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Travelers’ hotel reviews: Are they helpful?

Historical Route 66 Increasingly Threatened By Development
Are hotel reviews worth your while? They are if you know how to use them.David Mcnew / Getty Images
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The Internet has certainly been a boon to travelers, especially those looking for a place to stay. Countless Web sites offer hotel searches and price comparisons, and many also offer pictures of hotels, online reservations, package deals and even travelers' reviews. The pictures usually tell an unbiased tale, but you need to exercise caution when you read those reviews. They are often biased, sometimes out of date, and may not serve your interests at all.

First, there's the question of taste and priorities. How do I know that the reviewer and I want the same things from a hotel? Perhaps the reviewer wants a pool and a sports bar, while what I want is timely room service.

Then there's the problem of the reviewer's motivation. The more reviews you read, the more you notice how they tend to cluster at the extremes of opinion. On one end, you have angry reviewers with axes to grind; at the other, you have delighted guests who lavish praise beyond believing. You will probably not be surprised to learn that hotels sometimes post their own glowing reviews, or that competitors line up for the chance to lambaste the competition. So, how can you know which reviews are authentic, or whether one traveler's experience is representative of many others'?

Here's what I suggest.

Look for balance. The best reviews are the ones that focus on both the good and the bad, providing an objective picture of the hotel and of the reviewer's experience there.

Look for recent reviews. Last year's stellar hotel might not be operating with the same zest for service this year. Changes in management, or in behind-the-scenes ownership, can almost instantly affect a hotel's performance — especially when the changes also involve budget cuts related to service. Even a new general manager with a different management style can render older reviews obsolete.

Call the hotel. The best way to learn about a property and its service is to call it directly and judge the staff's responsiveness for yourself. How long does take for a clerk to answer the phone? Does the operator answer your questions? If you are transferred to another department, how long does it take? Are you disconnected? How do the various employees treat you? Do they seem friendly? Also ask some basic questions, such as how long the current manager has held the position, whether you can make dinner reservations before you check in, or whether you can speak to the spa manager.

Ask around. Have any of your friends, co-workers or colleague ever been to this hotel? What was their impression? Do they have the same taste and interests as you? How long ago was their visit? Would they go back?

Talk with a travel agent. But find one who has actually been to the property or has sent a number of long-term clients to the hotel. If the agent tries to direct you to another property, find out why.

Whether you travel for business or for pleasure, the right hotel can make a big difference. To increase the odds that a hotel will meet your expectations, be a proactive consumer. Take a select look at travelers' reviews, but don't stop there. A few extra steps can save you from some nasty surprises.