Though online travel communities aren’t new, many have only recently reached that all-important critical mass of useful information that keeps people coming back. Unfortunately, alongside the rise of the online travel community has come a crisis of credibility. The trustworthiness of some hotel user reviews has been called into question and has created a stir that’s left many wondering if travel communities are even worth a visit.
Travelers want to know if an online community can help them plan a better trip, and if they can trust what they read. We tested a dozen travel community sites to find out.
Questions and controversy
At its best, a travel community serves to both answer questions and inspire travelers. It’s a place to read and submit opinions, get advice on travel-related subjects, and browse for ideas, tips, and answers to questions you didn’t even know you had.
User-rated and reviewed hotel listings are only a part of what’s available. Many sites host forums, also known as message boards, discussions, or bulletin boards. In forums, travelers can post questions they can’t find the answers to elsewhere. Travel community sites also may have personal travel sites and places where users can share and browse photos.
In recent months, rumors and examples of hotels offering perks to guests for submitting positive reviews, as well as hoteliers reviewing their own properties in glowing terms under false names, have stirred concern that some reviews are nothing more than underhanded marketing ploys.
Does this crisis of credibility cancel out the benefits of community sites? The short answer is no. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s one that can be well-utilized in spite of its flaws. There are two keys to making the most of community hotel ratings.
The first is to take anomalous reviews with a grain of salt. Those who are naturally suspicious of the extremes may already do so, but it’s a good idea to throw out the best and worst reviews and focus on the average to get a better sense of what to expect.
The second way to make the most of community ratings is to seek out a balance of expert and personal reviews. Expert reviews, those that can be found in guidebooks and other travel publications, are written by people who make it their business to compare travel products across spectrums for the general public, while user reviews zoom in on personal experiences. When travelers have access to both professional reviews and real-time opinions, they can make better travel decisions. For a real-life sense of how this technique works, read our case history about one couple’s efforts to plan a Costa Rica vacation that would include volcanoes, hot pools, and memorable accommodations.
Next, we put travel communities to the test
Travel communities put to the test
Independent travel community sites have cropped up all over the internet, and larger providers such as Yahoo! and AOL are cultivating their own travel communities as well. There are dozens to choose from, and it’s difficult to know where you’re likely to find the most active users and the best results.
We tested some of the busiest travel communities against one another to determine the current bests in the hotel ratings and forums categories.
Hotel ratings and reviews
The goal: We wanted to determine which sites offer the most on-topic ratings and reviews for hotels in the U.S. and around the world.
Though this isn’t an exhaustive list of places to find user hotel ratings, these sites provided enough critical mass to cover a variety of large and smaller destinations. This test was conducted during the week of March 12, 2006.
The test: We searched for reviews of both large and small hotels in major domestic and international cities, and small hotels in small domestic cities. We rated them on the number of reviews, and whether the reviews were relevant and offered insight that wouldn’t necessarily be available on the property’s site or in a guidebook.
The top three overall (alphabetical): MyTravelguide, TripAdvisor, Yahoo!
The results: MyTravelguide, TripAdvisor, and Yahoo! all offered easy searches, clear results, and multiple reviews for most properties we checked. Plus, each site offered a little more than the average experience. TripAdvisor and Yahoo! provide their own user reviews and reviews from other community sites, plus articles and other online information about properties. MyTravelguide, the underdog in this top three, has a clear and simple plus and minus system for marking the best and worst of a hotel, which makes skimming multiple reviews a whole lot easier. None of these top three performed perfectly, though. Some newer and smaller hotels did not have any user reviews.
(Editors’ note: TripAdvisor is a partner of SmarterTravel.com and offers a co-branded version of its site.)
Though rating hotels is a simple concept, there are many different approaches that cater to different information needs. Visitors looking for ratings broken down into elements such as cleanliness, service, and value will find the most succinct rating systems on Fodor’s, MyTravelguide.com, TravelPost, TripAdvisor, and Yahoo!. TripAdvisor allows people who travel by type (family, couple, or group for example) to find out if previous readers think a given location will be suitable for their particular needs. TravelPost offers people the chance to see pertinent information about the reviewers, including gender, age, type of travel budget, and how long they stayed. Fodor’s offers a combination guidebook/community rating page for all the hotels it covers, which is a useful way to make the most of expert reviews and traveler ratings.
Next, we test eight forums.
The goal: We wanted to determine if responses on forums are mostly accurate and useful.
Though this isn’t an exhaustive list of sites with travel forums, this list represents active, travel-focused communities. This test was conducted during the week of March 19, 2006.
The test: We posed a question about a popular destination (the San Francisco ferry building), and one about a smaller destination (Chico, California). We also searched existing boards to gauge activity and response relevance.
The results: The popular destination question received relevant responses in every forum. After a week, the smaller destination question yielded at least one helpful response in every forum as well. Many of these forums offer ways to track your questions, either by email notification when people respond, or by allowing you to group forums in a personal list. And, because forums serve as a database for all the questions people have asked, there’s a wealth of good information already there.
Finding the best answers on a forum means choosing your site wisely. Independent travelers and backpackers may find likeminded travelers ready to share their experience on sites such as BootsnAll or Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. And, Fodor’s and Frommer’s have a built-in audience of people who trust their guidebooks, and the forums reflect a similar sensibility. For forums, it may be wise to try out a few to determine the best fit.
Next, we look at the future of online communities.
The future of community
The online travel community model is still young and full of potential. It’s estimated that between 80 and 97 percent of the visitors to virtual community sites do not post. If community sites can find a way to encourage community tourists to participate, these sites would be flooded with information, making them more useful and comprehensive.
The credibility problem is inspiring more rigorous screening and some creative solutions. One site, TripConnect, is even building its community on a network model, so that people know directly or indirectly the people behind the reviews and ratings.
In the meantime, travel community can still be a valuable resource for trip planning. Reading both expert and community reviews of hotels and taking superlatives with a grain of salt can balance out the potential for misleading ratings. And testing out a few forums before determining a favorite can help you get better answers in the long term. Credibility is one of the potential pitfalls of virtual community, but when you’re sitting in a hotel room that 15 reviewers helped you choose, or when you find 10 detailed responses to a question you couldn’t find the answer to anywhere else, it seems worth the risk.
Bonus: Read an online travel community case history about a couple planning a Costa Rica vacation.
Case history: Planning a Costa Rica vacation
The volcano and the sloths were the easy part.
When Alexa Vargas of Oakland, CA, and her husband Dave began planning a vacation to Costa Rica last year, they already knew that hiking a volcano and visiting a sloth sanctuary were top priorities. But finding the right place to sleep at the right price was a far more difficult endeavor.
“We wanted something nice, reasonably priced, and appropriate for our demographic,” Vargas said. Not having visited before, they had to rely on second-hand accounts to find a hotel that would meet their criteria.
Like a growing number of people, Vargas decided to use both a guidebook and an online community to boost the chances of liking the hotel she chose: “I used the book to get a sense of decent hotel options in the area, then I checked on TripAdvisor to see what people were saying about the hotels to help me decide amongst the candidates,” Vargas explained. “Community sites are good for revealing recent developments that wouldn’t be in a guide book or on the hotel web site, such as if a hotel had fallen into disrepair or was under construction.”
Based on her research, she chose a lodge nestled in a national park where they could swim in hot pools during the day, and where, from their porch in the evening they could watch lava flowing from the nearby volcano. “It was amazing. I want to go back right now,” she says. Now there’s a community review.