A STEP AHEAD

When Everybody's an Expert, Who Can You Trust?

Anyone planning a trip should regard certain sources with suspicion--and disregard others completely

The Cancun Resort: "A great resort for the family!" says one reviewer, but another warns, "Beds were thin and you could feel the springs"

In February 2004, something funky happened on the Canadian version of Amazon.com. Because of a temporary glitch, you could see who had written which anonymous book review--and an amazing number were written by the authors themselves.

Everyone has an agenda, right?

It seems obvious, but we all forget it: Not all opinions are trustworthy. Rather than following advice blindly, you should always bear in mind where it came from, and how it was gathered. Some may argue that this article is self-serving, but we hate to see people get duped. What's especially galling is when authorities claim to be fair and balanced, and are anything but.

Guidebooks

Writing travel guides seems like a dream gig. The truth is, writers are rarely paid enough to cover the expenses necessary to do the job properly, let alone earn them a decent wage. So, unlike the major travel magazines, the authors accept freebies--which skews what they write about, and how. Many cut corners on their research, glancing at menus and hotel websites rather than actually evaluating places. Some writers even crib directly from other guidebooks.

Furthermore, while most printed materials have a built-in lead time, books are worst of all. By the time a first edition actually sits in travelers' hands, the information is probably at least two years old. Subsequent editions tend only to be updated via phone and Internet, meaning the writer might not have even set foot in the destination in five or more years. What can you do? Always check for the copyright date (though guides are famous for hiding it, burying it at the back or after pages of glossy photos) to make sure the edition is recent. Cross-referencing between guidebooks, and supplementing with Internet sources, also helps.

User review sites

TripAdvisor, IgoUgo, and other sites that provide platforms where millions of travelers post their opinions certainly have a democratic appeal. But do you really want the opinion of just anybody? There are probably people in your life whose recommendations you don't trust--like the neighbor who lives on fast food and vacations at the same beach town you avoid--so why plan a trip according to a message that was posted by cooldude23?

It's easier to take anonymous advice if there seems to be a consensus. But on a recent visit to IgoUgo, eight of what were rated the top 10 hotels in San Francisco were based on the reviews of one person each. The remaining two had two reviews apiece--hardly mass approval. Even when a hotel gets several postings, opinions tend to be all over the map. Las Vegas's Cancún Resort received the lowest possible rating from one reviewer ("beds were thin and you could feel the springs every time you turned over... bathrooms clogged up a couple of times"), a top score from another ("a great resort for a family!"), and several ratings in between. It's all very confusing, and turns the viewer into a psychologist, trying to figure out which message comes from a like-minded traveler. The best idea is to approach these sites like an ice-skating competition and throw out the high and low scores as aberrations. Then read the remarks carefully, looking for specific gripes and compliments about the details that matter to you.

Convention & Visitors Bureaus

Visitors centers can be wonderful sources of information, often doling out free maps and lodging assistance, but they're rarely completely objective. It's not that they lie outright--it's that they only present a select, enticing assortment of details. A brochure from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce boasts of "559.6 miles of unspoiled coastline" yet never mentions that you'll run across more no trespassing and private property signs than you will public beaches. And the fact that parking on the Cape often costs $15 a day for outsiders? If all you read was the brochure, that's something you'd only discover upon arrival.

Also, most CVB maps and information centers only list properties that are chamber members (meaning they pay dues), so you might not be getting the whole picture. Small establishments, in particular--cafés, B&Bs, galleries--don't often find it worthwhile to participate.

Sometimes, the maps and materials distributed at rest stops and hotels aren't even produced by the CVB. One of our editors, while in Spearfish, S.D., noticed that an interesting-looking restaurant--the Bay Leaf Café--wasn't mentioned in the brochure in his motel room. "The big hotel chains contract out to companies who make other brochures, and they try to get us to buy ads in them," says Taffy Tucker, one of the restaurant's co-owners, when we called for an explanation. "If they're $225 a pop, that's over $1,000. That just doesn't work for us." The editor, who considers himself fairly aware, hadn't even realized that the guide wasn't civic-sponsored. The bottom line: You're wise to ask for a local's unvarnished opinion, and to keep your eyes open.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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