Sunday, July 4, 2010

Travel Unplugged: How TripAdvisor, Yelp, Etc., Just Might Ruin Your Next Vacation

User reviews are inescapable these days, whether you're buying a book on Amazon, an app on iTunes or stocking movies in your Netflix queue. Everything, it seems, can be judged and summed up on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. And that's part of what is ruining independent travel these days, at least for me. Here are some reasons why you should consider planning (or just spontaneously taking) your next vacation without consulting TripAdvisor, Yelp or other online ranking sites for hotels, restaurants, etc.

>> MAINSTREAMING. Ever notice how user reviews tend to even out at an average of 3 stars? Sure, there are some that rise above and some that fall below. But overall, what sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp give you is a lot of random data (lotsa noise, little signal) about mostly average places. Places that do a good job of sort of pleasing everyone (ahem, hotel chains) rise to the top, while eclectic and idiosyncratic places get lost in the shuffle. Do you want every trip you take to be as predictably bland as a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn?

>> PROVINCIALISM. I always remind myself that the ranking of any hotel or restaurant online reflects the average American opinion about a place. Would I take the advice of the random assortment on people living on my own block at home about where I should stay or eat on vacation? No. When I travel, I'd like it to be as different from home as possible. Else, where's the surprising joy (and challenge) of being on the road?

Provincialism also gets to the heart of why reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp are too often unreliable. I've noticed that small-town opinions about global food (let's say, Indian restaurants in Fresno, CA) can be notoriously inaccurate and over-hyped, while big-city travelers (e.g., LA denizens road-tripping up the California coast) believe no sushi bar can compare to back home. Either way, online users rate places based on their own experiences. Who's to say I'll agree?

>> CORRUPTIBILITY. I'm not only talking about the Yelp controversy and allegations about search results being doctored for advertisers. I'm talking about the sheer ease and frequency with which fake reviews are posted by businesses on TripAdvisor and Yelp, easily manipulating their star ratings to be more positive. TripAdvisor is noticeably full of reviews written by online users who have only made 1 contribution to the site, and often those reviews are gushing, 5-star self-promotional marketing ploys. You're not always getting honest traveler's experiences on these sites, obviously.

>> TIME WASTING. TripAdvisor and Yelp can be a colossal waste of time, especially when you're on the road. Many travelers let these online tools become a crutch, for example, if you won't try out a new restaurant without checking Yelp or hesitate to book a hotel without consulting dozens of TripAdvisor reviews. Sure, sometimes you'll end up somewhere not good that these sites could've pointed you away from. But by not sifting through hundreds of online reviews before or during your vacation, you'll experience more of the place you're visiting, first-hand and in the moment.

>> GIVING AWAY OUR POWER. Remember the days when travel agents planned our trips, and had all the power? Most people would understandably rather book their own travel these days. But if you blindly follow whatever TripAdvisor and Yelp recommend, then you're just following the digital crowds, making them your travel agent. The more people use these online rating sites, the more power they have to make or break a business, especially since small, local places often feel the brunt of having no reviews or unfairly poor ratings.

SO WHAT? Am I saying I'll never use TripAdvisor or Yelp again? No. My point is we should use these ratings sites more judiciously. It's time to untether ourselves from our electronic concierges. Spend less time browsing online and more time enjoying travel. Read reviews with a dose of skepticism, and don't be afraid to try a place that hasn't been recommended online. Use online rankings sites to be a voice in support of independent travel by reviewing local businesses, instead of just supporting the Starbucks status quo. Most of all, let yourself rediscover the serendipity of being on the road, with just a map (and not an iPhone) in hand.

What do you think about online ratings sites? Are they always a useful tool when you travel, or not? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


  1. Indie Traveler, it's too bad the travel review sites you rightfully critique here won't hire you for your English composition expertise. I can't stand even glancing at the completely illiterate entries posted online. I wish I could mail my old copy of Strunk and White to some of the people that feel authoritative enough to bottom-rank my favorite hang out. Oh, but wait, Strunk and White is only ranked 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon, so should I take the time to read it?

  2. I couldn´t agree with you more.. I go on thorntree and trip advisor for ecuador and have to spend half an hour correcting people who provide bad information to those who want honest advice.. Thanks for the post!