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Between the lines: making travel reviews work for you

Everybody’s taste is different. When juggling so many different perspectives, it can be difficult to make sense of the reviews on TripAdvisor, HostelWorld and the like.

Restaurants, tours, hostels and transport companies frequently ask me to ‘review us on Tripadvisor’. When travelling you are guaranteed to see those certificates of approval showing how the service has been rated by previous customers. But how helpful are travel reviews in reality?

The quick answer is “very, if you can read between the lines”.

We often turn to websites like Tripadvisor, Hostelworld and Booking.com to find information about what to do, where to stay and how to get there. For the most part this has been extremely useful and we have had some great experiences as a result.

However, the more we use these sites, the more we are coming to understand the flaws with a customer review model. You can’t just believe everything you read; travel reviews need to be interpreted careful if they are to be useful to you personally.

The science of travel reviews

Reviews are a response to an expected service, and everyone has different levels of expectation. In theory, if something meets or exceeds your expectations then you will leave a positive review, and if not then you might leave a negative review.

But they can also be emotional – about how the experience made someone feel – rather than objective. For example, this can cause problems where you are asked to rate something like a tour, because the people who happen to be in your group can heavily influence your experience, which you then reflect in your review.

Here’s the thing. Very few people write useful, balanced reviews a result of varying levels of expectation and differing emotional responses.

Travel reviews: billions of people visit TripAdvisor every year for recommendations
Travel reviews: billions of people visit TripAdvisor every year for recommendations

Quick tricks for interpreting travel reviews

There are various ways you can negate the effects of individual levels of expectation and emotion in travel reviews:

Establish your expectations

Before you read the reviews, consider what you are expecting from the experience. Once this is clear, you might take some of the reviews with a pinch of salt. If someone gives a restaurant one star because the service was a bit slow, and that wouldn’t bother you too much, then you can look past it.

Think about other outside factors, such as what you expect from the country or area the service is in. Is it known for bad driving? Or bad wifi, or bad timekeeping?

I’ve seen so many examples of hostels repeatedly being given low ratings for having cold showers, when that’s pretty much the norm everywhere in the country. Perhaps it was the first stop for those reviewers and they didn’t realise.

When you spot quirks like this, you can ignore those particular reviews and move on.

Judge the quality and suitability of the review

If something feels amiss in a review, take a look at the reviewer’s profile, or any other previous travel reviews they have written. Do they have much in common with you? If not, you might want to think about how their expectations will differ.

If the information is available, I always take a look at the age of reviewers and whether they are travelling in a group, solo or as a couple. Then I check if there is anything they’ve written that might indicate their style of travel. Are they a backpacker or a holiday-maker?

Finally, take a look at other people’s responses to the review. How useful has the review been rated by other users, and are there any contradicting comments in response? If a review is seen to be useful on TripAdvisor it gets bumped to the top of the list.

Read comments – don’t just rely on headline figures

It is SO important to read the comments and not just skim the number ratings. Generally, when someone has had one bad experience they will score all numbers lower, and when someone has had a good emotional experience they will score all the numbers high.

This can cause problems, especially on Hostelworld, because it doesn’t provide an accurate picture. This is particularly important consider when one factor – location, for example – is more important to you than the others.

A hostel can have a 9+ rating overall and high scores across all measures, but when you get there you find the location is not ideal for what you are planning to do in the area. Looking closely, it might be that ‘location’ was the one factor that scored 8 when other factors scored 9.5. Or maybe people just stayed in the hostel to party, had a great time, and rated everything 10 without considering the location in a meaningful way.

On the flip side, maybe you missed the hostel with the perfection location you needed because its ‘location’ score was dragged down by low scores in its atmosphere and facilities.

If you have very specific requirements, make sure you drill down into the details to see if it will meet your requirements. Check the facilities, see what the security credentials are, check the map. A couple of minutes doing this can save a lot of woe.

Check the dates on travel reviews

I have seen numerous examples on Hostelworld where a hostel appears to have a fairly low overall score, but when checking the most recent reviews it scores between 8–10. It might have had a recent renovation or changed owners/staff – both can have a big impact on a person’s experience.

When looking up reviews on Booking.com, be aware that the site displays the most ‘relevant’ (best) reviews at the top. If you want the true picture, you need to change the settings to show them by the most recent first.

Help the community: be a conscious reviewer yourself

Providing balanced, detailed feedback on a service is useful for everyone. Here are some factors that make for a great review:

  • Specific examples of things you enjoyed
  • Specific examples of things you think that need to be improved
  • Precise costs (“it was cheap” might mean different things to different types of traveller)
  • Time it takes to do the activity
  • How to get there
  • What you need to take with you
  • Any other tips or recommendations you wish you’d known before
Travel reviews: HostelWorld is one of the most popular sites for accommodation recommendations
Travel reviews: HostelWorld is one of the most popular sites for accommodation recommendations

Examples of travel reviews that aren’t useful

Over the last year I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of travel reviews on hostels, restaurants, things to do, tours – you name it, I’ve probably looked it up.

Below are a few examples of reviews that appear to be negative. However, you might find they’re just not useful to you when followed the interpretation principles I described above.

Hostels: finding somewhere with the perfect “atmosphere’”

“It didn’t have any atmosphere” has to be the most common phrase I’ve seen on HostelWorld. But what makes for a good atmosphere? Surely everywhere has an atmosphere. The question is, how do you find the type of atmosphere you’re looking for? What I see as a great atmosphere might be boring for others.

It’s also not something hostels can do a lot about. A hostel can run different events and manage their social spaces well, but atmosphere is entirely dependent on the people in the hostel at that time.

There are some hostels, such as the Mad Monkey chain in south-east Asia, which market themselves in a specific way to attract party people. Their brand is their atmosphere, and they usually score highly as a result. But this only works when a hostel is marketed based purely on that criteria. Everyone who goes there expects a party and so when they get there, they party.  

But what if you’re looking for something in the middle? We’ve had huge difficulty in finding hostels that attract like-minded people. We’re not usually after a ‘party hostel’; we like drinking, we like beer pong and we like socialising, but we’re not really into the ‘spring break’ feel any more.

Maybe HostelWorld should use a different rating system for this; scrap the atmosphere rating, and instead let users pick which type of atmosphere it has. The options could be ‘party vibe’, ‘drinking and socialising’, ‘good for some me time’, ‘only here for sleep’, etc – well, you get the gist, and I’m sure someone with a bit of market research could do better than that.  

Reading between the lines of hostel ‘atmosphere’ reviews: Atmosphere means different things to different people. Consider the kind of atmosphere you are after, ignore the number ratings and instead look at how people describe the atmosphere in the comments. People might have listed it as a negative (“it’s not really a party place”) but that might be exactly what you’re after. I also look at the pictures of hostels to see what kind of communal space they are offering. Chances are, if there is a communal space that is good for relaxing then you can meet people and have a few drinks.

Restaurants: when “the food was great but it made me sick”

Many a time on TripAdvisor we’ve found a restaurant that has good reviews, except for a handful. Sometimes people say the food was delicious but made them “sick” later. In some cases people claim “it gave me food poisoning”. We’ve hesitated a few times because of reviews like this, but always gone anyway. We’ve never had a problem.

After thinking about this long and hard I’ve come to the conclusion that those people probably just ate something too spicy for them, or something a bit rich that they’re not used to and it went through them a bit quicker.

If you had food poisoning, you probably wouldn’t leave them a four-star review after. Having an iffy tummy for a couple of hours and going for a sloppy poo may not mean that the food was off; it might just mean that they reacted to something in it.

Reading between the lines of the ‘restaurant made me sick’ reviews: Check a few of the restaurant reviews. If only one person has complained about this, then it probably isn’t a thing. Of course, if the reviews are consistently saying it then you may want to think twice. Quite often people get emotional about restaurant reviews and, of course, people also get paid to leave travel reviews. Remember this when looking for somewhere good to eat.

Hotels and restaurants often pay for good travel reviews
Be aware: hotels and restaurants often pay for good travel reviews

Transport: blanket poor reviews or “the worst company ever”

Let’s face it, the only reason you would write a review about a bus company is if you had a terrible experience. You never think “yeah, the bus did exactly as expected, so I should leave a good review”. If a service does what you expect of it you don’t feel compelled to leave good feedback, unless they go above and beyond.

When we were in Cambodia (notorious for bad driving), we booked a bus from Sihanoukville to Kampot with a company called Champa. After booking it, we looked at the online reviews and were instantly terrified. One-star average, and most people complained about the whole thing.

There wasn’t much we could do – we had already paid – so we braved the journey anyway. We were picked up on time and taken to the office of the bus company (like every journey we took in Cambodia), we waited for the bus, which was inevitably late (like every bus we took in Cambodia) and when we boarded it there wasn’t much space (like every bus we took in Cambodia), and the driver wasn’t the best (like every bus we took in Cambodia).

Context is extremely important when it comes to finding good, reliable transport companies.

Reading between the lines of transport reviews: Read the reviews and look at what people are complaining about. In the Cambodia example, the reviews were mainly about lateness, bad driving, too many stops and lots of waiting. However, we knew this was the norm for where we were, and we expected that anyway. If it’s your first time in a place and you don’t know what to expect from the transport then check forums or speak to people who are waiting with you.

Hostels: “Great place to stay but it has bed bugs”

Bed bugs are a problem while travelling. They are creepy and gross, but also inevitable. However, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about bed bugs, how you spot them and what to do if you see one.

I have read many reviews where people who say they had bed bugs probably just got bitten by mosquitos. Maybe their feet were sticking out of the blanket and a mosquito had a good go? Maybe they got bitten while they were having a beer outside in the evening, but only started itching when they woke up?

Unless you see bed bugs I think it’s unfair to say it in a review. From experience, if there are bed bugs you will see at least one while you’re in or around your bed. When we did see one we alerted the hostel, and they immediately moved us to a different room while they sorted the problem.

Bed bugs are brought by travellers; they are not a result of anything the hostel does. I don’t take any notice of people who write reviews claiming bed bugs and bites. The only time I do pay attention is when a hostel doesn’t respond to complaints about bed bugs.

Reading between the lines of ‘bed bugs’ reviews: Don’t take claims on bed bugs too seriously, unless reviewers are consistently saying that they saw bed bugs, told the hostel and explained how the hostel reacted. For those who just say that the hostel has bed bugs because they had bites when they woke up, chances are it’s either been sorted or they were never there in the first place. When you get to your accommodation check your bed for signs, and never put your bag on your bed.

All services but mainly restaurants: “the price was reasonable”

“Reasonable” is another relative term, much like atmosphere. If a review provides no indication of what they were expecting to pay in relation to how much they paid, then terms like “reasonable” or even “cheap” are completely pointless. Reasonable for who? Backpackers? Holidaymakers? Honeymooners? Rich folk?

Reading between the lines of ‘reasonable’ reviews: I ignore this type of review entirely because it is too ambiguous. Even the dollar signs that indicate the price level on Tripadvisor aren’t entirely useful, as they are generated by reviewers, who see prices from different perspectives. To get around this I search through the photos to see if someone has posted an image of the menu, or I head to the restaurant’s website.

So there we have it. While reviews can be useful, always make sure you read between the lines. Look at what people are not saying as much as what they are saying. And make up your own mind.

Planning your travel budget? Check out our breakdown of the money we spent on our round-the-world travel career break.

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We often turn to websites like Tripadvisor for information about what to do and where to stay. But how helpful are travel reviews in reality?

Looking for more travel life hacks? Read more in Story Every Day’s tips and tricks section.

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15 comments

  1. Lisa loved this article. It kind of made me laugh as I remembered some reviews which were actually hilarious. You’re absolutely right never just look at the review score and don’t always take everything being said to be 100% correct for your trip. I always tend to take the overall experiences of people and then decide on it! Thanks for sharing this

  2. I rarely trust Tripadvisor reviews for hotels, because it can be faked. Anyone can actually post a positive or negative review event if they dont really have a first hand experience. I read Agoda.com reviews, its from real customers who stayed at the hotel.

  3. I rarely pay attention to reviews from other people to be honest. Every single individual has different expectations and requirements – none of us are the same. Only if a restaurant or something has like 100 negative reviews and few positive reviews will I start to take notice. I think it’s pretty easy these days to buy good reviews

  4. We check reviews most of the times while booking for hotels, attractions and even restaurant suggestions. You’ve listed great tips on how to make these reviews actually work and how to read between the lines. I’m glad I came across this post. I agree the reviews are generally the emotional responses or what suits the reviewer and it can’t be ‘one size fits all’ theory. But reading between the lines and making your own expectations clear before reading the reviews really help. Thanks for sharing this helpful post.

  5. I kind of came to the point where I decided reviews weren’t that helpful. Unless I read like a solid ten reviews that mentioned the same problem, I would think its just fine. Probably not the best method, so I’ll take some of your tips into consideration.

  6. Started to smile when I read “Great place to stay but got bed bugs” Haha! Very creative post highlighting what and what not to extract from a review. Many a times people make mistakes you have highlights such as just reading the headline and most importantly.. Not checking the date. My view of a review will be different from the next time. Thanks for these tips!! Best.. Backpacking Series 🙂

  7. I am a solo traveler and I rely heavily on reviews as I do not want to get in trouble in an unknown place. What I have found out is that if majority of the reviews are positive, then the place generally turns out to be good. Sometimes business rivals also leave negative reviews in order to sabotage their opponents. So, you have to be very careful.

  8. Certainly a very useful article in the era when we do everything based on online reviews and are always in a hurry to quickly book a place. As mentioned by you I always make it a point to read the detailed review. However I always baffle while deciding for a hostel. Thanks for all the tops.

  9. I really appreciate that you took time to write this blog. I am sure that it is going to help many like me who want to travel aboard. Often I have noticed that people who have negative experience talk post more reviews while the ones with positive reviews just let it go. This is why it becomes confusing to rely on an online review. Blogs are a better source of reviews in that case.

  10. Really interesting idea for a blog – Thanks for writing and sharing it. I am going to be honest, I do read reviews, but always take them with a pinch of salt, if you know what I mean – there can be some very difficult people out there! I try to shop around and then always give a good review if I’ve enjoyed somewhere.

  11. Oh, don’t let me start 🙂 I am kinda angry to see positive reviews for some places, that are just so dull and boring. In Finland there is a hill, there used to be a fortress, but no longer. It is called “Fortress hill” and has good rating.
    Seriously. a hill? 😀

  12. I agree with the content of your post. I always read the date when the reviews were posted because I know that many things could have changed. Avoiding generic terms is another important tip for crafting well made and useful reviews.

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