Americans Are Obsessed With Reading Reviews. It's Time That Changed

Reviews shouldn't be the end all be all of your vacation

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Would you book a vacation if you couldn’t read a single review beforehand? If the answer was no, then you’re in the majority, according to a recent survey conducted by Plum Guide. In fact, 67 percent of American respondents consider themselves obsessed with reading reviews. And who could blame them? Online reviews are nigh-inescapable and, in theory, provide honest insight into a business or product. But there’s poison in the well. 

An unknowable number of those highly-trusted user reviews are fake or misleading. I’ve witnessed an internet mob form in real-time to review bomb a restaurant they never dined at because of a tweet about an overwhelmingly negative experience. Those internet crusaders had a noble cause, the original poster faced discrimination at the restaurant, but the mass influx of copycat reviews left a bad taste in my mouth regardless. 

It’s not just negative reviews that are dubious either. Those coveted five-star reviews could very well be bought and paid for by a business owner. I first heard of this practice when Oobah Butler, a Vice journalist who used to write fake restaurant reviews for money, turned his shed (notably not a restaurant) into the number one restaurant in London on Tripadvisor. Oobah’s experiment, while drastic, made it hard for me to trust any online review fully.

All that aside, I’d be lying if I said I never read a review on a restaurant (and those aggregated star ratings do have a grip on me) but when it comes to vacations, reading reviews is almost an afterthought. When I’m booking a tour or experience, I skim reviews to see if the operator is legit—same process for accommodations, especially on Airbnb, where listing photos can be pretty misleading.

My review apathy ultimately comes down to how I travel. I’m not particularly eager to over-plan a vacation. Or really plan a vacation at all. I find it entirely overwhelming, sifting through hundreds of reviews to plan out every meal and excursion. Instead, I follow my gut, wandering around popping into stores and restaurants that call out to me. And I haven’t been let down yet because I’m entering with no expectations.

On the other side of the spectrum, my friend Anisha Glanton uses reviews, itineraries, and spreadsheets to soothe her travel anxieties. As she explained it, “I enjoy knowing what I’m getting into when I go somewhere or try something new, so reviews help me ease my anxieties of trying new things.” Anisha also prefers to spend her money on experiences worth the hard-earned cash. Reviews make the decision-making process worlds easier, and thus far, she’s never been misled or disappointed by them.

Online reviews will likely never go away, nor do I believe they should. Reviews provide a chance for people to see if a business has discriminatory practices, if it’s family-friendly, or if the kitchen heeds dietary requests. But they’re also bogged down by arbitrary complaints (a server being inattentive is not a helpful one-star review) and paid praise.

The best way to avoid review disappointment? Anisha put it best: “Read reviews thoroughly, but take them with a grain of salt.”  However, from my perspective, there’s no more valuable recommendation than one directly from a person you trust—even if that “person” is your own instinct.