Looking for a hotel? See what others have to say
Seattle Times staff columnist
Christie Aden's room at The Westin Seattle didn't live up to the standards she's come to expect from the hotel chain, so she decided to share her impressions with a few million fellow travelers.
"While the Heavenly bed was great (as usual) the rest of the room (carpets, furniture, even closet doors) were worn and tired," she wrote in a review posted on fodors.com.
"The bathroom was so tiny I could barely open the door. And I could hear everything that was happening in the hallway.
"The views from the room don't make up for the views of the room."
Aden, who lives in Arlington, Va., travels for business about once month. She says she often decides whether to stay in a hotel based on what she reads on www.fodors.com, the online arm of Fodor's travel guides, TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) and other online sites that encourage travelers' opinions on everything from the attitude of desk clerks to the cleanliness of the bathrooms.
"I use them all the time," she said. "I look at them because I like to get people's honest opinions, and I like to give (back) as much feedback as I can."
At least a half-dozen online sites, including Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) provide forums for travelers to voice opinions that are more candid, up-to-date and detailed than most guidebook recommendations.
"It's third-party commentary that's not influenced by us or the hotels, and people appreciate that," said Joel Frey, a spokesman for Travelocity, which has more than 42,000 reviews posted on 50,000 hotels and 400 cruises. "It's like a person reading a movie review before they go."
Lots of people find the reviews helpful, but anyone using them should weigh the credibility of comments posted by unnamed people who may or may not have stayed in the hotel.
None of the sites require the postings to carry the names or e-mail addresses of the reviewers. Expedia and Travelocity ask people to register, a process that calls for submitting some personal information, but only Expedia requires them to have booked a room on its site.
"The problem with message boards is that they're anonymous," said Brooke Burdick who helps monitor postings for the Graffiti Wall at www.ricksteves.com where guidebook author Rick Steves has created forums on more than 100 topics.
"People will sometimes just write something to get their frustration out. You really have to dig and read a lot of them to get a fair opinion."
Where to searchOne of the most comprehensive sites is TripAdvisor, with more than one million reviews posted on 140,000 hotels worldwide.
The Massachusetts-based company is owned by Expedia Inc., the parent company to Expedia.com, Hotels.com and Hotwire, but it operates independently, and doesn't take reservations for hotel rooms or sell airline tickets. Rather, it acts as a clearinghouse where travelers search out or swap travel advice, then hit links to book with online travel suppliers, including Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, with whom TripAdvisor partners.
Consumers can rate any hotel, not just the ones sold through TripAdvisor's partners. Comments are candid and vary widely. One person's hotel from hell can be another person's paradise.
"Terrible Resort," is how TripAdvisor member Rob Perron, an executive chef in Windsor, Ontario, began his review of the St. James Club Morgan Bay, a Caribbean resort where he brought 12 family members and friends for his wedding in January.
"Service was poor. Cleanliness of the facility was disgusting." To prove just how terrible, he posted photos of a moldy sauna and steam room.
Perron said he booked the resort partly on the strength of other TripAdvisor reviews which gave it high ratings. When he came back disappointed, he noticed a pattern. Most of the good reviews were posted by vacationers from England.
"A lot depends on who they (the hotels) cater to," he said. "Everyone's standards are different."
Negative or positive, the reviews stay up indefinitely, meaning some information can be outdated, but TripAdvisor spokeswoman Sara Welch says the site's strength lies in its large number of reviews — one hotel has 700 — and its ability to create a public track record.
"The most recent reviews are presented first to provide quick access to the latest opinions and readers can choose how far back they want to read," she said. "We think it is helpful for visitors to have access to a record of a hotel's historical performance as well as new reviews."
Reviewers supply TripAdvisor with their name and e-mail addresses, but the site does not require them to verify that they stayed in the hotel. They can opt to post their e-mail addresses next to the reviews, or disclose only their city and state.
Expedia started posting reviews in December. Anyone who books a hotel on Expedia can rate service, room cleanliness, hotel condition and room comfort on a five-point scale.
Customers are invited to write a short review and include a "traveler's tip," such as "Watch out for bums in Union Square" that appeared under a review of the Serrano Hotel in San Francisco.
Expedia, which books rooms for about 60,000 hotels, limits the reviews to 17,000 "Expedia Special Rate" hotels, and requires reviewers to verify their stay by registering with Expedia.
"This way people know that it's not some hotel manager trying to do a positive review," said Expedia spokeswoman Kari Swartz.
Expedia doesn't post e-mail addresses.
Writers are identified by their first name and last initial or the city and state where they live. Reviews are removed after a year.
Travelocity has been posting reviews since 2000. It requires reviewers to register, but not necessarily book through the site. They can choose to include an e-mail address in their postings or stay anonymous. Reviews stay up for one year.
Fodors.com lets readers sound off in a "Rants and Raves" section next to a listing of recommended hotels for various destinations. Reviewers submit first names and e-mail addressees (posted at their discretion). Reviews remain up for several years.
California-based VirtualTourist (www.virtualtourist.com)posts reviews written by any of its more than 500,000 members who create personalized Web pages and swap travel advice. Membership is free and requires an online name (not necessarily real) and an e-mail address which is posted along with the review.
Postings on Rick Steves' Graffiti Wall include the person's full name, city and state and often their e-mail address. Various forums provide travelers with ways to share random information on hotels listed in Steves' guidebooks as well as tips on bed and breakfasts, youth hostels, apartments and farmhouse inns.
Hotels can respondExpedia, Travelocity and other sites in the business of promoting and booking hotels listed on their sites say they don't ax negative comments, but they do respond if a hotel complains.
"We don't feel there's any value in offering a one-sided equation," said Expedia's Swartz. "If a hotel feels (a comment) is unfounded or the customer is completely out in left field, they have the opportunity to post a response."
San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels, a chain of 40 hotels in 16 cities including Seattle, asks its managers to monitor Internet postings.
News of favorable reviews appears in the company newsletter or on employee bulletin boards.
"If it's unfavorable, we deal with it as best we can," said Kimpton Vice President Andrew Freeman. "We may not be able to get to the guest who wrote it, but sometimes there might be a trend, so it's important to review that."
Positive or negative reviews can have an effect on bookings, Freeman said.
"We have not seen a trend in lost business from the sites, but that's an immeasurable thing. How do you know?"
Kimpton will sometimes ask that a review be removed if the problem has been resolved. Often the sites comply.
"When a hotel manager contacts us and they're unhappy, we take that seriously," said TripAdvisor's Welch. "We will get in touch with the reviewer and take steps on our own to make sure they have indeed stayed at the hotel, and if not, we'll take it down."
One customer recently e-mailed TripAdvisor saying that the hotel promised a refund if they would remove their review. TripAdvisor agreed to delete it.
"The important thing is to read a sampling and look for the trends," Welch said. "If one person had a horrible experience, was it something that seemed to be a unique situation?
"On the flip side, if there's a hotel that many people are saying is not great and there's one terrific review, you can usually read between the lines."
Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month in the Travel section. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company