When it comes to the best hotel review sites in the world, the real winners aren’t the usual suspects. They are “none of the above.” This may be good news for discerning travelers looking for accurate lodging advice.
That’s the conclusion of a new survey by CivicScience. The polling company surveyed 1,789 U.S. adults about the websites they currently use to find hotel reviews. To absolutely no one’s surprise, sites like TripAdvisor, Google, and Trivago, topped the list. But an even bigger revelation may be the unmentioned sites.
Asked which hotel review sites they considered the “most trusted” here’s who got top billing:
TripAdvisor is the 900-pound gorilla of hotel review sites. Or, at least, the 90-pound gorilla (more on its actual weight in a moment.) With roughly 661 million reviews that cover about 7.7 million accommodations, airlines, experiences, and restaurants, TripAdvisor is big.
The problem? TripAdvisor reviews don’t require a verified booking. So you don’t have to stay in a hotel to submit and publish a review. TripAdvisor says it has a fraud detection algorithm, but savvy users contact me regularly to complain about bogus reviews.
“Their truthfulness is usually compromised,” says Brendan Lee, a frequent hotel guest and travel blogger. “For example, I can go on TripAdvisor right now and place a review for any hotel in the world without ever having stayed there. Of course, you can imagine how that system can be abused.”
Google seems to be gaining fast on TripAdvisor on the list of best hotel review sites. It recently integrated its Hotel Finder into search, allowing you to retrieve a list of hotels with prices, photos, reviews and street view panoramas. But the same problem plagues Google. There’s no verification, meaning anyone can — and does — review a hotel.
But Google has an edge that insiders like. Stephen Fofanoff, the innkeeper for Domaine Madeleine Bed and Breakfast in Port Angeles, Wash., liked Google’s hotel reviews better than TripAdvisor.
He says Google allows hotels to easily flag a review from someone who doesn’t have a verified stay. Google contacts the reviewer, asking for a screenshot of their receipt or other proof to validate their stay.
“From an insider perspective, they’re the most reliable,” he says. “They are the only ones that do not involve some hidden monetary transaction, and they are always presented as raw information — not presorted or reordered based on businesses who pay fees or pay higher commissions. They are also universally and publicly available.”
Interestingly, Trivago doesn’t even host user reviews. It’s a hotel metasearch site, which refers users directly to a third party. Trivago publishes a “rating index” based on reviews from sites like Expedia and Hotels.com. And yet insiders like Tim Leffel, who runs a small hotel review site called Hotel-Scoop.com, uses Trivago as a reference.
“I use it just to see if the place is loved or hated overall,” he says. “I don’t read the individual reviews unless I’m on the fence about booking it or not.”
Trivago’s aggregate scores have a lot of appeal to travelers, which gives it a third-place billing on this list of best hotel review sites. They automate the process of trying to average the scores on sites like Google and TripAdvisor and trying to find a way of objectively evaluating a hotel.
Booking.com’s strength is its methodology. It draws its 4.3 million reviews from verified guests, meaning that there are fewer shenanigans than on, say, Google or TripAdvisor. Those results are folded into the Booking.com site. So when you search for a hotel, you’ll find real reviews by actual guests.
Authenticity matters to users. Time and again, travelers tell me that getting a real review from a real guest matters. It reminds me of the MelissaK’s suspicious reviews from Pakistan, which I covered in a USA Today column. The mysterious user had been reviewing luxury hotels in Providenciales, a Caribbean island, when a traveler flagged the suspicious write-ups. After I asked about her reviews, they vanished.
While statistically insignificant, Facebook is an important inclusion in this list. While you might not immediately know if the author of a review stayed at a hotel, it’s not hard to find out. Thanks to Facebook’s real names policy, you can determine if someone is legit — or just a phony online name like MelissaK.
Oyster (less than 1%)
True, Oyster received the fewest votes, but it has some of the most powerful methodologies on this list of the best hotel review sites. Oyster has a team of professional investigators who investigate hotels and then publish comprehensive high-resolution photos and expert reviews — “so you know exactly what you’re going to get before you arrive,” it says. It’s reviewed a total of 42,000 hotels so far.
“For me, the most reliable site for getting accurate hotel ratings is Oyster.com,” says J.R. Duren, a financial advisor. “The site usually has a healthy amount of photos for every property, as well as a straightforward review of the site’s experience at the hotel.”
He says a good example of this is Oyster’s review of the Liki Tiki Village in Kissimmee, Fla.
“My family stayed there this past month, and I can tell you from experience that Oyster’s review is spot-on,” he says.
None of the above (53%)
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the CivicScience survey of best hotel review sites is that a majority said it trusted none of the above. Take a minute to let that sink in. None of the top sites were trustworthy.
It confirms a suspicion I’ve long held as a consumer advocate. When it comes to hotel reviews, people don’t believe anything they read online. And the reason is simple — reviews have misled them too many times.
It’s not just the fakes like MelissaK. It’s the reputation management operatives hired by hotels to boost their online ratings — and lower their competitors’. And it’s the disgruntled former employees who can create an account on TripAdvisor and then eviscerate the hotel or restaurant they worked at.
But mostly, it’s the tens of millions of reviews by people with an agenda. Hotel guests, even the real ones, generally only leave reviews when they have something positive or negative to say about a property. That excludes a broad section of real guests who had an acceptable experience from the commenting platforms. It’s also a terrible disservice to would-be hotel guests looking for useful information.
What are the 53% of hotel review sites?
Where should you go for accurate hotel information? As I noted in the first chapter of my latest book, How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler (And Save Time, Money and Hassle), the most reliable source of information is by word-of-mouth. Find someone you know and ask them if the hotel you’re considering is worth it. Professional travel advisors can also be a good source of information, at least when it comes to evaluating amenities and service. The best travel agents have been to the hotel you’re considering, and can speak from firsthand experience.
I suspect the 53% haven’t been developed yet, at least online. The era of anything-goes, unverified hotel reviews is quickly coming to an end. Users already know it. This list of the best hotel review sites proves it. Now it’s up to someone to create a hotel review site that people can finally trust.
And don’t forget, if you have a problem with any hotel, reach out to my advocacy team. We’re always here to help.