Just how useful are travel reviews?

July 6th, 2010 in Cruising by Sarah Lee 12
Searching for a needle in a haystack? Or travel reviews from people just like you?

As you know I recently had the chance to sample Norwegian Cruise Lines’ latest ship Epic. I’ve just been reading through a fairly mixed bag of reviews of the ship – some saying it couldn’t be better and others quoting bad experiences and personal niggles. It’s made me wonder: how useful are travel reviews and do they say more about us than the hotel/ship/airline we’ve reviewed?

According to Nielsen Research 70% of people trust online reviews. But by their very nature reviews are subjective – what suits one person will make another shudder. So why do we place so much store in personal reviews on the likes of Tripadvisor, CruiseCritic and SeatGuru?

There was a time when I wouldn’t consider a hotel until I’d read a truck of positive reviews on Tripadvisor. And there’s a lot to be said for being able to arrive at a place in reasonable peace of mind, knowing what facilities to expect (other than those hoteliers may have hyped up), seeing photos that show off the ugly building site next door as well as the awesome infinity pool and knowing that you likely won’t get food poisoning from the buffet.

But after 500 people have left their views of a hotel, cruise or airline on a review site and 200 say it’s appalling, 200 it’s great and the other 100 think it’s OK, where does that leave you in deciding whether to take the plunge? It’s at times like this that I look to the middle ground, which could leave me no better informed than when I began.

A pinch of salt

But what if the majority of those 500 people are way more fussy than you? We all know someone whose glass is always half-empty and another with a sickeningly cheery outlook on life – does that mean their views are any more or less valid? Surely our impressions of a travel experience are based principally on our own expectations and personal levels of what is acceptable and what’s not. This becomes most apparent when you look at reviews from people from different countries and cultures. For example, I usually take reviews by Americans with a bigger pinch of salt than those from Europeans. It’s not that I don’t trust Americans’ views, purely that they often have different expectations to us Europeans. Many Americans used to a great service-culture expect very high levels of service and look for rooms larger than most European hotel conference halls. So not only do we have to be aware of the glass half-empty or half-full reviewer, but also of cultural differences in expectations, when what we really need is reviews from people who are just like us.

Added to this we’re now well aware that a lot of these sites get infiltrated by ‘reviewers’ from the company in question or their competition posting positive or negative reviews accordingly.

So what do these review sites tell us about ourselves? Perhaps that we need reassurance in our choices. Years ago this was the job of independent travel journalists – to go out there, try it and tell us what it was like. But now consumer-generated feedback and social media are changing the way we research our travel destinations. In many respects for the better, but as with the examples given here, how do we know we can trust that the people leaving their thoughts on review sites really are just like us?

Do you use review sites when planning your travel? How do you filter meaningless, over sensitive and one-off bad experiences from the useful reviews?

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