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.”
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.
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?