raging over which is better.
I travel about 180 days a year, so I think about TripAdvisor a lot. And here’s my conclusion: I love TripAdvisor. I hate TripAdvisor. It amazes me. It terrifies me. It has made travel infinitely better. It has ruined travel forever.
But love it or hate it, you’d better use it right. Here are some questions and answers about TripAdvisor.
Sorting the opinions
What’s the best way to navigate all the opinions? I posed that question to Adam Medros, a TripAdvisor vice president. “One of the things that, over the last 12 or 15 years, people have learned how to do online is look at the good and look at the bad and then try to find threads of consistency among the comments,” he said.
That’s what happened to me as I looked at the Dominican Republic resort reviews. The negative ones were the ones that first caught my attention, perhaps by chance. But a lot of the complainers seemed, frankly, like unpleasant travelers. A majority liked the resort, and many positive reviewers chided the negative Nellies for expecting luxury accommodations at bargain prices, a sentiment I related to. And everyone praised the beach, which was my main purpose for going.
Still, once I arrived, I had trouble shaking those critical reviews. Though I found no mold in my room, I couldn’t get over the feeling that it must have been there. And though the staff I met was perfectly friendly, I wondered if I had gotten lucky.
Medros also helped me understand how I could have done it even better. I’ve since learned the benefits of the site’s filtering functions — just reading reviews by solo travelers, for example — and of other options, like signing into TripAdvisor through Facebook, which enables the site to prioritize reviews written by your Facebook friends and friends of friends.
Do fake reviews affect TripAdvisor’s reliability? Medros said the company employs more than 100 people who speak 21 languages, have “backgrounds in credit-card fraud and military intelligence” and work to weed out fraudulent reviews and catch cheating companies.
That’s great, but I still encounter lots of dubious reviews. Recently I spent a night at the Clarion Resort in Kissimmee, Fla., where a sign at the reception desk offered a gift from something called a “Positive Holiday Tree” to guests who “share your positive experience” on TripAdvisor. (It doesn’t seem to be helping much; two reviews posted in December were negative.) I also stayed at a motel whose owner said she had friends write raves after a client left a nasty review.
Both of these are clear violations of TripAdvisor’s fraud policy. But there are also gray areas, as when I praised a cafe owner on the décor and she begged me to share my thoughts online.
Do the reviews improve travel?
Before there were online reviews, travelers like me could still arrive in strange places and manage just fine thanks to a combination of curiosity, instinct and local advice. It took a bit more courage, but was more fun and satisfying.
My most exhilarating trips of the last few years have been to those rare places TripAdvisor and the rest of the Review-Industrial Complex have not yet documented online.
There was that week spent in San Juan Teitipac, a little town outside Oaxaca, Mexico, that I chose on the advice of a bus driver. And a 40-mile hike along an obscure stretch of Brazilian coastline that I made using nothing more than a Google satellite map.
It was my lack of knowledge and planning that forced human interactions, ultimately paying off in cheap beds, free coconuts and indelible memories.
Of course, not everyone’s ideal vacation involves such risks, especially if you’ve got only two weeks off a year. But I believe everyone should use the vast online database of the travel world with moderation.
Save a day or two for spontaneity. Seek advice from a stranger on the Seoul subway; trust your instinct to find a Parisian bistro to call your own.
Maybe you’ll find out later that its croque-madame has been praised 717 times on TripAdvisor. Who cares? You discovered it yourself.