The TripAdvisor Experiment

There have been a spate of posts in the blogosphere lately arguing that guidebooks are an unnecessary encumbrance to the hostel dorm and group tour – sorry! – the indie travel lifestyle.

Having read a post entitled “TripAdvisor Is Better Than Your Guidebook”, I thought I’d give TripAdvisor a go.

Now, my admittedly cursory experience of TripAdvisor had led me to believe that reading TripAdvisor was like being hit over the head with a big soggy mallet full of stupid, a depressing trawl through spiels of semi-literate bile and egregiously fake reviews.

It was one that I would, personally, only undertake if being paid significant amounts to do so (say, for example, were I researching a guidebook).

Still, I thought I’d trial it, for the not particularly challenging task of finding accommodation in Aswan, getting from Aswan to Abu Simbel, finding a place to stay in Abu Simbel, and navigating the temples at Abu Simbel.

These two towns are 200 miles apart, on the same road, and on the same river, and firmly on the tourist trail. Can’t be hard, right?

My first challenge for Aswan is finding accommodation.

TripAdvisor lists 26 hotels to stay in Aswan, including 7 B&Bs – that’s more than Lonely Planet. So far so good.

Jesus! They have 2000 reviews. That’s not good. Do I have to read them ALL?

Oh! Only 12 of their hotels have prices.

And three have no information other than an address that may or may not be correct.

Can I be really supposed to scroll through all the reviews and then go somewhere else to confirm prices? Just to find a place to stay?

Can’t I just skim a page or two of Lonely Planet? No, that would be cheating.

I start by searching for hotels with pools. 8 come up, all of them outside my target price by a factor of five or six.

Never fear! I return to the main page, to find 8 with no prices. Maybe some of those are budget.

Ooh! The Cleopatra’s pool looks big. I scroll down through a selection of bilious, uninformative barely literate reviews that may well have been written by a competitor – as ever, on TripAdvisor, one never knows! – but can’t find pricing.

The internet is slow, so this one hotel takes about 10 minutes.

Sod this, I think, and revert to Lonely Planet. I find a place with a pool and wifi in a location we like, for the price we want to pay, in about 30 seconds.

The pricing issue concerns me, though. I look at some places I’ve visited, and check them out.

A trial across six hotels shows me that TripAdvisor’s pricing, where it exists, is routinely half rack rate, and in one case as little as fifth, rendering it, IMHO, completely useless as a research tool.

It’s a common claim that crowd-sourcing produces accuracy, with Wikipedia used, rather than a unique case, as a classic example.

You see, here’s the thing. Wikipedia is a huge site, with expert editors and an active community of knowledgeable contributors, all working on the same pieces of information, rather than contributing individual pieces of wibble.

Individual review sites like TripAdvisor have no expert oversight and so reviews do not improve over time.

A fact that is beginning, already, to show.

Now, I must confess I cheated here. I already knew from Lonely Planet that there is a public bus that tourists can take, and have confirmed this by asking a soldier at the train station whether I’m allowed on the bus, and then checking the time with some locals.

Which is handy. Because when I search TripAdvisor, and find someone asking the question I asked at the train station, TripAdvisor’s forum experts confidently state that there are no public buses and start banging on about flying.

Now if you don’t take public transport – which you won’t if you use TripAdvisor, because on Planet TripAdvisor it doesn’t exist — your cheapest option is a convoy system.

Here you book onto a minibus that leaves Aswan at the ungodly hour of 4am in convoy, or order a private car to leave in the same convoy, or join the second convoy timed, flawlessly, to arrive at the hottest part of the day.

This is also what your hotel or hostel will try to sell you, because it makes them money.

TripAdvisor’s experts are unanimous that this, a cruise ship or flying are your only options. They are wrong.

And they are wrong not in spite of, but because of crowd sourcing.

They see everyone else on TripAdvisor saying the same thing, so they think it is right.

By taking the bus instead of the convoy, incidentally, I have saved us not only a 3am wakeup, a 4am start and a shellshocked wander around the temples in a crowd, but more than the price of a guidebook.

The bus fare return is LE100 for two, perhaps including a small foreigner tax, which I am happy to pay. The convoy return fare is LE280 for two.

That’s $25 my guidebook has saved me, right off the top.

Why the convoy system? That’s a bit crazy, isn’t it? Is it that dangerous up here?

Well, it would be cheating to ask Lonely Planet or a local or, heaven forfend, anyone who knows something.

Let’s turn to TripAdvisor’s experts.

“Desert robbers…” one theorises, before observing that it’s odd that there’s no police with the convoy. Mmm…

Ooh! Abu Simbel is “something close to the Sudan border. Maybe 300 miles. So that might have something to do with the escort.”

But I thought there wasn’t an escort?

Abu Simbel is indeed close to the Sudanese border – under 30 miles, in fact (by TripAdvisor standards, this kid’s a rockstar in only being out by a factor of a ten, and, in fact, for having heard of Sudan).

ASWAN is roughly 300 KILOMETRES from Sudan. Maybe that’s what s/he means?

For the record, the escort started after the Islamist shootings at Luxor at the end of last century.

The convoy continues today, fifteen years after the massacre, because it is a huge, all-round moneyspinner and allows all the sales guys at the temples to have a nap between convoys and the hotels and tourist restaurants time to get ready for the influx, and everyone to balance the cruise ships and the convoy groups.

And, no, I didn’t get any of that from TripAdvisor, since you ask. Nor, for that matter, did I get much of it from Lonely Planet.

Because, here’s the thing, using a guidebook (and curated, guidebook-style websites) does not mean you don’t use your brain. Nor does it mean you don’t use personal recommendations.

It does mean you don’t waste brain space on crap like buses, finding cheap hotels with a pool that aren’t horrid or checking whether there’s an ATM in Abu Simbel, because, most of the time, someone has already done all that boring legwork for you and all you need do is double-check the basics.

Now, as it happens, I’ve already read what Lonely Planet has to say about Abu Simbel, and the best place to stay by a long shot appears to be Eskaleh, a gorgeous little place in a Nubian house by Lake Nasser.

My birthday is coming up and someone just paid me some money they’ve owed me for a long time, so I feel we can go a bit spendy.

Still, let’s see what TripAdvisor has to say here.

I search “Abu Simbel, Egypt”, which throws up a lot of random results but not the place itself, until I find it under destinations on the right and click on it.

This is REALLY hard work, and I haven’t even started reading yet.

I get to the hotels. There are five listed, only two of them with prices.

Great! This doesn’t, bizarrely, include Eskaleh. Maybe they have a better option.

The Seti is out of my price range.

So I start with the “Nefetart” Hotel, which seems to have a pool, and TripAdvisor reviewers are talking about “decent value” and “better than expected”. Odd name, I think.

No prices, not on the headline, and not on the reviews I read, so I give up and Google the hotel. Oh! It’s the Nefertari Hotel. And it costs $100 when they last updated their site.

Abu Simbel Village sounds cheap but not too horrid, which is on a par with what Lonely Planet says about it. Again, no prices.

Then TripAdvisor features the Nefertari Hotel. This appears to be the same as Nefetart, but because of a typo the two things have separate entries.

When I get to Abu Simbel, I walk past the Nefertari hotel, whose hand-written street signage reads “Nefetart”.

This explains the confusion, which, needless to say, is not the sort of thing you will find in a guidebook near you.

Then there’s somewhere TripAdvisor thinks is horrid. When I walk past it, it looks horrid. That’s probably why it’s not in Lonely Planet, because, being right by the bus station, it’s hard to miss.

But where’s the nice hotel, the one I already think I want to stay in?

They haven’t listed it?! It’s only a restaurant?!

Oh! There it is, in the sidebar.

They’ve classed it under Specialty Lodgings for some bizarro reason. I mean, sure, it’s a bit foreign! It has mud brick domes and is Nubian style. But it isn’t a tent, or an ice hotel, or anything really leftfield.

What planet are these people living on?

Is it “specialty” because it’s a bit foreign?

Never mind! They like it. It has high ratings. Good. Let’s see what folk have to say about it.

I get partway into my second positive review, from a Senior Reviewer, a TripAdvisor black belt of the first dan, when I am overcome by a deep despair at the human condition.

Did you know that before Egyptians took the brains out of the mummies through their nose, they liquefied them with a whisk?

This is roughly how I feel after, 400 words of wibble in, I get to this:

“A few other suggestions: I was very worried about mosquitoes in the bedrooms after reading some of the reviews on this site. I was pro-active and brought about 10 clothespins in my suitcase so that I could clip the mosquito nets together and make one giant mosquito net over both beds. This way, my husband and I could be under the same net. Also, if you find any little holes in the net, you simply clip it together. Not one mosquito came inside! So easy to pack and use for nets.”

Fascinating! Pray continue! Tell me more!

“To be honest, it was February and we didn’t see any mosquitoes anyway, but the theory is still the same and we did use the clothespins to pin the nets together as it was kind of fun to sleep that way.”

Dear lady!

Thank you for the charming domestic scene. However, as with any important fixture and fitting that does not work, if there are holes in your mosquito net and you wish to use it, politely request a replacement. If they don’t have a new one, ask them to sew the old one up for you.

A TripAdvisor expert quotes Lonely Planet direct, without attributing them.

Excellent! The rest of that review also rings some bells.

I can’t, frankly, take any more of this.

I click over to the reviews of the restaurant and get sidetracked by a rant about a vegetable tagine and some soup which, as far as I can establish, may have contained meat stock, and some confusion over pricing.

I can’t quite work out what he thinks his girlfriend’s veggie tagine should have cost, or why, or, for that matter, exactly what the problem was, but he’s clearly very cross about something because he bangs on for 800 words or so. Perhaps it’s the soup?

And, yes, if he’d had a guidebook, or, for that matter, any common sense at all, he’d have known that in Egypt, as in many parts of the world, vegetarianism — as in, not eating meat stock — is not comprehended.

Whatevs. I give up.

It is INCREDIBLY time consuming, not to mention soul-destroying. So much for the internet being fast.

In the spirit of experiment, I decide to go old school and ask around Abu Simbel to see if anything new has opened up since LP’s professional writer and TripAdvisor’s keen-eyed observers last went through.

I am escorted to “Fikry”, which, after an initial rush of excitement at how absolutely wonderful this new find is, turns out to be Eskaleh (the owner’s name is Fikry).

Hey-ho. It’s a wonderful place, I’d revisit it, and I’ll write about it.

It seems perhaps churlish to observe that, when it comes to price, I’m with Lonely Planet’s “a bit pricey”, rather than TripAdvisor, which raves about the value.

Now, I have books that talk about Abu Simbel with me, but I do like a guidebook with a map of a site and a nice concise account of the history plus the key elements I’m looking at.

Let’s see how TripAdvisor can help me here.

The first entry, by “Luxor Tour Guide” sets a really high bar by TripAdvisor standards, once you get past the facts that he is not a native English speaker or a competent typist and needs to check his dates.

“the temple of abu simmble is considered the most famous temple in egypt this temple was curved into the rock by ramsis 2 the most famous builder among all the pharaohs he ruled egypt for 66 years from 1279-1213 B.C the temple was built in 1244-1224 B.C it teaks about 21 year to be built and it’s dedicated to gods Amon and Re horarakhty and ptah and to ramsis himself as a god.
he builtalso a small templeof abu simble to for hisfavourite wife nefertari and dedicated it to the godess of love hathor.
the temple was exacaveted by belzony in 1917 a.d the temple is about 280 km from aswan and the convoiy start at 4 a.m it’s very nice temple for me as tour guide in egypt it’s one of the best pleaces the l like very much.”

It won’t help me tell which temple is which, or what the etchings are, or who is depicted where, let alone which bit of which temple is what, and it’s wrong in places, but well, it’s a start, and I’m encouraged.

This is, actually, by far the most informative thing I have read in my many dismal hours on TripAdvisor.

Things go down hill from here, unfortunately. The second entry raves about a tour company – is it fake?

Why do I even have to bother trying to decide whether someone is lying to me? Why don’t I just use a source I fundamentally trust?

The third one tells me the temple is on Lake Nasser. New info! Yay!

The fourth one tells me it’s a long journey, a complaint that will be repeated with wearying frequency, but, like others, does not specify how long.

(Lonely Planet tells me in 9 – count’em! – words “It takes 3 ½ hours to get to Abu Simbel,” and leaves me to make up my own mind whether I want to do it or not.)

A hellish account follows of one of those godawful tours that tries to cram every sight in Nubia into one jampacked, 3am-start day.

A nugget of information is buried here: “There is no signage inside so without research or a book, you really don’t know what you are looking at…”

Quite. TripAdvisor does not tell you what you are looking at. Nor does the group tour your hostel booked you on – quelle surprise!

You need a BOOK. Got that?

And, so often, this is what happens to folk who think the route to independent travel is not to use a guidebook.

You end up in some godawful hostel doing an 18 hour day of sightseeing with no idea of what you’re seeing because they sold you the tour and some people you smoked shisha with are going on it.

You might as well be on a coach tour or a cruise, which would, at least, be more comfortable.

And then you take the “VIP bus” to the next hostel, rinse and repeat.

And, because you are going from hostel to hostel and group tour to group tour without the assistance of a guidebook, you think you are Wilfred sodding Thesiger. Or would do, if you had heard of him.

Rant over.

Back to TripAdvisor. Some people like it. It’s BIG! More on the early morning start. The convoy leaves at 4am? No shit.

The word “awe” comes up a lot. Convoy, convoy, long journey, long journey, awe, awe, awe.

This, from some stupid cow who is clearly keen to avoid paying 2p for using the bathroom, having spunked hundreds if not thousands of pounds on her holiday, provokes absolute rage:

“TIP: Bring your own toliet paper as, the people at the bathrooms are very aggressive in making you purchase paper. I fought them off as I brought my own, they were not very happy with me.”

Yes, I can imagine the poor sods being irritated at a wealthy Westerner insisting on urinating free.

And what does “fought them off” actually mean here?

Onto my second page now and someone, apart from Luxor Tour Guide, has spelt Ramses’ queen’s name right! Well, almost right!

Further she has not got her confused with Nefertiti, although she can’t spell that either: “Nefarteri (not Nefretiti!)”

Good girl! Excellent work! A TripAdvisor ninja! Crowd-sourcing at its finest.

The sound and light show is good. Seeing the sun rise and set from a boat is good. Seeing the sun rise and set from a boat is amazing. The word “awe” comes up again. And again. And again. The cruise boat is the only way to do it.

Sunrise. Sunset. Yada yada.

If I may editorialise a little here, the sunrises and sunsets over Abu Simbel and Lake Nasser are perfectly nice desert/Nile sunrises and sunsets. The sun does not rise or set behind the temple, or anything fan-dabby-dosy like that.

Which is probably why LP doesn’t bang on about them, because the chap who wrote it has seen many more sunsets/rises than these cretins and knows an extra-special one when he sees one.

Further, you do not need to be on a cruise to go on Lake Nasser at sunrise or sunset. Eskaleh has a licensed boat and I’ll wager that if you speak decent Arabic you can cut a deal with the fishermen and bribe any passing policemen.

A gnomic utterance: “The man with the key wants money.”

Of course he does! He’s sitting outside a temple in Egypt. Of course he wants money, you absolute fucktard! What do you THINK he is doing there? Working on his suntan?!

I’m starting to froth a little at this point.

CreativeWoman 5, presumably like CreativeWoman1, CreativeWoman2, CreativeWoman3 and CreativeWoman4, and, for all I know, CreativeWomen 6-thru-20, uses TripAdvisor as an outlet for her, well, creativity, I guess.

Here’s a sample:

“Sitting, almost in the tropics, with the sun illuminating the gargantuan statues dwarfing its portico, I felt humbled and rather in awe of the majesty of its presence.Inside was certainly interesting and I found it a wonderful place to explore…. ”

How can ANYONE who cares about the English language tolerate this? And what could one possibly get out of it?

Many people have observed that the temples have been moved. One person feels a bit shortchanged by this, because nobody told him.

I stop to mentally scream at him “Before you spend hundreds of dollars on a daytrip you could do for twenty, spend $15 on a F*CKING guidebook and read it, you CRETIN,” take a deep breath and then continue.

The cafes there charge 20LE for an espresso? For the record, it’s not an espresso, it’s a Turkish or Arabic coffee.

More people like it. That’s nice. “You need to make special arrangements to visit Abu Simbel…”

No, you don’t. Really, you don’t.

You go to the bus station before 8am, buy a ticket and get on a public bus. Abu Simbel is the last stop. From the bus stop, you see the temples and follow the road to them.

It is REALLY fucking easy. Provided you get your data somewhere better than TripAdvisor – asking at the train station will do! Or the bus station, for that matter! And, in fact, our hotel told us the truth too! — and have a brain in your head.

If it’s hot, you can ask for a taxi. They don’t bite.

They will overcharge you, but you use TripAdvisor, so you don’t care about prices, unless it’s a 15p overcharge on a vegetarian tagine or 2p for toilet paper, in which case you’re all over the internet and the unfortunate staff like herpes.

The “special arrangements” theme is worked over the next few pages. It is absolutely wrong.

(In addition to the two public buses, there are regular microbuses.)

OMFG! I’m onto my 40th review, now, give or take, and someone has managed to spell Ramses’ consort’s name correctly. Rock on!

“Unfortunately, apart from the temples, there is very little to see here,” someone observes.

Well, apart from Lake Nasser, the town, the sunrises, the sunsets, the fishing boats, the Nubian architecture, the birdwatching, a normal Egyptian market area that is full of normal Egyptians doing their shopping and ignoring you rather than people trying to sell you scarabs, pyramids, bellydancer headscarfs and Tutankhamun masks, no, I’ll give you that, not a lot here, move along.

Yet another person is confusing Nefertari with Nefertiti.

They are “into history…” and conclude their ill-informed and uninformative review with “It is a site!” (It is. It is also a ‘sight’.)

Ah, some useful advice.

Avoid Egyptian rest stop bathrooms.

Well, umm, yes. Quite. I tend to hold it in, myself.

Bring wet wipes, she recommends.

Good girl! This one’s a keeper. I’ll follow her when I’m next on TripAdvisor.

Which will be shortly after hell freezes over.

Jesus! This person has paid $600, or several months salary for an experienced Egyptian teacher, to drive from Luxor to Abu Simbel and spend one night in a $65 hotel.

They recommend their driver, who must still be rubbing his hands in glee. They don’t specify whether he used a Bentley, a Hummer or a Rolls.

Ooh! “The first amazing thing about Abu Simbel is the location, 300 km south of Aswan, so a 3 hour coach ride through the desert. Why on earth did Ramses II have these temples built here? There’s no definite answer.”


That silly Ramses II! Didn’t he think about how long the coach journey would be? And didn’t he notice that it was in the desert? Nowhere near the city?! In a boring old desert! Duh-uh!

Why didn’t he build it in the jungle, that silly man? Egypt is famous for jungle!

And there is a definite answer. Nubia, ongoing source of conflict, the cataracts on the Nile, the kingdom of Kush, strategic…

Oh, never mind.

I have read so much TripAdvisor now that my brain is one big mush of jelly.

This person has also absorbed that the sun illuminates the temple twice a year, although she has her days wrong, her reasons muddled and can’t remember the names of the gods, their purposes or, obviously, their spellings.

Still, it’s new information. Wrong, but new. A pleasant change.

“Magnificient” reads the headline on the next one. My inner subeditor curls up into the foetal position and begins to weep.

“You need to pay for entrance.” No shit, Sherlock. How much?

Oh. You don’t mention that.

Someone saw a BBC documentary about it once, and therefore knows a lot. She has mentioned the cost of entry, which is good. And she has it right! Even better!

The next explains “One of the best things is that the early Christians didn’t find the site (because it was buried in sand), so the faces are all intact and haven’t been destroyed.”

My kneejerk response is that this is wrong. But it is ‘I have to check and there is a germ of truth in it’ wrong rather than “you total moron, I feel like crying” wrong, so by TripAdvisor standards this is REALLY great.

Someone else has spent $600 for a day trip for two to Abu Simbel, flying from Aswan. (I am struggling to comprehend how this is even possible. The flight takes about 30 minutes and is on EgyptAir, not a private helicopter.)

Ah! Good. Someone has pointed out that it’s good to stay overnight because you miss the tour groups.

Someone has got a bargain! A return trip on the convoy for 35 euros, approximately double the initial offer we received.

Three new spellings of Nefertari, none of them right, but someone has both used and correctly spelled “hypostyle”. His talents are wasted here, I fear.

Review number 58 and someone has observed that the temples were carved by Ramses to intimidate his Nubian neighbours. YES! YES! YES! THANK YOU!

Well, not exactly “Nubian neighbours”, more “rebellious subjects of mixed allegiance and the Kushite empire”, but fuck, for TripAdvisor that’s a nuanced, incisive analysis.

An “independent traveler” finds the town of Abu Simbel intimidating after dark, because it’s very dark.

I can’t quite work out why, but I’m guessing it’s the foreigners: Abu Simbel is one of the safer towns in Egypt. Or maybe she’s scared of the dark?

Someone has paid the standard offer price for the convoy! Well done, you. This is the ONLY person I find on TripAdvisor who has not paid much, much more than what we were offered at our hotel.

“I didn’t know much about Abu Simbel except people had mentioned it was a must-see…”

And, at this point, gentle reader, I decided that TripAdvisor wasn’t going to cut it on the cultural stuff, either.

I have more difficult travel challenges to negotiate than this.

I need to find a felucca captain who won’t jump my single mama bones, plus non-ruin activities en route down the Nile for an eleven-year-old boy.

I need to establish how long it takes to get a permit for the Great Sand Sea in the current climate, what length of expedition requires police and army escort.

I need to work out whether the oasis route through the Western Desert is even doable given Egypt’s ongoing gas crisis.

And I need to establish whether it is currently advisable, in the light of the low-level Bedouin insurrection in Northern Sinai, to cross from Nuweiba to Aqaba in Jordan.

This will require some good old-fashioned research, which I will be doing without the assistance of TripAdvisor, but with some basic guidance from Lonely Planet. Because if TripAdvisor’s morons can’t even find a public bus, how on god’s sweet earth will they help with anything more challenging?

Lonely Planet Egypt

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58 Responses

  1. Natalia says:

    Brilliant post! I too a) am pretty much over Trip Advisor and b) am thoroughly fed up with the ‘real travellers don’t use guidebooks’ spiel. So yes, in this case you were preaching tot the converted, but an entertained converted never the less!

    • Theodora says:

      Hello! I actually think I lost a lot of readers among the unconverted (heyho!), but, god, the “real travellers don’t do guidebooks” spiel, as you put it, absolutely does my head in. And, glad I entertained you…

    • Vi says:

      Experienced traveler uses all available information sources – books, internet, advice from locals. Only fools can use only one source as “bible” and ignore everything else.

  2. Oh you had me on the floor laughing!!! Trip advisor is certainly not the place to spend more than 5 minutes if you have a fully functioning brain!!

    • Theodora says:

      I spent a LONG time on it, Tracey, and I will never get those precious hours back. Glad it made you happy!

  3. Nif says:

    Love this-thanks for the analysis!

  4. Ha! This is hilarious. 🙂

    Yes, there are a ton of idiots in the world, so there can be a lot of crap to sort through.

    But some of my favorite travel experiences have come from google searches, when Lonely Planet had no helpful information on the topics. (camping on exploding volcanoes, trekking in the Darien Gap, etc.)

    In my opinion a mixture of all these resources is best.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Matthew. I’d never dispute the value of good old-fashioned Google, though I do like to go to sites that I know and trust (Seat61, Travelfish, etc), if I can.

      My favourite experiences have normally come from just going with the flow and/or asking people. “Woo! You have dugongs here? OK! Where?!”, or, “Yes, thank you! I would like to make pottery with you!” or “Oh! So you can go INSIDE that?” or “An undersea volcano, you say? Yes, that sounds like an interesting dive!”

      Or happenstance, “Holy f*ck! That’s a pod of orcas under our boat!” Or clocking things slowly, as in, “Hang on a second! Pacaya’s erupting and we can climb it?!”

      But, yes, like you, I’m not glued to Lonely Planet. It is bloody handy from time to time, though. Did you google “camping on exploding volcanoes” to find that? (You can do it in Halmahera, Indonesia, I know, but it would have been a 4-day round trip, so we didn’t.) Wow!

      • I think I was searching for active volcanoes in Guatemala, and some guy had posted photos of his trip online. He was much closer to the eruption then anything I had seen or read about. So I emailed him to ask for more info. 🙂

        Now that I think about it, that happens a lot. Many travelers don’t share the full details about unique experiences, so I end up trying to contact them to learn more, especially when I can’t find additional info elsewhere.

        • Theodora says:

          That’s interesting. I try and share full details of stuff that is unique or fiddly, or not easily available online (at least, I think I do) — but, yes, reaching out to people is good.

          I might start Googling around the oasis route and see if I can find crazy stuff to do there…

  5. Snap says:

    I use tripadvisor to get an overall rating/gist of hotels, never for bookings or prices. For them I try Agoda (who also have reviews, but sometimes limited hotels), or deal directly with the hotel to secure the best price. I do write reviews on TA (unpaid of course) but only because I think it might help someone.

    I always try to include photos.

    The forums can be like rolling dice. Just recently I was given incorrect information, copied and pasted from a bus company internet site…but I updated the forum post with the correct info after returning from our trip. I rarely use the forums.

    I’ve steered away from Lonely Planet, because of those rumours/accusations years ago, that someone writing the reviews, had actually never gone to some of the destinations.

    I reckon having a few favourite, useful websites up your sleeve, and Google, is the way to go. You, however, go off the beaten track so much, your writing the way for those who may wish to follow 🙂

    • Dave says:

      “I’ve steered away from Lonely Planet, because of those rumours/accusations years ago, that someone writing the reviews, had actually never gone to some of the destinations.”

      You don’t use LP because of some rumours that somewhere, sometime, somebody didn’t visit some of the destinations they wrote about, but you do use TA where the never-ending tidal wave of proven fake and utterly misinformed reviews removes any value that the site may ever have offered?

      I’m confused.

      • Snap says:

        I don’t rely on any one source these days…I use a few or many depending on what I’m researching. Personally I’ve had no problem with the hotel reviews on TA.

        And, yes, TA has let me down by way of not adding hotels for which I’ve provided all the details. Also, if what you say is true, then yes, TA should be exposed.

        I don’t boycott LP, I just don’t lean that way.

        I doubt there will ever be one be all and end all tourist destination guide. It’s all about balance.

  6. Ainlay says:

    I’ve used trip advisor all the way thru our trip and the big advantage is it has info about places to stay that are are new or not mentioned in LP (which obviously has limited space). But there is a system – you only look at the top 5-10 places, you can get an immediate overall sense if they are in your budget and sound attractive, then you copy and paste the hotel’s name into google and go directly to the website to check the actual rates and make a booking if so desire. It takes 2 min.

    Other clues are to set the parameters you want straight away – only want guesthouses not corporate hotels? – go straight to the B & B section. If you don’t want to waste time on amenities you don’t need – click on the price, “$25″, and” pool” or “free wifi” and you don’t bother with places that don’t have what you need. Last point – since I am traveling with kids, I only check the family reviews not single travelers reviews since we have different priorities. You end up choosing between 3 appropriate places rather than scrolling thru 30 inappropriate ones. By now I only spend 5 minutes and it’s done.

    Of course Trip advisor works better for finding someplace in Vientiane than Don Khon in Laos simply because more people have been there and bothered to write about it so it won’t be particularly good for really off the beaten track places (probably won’t find something for Derawan Island). And it is geared for a higher budget traveler than Travelfish so you will get more recommendations for hiring a personal driver rather than info on public buses but so long as you know that you won’t be disappointed. There are a lot more Honeymooners or retirees taking 3 week vacations than there are 19 year olds taking gap years writing those reviews. You just have to expect that they have different slants.

    I don’t use TA for “what to do” – we sort that out once we arrive someplace but I do use it to decided where to stay. I find it too boring only showing up at the exact same 10 places that everybody else is going to using LP so appreciate new, up to date info on alternatives from people who have been there rather than just one lone reviewer from who knows how many years ago.

    • Theodora says:

      The thing is, I’m not sure how many alternatives TA does offer compared to LP or Rough Guides, for that matter. I’m obviously not a slave to the guidebook: I’ve used methods from walking around/driving around looking at stuff and asking locals (to pleading with locals for a bed for the night), through to using country, region or city-specific websites (all authored, not TripAdvisor), picking up fliers, looking on noticeboards and, obviously, personal recommendations and, even, LP forums.

      Take vacation rentals here in Aswan. LP tells me it’s easy to pick up a house on Elephantine Island or an apartment in Aswan or Elephantine: you get off the ferry, in fact, and there’s a bloody great sign saying “house for rent!”, plus you get offers. You google vacation rentals in Aswan, or flats, or apartments, and you get a bunch of results. But you search Vacation Rentals in Aswan, Egypt, and TA gives you 11 in Luxor: so, as with the bus to Abu Simbel, you get the impression they don’t exist.

      And the other thing is that, because most of their reviews aren’t correctly tagged, when I searched for a pool, I didn’t get anything in my price range with a pool: I only got things outside my price range. In fact, there are at least three places in Aswan with a pool for my price, and I’d have had to welly through all their unpriced things to get to them, and then hope people mentioned the pool.

      Further, in this particular instance, the only places that TA users had anything good to say about in Abu Simbel were the ones that LP recommended anyway, so you get the same results there. So, TA *might* be a good source for fast-moving city environments, but quite often there’s a big confusion as to whether things are new or not.

    • Sue Ryan says:

      I’m with you. I use TripAdvisor for hotel reviews and have found most of them to be honest and accurate. I don’t use it for what to do or where to go. And, old-fashioned as it may seem, I refer to Frommers because I feel safe with their information and, yes, their warnings, which are reliable.

      Lonely Planet is OK, they don’t provide enough information for me. But the best thing to do, as always, is read all of them and make a decision based on what you have learned after reading them all.

  7. Obviously I think this is a brilliant post because I write guidebooks, mostly for Lonely Planet. In my research I regularly encounter hotels where discounts are being offered for guests who will write a good review on TripAdvisor while the owner/manager looks over their shoulder. As a traveller, I use as many sources as possible but one thing I am not is absolutist: don’t *only* go to places listed in guidebooks, don’t be afraid to strike out on your own, don’t call *any* source a “bible” etc. In my books, I try to be the good friend with solid advice you’d have a beer with but I hope you’ll take my info and go have a better time.

    And a note to “Snap”: you are referring to one LP author who wrote a sensationalistic book and hoped to sell it by writing a bunch of shit. He actually hadn’t cut corners on research but thought it would sell more books by saying he had. He was an ass – a fired ass; writing off the work of hundreds of other professional authors because of his sensationalistic claims is unfair *and* unwise.

    • Theodora says:

      I didn’t know about the “discounts for good reviews” point: I knew that people did go around *asking* for discounts for good reviews. But, yes, I suppose they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t receive.

      And, yes, absolutely. Being a slave to a guidebook is horrid, and I’m always particularly happy when I make a discovery (which is usually by word of mouth online or off, rather than web searches, tbh): but they’re such a useful framework to start from. Particularly somewhere like Egypt where disinformation rules OK…

  8. Joel says:

    Great post, T. Very funny and some great points. Personally, I don’t use guidebooks either, but I definitely wouldn’t limit myself to TripAdvisor. I’ve found that Wikitravel is a bit closer to the mark, as well as hitting up places I know from the blogs of friends.

    • Theodora says:

      Mmm… I think you might be missing out on a lot by not using a guidebook: WikiTravel has a long way to go to reach the standards of Wikipedia’s major entries.

      There are situations where I won’t bother with one: in Singapore, for work, bar reviewing, I just bought a map and based my research on the map. Ditto, staying with friends in Singapore, with a bagful of personal recommendations and things to do and people to meet, a guidebook felt like overkill.

      That said, I did Bulgaria without a guidebook, because it was mainly about the skiing, and got scammed in a taxi (driving round and round in traffic, usual deal). I had a strong feeling I was being scammed because I knew Sofia was small BUT without the map that I would have had had I bought a guidebook, I didn’t know what the fare or distance from the bus station to the place I’d picked was. So I couldn’t either visibly look at a map (which stops this sort of thing happening), I didn’t have the firm data that would lead me to say “Alright! Let me out now!” and I didn’t have a phrasebook with which to communicate. So, on balance, the guidebook would have saved me money there.

      But anywhere I’m spending a sustained amount of time, I find a guidebook really helps. Even though I have access to people who know things online.

  9. Truly a great guidebook and yes this happens when you visit Egypt.
    My question why didn’t you google for a local travel agency in Egypt other than getting information from trip advisor (you can ask for information without booking)? or even why didn’t you find any locals who at least can confirm what TA reviews claimed?
    Anyway I hope this gave you some experience to use when you come back to Egypt again 😉 and I hope this guidebook helps whoever is planning to travel to Egypt by his/her own 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      Hi there! Yes, I am using both a guidebook and local info, online and offline: the point of the piece was as a response to the blog post I cite, which claimed that “TripAdvisor Works Better Than Your Guidebook”. So it was an academic experiment. Travelling only with TripAdvisor would be rather difficult, I think.

      And we tend not to use a travel agency because most of the time we’re doing public transport, or, for Cairo, hiring a taxi for the day, rather than looking at the whole driver plus guide package…

  10. Kristina says:

    Great post, and funny too.

    I use a mix of guidebooks and online results when I research for a trip. I now buy the DK Eyewitness guides (where available) for more in depth sightseeing info and tend to book hotels in advance because my travel time is usually limited to one or two weeks.

    For hotels I cross reference message boards/forums, TripAdvisor and of course hotel web sites themselves. With TA hotel reviews, yes, you have to wade through a lot of crap, but often you can see an overall theme to get an idea of what it’s like. And clearly, it’s not perfect for every destination. I never use them for sightseeing info.

    For where to eat, I love the Chowhound forums as a springboard.

    Just got home last night from a week in Turkey and I think the reviews of the 3 places we stayed (one, an apartment hotel I would have never found without TA) were fairly spot on. One key is to look at the user uploaded photos on TA.

    Obviously, there is a big difference between someone who is traveling full time, and someone with limited vacation time (like me) but who has more advance traveling planning time. You don’t want to spend hours at the computer picking the perfect hotel, yet you also have more time “on the ground” to ask locals about the lowdown on things like transportation. Your experience with the convoys vs. bus debate illustrates this. I would hope, that with enough research I would have come up with options other than the convoy too, but who knows? It’s certainly a good reminder to do your homework.

    • Theodora says:

      I’d agree that there’s a huge difference in how vacation planners and longterm travellers plan travel (the guy who wrote the original post to which this is a response is a longterm traveller too).

      But, you see, I’m still not entirely sure that TA DOES give you significantly more *quality* options than a thorough, country-specific guidebook.

      Taking your example of a holiday rental: here in Aswan, LP lists three options, I think, and then says that if you walk around on Elephantine Island you can find a house (which you can). It doesn’t specify prices (from talking to people, you’re looking at the equivalent of a budget hotel price for a traditional Nubian house, up to a lot for very flashy Nubian houses or apartments).

      When I hit the tab for vacation rentals in Aswan, TA sent me through to Luxor, thereby giving me the impression there were NO vacation rentals in Aswan. And I wonder how many people who start on TA, as with the bus, think that.

      With house rentals, in fact, I’ll sometimes use the internet (Google to find the non-group advertising or country-specific websites), sometimes just walk around (not an option for you, obviously): but I’ll always move on from the generic big sites, like holidaylettings or whatever, to more region-specific or indie sites, as both prices and properties tend to be better.

      What I think I mean is that you might well have found something using a different route than TripAdvisor. Because one thing a guidebook will also give you is the relevant local sites to search for things. We wouldn’t have found our flat in Kunming, China (that was a site recommended to us which is ALSO in the guidebooks), or our house in Bali (that was old school legwork, plus checking locations recommended by a guidebook) using it…

  11. Anne-Marie says:

    Three of us in tears of laughter! Fantastic rant.

  12. Lissie says:

    TA appeals to a certain market, as does LP. I’ve been using LP guidebooks since before there was an Internet (1980’s) – I hardly ever use their hotel reqs – and its got worse over the years.

    Its not that they are usually researched about 12 months before publication – so out of date. But its also the LP effect in Asia – once you are in LP service goes down and prices go up – its a rule of God(s).

    If I want a nice place with a pool in popular spot TA isn’t bad for Asia – but yeah they are clueless travellers – most tend to like to pay for tours rather than catch a bus!

    BTW they were doing the 4am taxi run to Abu Simbel when I was there in 1988 – some stuff doesn’t change!

  13. Laura says:

    I would definitely rely on one source for a travel recommendation. It is rare that I get to travel so I want to make sure that things go well.

  14. Nate says:

    An interesting comparison would be “the internet” versus Lonely Planet.. I’m not sure that TA is even worthy of comparison to LP!

    I know which one I would choose 😉

  15. Yvette says:

    Ok that was awesome- thanks! 😀

    For the record in large parts of the world I just use Wikitravel- the entries in more developed countries and famous sites etc is as detailed as any guidebook if not more so. It does fall short when you get a little more off the beaten path though, and then I just pick up a copy of LP cause as you’ve said there’s no chance of finding something on the Internet.

    I’m also a big fan of LP’s Thorn Tree forum and Boots ‘n All’s forum as well- remember those? Always a great way to get a question answered, and I’m not sure why so many travelers no longer take advantage of those amazing resources.

  16. Love how entertaining you’ve made this post. I definitely agree that Tripadvisor alone is not enough and must always be taken with a grain of salt. Guidebooks on the other hand offers factual information and are rarely subjective with the disadvantage that information may sometimes be out of date.

  17. Shane says:

    Your TripAdvisor Experiment is just so hilarious. This one is just so perfect for those who are planning to visit the site and maybe they should now think twice if they still want to spend minutes or hours on that site after reading this experiment of yours. Where will be your next destination since your birthday is approaching already? Thanks for this one. I really enjoyed reading this one.

  18. Katrina says:

    “Three new spellings of Nefertari, none of them right, but someone has both used and correctly spelled “hypostyle”. His talents are wasted here, I fear.”

    This made me guffaw. Our trip to Egypt was sadly short and commercial. Knowing it would be so, I invested in a lecture series by the Teaching Company on DVD before we went. It turned out that, in some cases, we knew more than our tour guides. “Yes, that is Akhenaten’s sarcophagus sitting there in its pink Aswan granite glory, outside the museum, unlabeled and ignored.” (Ego inflation at maximum.)

    I wish we had had the time to travel slowly and haggle with felucca captains, CouchSurf, and discover the best place to stay in Abu Simbel. We didn’t get to stay overnight, alas. I’m so glad to read about your journey. I really want to go back to Abu Simbel, spend some more time on the borders of “vile Kush”, and see the mediocre sunrises and sunsets. 😉

    • Theodora says:

      YES! My parents had that problem too. They did an organised tour, with a guide, who kept telling them off for reading the Blue Guide. And, of course, by having the Blue Guide, they knew more than he did.

      I’m sorry to have described the poor sunrises and sunsets as mediocre. There is something rather lovely about the reflections of Abu Simbel in the water — and, my god, if one had the money to do the Lake Nasser safaris, the lake itself would be an excellent place to spend a few days. I was, in fact, itching to head down to Sudan.

      But we do have a commitment to be in Greece later in the year…

  19. Christopher says:

    As noted above, it’s important to rely upon multiple sources of information when traveling. For me, I love Trip Advisor. If I’m in Barcelona, I can post a question about where to have dinner at noon, and within two hours, I have several suggestions from other readers. I also like that I can correspond directly with someone who posted, asking them specific questions about their trip/experience. TA is also more up-to-date than most guidebooks. More photos, too.

  20. Kim says:

    Having been completely disappointed with my Lonely Planet in the Philippines I decided to spend my 3 days in Cairo sans guide book and arrived there with only my accommodation booked. Thinking that I could find a tourist info centre and plan my trip from there (as I have tended to do when traveling in Asia). It didn’t work – the independent traveller industry in Egypt is not encouraged – they want you to do prepackaged tours. I’ll try my experiment again in another country sometime – but I’ve learnt my lesson “when in Egypt – bring a guide book”

    • Theodora says:

      There’s a great independently published guide to the Philippines, but I agree tourist offices can be a useful resort. In Indo, we found them on even the smallest islands.

      And, to be honest, I do find errors in guidebooks, all the time — used a Bradt guide to Lebanon, which was very handy but had one shop in completely the wrong place, so completely that they’d clearly Googled it and got another with the same name — but they are *still* really useful to have. Even an old one. Seriously.

  21. MargaretS says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I found it by Googling “tripadvisor morons”, which I needed to do after too much reading on TA. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How can people so dumb hold down jobs that pay enough to allow them to travel?

    • Theodora says:

      Oh my gosh! That is THE BEST search result ever! Sooooo glad I am not alone. And, yes, god only knows how some of these people earn the money to waste they way they do.

  22. Yeah I’m sick of tripadvisor as well, too many fake reviews. I prefer having a look at airbnb first and if I don’t find anything then having a look at my books.

  23. Nonplussed says:

    As a perverse form of entertainment when mildly depressed, I’ve started looking up the postings on places of solemn and/or holy pilgrimage on TA. It’s become a secret joy. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Theodora says:

      I’ve had to manually block it from my search results. Every SINGLE TripAdvisor domain, from Singapore to the Netherlands, because otherwise I click on them and get all shouty. But, yes, I can imagine that being fun. I’d imagine their sex tourism destinations being quite a laugh, as well. Pattaya, perhaps? Or The Gambia?

  24. Dave says:

    I’ve posted a few reviews on trip advisor, I always try to include things to save people time because it pisses me off that the reviews aren’t really useful, it is a lot of work getting information of trip advisor and some reviews you have to ignore as there is not as much balance.

    I think it would improve if people posted the price they paid for the rooms and corrected inaccuracies about the hotel rather than went on about insignificant details, also posting a photo of the bathroom etc and corrections on map locations, how to get to and from there etc… This is the information I kind of want to know.

    Trip advisor has saved me booking some places that were under construction (the rates were too cheap), also reports on the distance of one place made me check another booking website.

    Something that had been incorrectly tagged on the websites map as in chiang mai city was actually a good half hour drive away.

    I used to do the legwork myself and found some great bargains and nice places but for short trips it can waste a day or two from waking around and fatigue.

    I recommended a hotel be added to trip advisor as it tagged in the wrong place, also the name of the hotel has changed so it was difficult to search it’s previously named location. I wonder whether I’m doing the right thing though as I was going to give them a decent review even though there was construction rates were cheap and if you were not home during the day it was ok.

    We had a hotel once on trip advisor and the crap people post is ridiculous, the hotel was an all suite hotel with a cooktop, laundry in room, large fridge and every room had a balcony, underground carpark right on the water in the centre of all the eateries with a pool.

    The result is a cumulative score of 2 from a select group of disgruntled idiots who were disappointed they could not get a discount out of the hotel.

    They get the shits give as low a rating as possible and rate it as dirty and smelly with no pictures to back up their accusations and personally they were complete whingeing idiots.

    If I were opening a hotel I would definitely not want it on trip advisor for these reasons however I don’t know if it is possible. I am regretting requesting the addition of the hotel I mentioned in chiang mai as they might not want toe be part of it all.

    As some people have said, it can be useful but takes a lot of work and should have some standard fields, however there is nothing you can do to stop unwarranted reports from idiotic patrons.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. I think without quality control and controls on fake reviews, it’s pretty much close to useless. And it’s very, very common for people to request discounts for a good TripAdvisor review — and get them!

      What I like about Wikipedia is that experts do contribute. I think what happens with TA is that experts (travel writers, people who work in the industry, etc) really do not contribute at all.

      • Dave says:

        Yeah I suppose if you are a travel expert usually you are paid for your opinion or contributing to something worthwhile like a wiki.

        Contributing to TA is sometimes painful when you are in a hotel with slow internet and are trying to upload photos or a review on the road.

        I don’t consider myself an expert but I know enough to stick to the basics people want to know like price, location and directions, cleanliness and not posting stupid stuff like there was no gin in my Tom Collins.

  25. margarets says:

    OH GOD. OH MY GOD. It’s my own fault I’m going mental because I went back on TA of my own accord but OH MY GOD. How can people be SO stupid? There’s a guy on the Italy forum saying he has researched Rome “for months” and still didn’t know more than one way to get into town from the airport? And still didn’t know what part of town he wanted to stay in? What kind of research was he doing? Where? There are THOUSANDS of websites that have this information! ANY Rome guidebook would have this information!

    And of course there are many, many people like him on TA. That’s just the one that set me off today. Add to the list the people who post stuff like “I’m going to 6 European countries in 17 days, is this doable? and then just ignore all the people who say it’s not a great idea unless you simply adore train travel because that’s mostly what they’ll be doing.

    AND THEN there is the co-dependency feedback loop of people who need handholding through every minute detail of their trip planning and rescuers/saviours who do it for them every time.

    It hurts my brain!!!!!

    Sorry, I just needed to vent. Thanks for being there 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      My pleasure! I need to do more rants about imbeciles on the internet, Margaret, but unfortunately in my narrative I’m still only partway to Everest Base Camp so I’m way behind on my life.

  26. Laurel says:

    Staying on the small island of Culebra, PR next week. I really wanted to know if we needed to hire a car or if we could just bike the island. After reading WAY too many reviews on TA, I learned nothing. Half the folks said a car is a MUST! The other half talked about how great it was to walk and bike. Total waste of my time.

    Great post!!

    • Theodora says:

      It’s the nature of the beast. And with Lonely Planet Thorntree gone, it’s going to get worse…

  27. general says:

    Highly descriptive post, I liked that a lot. Will there be a
    part 2?

  28. Burt says:

    Guide books are ok if they are updated regularly. Lonely planet does this supposedly. I bought a few chapters on line of the latest edition on Bali. Disappointing to say the least.
    If you compare the last edition to the “updated” one you will find that it is word for word the same apart from a few hotel prices. Nothing new in an area that has seen a lot of change in the last few years. So if you think you are getting current information on lonely planet, think again.
    A total waste of money on this occasion.

    • Theodora says:

      I don’t think I’m getting *current* info from Lonely Planet — the disadvantage that print has over online is the timeframe between research and publication. What I’m getting is accurate-at-the-time-of-writing info. Though it’s disappointing if there are no new hotels, only amended hotel prices.

      Not that websites update that regularly, either. I’m currently in Harbin, China. We have a railway station that opened in December, bigass high speed line linking Dalian and Harbin, both cities bigger than London. According to Google Maps, it doesn’t exist (search Harbin West station). Nor is it anywhere on TripAdvisor.

      I could do another post, and quite possibly will, on TripAdvisor, because I was reduced to trying to use it for skiing in Yabuli. Again, it was worse than useless as a research tool.

  29. Dave says:

    Hey Burt, no doubt you’ve already moved on from bali & Theodora probably from Harbin but i came back just to post my useless info as I would have on trip advisor lol.

    Theodora, if you are still in Harbin I can ask some of your questions although you can probably do the same anyway. I know someone who lives in Shenyang and has lived in Dalian so maybe they could be of assistance, but yeah you’re resourceful and it’s been a while since your last post so ur probably ok.

    Burt I don’t know what type of hotel you’re staying in so if you’re in anything other than extreme budget I have no advice to offer. If you are in extreme budget and want to enjoy the country I have no advice for you. For me (and me only it would seem according to the intenet) bali was a crazy annoying…. place. Well i went to lombok with crazy chickens and walked half the length of the island from obstinence. Then I got to the Gilli’s, after a long walk and some island troubles to a supposedly tranquil island of peace.

    Well this was true but I nearly electrocuted myself on the light switch which flickered when the rain went through the roof and thought jebus had come when I spent a little extra for hotel with magical fresh water showers. All the while the locals could have supplied me with medicament to soothe my pain but I never relented.

    I left Bali free from drugs and incarceration but some people thrive here. I’m not sure whether I admire or hate them but they are better people than me and you would have to be to enjoy the cesspool that is bali (in my mind, not the actual bali people hold dear, although that is as disputable as my claim is).

  1. November 4, 2014

    […] many for my tastes. There is good (albeit subjective) information in there, but often it’s missing facts or presenting false or old data. And this is just the legitimate content. There are plenty of bogus reviews on this site, both […]