Tom Vanderbilt writing for Outside Online:
No matter your destination, you will, at some point in your research, visit TripAdvisor. The company, with the humble mantra “real hotel reviews you can trust,” has become—on a rising tide of 200 million user reviews and counting—a travel-industry Goliath, able to turn obscure hotels into sold-out hot spots, carry new flocks of visitors on digital word of mouth to quiet destinations, even rewrite the hospitality standards of entire nations. For travelers the impact has been equally profound. What begins as a simple search-engine query becomes an epic fact-finding mission that leaves no moldy shower curtain unturned, a labyrinthine choose-your-own-adventure—do you read the one-bubble rant?—in which the perfect hotel always seems just one more click away. For all the power of the service, it raises deep questions about travel itself, including, most pressingly, who do we want—who do we trust—to tell us where to go? “The future,” Don DeLillo once wrote, “belongs to crowds.” Are we there yet?
Even the way people prepare for travel has changed remarkably in the age of the Internet.
We never travel anywhere without having first consulted trip advisor to, first of all, secure our accommodations. Recently when we travelled to Japan HY spent days reading through review after review of hotels in Osaka, Kyoto and then Tokyo only to find that her top picks had been completely booked out for the season. She felt devastated that all her effort had gone to waste when in the end we resorted to just grabbing whatever room was available.
But thinking about the whole experience I can’t remember what it was like to to travel somewhere with only a dog eared travel guide to lead us on. Without the aid of the Internet and online reviews I don’t know how we’d have the capacity to make decisions about where to go and what to eat either.
But part of the beauty of traveling is to get out of ones comfort zone and experience something different, unexpected and maybe even unpleasant. Relying on reviews and information posted by others does help to alleviate the discomfort from learning the directions to a new place but it also erases the possibility of learning something new and surprising.
By far the best travel experience I’ve had is when we stayed in a suburb outside Napoli whilst traveling through Italy. We arrived there without a clue where to eat and spent hours walking the streets looking for something good. The restaurant we settled on had no menu in English and neither did the waiters speak it very well. We quickly got the impression that hardly any tourists (especially of the Asian variety) had ever stepped through their door. Despite all these cultural and linguistic barriers we some how manage and the food we ate was by far some of the best we’d had our whole trip.
When I look back I chuckle at how the waiters struggled so admirably to get us to understand the ingredients, even bringing a live sample (a type of prawn) out of the kitchen to show us. They were entirely taken by how much we enjoyed the food that they couldn’t help but grin and peek out of the kitchen at us as we photographed it before gobbling it down. What funny people we must have seemed to them!
But the experience was not one we had arranged via some other persons review online. It was, I believe, a unique and special experience whose memory I treasure.
These days I fantasize about traveling that way again. Boldly walking into the unknown to allow myself a grand adventure in the real sense of that word. But like the author above I too am now traveling with a coterie of small children and that puts some boundaries on my travel. I do need to know if child friendly facilities (read: clean public toilets) are nearby wherever I go. Serendipity is just not a luxury I can afford with kids.
So whilst I bemoan the transformation of travel into a sterile more predictable experience I do see its value and how it has benefited my family and I. But one day down the road I do want to travel with an open mind and pick the path less chosen despite the siren call of the endless reviews online.