Why Rick Steves Says Not To Take Travel Review Site Ratings At Face Value

Television host Rick Steves has built a travel empire from the ground up by creating reviews. Sure, these reviews are often packaged in the form of best-selling guidebooks and TV shows. However, he has successfully made a name for himself for crafting reliable resources that help people have enriching travel experiences. In fact, his influence in the travel sector predates major platforms like TripAdvisor. "When I started writing, the problem was that there was not enough information," he told The Washington Post, a stark contrast to today, where there's a deluge of online resources. "It got to the point where there was too much information," he said, making it harder for travelers to discern the credibility of reviews.

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Steves isn't advising against reading reviews and ratings, of course. On the contrary, he welcomes them and encourages reading when planning vacations. But he cautions against trusting them wholly because there are inherent biases in reviews, often favoring more gimmicky businesses and overshadowing less prominent yet potentially better options. "Review sites can become an echo chamber, where one or two well-located, flashy businesses camp out atop the ratings. Travelers use it, like it, and rave about it, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of positive reviews," he writes on his site. "Meanwhile, a better, more affordable, and more authentic alternative may sit ignored, tucked down a side street."

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What's worse is that some reviews may be fabricated. Steves notes that while review sites have mechanisms to remove fake reviews, some manage to slip through, including potentially sponsored ones.

Some online reviews may contain fictitious information

Bogus reviews are rampant, according to Rick Steves. In fact, his "hunch" is that a big chunk of ratings on review sites are fake, as per his site. His intuition, it turns out, is backed by actual data. In 2022, Tripadvisor disclosed that they found a staggering 1.3 million fraudulent reviews, many originating from businesses selling fake endorsements. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg with inauthentic reviews.

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Steves suggests that personal biases heavily influence many reviews. Friends or adversaries of a business may craft reviews that are either excessively favorable or unfairly critical. What's more, some may also be written by disgruntled customers who threw their objectivity out the window. And then there are establishments offering free perks to customers in exchange for a manipulated rating, even though their experience may be subpar. "A charming host can garner good reviews from appreciative guests who overlook other, substantial flaws," Steves warns. "I find more and more small hotels offering a free breakfast to people who promise to write kindly about them on Tripadvisor. Conversely, several hoteliers have told me that occasionally guests threaten them with a bad review unless the hotel gives them a big discount."

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It's no secret that online reviews can make or break a business, so Steves advises not to make them the sole basis of your trip planning. Yes, genuine reviews still outnumber the phony ones, but Steves says it's best to keep your resources varied.

Use a combination of online reviews and guidebooks instead

If you want to make sure that the hotel you're booking rooms at or the restaurants you're making reservations for will not turn out to be disappointments, Rick Steves suggests supplementing online reviews with insights from various resources, particularly blogs, local websites, tourism sites, and of course, guidebooks. While online reviews offer firsthand accounts and reveal the reality behind flashy website photos and writeups, guidebooks and local blogs tend to offer a more comprehensive and nuanced evaluation. These are typically penned by seasoned experts, after all, whose years of experience lend credibility to their assessments.

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"Keep in mind that a user-generated review is based on the limited experience of one person, who stayed at just one hotel in a given city and ate at a few restaurants there. Though these evaluations aren't always the most well-informed or objective, they can still be helpful to gauge the amenities, service and quirks of a place," Steves shared with USA Today, noting that you'd know you've found a gem if both a guidebook and an online review wax poetic of it. "If something is well reviewed in a reliable guidebook — and it also gets good online reviews — it's likely a winner."

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