How to Read TripAdvisor

What I have written in the past, many times, about how to safely navigate TripAdvisor just does not work anymore.  That is because – unless my eyes deceive me – I am seeing an unprecedented avalanche of false positive reviews written by hotel sales managers, GMs, even cooks (excuse me, chefs) – or their friends and co-conspirators.

Which has prompted my rethink of how a savvy consumer needs read TripAdvisor.

My guess: we are seeing a perverse outcome of the old management saw, what gets measured gets done.  Tell a cook that he will hit the bricks if his TripAdvisor rating stays in the gutter and, guess what, it gets lifted. How? The fastest way is to cheat.

Ditto a sales manager or GM who is taking guff from asset managers.  The latter should be peeved when a hotel that, say, has claimed to be “world class” cannot even manage to hold the top spot in a small tertiary market that is unpopulated by the perennial all stars (Aman, Four Seasons, etc).  If you cannot beat nobody, you aren’t word class, QED, thus the screaming – threats probably of bonuses withheld or firings – and then along come the fake reviews.

How? That’s easy. A struggling cook might form a mutual defense alliance with cooking school classmates. All sworn to secrecy. But as need arises – to counter a few bad reviews – they weigh in with glowing comments and the deed is done. The negative reviews are buried under the weight of fake positives.

Sales managers and GMs can do likewise in their circles.

Other GMs probably are just posting their own fakes, using the many Internet appliances we all have and accessing TripAdvisor via any of the many public WiFi networks at coffee shops, stores, restaurants and, yes, hotels of course.

Set up a handful of email addresses at the free services and you are halfway to a bank of bogus TripAdvisor accounts.

TripAdvisor of course says its armies of machines are ever alert for fakes and will track them down. Punishments range up to placement of “A large red penalty notice, explaining that the property’s reviews are suspicious may appear on the listing page.”  I believe I have seen that only once.

I believe I should see it a lot more often.

Mind you, I still insist: TripAdvisor is the best place to get credible commentary about hotels.  It is vastly better than professional travel writing – just about all those reviews result from typically undisclosed “comped” (free) trips. As for bloggers, forget about it. The FTC is looking to crack down on undisclosed blogger compensation, including freebies,  but so far the blogosphere is a wild west of corruption and mendacity when it comes to hotel write ups.

That is why you need to know how to carefully – smartly – read TripAdvisor reviews.

First: discard the outliers.  Some reviews are just too positive or too negative.  When I see “Chef XYZ should have his own restaurant in Manhattan” – and said cook would struggle for acclaim in Manhattan, Kansas – I know it was written by his mom.

Ditto for a review of a hotel – one that fares well overall – that finds no good whatsoever and insists there are bedbugs, mold, theft, and a cavalcade of bad things.  Is this reviewer lying? Maybe, maybe not.  But even if it’s the truth, perhaps the establishment just had an epicly bad day that won’t likely be repeated.

Look for patterns. When the same things – positive or negatives – are said many times they probably are true.

Which leads to the next precaution: if there are under 100 reviews – or perhaps you want a higher number; 1000 is reasonable – stop right there.  The data set is too small to be reliable.  There is truth in numbers when it comes to online reviews.

Now for the new advice: ignore all reviews written by posters with under 10 reviews. Just don’t read them.

In looking at a particular hotel that has been climbing in its ranking, I noticed that of the most recent 10 reviews, four were written by posters with 5, 4, 1, and 5 total reviews. They also had not posted photos.

All fakes? I do not know of course.  But were I spending my money on a hotel room, I’d bet they are fakes – and would ignore them accordingly.

My hope of course is that TripAdvisor wakes up its algorithms, puts its machines on high alert, and begins a search and destroy mission for hotels that are stuffing the ballot box.
As travelers we need TripAdvisor – but we need a TripAdvisor that we can count on.

The Attack of the Hotel Resort Fees – How to Fight Back

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has spoken and what it said makes zero sense but for consumers it is bad news indeed. That is because the FTC has declared that it is okay for hotels to slap us with resort fees that are not shown in advertised prices.

This makes no sense, given that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has sternly told airlines that advertised prices have to include all mandatory charges (such as taxes).

Many expected FTC to rule similarly in regard to resort fees, especially since the FTC in 2012 told 22 hotels that resort fees by their very nature are deceptive and misleading.

In its letter to those hotel operators, the FTC said, “One common complaint consumers raised involved mandatory fees hotels charge for amenities such as newspapers, use of onsite exercise or pool facilities, or internet access, sometimes referred to as ‘resort fees.’  These mandatory fees can be as high as $30 per night, a sum that could certainly affect consumer purchasing decisions.”

“Consumers are entitled to know in advance the total cost of their hotel stays,” said Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz back in 2012.

In the years since, at least one consumer advocacy group – Travelers United – has campaigned loudly against “misleading, deceptive resort fees.”

This writer has reported several times on evil resort fees.

What’s changed so that the FTC now winks at resort fees?

Best guesses are that the hotel industry – envious of the ancillary fees (bag check, snacks, premium seats) that have nudged airlines into profitability – launched a full court lobbying press on the FTC and key legislators. Money talks inside the Beltway. Always has.

Nobody is saying resorts cannot charge as they wish. The complaint is rooted in the non-disclosure of resort fees. It’s as though when you check out you get hit with upcharges for electricity and water use (though in California perhaps the latter might make more sense than a resort fee).  Yet that is exactly what a growing number of hotels and resorts are doing.

So do you really have to pay the resort fees?

Back up a step. First: what is a resort fee? It’s an upcharge – which nowadays has crept up as high as $100 per day; generally it’s about 10% of the room rate – that covers, well, stuff you’d expect at a resort such as pool towels, WiFi, a newspaper, and a long list of generally blah activities. The good stuff – real activities – usually have separate fees and that is for spa, guided mountain bike outings with an expert, full length yoga classes, surfing lessons, and, yes, the things consumers go to resorts to enjoy. They all cost extra. What you get for the resort fee is filler.

Trust me: nobody wants to pay for the bad resort WiFi, the superfluous newspaper (when was the last time you opened a USA Today), and a packet of thin activities.

We pay because we are told it is “mandatory,” that we must pay.

You do not have to.  Frugal travelers assured this reporter they often dodge resort fees.  Some tell the desk they do not plan to use anything covered by the resort fee. Others insist to the desk that the resort fees were not adequately disclosed in the booking process and, indeed, many hotels seem to work hard at hiding the fees, or displaying them in tiny type, so that guests do not jump ship before completing the booking process.

Either way: complain loudly and persistently at the front desk.  You just may be rewarded with a waived resort fee.

Another strategy: shop for resorts that do not charge a resort fee. In Las Vegas – a kind of ground zero for resort fees because most hotels charge them, with the fees topping out at $32.48/day according to this roundup – there are in fact some hotels that charge no resort fee.  There are not many and most have no name, but one that doesn’t charge and has a name is the Wyndham Grand Desert.   You know where to take your business.

Incidentally, in the past five years this writer has been to perhaps ten large conventions in Las Vegas, with rooms booked under “conference rates” and, you know what, in every case I can remember the resort fee was waived because the conference organizer demanded it.

Do likewise.