User-review sites have changed the way most people plan their travel, giving us an enormously useful tool for evaluating hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and the like. TripAdvisor.com is the big kahuna, with more than 20 million reviews, mostly of hotels — but also less traditional lodging like B&Bs, villas and private homes — as well as restaurants and attractions. TravelPost.com is another, owned by Kayak.com and recently relaunched; like its airfare-aggregating parent, TravelPost.com collects reviews from various websites, such as Citysearch.com, Yahoo! Travel and IgoUgo.com. Check out Yelp.com for locals’ takes on restaurants, shops and other businesses, or OpenTable.com, which guarantees that reviewers have actually eaten at the restaurants they rate.
User reviews are helpful but not foolproof, so keep in mind the following tips:
- Read between the lines, asking yourself if the writer shares your mind-set, or if a negative review is the result of a persnickety traveler or a singular bad experience. As a rule of thumb, the more people have contributed, the more valuable overall ratings become.
- Always see how recent the post was. Establishments are quick to change, move or close.
- Always look at photos posted by users; you may find them more telling than words could ever hope to be.
Every major city has bloggers who are obsessed with what’s new and great in their backyard, particularly in regard to restaurants. You can use Google Blog Search to find bloggers in whatever city you’re visiting. They’re a phenomenal resource, but don’t just read what they’re writing: Contact them for personal recommendations. The more specific your request — and the more you flatter them for their insight and wit — the more likely you’ll be to pique their interest and get a response. (“What’s your favorite vegetarian-friendly restaurant within walking distance of the InterContinental Hotel on Howard Street? We’re looking for a place with a romantic vibe, ideally, because it’s our anniversary. We’d be so grateful for your help, because you obviously know what’s going on in San Francisco!”)