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Spending Smart

From helpful and amusing to cranky, travel websites offer a plethora of luxury hotel reviews

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / January 31, 2010

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Want to find out if the luxury hotel you booked for your vacation is as pristine as it looks in pictures? Listen to the people who have stayed there.

Travel websites have brought word-of-mouth into the digital age, featuring a plethora of helpful, amusing, and sometimes cranky reviews written by travelers.

The reviews detail everything from leaky sinks to smiling bellhops, and many rank hotels and restaurants by popularity.

The Globe perused some of the review websites of the big-name online travel agencies, Yahoo Travel; Expedia’s TripAdvisor; Kayak’s TravelPost; Travelocity’s IgoUgo; and Orbitz’s Away.com. The Globe also took a look at Oyster Hotel Reviews, which launched in June and bills itself as the only site with reviews written by trained journalists.

These user-generated reviews on travel websites have a different function than the hotel and restaurant reviews from AAA and Forbes Travel Guide (formerly known as Mobil Travel Guide), well-known ratings agencies that send paid staff to rate properties based on strict criteria. They only write up recommended spots (from budget motels to luxury resorts), but don’t offer warnings about flea-bag motels that a user-driven review site might. (AAA does allow readers to add their own reviews to its professional write-ups online, however.)

Each of the travel review sites the Globe looked at offer something slightly different. If you want to get a lot of opinions from one group of travelers, TripAdvisor is your site. Prefer to compare hotel reviews from different sites? Try the aggregated offerings of TravelPost. Expert opinions are mixed with user reviews on Away.com. And if you trust the word of a sole journalist (ahem), Oyster is the way to go. But travelers beware: Opinions on the sites can vary widely from review to review. As with most customer comments, there isn’t much middle ground; people who contribute are often either very happy or very unhappy with their experiences, denoted by star ratings, numbers, even smiley faces.

“It tends to be very polarized,’’ said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, a travel deal site based in Charlestown that is owned by TripAdvisor, which is part of Expedia.

TRIPADVISOR
tripadvisor.com
Pros: Lots of reviews. Virtual tour option features 360-degree views from rooftops and lobbies. Information about each reviewer, including where they’re from and what their “travel style’’ is gives their posts a personal touch (user Rsalveti likes to “splurge occasionally,’’ while Gubster is more of a “middle of the road’’ gal). Site automatically generates a “best fare’’ from the city you’re in to the city you’re traveling to.
Cons: No guarantee that reviewers have actually stayed at the places they’re reviewing. Links to official hotel websites are only included for the hotels that have paid to have them added.
Final word: With 30 million traveler opinions and 16 posts added every minute - not to mention a plethora of categories - TripAdvisor, based in Newton, is the granddaddy of travel review websites.

TRAVEL POST
travelpost.com
Pros: Aggregates hotel reviews and information from thousands of sites, giving readers a wide array of opinions. Interesting categories: haunted hotels, rooftop pools, treehouse accommodations (including the Vertical Horizons bed and breakfast in southern Oregon, which has cottages up in the trees). A 360-degree street view video lets you see the sights surrounding the hotel.
Cons: The amount of reviewed hotels may be smaller than it appears. Of the 456 New York hotels on the site, dozens of them are unreviewed and yet are still ranked by popularity, largely based on the number of clicks each property receives, according to Kayak. Final word: A simple way to navigate hotels for people who like to see smiley and frowny faces indicating the tone of the reviews.

OYSTER HOTEL REVIEWS
oyster.com
Pros: Reviews are done by paid journalists, not random travelers waxing poetic about the smell of the lobby. “Photo fakeout’’ section shows glossy and sometimes doctored publicity photos alongside Oyster’s much more realistic ones. A two-month calendar shows daily room rates so you can easily see the cheapest time to go. The site’s Hotel Humor blog features amusing tidbits, such as creative Do Not Disturb signs (our favorite: Fuhgettaboudit, from Le Parker Meridien in New York). And Oyster has a level of detail the other sites don’t have: For instance, it breaks down 82 Las Vegas hotels into 17 categories, including best celebrity sites, and describes amenities down to the brand of toiletries in the bathroom and the size of the TV.
Cons: Reviews are extensive, but there’s only one per hotel. It’s a relatively new site, and so far only has 847 hotels in 13 destinations. (Five to seven more are scheduled to launch this year, said spokeswoman Kellie Pelletier, starting with Orlando in February.)
Final word: The wisdom of the masses does not prevail here, but each extensive review has more useful information than 50 amateur reviews combined.

YAHOO TRAVEL
travel.yahoo.com
Pros: Guide-book-y overviews provide interesting tidbits: Travel Channel videos add life, and interactive city maps show hotel and restaurant locations with nearby attractions. When you search by city, you can see the temperature. Eighty-five degrees in Barbados? Sign us up.
Cons: It’s such an extensive site that depending on what you click, pages pop up in different configurations; it’s easy to get lost when you start clicking with abandon. There’s no guarantee that reviewers have visited these properties. And some of the reviews aren’t all that fresh - the most recent Lenox Hotel post was from 2007. A Yahoo spokeswoman pointed out that the reviews are voluntary and the site doesn’t push its users to supply a steady stream of content.
Final word: If you want to research an entire city, and find quirky insights into their inhabitants, this is the place. For instance, did you know “Dubliners party with a panache verging on the reckless’’?

IGOUGO
igougo.com
Pros: The only site of the bunch to have night-life reviews, including 40 hot spots in Rio de Janeiro. Journals, stories, and community blogs provide travel tips and personal stories from travelers about individual trips to events such as the World Buskers Festival in New Zealand.
Cons: Relies on user photos, which means many reviewed destinations don’t have any photos. Search function is maddening - entering “San Francisco hotels’’ on the home page produces a jumble of disorganized information; enter “San Francisco’’ and then click on hotels, though, and a lovely, easy-to-use list pops up. IgoUgo did not return calls seeking comment.
Final word: With annual writing and photo awards and a hall of fame for its most dedicated members, IgoUgo is perfect for people looking more for a travel community than a long list of reviews.

AWAY.COM
away.com
Pros: Expert opinions abound, with Frommer’s reviews posted above the consumer reviews. Readers can post questions for away.com staffers to answer, and a list of experts provide travel guides to beach vacations, family getaways, ski destinations, and more. Site includes links to feature articles from various travel publications.
Cons: Many reviews aren’t up to date - the latest consumer review last week when the Globe checked was for the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne, Fla., is from 2006. Site doesn’t rank hotels by popularity. Searching for a specific city can take a lot of clicks, or lead to an uninviting list of Google links.
Final word: The bevy of professional travel writers onboard, complete with bios and photos, gives Away.com an emphasis on expert recommendations over user reviews.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.