In October, on assignment to find the cheapest way to spend a few days on a Caribbean beach, I dug up a budget-friendly package to the all-inclusive Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach resort in the Dominican Republic. Four days, three nights for $561, airfare and airport transfer included. I wondered what was wrong with the place. Surly service? Terrible food? Dirty rooms?
So I did what any modern traveler would do: I looked it up on TripAdvisor.com. The resort had more than 1,000 user reviews. Among them were some that substantiated my fears; others were far more positive. I went ahead and booked.
Knowing how to navigate the popular site is as necessary a modern travel skill as packing efficiently. TripAdvisor's sites attracted an average of 53 million unique visitors a month to its user-generated reviews of over 2 million hotels, restaurants and attractions in 2012 through November, according to comScore, an online analytics firm.
I travel about 180 days a year, so I use TripAdvisor a lot. Here's my conclusion: TripAdvisor amazes me. It terrifies me. But love it or hate it, you'd better use it right.
What's the best way to navigate it?
Adam Medros, a vice president for TripAdvisor, said visitors to the site have learned to "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 resort reviews. The negative ones were the ones that first caught my attention, but a lot of the complainers seemed like unpleasant travelers. A majority liked the resort, and many positive reviewers chided the negative Nellies for expecting luxury accommodations at bargain prices.
Medros said filters on the site could have helped me find travelers with my worldvirew, for example. He also said there area other options, like signing into TripAdvisor through Facebook, which enables the site to prioritize reviews written by your friends.
Do fake reviews affect the reliability?
Medros said the company employs more than 100 people who speak 21 languages and have "backgrounds in credit-card fraud and military intelligence" to weed out fraudulent reviews. Still I regularly encounter dubious reviews on the site.
Last month I spent a night at the Clarion Resort and Waterpark 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, a clear violation of the site's fraud policy.
What else is the site good for?
The site has made itself more valuable by becoming a trip-planning juggernaut. Travelers can look for apartment rentals, browse user-submitted photos, and print three-day itineraries curated by (paid) locals.
You can create a to-do list by clicking on "Save to Trip." Most impressive is its new City Guides app, which lets you download full TripAdvisor content for 60 cities onto your smartphone or tablet, then use it without a data connection.
Can the reviews improve travel?
Before there were online reviews, travelers 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 it seemed more fun and satisfying.
But Barbara Messing, chief marketing officer for TripAdvisor, claims that TripAdvisor helps travelers connect with independent, sometimes out-of-the-way hotels and other business they wouldn't know of otherwise. "The Trip Advisor community thrives in finding gems," she said.
I'll grant her that. In fact, scrolling to the bottom of TripAdvisor's "Things to do" suggestions is a way to find lesser-known attractions in a city. And the site does democratize travel, by allowing smaller businesses to shine and by providing a meaningful way for travelers to dole out praise and criticism that will be heard.
Still, I'm not convinced. Why have my most exhilarating trips of the past few years been to those rare places that TripAdvisor and other review sites haven't yet documented? 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. Or that 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 taking risks. But I advise everyone to use the vast online travel database with moderation. Save a day or two for spontaneity: seek advice from a stranger on the Seoul subway; explore an Italian town just because you stopped there for gas; trust your instinct to find a Parisian bistro. Maybe you'll find out that its croque-madame has been praised 717 times on TripAdvisor. Who cares? You discovered it yourself.