It's vacation planning time again, and I know you've all been trawling the web looking for the ideal accommodations. If you're like most consumers, it's easy to feel like you're going in circles, trying to find the best hotel at the best price in the perfect location. But as you sift through the seemingly endless supply of sleek magazine-style travel sites with professional photos, countless discount booking sites promising the best rates, and dozens of consumer rating sites with conflicting reviews, it helps to be aware of the insidious scourge of travel content: meaningless words.
Or rather, words that mean so many different things to different people, that they are rendered useless when used in travel reviews. "Central" is a common one. Hotels are never going to admit they're on the edge of town or in a bad neighborhood. A quick Google map search of the dozens of Paris hotels with the word "Opéra" in their title will show that most of them are at least three metro stops away (and not in the best direction). Unless the hotel lists the exact size of rooms in square meters, it's just a matter of opinion whether it's "spacious" or not.
One of my first editors gave me a long list of words I was not allowed to use when describing a hotel. "Cozy" and "charming" were two of them. Ignore the adjectives and look for the facts to back them up. For example, a room with fireplace, flannel bedding and hot cocoa machine might be cozy and charming for one person but frumpy and outdated to another.
This "colorful" room had a bed that felt like a hammock of chainlink fencing.
One of my favorite meaningless words is "clean" (often used when there's nothing else to say). Anyone who has ever co-habitated knows that human beings have wildly different tolerance levels for filth. "Typically Parisian" is a popular marketing phrase, and I've seen it tagged onto everything from no-stars, no-frills budget hotels in the Latin Quarter to an overpriced contemporary boutique hotel in the 16th. I could barely hold back a snicker when a PR rep from a palace hotel just off the Champs-Elysées tried to tell a group of Paris-based bloggers that it was located in the "most Parisian neighborhood". That might work with foreign journalists, but we had to remind him we all lived in Paris and had our own opinions on the matter.
If it was just the hotels and booking sites using meaningless words, it would be easy to find alternative sources and unbiased reviews. But unfortunately this fluff has taken over the internet. Even seemingly independent bloggers are falling under the spell of "free content" and "big commissions" offered by sites like Splendia ,which allow their "reviews" to be used and branded as the bloggers' own. But hotels have paid to be listed on these sites, so the reviews are actually marketing copy, with professional photos that show each room in its most flattering light (usually with a few additions your own room will never have, such as the designer flower bouquets and overflowing room service trays).
The best travel reviews are balanced, offering insight into the both the pros and cons of a hotel, neither gushing when it's a five-star resort nor filling space with meaningless words when it's a rather bland budget property. When in doubt, simply read between the lines. And look out for those meaningless words like "comfortable", "classic", "stylish"...
Heather will be hosting a seminar on April 3: "How to Make the Transition from Blogger to Professional Travel Writer".