We all want to have the best experience possible when we travel. Indeed, the last thing we want is to book a place and find out it is a dump (been there, done that, used the scratchy towels). Obviously the first line of defense against a dump is the word and opinion of friends who have been there first. Unfortunately, for those of us with the China bug, we may – and often are – the first people in our circles to make the trip. This is doubly true when getting off the beaten path and heading off for places like the Yongding Tulou Cluster. Even when visiting the big cities like Beijing or Shanghai your friends may not be able to help since their knowledge may be out of date or their interests and experience differ from the one you seek.
Na zen me ban? (What to do?)
The obvious solution in the Google era is to open up the old web browser and give Google (or Bing or Yahoo or Baidu or Soso or Sougou or Youdao) a whirl. Searching for hostels is relatively painless but daunting given the volume of responses. The search “Hostel in Beijing” returns 634,000 results. “Hostel in Shanghai” returns 580,000. Even “Hostel in Urumqi” (capital of the far western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) returns 26,700 results. What is one to do with all of these responses? Fortunately the nature of search engines helps make the process easier.
The first matches are those which most closely match – by text – your search terms. They are also weighted by other variables including the number of sites linking to the website in question. Hence more popular sites or more exact matches will come up first. This means first hits are usually pretty good. Of course everyone knows that (When was the last time you went beyond the first page, or maybe two, of Google results?)
So with our search for “Hostel in Beijing”, the first result is the aptly names website: www.hostelbeijing.com. Clicking on the “Hostels” tab takes us into the listing for those hostels which agreed to list through the site (which is affiliated with Hostels Worldwide). Most of the hostels have earned decent enough user ratings:
Tian An Men Sunrise: 89%
Beijing Fish Inn Courtyard: 92%
Templeside Lianlian Hutong Guest House: 91%
What do these numbers really mean? Of course unscrupulous managers and employees can log in to sites like this and post glowing reviews to inflate scores. (Don’t act like it doesn’t happen – try looking for an apartment in Atlanta). There are also companies that pay folks to go online and review products and services in order to influence the results. Normally though, the results are simply the feedback of honest to goodness, real-life customers. The problems start here.
There are generally only two kinds of people who post feedback and rankings on websites – those who are completely thrilled with their experience and those who hated every minute of it. In many cases – fortunately somewhat less so in travel – only the latter group of Haters feels motivated enough to log in and post a comment. We must take all feedback with a huge grain of salt. For example:
“The staff is never available” could mean: “I came up to the desk drunk at 5:00 AM and had to wait five minutes for the night staff to return from a bathroom break”
“The place is infested with roaches” could mean: “I saw a roach in the corner of the bathroom.”
“The hot water doesn’t work” could mean “I am paying $5 per night to stay in this place yet am somehow surprised that the hot water heater gives out after 30 people have taken showers.”
So the best way to deal with feedback is to weigh it. One or two – or even ten – negative comments may not sink a place. This is particularly true if the negative comments pick on only a single aspect. Most likely that means they had one negative experience and have blown it all out of proportion. Consistent negativity around a single issue, however, is a red flag. If multiple comments all address the bug issue, it may be safe to assume bugs are at least common, if not a real problem.
Positive feedback can also be troublesome since many people do not provide details as to why they actually like a place. To better enjoy oneself, look for hostels and inexpensive hotels where the positive reviews are actually detailed. Do they list the positive attributes? Do they call out excellent staff or management by name? If so, the place may be good.
Finally, just remember that even the best or worst reviews can be outdated. Always look at the dates for the feedback. Oftentimes places will have comments that weigh heavily in on direction or another but are completely out of date. Management and staff change frequently in the service industry, look for the most recent comments. If there are no recent comments, it probably means the place isn’t bad, just very unremarkable.
In future entries I will actually weigh in on some of the places I stayed in my travels – those I endorse, those I don’t, and why. Happy travels comrades!