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Maximizing TripAdvisor: How To Find Your Perfect Hotel

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TPG Foreign Correspondent Lori Zaino stayed in nine different hotels and Airbnb rentals during her recent five-week trip to Southeast Asia. When I asked her which properties were the best and the worst, she said that all of them exceeded her expectations. I was surprised to hear that and asked how she managed to find so many hotels/rentals that she had such wonderful experiences at, especially on a budget, and she told me, TripAdvisor.

I don’t always take the extra time to read the reviews of the hotels I book, so I was immediately intrigued and asked her to guide  me and other TPG readers on how to utilize Tripadvisor to maximize hotel experiences while traveling.

I firmly believe that the appearance of so many online travel websites and apps is changing the future of travel. Honestly, where would I be without TripIt or TripAdvisor? I’d probably be missing my flights and in a crummy hotel. Thanks to these advances in travel websites and apps with a little bit of time and perseverance, you can end up in a hotel that perfectly suits your needs.

Perhaps you don’t want to go through all the trouble for a short weekend to Memphis, but if you’re planning a big/long trip to a far off place, you might want to invest in some quality TripAdvisor searching to make sure you end up in not just the perfect hotel, but your perfect hotel.

1. Take the time. Obviously, this may be the most difficult part for most people with families, jobs and busy lives. But if you simply take a few hours on a Saturday afternoon with your computer, it can improve the quality of your lodgings, not to mention help you to discover some great restaurants and other activities for your trip.

Make a list of Must Haves and Dealbreakers for your hotel
Choose a location and price range, and make a list of Must Haves and Dealbreakers for your hotel

2. Pick a price range and location for your hotel. Be specific on location. Is it important for you to be in the city center? Directly on the beach? Near an airport? How much do you want to spend? Do you max out at a certain price, or do you have a large range? These two points will help you to narrow down your starting search.

3. Decide what it is you want in a hotel and what is important to you during your stay. I’d suggest two short lists: Must Haves and Deal Breakers. Are you simply looking for a place to crash, hostel style? Five star dining and service? A romantic hideaway?  What’s important to you in a hotel? Location? Being able to use points? Beachfront? A pool? Superb customer service? Soft sheets? Decide what you must live with and what you can live without.

For example, I’d forgo extra friendly front desk staff for thick, soundproof walls and windows, preferring a solid night’s sleep to a friendly good morning from reception. I don’t mind if my hotel doesn’t have a fitness center, but for someone training for a marathon or a workout buff, perhaps this is a necessity. I love hotels with local and trendy decor–personal, detail-oriented and stylish, so boutique hotels are usually my favorite, but if the price isn’t right, I’ll skip the trendier spot for something that won’t break my budget.

Make a list and refer back to it for any and all future hotel bookings. Simply put, know your needs. And on the contrary, know your dealbreakers. And be aware of everything in between, so when you read reviews you can effectively decide if the hotel would work for you.

My list is pretty run of the mill and not too picky, but I will share it below:

My Must Haves 

1. Good location, close to things I want to see without having to rent a car

2. Clean and well maintained

3. Private bathroom (no hostels for me!)

4. Hot water for a hot shower

5. Strong WiFi

*Added plus–an outdoor pool (depending on what time of year it is and where I’m headed)

My Deal Breakers

1. Dirty, broken, bad smells

2. Unsafe, seedy property or location

3. Shared bathroom

4. Bedbugs, roaches

My list is fairly simple, but if this were some people I know, it might be three times as long. And that’s okay. In fact, the more specific you are, the easier it will be to narrow down your choices.

4. Start by narrowing down properties based on your price range, location choice and your needs/dealbreakers (refer back to your list) using sites like Booking.com or Expedia. Though you can search by pricing and your dates on TripAdvisor, I prefer to do this on by Booking.com because for me, it’s more straightforward. I would say to narrow it down using your criteria to about five to eight properties, depending on what you might find and how specific your needs are. For example, if you’re looking for a hotel with an outdoor pool in the center of Madrid, you might only come up with three, but if you simply want a clean and reasonably priced hotel in Rome, the options are endless. The more time you have, the more time you can search, but I suggest an absolute max of 10 properties.

Siem Reap Evergreen Positive
Notice the “Thumbs Up” 86% positive rating in the corner. I never stay at anything below a 75% positive rating

5. Check the TripAdvisor approval ratings and knock out anything below 75% approval rating. Now is the time to take your selected properties and head over to TripAdvisor for more information. A lot of people choose the ranking of the hotel to determine whether they will stay there, like picking the hotel number 1 out of 200. For me, I could care less if it’s ranked number 1 or number 200 (often times this goes more along the lines of luxury to budget).

What I much prefer to look at is the approval rating. On the upper right hand corner of a page for any specific restaurant or hotel on Tripadvisor you will see a thumbs up or down next to a percentage. My personal cutoff is 75% positive, and you can decide what yours is. If the hotel is below this, it’s out. This rating tells me whether or not people are generally happy with the hotel, and I think 75% is a solid number. Of course, to each his own, but this is a good jumping off point to start narrowing things down. When looking at this, make sure to also check how many people have reviewed the hotel. If it’s less than 25, I’m rather suspicious unless the hotel is brand new. Most decent hotels have hundreds of ratings, so just keep that in mind when looking.

6. Look at each remaining hotel left after the first knockout round and click on the Terrible or worst reviews. I can sit around all day and read “Everything was amazing! Loved this hotel!”. Well isn’t that just peaches ‘n cream, but I want the dirt. I am trying to figure out if or why people didn’t like this hotel, and if they had a terrible stay, I want to know WHY.

I think I will pass on this one. Blood on walls wasn't one of my dealbreakers, but maybe now it is?!
I think I will pass on this one. Blood on walls wasn’t one of my dealbreakers, but maybe now it is?!

7. How to determine if the Terrible reviews are valid enough for you to avoid this hotel. Make sure to have your list handy. Many people rate a hotel terrible and the review doesn’t quite make sense. I usually discount any reviews that are confusing or “over-written”. Or, people that don’t give specifics.

This review didn't quite convince me.
This review didn’t quite convince me.

The above review seems a bit odd. Why was the accommodation a disgrace? Was it dirty? Smelly? Bugs? I want to know specifics. Why was it not fit for human habitation? If the breakfast was okay, why was the rating so bad? This seems really extreme, especially as this is a hotel that has a 96% approval rating and almost 600 reviews. In this case, I may not be as apt to trust this review.

I recently stayed at the Tamarind Village in Chiang Mai, a tranquil, peaceful boutique hotel in the city center with 95% positive TripAdvisor rating. Before booking, I read two “terrible” reviews.

  • The first opinion explained how the reviewer thought his room was too small and was angry it was on the ground floor. There was too much light entering the room as there was no room darkening curtains. He was also upset that the resort was full when he stayed there, as there was no available room upgrade for him and he felt there were too many tourists. My conclusion: none of these things are on my list as dealbreakers and this hotel doesn’t seem so terrible. Oh good heavens, not tourists! Not valid for me. On the other hand, based on this review, I may bring an eyemask along.
  • The second review explained in detail about how the food was repeatedly cold and the Christmas Eve buffet was scarce. The reviewer also mentioned the staff seemed arrogant. My conclusion: I never eat at hotel restaurants anyway, so this is N/A for me, I prefer to explore a more local cuisine scene. The staff can be as arrogant as they want, as long as my room is clean, cute and bed-bug free (Side note: they weren’t arrogant at all). These concerns are not valid for me.

So clearly in this example, I didn’t feel the reviews were terrible enough to stop me from staying in the hotel. In all seriousness, I didn’t really feel they were terrible at all. However, someone else might–someone who values the quality of hotel food or a spacious room might say this review is valid, and decide to opt out. So use your own list to decide. In any case, I had a wonderful stay here, along with the other 95% of reviewers.

Aside from your personal list, there are some general red flags. If people write in the terrible review section any of the below and it seems to be a legit review, I’d say it’s an automatic deal breaker:

  • Bugs in bed or in room (Excessively at least. I know in Asia or the Caribbean, it’s common to find a mosquito or a small lizard in the bathroom.)
  • Items stolen from the room or out of the safe
  •  Unsanitary or excessively dirty conditions (Look for specifics. what was particularly nasty?)

One final word of advice: Be aware that people often rate hotels terrible for something that may not be applicable for you. One place I stayed in and loved had one terrible rating because their airport pickup never showed. Well, I didn’t arrange any airport pickup with the hotel, and when I do arrange pickups I triple confirm, so this wasn’t a reason for me not to stay in the hotel. On the other hand, if a lot of people say the WiFi was weak or didn’t work, I may have to consider not staying there, simply because I need internet for work. So, carefully run through the terrible reviews keeping this advice in mind and knock out hotels you feel won’t work for you.

8. Take what you have left, read the good reviews, and use your list to determine which would be the best hotel for you.

At this point, you’ve knocked out any deal breakers, so this is the fun part. Go through your remaining ones, read their positive reviews and go with your gut. Which one seems to be the best fit? Which ones are people saying things that are important to you and your list? If someone rates one place highly and says they were in love with the city skyline views and this is important to you, book it. Use your instinct and intuition to pick where you could imagine having a relaxing and happy stay.

Make sure to check out the Traveler's photos for a real view of what the hotel looks like
Make sure to check out the Traveler’s photos for a real view of what the hotel looks like

9. Look at Travelers’ Photos. 

Finally, if you are stuck between a couple hotels, make sure to look at the travelers’ photos and not just the professional photos. These are real photos of the hotel and the rooms, and not photoshopped or taken from perfect angles like you might see on the hotel website. This is what the property will really look like. If it still looks good–I’d say it’s a go!

Sort by the Just For You option, personalizing the results to your tastes
Sort by the Just For You option, personalizing the results to your tastes

10. Sort by the “Just For You” option and write reviews!

If you decide to use TripAdvisor, I would also recommend writing reviews. As you rate and review the places you’ve visited, not only does it help out those specific properties and other travelers reading the reviews, it also helps TripAdvisor know you and your needs, likes and dislikes. This, along with your search history can help Tripadvisor personalize results to what they think you might be looking for. All you have to do is login, and then hit the sort by option when doing a search and choose “Just For You.”  This can save you time and effort, so I would highly recommend doing a sort based on this, especially if you’ve written reviews in the past.

Hopefully these tips help you narrow down your choices to pick the perfect hotel for you–no matter what style of trip you’re taking. Please feel free to comment on your experiences using TripAdvisor and other travel reviews to chose hotels. Happy travels!

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