Beth from Tuscaloosa says 'the pesto is wow'

TripAdvisor gives travelers more advice than ever before


Ben Hitchcock is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. 

Ben Hitchcock | Cavalier Daily

“Heard Val d’Orcia is beautiful in the fall. Any recommendations for a day trip from Florence?” posted Susan from Grand Rapids, Mich.

“Just hop on the 42 at Buonconvento. It really is easy,” responded Kevin from Madison, Wis. without ever specifying whether the 42 was a train, bus, dirigible or small, personally-operated biplane. 

“My son Tim and I went to Val d’Orcia in September, just after Tim finished his first semester of college. He wanted to get out of the country because he had a tough semester,” chimed in Beth from Tuscaloosa, Ala. without offering any tangible advice about Val d’Orcia or even any actually juicy gossip about poor Tim.

“Make sure you bring walking shoes,” Sally from Fort Worth, Texas said.

“Val d’Orcia is terrible. You should go to Thailand instead,” opined Lou from Sacramento, Calif. 

“husBnd an i hd great tm ther,” piped in Rebecca from Dallas, Texas.

“Make sure you meet Manuel,” added Phyllis from Annapolis, Md. “He worked at a pizza place. Or maybe it was a gelateria. But he had such a great singing voice!”

The advice offered by TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and other online travel forums always sounds a little bit like it came from Grandma’s Facebook feed. One comment is overly specific, the next is devoid of substance entirely. Comments that seem useful are inevitably at least seven years old and reference bus routes that the Italian government has long since abandoned. Emojis are never, ever used correctly.

TripAdvisor is the world’s largest travel website. Google “things to do in” any city and TripAdvisor will be the first result. As of 2015, the site was home to a quarter of a billion comments on over five million different restaurants, hotels and activities. TripAdvisor connects travelers with millions of new potential advisors through a vast network of online reviews and forums. 

The website’s rise has been divisive. Proponents say it’s raised the standards for the hospitality industry all over the world by giving a voice to hordes of average travelers, not just a select few professional critics. 

“Our community’s voice has done more to improve service standards than professional reviews ever could,” writes TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer. 

There’s some empirical evidence to support his claim. Ireland’s University College of Dublin conducted a survey and found that as Irish hoteliers tried to earn positive TripAdvisor reviews, their hotels improved and more patrons visited. 

On the other hand, it’s easy to look at TripAdvisor and say that the sheer amount of information it provides has taken the fun out of travel. In the 21st century — so the story goes — there is no such thing as an unturned stone. Allison from Williamsburg and 351 other anonymous reviewers have established that the service at Caffe Traversi is slow, so there’s no reason to ever take any risks or try anything untested. According to its critics, TripAdvisor has sanitized travel, removing all the excitement that comes with experiencing the unknown.

My experience this semester suggests that TripAdvisor isn’t destroying travel, simply because it isn’t actually very good at what it purports to do. The site makes recommendations based on an aggregate of user reviews, so the attractions it praises most effusively are always the most popular and touristy. 

For example, at the time of writing, Rome’s Colosseum had been reviewed 111,048 times on TripAdvisor. As one of the world’s greatest architectural marvels, it boasts a healthy 4.5 out of 5 star rating. The Trevi Fountain has been reviewed 72,644 times and also has 4.5 stars, seeing as it is one of the most impressive pieces of art ever created. The Pantheon has just a piddly 59,452 reviews and also boasts a 4.5 rating. 

If a 4.5 star rating seems like a risky proposition, TripAdvisor can also point users towards more exciting, unique, culturally invigorating 5-star-rated attractions such as Game Over Escape Rooms in the Trastevere neighborhood — or Escape Room Roma, or Escape Room Campo dei Fiori or the Escape Room Exitus Roma, all rated 5 stars. Maybe the Pantheon should rebrand as a big, circular, oddly decorated escape room. 

It would be one thing if TripAdvisor plastered all the local secrets all over its front page, but that almost never happens, because the people making recommendations on TripAdvisor generally don’t know all that much about the places they are reviewing. So many millions of experts paradoxically results in a paucity of expertise. Everyone flocks to put in their two cents on the largest and most obvious attractions, and when they veer off the beaten path they reveal that they aren’t experts at all. 

More than once this semester, I’ve found myself standing outside of a rough and tumble eatery in some foreign city, wondering if I’ve stumbled upon a local diamond in the rough or, rather, the type of hole in the wall joint that will leave a hole in the wall of my stomach lining. The urge to look the place up online is strong, but the experts on Yelp and TripAdvisor and the like are often dramatically off the mark, if they’re even aware of the place at all. 

In Prague, for example, my friend and I followed a recommendation from our hostel and ate some absolutely fantastic sausages from a cart in Wenceslas Square. Look up Wenceslas Square on TripAdvisor and you’ll find Seth from Palmetto saying “beware the sausage stands!” Sorry Seth, but something tells me I should trust Vaclav from Prague on this one.

TripAdvisor has so many reviews that sometimes places get swept up into an unusable tornado of information. I tried looking up the kebab truck we stopped at in Berlin’s bi-weekly Turkish market, but searching “kebab in Berlin” yields 462 results. I even tried getting specific, but “rusty white kebab truck run by Turkish guys who serve absolutely phenomenal falafel in Berlin” somehow yields even more results.

The opposite happens, too — unglamorous local places fall through the cracks. Maybe I was trying to use the wrong one of the Hungarian language’s four different ‘u’s, but the delectable butcher stand we stumbled across in Budapest was nowhere to be found online. I’ve found some amazing food this semester without the web’s help. Despite traveling through unknown territory for the last four months, my stomach lining remains intact. 

Some people believe the internet, in its infinite wisdom and connectedness, makes traveling better. Some believe that traveling should be all about not having any wisdom at all, and that the internet has taken the thrill out of discovering something new. They’re both wrong, for the simple fact that the internet, in all its writhing anonymity, doesn’t have nearly as much expertise as it seems. The locals still know best. Some hidden gems are still delightfully hidden. The world is shrinking, and it’s impossible to know what the future will hold. But TripAdvisor hasn’t destroyed traveling just yet — no matter what Denny from Topeka, Kan. thinks. 

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