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.

Rethinking the Hotel Room for 2015

Give me three wishes and I will tell you what I would change about hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms are snug. A commonly cited figure is 325 sq ft but I have seen much smaller in Manhattan (and usually much bigger in Las Vegas).  But assume 325 sq ft, with a lot of the space consumed by the bathroom.  The living space is small.  Let’s declutter it.

Step one: eliminate the minibar and, definitely, eliminate the junk for sale that now sits atop tables and dressers in hotel rooms. I know greedy owners want the profits that come with selling me a 99 cent candy bar for $10 – but I am not buying.

I cannot recall the last time I bought anything from a minibar.  I am thinking it had to be more than 25 years ago, when I had clients that happily picked up all manner of expenses. That stopped in a recession some time ago and so did my buying overpriced minibar stuff.

Of course if the hotelier insists – I have no idea why but if – I am okay with the Virgin Chicago hotel’s no minibar markup plan, where candy bars and Cokes are sold at High Street prices.

Another option: Kimpton’s $10 credit to “Raid the Minibar,” a perk extended to loyalty program members.

Ask hoteliers why minibar prices are so high and they spout mouthfuls of mumbo jumbo – citing fees by outside vendors, theft, other less explicable shrinkage – but I am not buying. The prices are high because they generate high profits. Period.

But that also generates guest outrage and – listen up – annoying guests is no way to build repeat business. Just stop it.

And, oh, by the way, a shop – possibly unstaffed – in the lobby by the front desk works fine for me, if the prices are High Street.

Wish two: remove the infernal hotel phone in the room.  Who answers the thing?  I don’t. Anybody with whom I possibly want to speak knows my cellphone number and I always travel with one, usually two.  The only calls that come in via the room phone are sales calls I do not want to deal with so I do not answer.

Other than at hotels with no cellular service I cannot see any reason to acknowledge the existence of inroom phones. And, oh by the way, for cellphone customers on T-Mobile and Sprint, most newer phones can be toggled to work over WiFi at hotels with no cellular reception. That means the regular number rings, voicemail works, and it’s an adequate substitute for real cellular. But that’s assuming the WiFi is robust, an assumption that is dangerous to make at many hotels.

Either way, just rip out the inroom phone. That works for me.

Wish three:  discard the inroom TVs.  I always travel with an iPad and it is my TV.  I have neither need nor want to play with the hotel’s remote, then attempting to figure out what paltry list of stations are available and, incidentally, I have never – as in never – bought a premium TV service from a hotel so you are not getting that money from me.

It was not bad when TVs were stuffed in armoires – they were easily ignored – but now they hang into the room and, frankly, I just do not want the thing.  Please give mine to the Salvation Army.

Except maybe at that Virgin in Chicago because its televisions let guests stream their Netflix account – which I otherwise would do on my iPad but a bigger screen just might be inviting.

I really have to try that Virgin.

But at other hotels, please, practice decluttering tight rooms.  Your reward will be happier guests.

 

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.

 

 

Terrorism Watch: Where Not to Go in 2015

Spain is as dangerous as Tunisia, where some 38 tourists recently were killed in a beach massacre.

Chew on that and know this is according to the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office which recently issued a global map of terror hotspots along with pointers to destinations that are more tranquil.

Here’s the map and it is mindblowing.  The FCO said that low threat destinations include Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, Poland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Hungary, Vietnam and Japan. That list is short.  And that because much of the rest of the world is a vastly more dangerous place, per the FCO.

France is no go. So is Australia.

Will I use the map to chart my 2015 travels?

Understand, I spent many nights in Northern Ireland in the height of “The Troubles” – everywhere from Belfast to Derry and even small towns like Omagh. I never felt unsafe. (Perhaps I should have. In 1998, long after the IRA-British ceasefire, a rogue group set off bombs in wee Omagh, killing 29, mainly Spanish school children. It blew up a hotel where I in fact had stayed maybe eight years earlier.)

Even so, here’s my credo: Keep your eyes open, trust nobody, and you very probably will keep yourself safe even in fraught surroundings.

And then there is the terrorist impulse which is to cause consternation by striking in the unexpected place.

That is what makes the world a scarier place and, very probably, rationality alone won’t keep you safe in it. You need luck. And quite possibly the FCO map.

The FCO divides the world into four areas: places where the threat of terrorism is high, where it is general, where it is underlying, and where it is low.

Many, many places win FCO’s highest threat label, including the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Russia, France, Spain, Turkey, India, just about all of North Africa (Morocco wins a “general threat” label), Australia, Indonesia, Pakistan.

The US and Canada are in the “general threat” bucket.

You are right, the list is so exhaustive the obvious options are to ignore it or to crawl back under one’s covers.

A third way may be to use one’s head.

When I stayed in Belfast, in the bad years, I never stayed at the Europa, a four-star hotel in the city center but it also was one that had won notoriety as “the most bombed hotel in Europe.” It was bombed 28 times during the Troubles.  I usually stayed at tiny guest houses near Queens University, an area that the terrorists on all sides had decreed a DMZ.  Never had a problem, tho I did stay in odd accommodations with tiny beds, often a shared bath, and sometimes feeble heat. But better a little uncomfortable than blown up.

The unsettling suggestion found in the FCO map is that tourist hotspots may become terror hotspots.  Terrorists know the handful of must see spots in Paris, for instance, and so are you at risk at, say, the Eiffel Tower?

The FCO implication is, yep.

In Manhattan I often saw heavily armed NYPD in and around Times Square.  Can’t say I ever saw them in Washington Sq Park, the East Village, or East Harlem.  Presumably they were where their intel told them to be.

So what is a tourist to do in these times of global tension where terror is seen by many as the answer and that means they are willing to sacrifice – indeed want to sacrifice – large numbers of civilians.

I will not tell you what to do, that’s your call.

But I can say that, for me, there are places I deem too high risk, low reward to warrant visiting such as Tunisia to pick on an easy target.

Would I go to Turkey, also on the FCO most dangerous list? Yes, but I have been there and I was dazzled by Ephesus and Istanbul, straddling east and west, is as alluring a city as I can conjure.

I would also go to France, Spain (still want to walk the 500 mile Camino), the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland, all high risk per FCO.  I very much like them all and that is good enough for me.

Would I go to Russia? No, but my problem is more with the state than its enemies.  There just is not enough to compel me to want to go there.
In other words: go where you want to go. Don’t let terrorists bully you.  Don’t be ignorant, either. Know the risks. But very definitely go exactly where you please. That’s the only way we don’t lose.

What Hotels Still Don’t Get About Mobile

June 2007 – eight years ago Apple introduced the iPhone and thus begat a revolution that still is transforming our lives and especially how we travel.

The puzzlement to me is how slow many hotels have been to react.

A new study by Ipsos, via TripAdvisor, throws a klieg light on the mammoth disconnect between what connected travelers want and what hotels are delivering.  For instance: “34% of the smartphone-loving Connected Travelers audience wants a mobile check-in option. Yet only 11% of lodgings offer this option that saves time for both guests and front desk staff,” says the study.

Fact: cellphone usage keeps ticking higher. According to the survey, 4% of us booked accommodations via mobile in 2014. The number now is 8% and for so-called Connected Travelers the number is 11%.

Where the numbers get genuinely interesting is in looking at how we use mobile devices when traveling.  And we use them a lot.

That makes sense.  A cellphone is our ever available answer machine. Where’s the nearest pizza shop? What’s the top rated sushi counter nearby? How do I get to Carnegie Hall?

At home we know the answers to such basic questions. In a strange town, or a foreign land, we don’t. And so we find ourselves reaching for our cellphones a lot – at least I reach for mine.

The survey says many of us do likewise.  Here is how TripAdvisor says we are using our phones:

Getting directions/using maps

  • Connected Travelers: 81%

Looking for restaurants

  • Connected Travelers: 72%

Looking for activities

  • Connected Travelers: 67%

Reading reviews

  • Connected Travelers: 64%

You are at a resort, you are hungry, do you eat there, knowing that most hotel restaurants are blah at best and more often overpriced culinary wastelands?  You pop open TripAdvisor, maybe Yelp, and you read what other diners have had to say about the food and value in the eateries near you.  And probably you do this on your phone, at least I do.

You want to go out on a hike, what trail is best? You look on your phone before you lace up. Naturally.

That is why for me, increasingly, the idea of travel without a working cellphone just is unacceptable.

Final word: know that growing numbers of travelers just won’t stay at hotels without cellular.  Sure, who doesn’t understand that maybe there will be a problem in a remote Alaskan hunting camp or a beach bungalow on a tiny Pacific island. Go to such and, please, don’t kvetch about no cellular.

Where the wounds are real and deep is when there isn’t cellular at hotels within an hour or two of major metros and, bottomline, the operator/owner just is too cheap to invest in technology that would bring cellular in.

Where? Huge swaths of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas are without reliable cellular — a topic I have written about before.

Of course most phones on T-Mobile and Sprint can be toggled to use WiFi calling, a cool feature that lets the user make and receive calls using the customary cellular phone number.  But the hotel needs robust WiFi to support that and many are lacking.  It also leaves out the 900 pound gorillas – AT&T and Verizon, neither of which has evidenced any interest in WiFi calling. For those subscribers, it’s use Skype or Google Voice or get reacquainted with the in-room hotel phones which most of us have not touched in a decade. (And, yes, many still have usurious rates.)

Look, it is fine by me if ownership is too cheap to put in cellular (tho I wonder if they still have tube TVs and electricity that runs only as the guest feeds the meter with nickels).  But at least tell people – in big fonts – as they book that there is no cellular on the property, that the nearest, reliable cellular connection is X miles away.

Certainly it is also fine by me if the hotel sells itself as an unplugged getaway.  That’s honest marketing. I don’t want to stay there but, for those who do, have at it.
My advice: if there is not full disclosure in the booking process, check out as soon as you realize you cannot make calls and trust your credit card company to guard your back in this tussle for a full refund from a hotel that just is not fulfilling its end of the 21st century digital user contract.