NEW YORK (MainStreet) Call this brawl experts versus ordinary travelers: whom do you trust?
The question is not academic. Soon you will be venturing forth to enjoy a summer vacation. How will you choose your room? Of course, every survey says price and location are critical factors - but then there are the intangibles. Does the quality suit you? Do the aesthetics?
Also See: Summer Vacations Canceled: Most Americans Won't Take Break This Year
Some hotels are legendary for the odors of misbehaving pets, others are filled with late night ravers, still others have many rooms that are, as the saying goes, too small to swing a cat by its tail in.
And you do not want to be surprised.
Also See: The Top 5 Most Overrated Summer Destinations
What's the 2014 path to booking bingo?
Once upon a time, decisions revolved around expert rankings, provided either at AAA - its diamond ratings from 1 to 5 are a longtime measure of a hotel's quality - or Mobil's star ratings, now renamed the Forbes Travel Guide.
The Forbes list is in its 56th year, and the AAA ratings date back longer. But loud questions are getting asked: have these expert-driven ratings outlived their usefulness?
Are there now better, Internet driven ratings that sift out biases by aggregating large numbers of reviews?
Opinions get heated.
"I don't think people use stars or diamonds anymore," said travel blogger Chris McGinnis. "What do they mean? You never really know what a five diamond rating means versus a four star."
Also See: Obnoxious Hotel Fees You Don't Have to Pay
Added Atlanta photographer Dave Dudar, "Stars and diamonds are often correlated with marble lobbies" and on that score he is right. The path to five star or diamond rating is paved with marble and similar over the top decor - which may do very little to enhance a guest's stay.
Also See: Before You Get Sued -- Read Prior to Posting at Yelp, TripAdvisor
Arabella Bowen, editor in chief at travel guide company Fodor's, took a different poke at diamonds and stars: "They are binary. Today's traveler wants a more complete picture."
What she means is that raters - from AAA and Forbes - fan out with checklists. As they go through a hotel, they check the boxes and the resulting score represents the rating. A 5-diamond or 5-star hotel, for instance, will have luxurious flooring (such as marble), it will have fine art hanging on walls (not mass produced stuff from Ikea), and it will almost always have 24/7 room service.
You don't care about any of that stuff?
"The star ratings tell you how luxurious the hotel is -- it doesn't tell you much more," sniffed Bob Diener, a co-founder of Hotels.com who now is CEO of Getaroom.com. He added: "What's more important is what consumers are saying."
Added McGinnis: "The star system has been obliterated by TripAdvisor. They have taken over the whole landscape. Everybody I knows checks TripAdvisor - even my Dad, who is 83."
But here's the big question: can you trust TripAdvisor - especially since the reviews are essentially unedited and unverified? Did the poster actually stay in that Jersey City House of Horrors or is it all malevolent fantasy?
Then, too, government officials in several states - including New York - have threatened hospitality companies that have been found to pay firms that stuff the ballot boxes with positive reviews, typically written for pennies in offshore locations.
Then, too, Bowen pointed out a built-in flaw in TripAdvisor ratings. Usually the traveler has stayed only in that one hotel in Rome or spa in Taos, N.M. The person does not know the competitive set and, therefore, cannot make credible comparisons of Hotel A with Hotel B and C.
In her mind that is where experts - such as those employed by Fodor's - enter. "We see expert opinion making a comeback," said Bowen, who offered as a case in point that Fodor's reviews 120 hotels in New York "and we have been to each of them, often multiple times."
She may be right longterm, but for now she is swimming against a more powerful tide.
Which is? R.J. Friedlander, CEO of ReviewPro, a reputation management toolkit for hoteliers, explains how today's savvy hotel shopper picks a place. His perspective is that smart bookers are looking at multiple sources. Many will glance at diamonds and stars. More will spend more time reading TripAdvisor. They almost certainly will ask friends for recommendations. They may even consult a Fodor's or a Rick Steves travel guide.
Multiple inputs rule in today's decision-making. It's not either/or. It's all inclusive.
Said Friedlander: "92% of travelers are highly influenced by reviews. The average traveler looks at 28-32 web sites. TripAdvisor is a very big piece of the puzzle, but it's not the puzzle itself. It's not the only place that influences decisions."
The plus of going this route: Ill-informed decisions just are not likely to get made. Sure, one review site can be gamed - but five or ten of them? Not likely.
Right there is your formula for summer vacation success: consult multiple hotel review sites. And keep reading until you are persuaded you have the whole truth.
Then you'll know where you want to put your head on a pillow because that, ultimately, is what this is about.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet