Traveling in the digital age, there is no shortage of people offering advice on which hotels to book and which ones to avoid. But with this massive influx of information, who can you trust?
Is it better to go with an old-school, traditional guidebook that might only convey one person's experience but is at least a trusted source? Or should travelers use a Web site that combines hundreds of hotel guests' comments and experiences but leaves you to guess about these users are and motivations?
There isn't a simple answer. Most travel experts say that both have their place and that savvy travelers will use both. But there are some tricks to be aware of.
The granddaddy of user-generated online reviews is TripAdvisor.com, which now includes 25 million reviews of more than 450,000 hotels in 70,000 locations around the world.
That's a lot of information, but it might not suit everyone's needs. A traveler from Australia who rarely goes on vacation might have different standards than a road-warrior from Los Angeles, which can color their impressions of a hotel or a city.
Sometimes people have gripes or might even be hotel owners posting about their own properties.
"My suggestion to consumers reading these is to look at the outliers -- which are either overly good or excessively bad -- and eliminate them," said Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at New York University.
He said sometimes you just need to look out for the excessive wording to weed out reviews from the "overly-angry, difficult guest."
Hanson also warned to be aware when there are five to 10 postings in a two-day period for a smaller hotel.
"Consumers aren't that spontaneous," he warned.
Josiah Mackenzie, who runs the blog Hotel Marketing Strategies, said the most helpful reviews are balanced.
"It is not going to include obscure details that only a hotel owner might know, like the name of the linen brand," he said.
Mackenzie predicts that someday soon there will be a split of reviews by business travelers for business travelers and separate reviews for families.
Bain Capital recently invested $10 million in a new site, Oyster.com, which employs about 20 undercover reviewers, mostly former journalists, to rate hotels. Currently the site only reviews seven destinations, but it promises to grow quickly. The reporters stay anonymously, follow a 65-page manual and take vivid photos that accompany each review. It promises professional, unbiased reviews, not a hodgepodge of random guest reviews.
But TripAdvisor spokesman Brooke Ferencsik said their site's random reviews are exactly what make TripAdvisor so valuable. Most of the reviews are positive, he said, and the company has plenty of tools in place to ensure that reviews are legitimate. Every post is screened by a human before posting. Suspicious reviews are investigated and software detects automatic postings.
"We have tools in place that ensure for the legitimacy of our reviews," he said.
(The average rating on TripAdvisor is 3.8 out of 5.)