Who should you take advice from when planning travel? Your mom? TripAdvisor? Costa Rica Guide? Fodor’s Guidebooks? The guy who cleans your pool?
It can be confusing so we’ve provided some advice and insight that might help.
You’d Assume People Would Know Where They Stayed
Online Reviews Don’t Have to be Fraud to be Misleading
You would expect people to be able to get the review on the right hotel but it’s amazing how often they don’t. It gets confusing when “The Springs” at Arenal and “Arenal Springs” are neighbors and a significant number of reviews end up on the wrong properties. There are other examples where four or five lodges share nearly identical names.
It gets even worse when it comes to activities and attractions.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the most famous destinations in Costa Rica but the reviews on TripAdvisor are nearly useless because so many of the reviewers don’t actually know where they went.
When I checked just now there were three reviews in a row on the first page that had glowing comments about how wonderful the canopy suspension bridges or zip-lines were in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Unfortunately there are no bridges or zip-lines in the reserve.
In fact, the majority of the first twenty TripAdvisor reviews for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve couldn’t possibly have been written about the reserve because they described things that don’t exist there.
If you’ve visited a dozen times like we have it’s relatively easy to tell when a reviewer has misplaced their comments but if you’re trying to research a trip it can be quite confusing, misleading and disappointing. If you really want to zip-line and show up at the reserve based on the dozens of comments on TripAdvisor about how great the zip-lines are there you’ll probably end up wasting a day of your vacation.
Occasionally unscrupulous marketers have been accused of intentionally trying to make their attraction, restaurant or tour sound like another popular and well reviewed one.
Internet Savvy is the Same Thing as Knowing How to Run a Lodge…Right…?
A less sinister bias than review fraud on travel sites is introduced by the difference between savvy and naive businesses.
Owners who recognize the big profits to be made from good ratings on TripAdvisor use all sorts of techniques like computers with free internet in the lobby that have TripAdvisor showing as the homepage or offering free drinks or discounted rooms in exchange for a review. We haven’t seen any attempt to limit it to good reviews, but really, how many people are going to have the chutzpa to write “this place stinks” then request their discount?
I’m not suggesting that businesses who understand and use internet marketing are unethical, but many places with excellent, settings, service and amenities (especially mom and pop local operations) aren’t aware of the power of TripAdvisor so don’t make an effort to move up or defend themselves against spurious attacks.
In 2011 a Costa Rican hotel and a Costa Rican B&B made it into the TripAdvisor top ten in the world in their respective categories. They’re both nice places and we recommend them at times. But, I’ve been around the world and neither belongs on a list of the top 1,000 let alone the top ten.
They are on the list because of advertizing professionals who know how the system works and know how to work the system.
Do you really want to choose a hotel based mainly on how marketing and internet savvy the management is, or how much money they have to spend on “rankings advisors”?
Reviewer Attitudes & Background Count – a Lot!
Even if you manage to identify legitimate sober contributors, good luck getting anything useful out of them.
We’ve seen totally opposite reviews of the exact same property and the strange thing is that everything in each of them is completely true. Take the two hypothetical examples below.
Zero stars – The racket every morning was unbelievable! Even with the pillow over my head I couldn’t sleep past 5:00 a.m. and when I finally gave up and climbed in the shower I had to jump back out and call the manager because there was a lizard the size of my hand on the wall. We had to postpone – and finally cancel – our guided hike because it rained every afternoon. We had to climb practically up a cliff to get to the restaurant and the food was boring and awful and they didn’t have a single one of my favorites on the menu. What totally stunk was that there was nothing else around for miles so we couldn’t even go somewhere else.
Five stars – The wildlife and isolated setting was amazing. Howler monkeys and cicadas started calling us out to the trails before dawn, and one morning when we returned drenched (it is the rain forest after all) but happy we watched for half an hour as a gecko hunted right in the corner of our open air shower. One evening on the short walk back from dinner to our room we saw three sloths, a huge tarantula in its hole on the embankment, and these incredibly unique wild eyed hopping birds called night-jars. Speaking of dinner the food was simple but all organic and very fresh (they have their own garden) and I was delighted that everything on the menu was a chance to try a new local dish.
Now I’ve made the contrast almost a parody of two types of travelers so it would be pretty easy to decide which review fits your own style but it’s not always so obvious. Mr. zero stars might have benefited from speaking with a Costa Rican travel professional who could have arranged accommodations that kept the wilderness at a comfortable distance.
Another thing to consider is that a VERY small number of travelers and “experts” make up the vast majority of the contributors. Around two million visitors travel to Costa Rica every year. Based on the number of responses on the top 20 sites, less than one in ten thousand travelers contribute or comment – and remember some of those responses come from professionals with profit motives.
Since such a small percentage of people have anything to say it’s worth considering what sort of mood they’re in. One of the biggest worries we’ve heard from the owners and managers of some places we know for a fact are very good and have been for years is that angry people are much more likely to write reviews. Some people are just never satisfied, others unlucky and some are just jerks.
On the flip side very happy people might be induced to write a review as well for another free drink or room upgrade.
Another source nearly inconceivable but apparently common source of questionable reviews are from extortionists. We couldn’t believe it the first time we heard about it but there are actually people who will threaten to write a false bad review on TripAdvisor if they aren’t given special treatment. They book and pay for standard rooms then demand an oceanfront suite.