Certain rituals are honoured when travelling to foreign lands. Checking you’ve got your passport, when you’ve already padded down every pocket on your body is one such example. Printing off your boarding pass twice – ‘just in case.’ Sun cream! Because it can’t be found outside Boots Chemist on your local high street. All of us have these habits, whether or not we admit them publicly.
There is one particular performance that is fast becoming as habitual as the passport triple-check: researching your destination on TripAdvisor. We’ve all done it – of course, it is virtually impossible to avoid it, the world’s biggest travel website. Operating in over 45 languages, the site has published more than 190 million reviews, with 115 new contributions (or reviews) each day. Search any hotel, restaurant or landmark on Google and TripAdvisor will be the first option that the net throws out. And in theory, TripAdvisor is great: it’s digital democracy in action. Tourists can upload photographs of their food or hotel room, alongside a star rating and a (supposedly) short paragraph about their experience. We like to think that TripAdvisor improves the general experience: standards are maintained for fear of a bad review (although, funnily enough, in 2014, a couple was fined £100 by a Blackpool hotel that they had described as a ‘rotten stinking hovel’ in a review on the site).
On a recent trip to Rome, I learned about the perils of TripAdvisor the hard way. Looking for a cafe for lunch, I dumbly searched the internet and lo! Google pointed me in the direction of a cafe but a stone’s throw away that had rave reviews on TripAdvisor: 1,126 of them in fact, 77% of which rated the restaurant as ‘excellent.’ It will, I presume, come as no surprise at this point to learn that the eatery was anything but excellent. It was, instead, San Francisco-meets-Shoreditch with a patron straight out of central casting. The place was dead, save but for one American youth, shaking his head as the remnants of his sandwich slid down has chops, repeating ‘this place is UN-REAL.’
Now, TripAdvisor surely works up to a point: if an establishment is filthy, or a landmark spoiled, the unassuming customer is duly warned and can make his decision based upon this. But where TripAdvisor fails is that it cannot possibly know what your heart desires at that particular moment, and guarantee that you’ll be delivered of it. Similarly, any restaurant, hotel or site on TripAdvisor has by nature been discovered and therefore is slightly spoiled.
Take Maccheroni on the Piazza delle Coppelle (a short walk away from the Pantheon): tucked behind one of The Eternal City’s biggest attractions, it serves a completely delicious carbonara (and in my case, gnocchi with pear and gorgonzola), but its rating on TripAdvisor falls below that of the San Franciscan sarni joint described above. There is no better place for a bowl of pasta in Rome – but there are no tablecloths and paper napkins, so it falls short of an ‘excellent’ rating. The same goes for the Pizzeria Ai Marmi in Trastevere – good food (straightforward delicious pizza slices), no frills, poor ratings. Another victim of the internet is Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia in the Jewish quarter: nowhere in Rome can you eat better Roman artichokes whilst you sit among the ruins – but TripAdvisor’s lackeys don’t seem to think so.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is to avoid TripAdvisor. Especially when in Rome.