My Problem With Hotel Ratings And How To Use Them Effectively

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I came home last week to see my wife ripping through some reviews of hotels in New York City. That’s something I just don’t do, spending an evening scouring reviews, I don’t put that much stock in them. I think we’re all aware of the rating system rumors: Hotels employing specialists to spend hours scouring cyberspace in order to write inflated reviews or their hiring of gremlins to increase site traffic and the resulting SEO.

Our conversation went a little bit like this:

“Sweetheart, I have been eagerly awaiting seeing your beautiful face since you left for work this morning.”

“I think I found a place for us to crash in New York. Shit, it’s expensive there.”

“How long have you been reading reviews, my sweet little petunia?”

“These two places are in our price range. So I’ve got TripAdvisor and both up. This place has more, better reviews.”

“So what? Seems to me this hotel is doing a better job of writing their own reviews than this hotel? You look especially radiant today.”

“Generally, I just get a better vibe from these reviews.”

Another spirited round of attempts to crack into my wife’s thought patterns ensued. But in this case, I think she made a good point. I began to wonder how people judge or create meaning through recommendations from a faceless, anonymous being (probably the crux of the internet in general, but that’s another story). Despite knowing those gremlin rumors probably exist, why are we still looking at how many stars a hotel receives (or are we)?

I think many travelers knee-deep in the reviews of hotels of, let’s say, Hong Kong, will relate to the “I get a better vibe” statement. It’s not just a blase statement or gut feeling. Getting a good vibe from reviews might be exactly the reason for their existence.

Let’s pretend for a second that vibe equals credibility, and credibility equals believability. One does not create credibility for oneself — it is the receiver of the messages that constructs or designates credibility. In writing, credibility could mean avoiding ambiguities, poor grammar, misspellings — you see what I mean. That way, the reader of your words thinks of them as more believable (something I may or may not be doing at this very moment). In life, your appearance, confidence, eloquence, etc., all affect the credibility you are trying to create. If messages and meanings don’t add up, or they are contradictory, credibility suffers.

Neither credibility nor believability equals reality. That’s for you to decide.

Let’s apply this to hotel ratings, because slapping a few stars or labels on something doesn’t create credibility (or does it?). Through the countless reviews I’m sure my wife reads, there are themes or patterns that likely exposed themselves. She likely sorted through each of those reviews to find the underlying quality between the hotels. That is how I digested her comment regarding the better “vibe” she got. Remember, all this is subjective.

A recent piece in Budget Travel sorts out some of the top rating systems, concluding that consistency is the real issue. Five stars on one system might equal two on another, or vise versa. The top rated systems according to the article were private-company rating systems like AAA or Forbes Travel Guides because of “independent ownership, consistent criteria, and anonymous inspectors.”

Hotel booking sites, such as, come next and should be used in conjunction with other systems (which was my wife’s method, might I add). Another system, user-generated review systems such as TripAdvisor, has a tendency to expose the biases of the user. If you are aware of this, it can be useful based on the sheer volume of reviews. Lastly, stay away from government-run rating systems. These are typically unregulated and self-interested.

Bottom line: Do some homework and cross-reference a few sources. See what kind of “vibe” you get. It might make or break your next trip.

By Jon Wick


About the Author

Jon lives in Butte, Montana, spending most of his time on skis or bikes; sometimes both. He began travel writing while teaching in Korea and is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Montana Tech. Jon has begun writing his first book, The Story of Will, whose movie rights are still (very) available. Catch more of Jon at (@ExpedJon)

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