|By Andrea Ahles, Fort Worth
Star-Telegram, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 16, 2009 - Before booking a hotel for my family summer vacation to Chicago, I checked dozens of hotel reviews to find the best place to stay.
But instead of looking in Fodor's Chicago book or a Frommer's travel guide, online Web sites like TripAdvisor and IgoUgo provided my research. And I'm not alone.
Millions of travelers are using Web sites that offer travel-related ratings and reviews by other travelers -- people who have actually been there. For most, a visit to check out places to stay, restaurants to eat at and attractions to visit comes before they even purchase an airplane ticket for their vacation.
"Travelers trust other travelers," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Forrester Research. "It's immediate and it's real time and it's believed to be honest."
Looking for travel advice
This year, 21 percent of travelers who go online for information read ratings or reviews at least once a month, according to a survey by Forrester Research. And of the 120 million leisure travelers who buy travel online, the share that posted a review online jumped from 4 percent in 2008 to 7 percent in 2009.
Two of the more popular travel review sites are industry leader TripAdvisor, owned by online travel site Expedia, and IgoUgo, owned by Fort Worth-based Sabre Holdings, parent of the Travelocity online travel reservations service.
But several of the traditional travel guide publishers, like Fodor's, and Zagat, the restaurant rating book, have launched their own online communities to provide user opinions.
In January 2005, TripAdvisor posted its 1 millionth review. It has more than 25 million reviews.
Those publishers of travel information are known quantities that have built a reputation providing accurate travel advice. But how reliable might the postings of random travelers and diners be?
Harteveldt said some hotel companies and travel firms are worried that consumers will only post negative reviews on these sites. But surprisingly, the Forrester survey found that 12 percent of users said they contribute to ratings sites because they wanted to write about a positive experience, while only 7 percent said they submitted a review because of a bad travel experience.
Sharing a good experience is what drove Sandra Cook to post her own reviews on TripAdvisor a couple of years ago, after she and her husband took a six-week trip to Asia and used the site ahead of time to find hotels for the trip. Cook said the Asian hotels were "fantastic" and she wanted to share her experience with others.
She's planning a trip to Europe for the fall and is scouting online sites for hotels in Italy. The Norman, Okla., resident said she knows that reading reviews gives her a good idea of what to expect before she gets to her destination.
"I can't say that we've had a bad experience after the amount of research that I've done," Cook said. "We're usually satisfied."
At IgoUgo, the travel review site found that 70 percent of users found reviews helpful when the author gave specific examples of experiences, and 66 percent feel more informed about destinations they choose after visiting a travel review site.
"You're getting real travel experiences in real time from real people, and if you can identify the writer of the review as someone who travels like you do, that just adds to the value of their review," said Travelocity senior editor Genevieve Brown.
A growing business
Even during the recession, there is evidence that online travel rating sites are bringing in revenues for their parent companies.
TripAdvisor's revenue in the second quarter grew 13 percent, to $90 million, compared with $79 million a year earlier, according to Expedia's most recent financial report. Its number of users has soared in recent years, to more than 25 million monthly visitors.
Privately held Sabre, which acquired IgoUgo in 2005, declined to disclose IgoUgo's revenue. But Harteveldt said it is likely these sites are making money.
ANDREA AHLES, 817-390-7631
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