There has never been a time when hostels reviews are so important or prevalent to the traveling community. Before, people found hostels based on word of mouth, or recommendations from other traveling friends. Now, they can read the opinions of total strangers in order to decide what accommodation is best for them. Although this has caused significant changes to the travel industry, it has opened up a somewhat sordid pattern in hostels. You might not think it, but there’s a seedy underbelly to hostel reviews.
It manifests itself in a couple of ways.
The Sandbox Squabble
This particular issue starts when hostels in the same area are trying to get the upper hand on their competitors. Using a third party booking engine (like Hostelworld or Hostelbookers), a competitor hostel might make a one night booking, and pay the deposit (usually about $2-3). Then, without showing up for the booking, they’ll leave a negative review. This can be prevented by the competitor hostel by removing the right to review for people who don’t show up to their booking. But, the process is time-consuming and often complicated, especially when staff are often temporary and transient. As most third-party hostel booking engines make it impossible, or near impossible, to delete a review, hostel owners are left with these bad reviews turning away potential guests.
This became a particularly bad problem at one point in both Istanbul and Wakiki where hostels were locked in review combat, spreading dirty rumours (literally) about bedbug infestations.
The Overinflated Ego
This is very similar to the Sandbox Squabble but instead of a competitor hostel leaving a bad review for another, it involves a hostel leaving good reviews for itself. The process is the same as well, the hostel makes a booking on a third party booking engine and then after paying the deposit is invited to write a review. They leave a glowing review on their own property, meaning that you can never really know if the hostel you’re staying is quality, or just an illusion.
For example, it was widely known in the Australian travel and hostelling industry for several years that one of Sydney’s largest and most well-known hostel had someone online everyday writing reviews. With them making fake bookings and leaving fake reviews, the only cost for the hostel was the booking engine commission, which was easily absorbed as marketing costs.
And Sydney isn’t the only place where this is happening. We’re not even sure what the deal is in Lisbon, but we’re pretty certain that their 98%-99% ratings month in and out is a little fishy.
When travelers book through third-party booking engines, and following their stay receive their invitation to review the property, hostel owners benefit with each positive review. So, it isn’t really that surprising to learn that they will go out of their way to improve the stay of these review writers. Of course, the hostel doesn’t know for sure if people booking through third-party sites will leave a review. But the potentially good review is enough to make them give preferential treatment to these guests over phone bookings or walk-ins.
This is where the seedy side of hostel reviewing starts to take on a positive spin for travelers. Hostel owners will often provide room upgrades, freebies like internet and breakfast, or just generally go out of their way to push a possible reviewer’s mind towards the positive. So, if you want to be treated like a VIP at the next hostel you stay at, booking through a third-party booking site is the way to go.
All in All?
Now, what does this mean for the review system of hostels? With all of the fake hostel reviews floating around, are they no longer the best way to determine whether a hostel is right for you?
In the end it seems to come down to a greater awareness of the issue. Websites such as Yelp are starting to crack down on fake reviews. They now give users who read reviews a warning dialogue box to inform them whether a business is suspected or has been caught buying positive reviews. Websites such as TripAdvisor that do not provide ‘verified’ reviews make authenticity harder to prove. While third-party booking engines require you to make a booking before sending you a login to complete a review (hardly a flawless system in itself as we have seen) websites like TripAdvisor only require you to be a user on the site. This means that anyone could review anything, regardless of whether they have any personal experience with the place or activity.
So when you’re looking to book a hostel online, make sure you keep this industry secret in mind. When it comes down to it, we can’t really give you a foolproof method for picking a hostel with authentic and honest reviews. We’re not in anyway saying that reviews aren’t useful. In fact they can be an invaluable resource for travelers. All we’re saying is make sure you take other things into account as well when you book.
If you’re blown away by this little travel industry conspiracy, and are eager to know more, Hostelzoo recommends checking out the HostelManagement.com forums, where the topic is regularly discussed.