Over 1400 options and I still don’t know where to stay

When I started traveling at 19 in the early ’90s there were pretty much two ways to find a budget place to stay: walk around for a few hours in a foreign city and inquire at every hotel/hostel and then see which you thought was a good deal, or read a guidebook that seemed reputable and listen to the advice from someone else who had supposedly done just that.

Almost two decades later, a lot has changed.  Now when I’m far from home, I can keep an almost real-time SMS conversation going with my wife on the other side of the world, or I can e-mail her a photo from my iPhone and hear back from her in about 5 minutes.  Yet with all the advances of the Internet, I’m basically back to doing the same thing when looking for a place to stay, except now instead of combing the streets on foot with a heavy backpack, I have to comb the internet and navigate the labyrinth of vacation rental sites and other portals that go pages-deep in a Google search before I even get to an individual property.  And on each website there are hundreds, if not thousands, of results.

Why has this process not gotten fundamentally easier?

In comes Tripadvisor, and the guidebook is reinvented by a community of user reviews replacing a researcher.  The upside is that there is a wealth of unbiased, useful information out there, that can expose both those places worth knowing about, and those places worth avoiding, in ways that never existed until now.  The downside is that frankly it can be a painful, laborious process and sometimes you sacrifice one qualified researcher for hundreds of people who may be completely unqualified to give me advice, plus some crackpots, unscrupulous competitors and disgruntled customers in the mix.

The next it thing will revolutionize the Tripadvisor experience so that reviews will be given to me based on my social network connections and my profile.  Many clever people are dedicated to developing this new way to improve peer-to-peer recommendations, and I agree that there’s room for improvement with the current technology.  However, I believe technology should mimic what we naturally do already, not try and re-invent the way I interact with people.  Simply put, if I want the advice of my peers or friends who can give good advice, I can ask them – I don’t need a new Venture Capital-backed platform to do that.  And if my questions go beyond their reach, travel forums are an incredibly useful tool for information and insight.

Homeaway.com has 230,000 vacation rental properties worldwide and are still growing.  They recently aired a $3 million ad during the Superbowl.  Never before has any of us had such easy access to so much information.  What we need now is either new technology to make searching through thousands of properties online less like looking at hundreds of hotels on foot.  Or perhaps Lonely Planet should send researchers out to publish a “Lonely Planet Guide to Homeaway.com”.

by Steven Brenner

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