Reviewing Travel Reviews: Sites That Actually Know What They’re Talking About
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
Clearly, Polonius never tried to book a last-minute trip to the Bahamas.
Crowdsourcing Travel: Who Do You Trust?
Thanks to the internet, you have a digital cornucopia of travel information at your fingertips 24 hours a day. You can learn about history, culture, current events, festivals, logistics, and thousand other things in just a few clicks, but what’s even more impressive is that you can get first hand accounts from people that have actually been where you plan to go.
But, the age-old quandary remains: How can you trust online travel reviews? How do you know whose advice to take, and whose to ignore?
To find out, we’re going to take a look at some of the best and most popular (they’re two different things) travel review sites and travel forums so you know who to trust before planning your next trip.
The Best Travel Review Forums
TripAdvisor may not be the prettiest travel forum out there, but it single-handedly changed the way we travel.
Prioritizing user-generated content above expertise, they democratized the way travelers research destinations and troubleshoot problems on the road. With more than 60 million members worldwide, and 170 million travel reviews, TripAdvisor’s claim as the largest travel site in the world has some merit.
Their simple, question-driven travel forums aim to provide real travelers with real answers to common questions, and I’m a big fan — for certain things.
TripAdvisor shines when you have a specific question. When browsing the Europe > Italy Forum I found this beautiful example:
The questions is direct and has a yes/no answer that will affect how you travel. As you scroll down through the five responses, you learn that, yes, the water in Italy is excellent. One helpful level-6 member even points out the Italian for “don’t drink this water” (acqua non potabile) just in case these travelers run across water that isn’t safe for drinking. It’s a quick exchange of helpful information, and I love it.
The site is also great for casting a wide net at the beginning stages of trip planning. Their “Things to Do” pages (like this one for Rome) are great for exploring destinations and nearby attractions. The number of reviews for each site are listed in the header, along with # out of 5 stars reviews, average price, recent review snippets, and even the option to book with a partner tour company in one click. It’s streamlined to near perfection, which is good and bad.
I, for one, don’t want to know every little thing about a place before I go. I encourage serendipity in my travels, but I get that some people want to be prepared for every eventuality (even though you never are), and if that’s how you travel, you can get lost in TripAdvisor.
I browsed around the site looking for bad or unhelpful answers to travelers’ questions and I couldn’t really find any glaring examples, which means the site has come a long way toward providing good, actionable information since it launched in 2000.
What can I say, Lonely Planet is Lonely Planet. They were the user generated budget travel guide that got it all started, so it’s easy to see why their travel forum is still one of the best resources online.
A great place to start is the “Browse By Destination” tab (obviously) for some of the most comprehensive on-the-ground guides from Lonely Planet writers and top contributors. Another is the keyword search tool, although it can be a little tricky to refine. However, I’m a massive fan of their “Browse By Interest” forums.
For instance, it’s nice to know:
- Visa advice for traveling the coastlines of the world
- How to avoid stone throwing children while cycling through Ethiopia
- How NOT to free dive an underwater temple in Bali
The community on Lonely Planet is helpful and well-informed and the vetting and rating systems they have in place are top shelf.
It might not look like the typical travel forum, but WikiTravel posts like The Inca Trail are repositories of helpful information gleaned from thousands of contributors. While the “Discussion” tab on most entries is lacking, the posts themselves (and user generated photos) are basically a best-of-the-best travel forum summary that constantly evolves as contributors edit and update the site.
Used by over 7 million travelers every single month, WikiTravel is a travel forum powerhouse, and a solid source of reliable information.
I’m a recent convert to Atlas Obscura, the artfully curated travel site dedicated to offbeat adventures and hard to reach destinations. Their commitment to quality content is evidenced by the in-depth user generated reviews (each subject to further edits and additions by fellow travelers), along with their incredible search functionality. Atlas Obscura is a travel website designed for curious explorers.
Browse by destination, popularity, and recently added places to create a unique itinerary for your next trip. I used it for my Italian trip this summer, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that each review lived up to my stringent expectations.
The coolest part about Atlas Obscura is your profile page. You can make a map-driven profile on the site that highlights your experience by listing the “places you’ve been.” However, the real fun starts when you put together your “places I’d like to see” list. I used it to plan a road trip with a buddy, since it contained everything I wanted to see — with maps, descriptions and advice — all in one convenient place.
Sorry if I’m fan-boying, but I really like the functionality and information on each destination post. Hop on Atlas Obscura and get started creating your personal digital scrapbook.
Honorable Mentions: These Guys are Also Good
- Flyer Talk — Flight advice
- Airfare Watchdog — Flight Fares
- Oyster — Hotel Reviews
- BootsNAll — Itinerary Tips
- Rome2Rio — Transportation Tips
The Not So Good Travel Forums
Fodor’s Travel Forum
I’m not super impressed with Fodor’s travel forum, which is surprising for such a well established travel guide company.
The layout of the site is sparse — mostly new topics and destinations — and the navigation and search feature on this forum are beyond janky — searching a destination on this site will take you to an inset of a Google search result window with blurry html text — so that’s not awesome. However, the main problem is simply a lack of momentum.
Too many posts have not enough answers or long-winded debates and snarky comments from other “helpful” travelers. Luckily, they have a “report abuse” button available on every comment, but it’s saying something that one of the few features that exists is to report mean users.
Yelp is where optimism goes to die…and then gets a bad review for smelling the place up. Typically known for restaurant and hotel reviews, the peer-review juggernaut is not just a Fountainhead of negativity in the hospitality industry — it’s branched out into travel.
Reviews for museums, cathedrals, castles, bridges, and other popular landmarks are becoming more and more prevalent, and while many people add to the overall experience, a lot of Yelp reviews highlight exactly what is wrong with relying on user generated reviews to plan your next trip.
Here are a few Yelp Travel review highlights:
- Statue of Liberty: “Major bummer — lack of access to get in her noggin and view the city after the time consuming trek to the nearby island. — Nicholas H.
- The Grand Canyon: “Whoopity do, Grand Canyon. You are a giant hole in the ground. You were caused be erosion. You don’t have roller coasters or dippin’ dots. Jeeesh. Can you say “overrated?”- Jorbi P.
- Rome’s Colosseum: “Your call, but seeing the Colosseum from the outside might save a lot of headaches.” — Bret A.
Most Trusted Travel Review Apps
Websites are great when you’re planning a trip from the comfort and convenience of your couch (say that 5 times fast), but when your carefully constructed itinerary goes awry, you need expert advice on the fly. From your phone.
Here’s a list of some of the best mobile apps for travel reviews on the go:
I just mentioned this app in the honorable mentions section, but the Oyster app bears a little more attention.
Oyster does one thing and it does it well — they review hotels. The full color pictures, comprehensive reviews, and real-time price comparisons make them a contender in this crowded space.
If speed and functionality are your jam, HotelTonight is for you. Not known for incredibly deep dives, the sheer volume of users and reviews make up for any oversight.
It’s a “power of the masses” kind of thing, and it works. You can search, review, and book a hotel on HotelTonight in literally seconds. Which is good and kind of bad. Just saying.
TripsAdvisor rules, so download the mobile app and keep all those hotel, flight, dining, and travel reviews and info in your pocket. Seriously. Download the TripAdvisor app right now. I’ll wait.
This July, the Zagat mobile app came out of nowhere with an dining app that combines the best features of FourSquare, Yelp, and yes, the Zagat Guide itself for an excellent new dining discovery tool.
The overall experience of the app is smooth and intuitive, with increased search functionality and map integration, but what sets it apart is the curated magazine feel. Zagat combined it’s core content with user reviews for something that few apps can say they bring to the peer review conversation — context. Give it a try; you’ll like it.
If you’re traveling in the US, Canada, UK, Australia or New Zealand, the Urbanspoon app is a great way to discover new restaurants. Like most of its competitors, Urbanspoon features reviews and ratings, but it also lets you browse the menu, make a reservation, and even alter your existing reservation if things change. It’s the swiss army knife of dining apps.
Bar & Nightlife Reviews
My favorite way to find a bar is to close my eyes, spin around, and start walking, but since there’s no shortage of “bar finder” apps, here are a few “high tech” ways to find the closest watering hole:
Zomato is billed as a restaurant finder, but many people know it as the “Google of Bars.” Comprehensive maps, constant updates (twice a week to stay fresh), and the ability to order a round on the way to the bar make Zomato pretty damn interesting.
A clever(?) twist on LinkedIn — the original drinking app — DrinkedIn promises not just the location and information of all the best bars nearby — it promises the best deals. Essentially a happy hour app with options, DrinkedIn is worth a download if you find yourself in a major city with some time on your hands.
Yeah. I said it. Google maps is awesome at finding not just the best bars, but now, the best reviews. Listed right there next to all the info you need are the most recent reviews and the out-of-five-star rating system we’ve all just sort of agreed to arbitrarily use. I don’t know why.
Sometimes the best things in life are right in front of you. Especially if those things are beer. Just don’t DRIVE AND USE THIS FEATURE YOU MONSTER.
I like books. I travel with books. Sue me. Check out Goodreads mobile app and get a great page turner for your next 14-hour bus ride.
The Problem with Travel Reviews
Aside from the obvious problem that everyone has a unique perspective, expectations, experience, and subjective point of view that informs literally everything we see, think, and do while we travel, the next biggest problem with travel reviews is that they are written by the kind of people that write travel reviews — namely, high-maintenance complainers.
Yeah, I said it. You know who you are.
If you’re a chill person, you’re probably not going to write a review of a mediocre hotel experience. If you are a secretive person, you probably won’t share that awesome waterfall you stumbled upon in Iceland that one time. If you’re not internet savvy, you’re not even part of the conversation, even if you do have epic advice.
However, if you’re the squeaky wheel, travel reviews let you get all the oil you want.
How to Spot an Unreliable Review
Here are a few obvious red flags to help you weed out the helpful reviews from the hurt feelings and one off bad experiences.
While everyone is different, and mob mentality is what’s wrong with…every country, there’s nothing more telling in a travel review than a consensus. Sure, some people might be overly sensitive, but if dozens of people say a place is misleading, disappointing, etc., you should listen.
This is an obvious place to start, but the reviewer’s experience and ranking within the confines of the site are important. If they’re a veteran reviewer, give them a little more credence. Look for sites that feature badges; or, better yet, paid commenters and reviewers whose job it is to answer your questions.
When was the review written? Was it from 2009? No one knew what the heck they were doing in 2009. AirBnB wasn’t even really a thing back then, so of course their homestay was a disaster. Prioritize reviews from the last 6 months.
I hate to say it, but if your review looks like a 5th grader wrote it, I’m not going to read it. No punctuation, poor spelling, and run-on sentences don’t belong in a quality travel review. This isn’t a YouTube comment section…
This is tough to sniff out from a single review, but I try to gauge the expectations of reviewers based on the length of the post, the tone they use, they’re age, and obvious travel experience. It’s a little judgmental, but I’ve been traveling for a while and can generally tell if someone’s bad experience might have been the result of their own high expectations or lack of basic understanding for the way things work abroad.
Use at your own discretion, but the internet was basically made to judge anonymous strangers, so you might as well get on board.
Overly Positive Reviews
Most sites say when a review is a “promoted post” or the result of a press trip, but not always. The general rule of thumb is that if a glowing review has a link to an article, it’s biased. Not always true, but pretty often the case. Or, they’re trying to sell something.
Don’t trust a review with random links.
Size matters. No travel review should be a novel. The surest sign of a high maintenance traveler is that they feel the need to give boatloads of context before getting to the point. If you can’t read the review in 30 seconds it’s not worth reading. Trust me.
There’s nothing like advice from the horse’s mouth, but sometimes you’re just talking to an ass. Travel reviews are a mixed bag — some helpful, others not so much — and knowing which sites to trust and how to spot bad apples can make all the difference in today’s ever evolving crowdsourced travel environment.
- TripAdvisor is surprisingly good for straight forward questions
- Use Lonely Planet’s Interest search feature for off the wall travel tips
- Yelp is the worst
- Use Atlas Obscura’s profile page to plan a trip with others
Read all the travel reviews you want, but always remember: There’s a reason we trust experts (they know what they’re talking about).
I’m a lot less likely to trust a gum that claims “4 out of 5 guys named Steve” think Tri-dent helps fight cavities. And that’s just a pack gum, Maybe put in a little more research before you book that trip around the world…
On Your Terms is a publication by Tortuga, makers of the ultimate travel backpack.