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“TMI,” the popular acronym meaning “too much information,” is typically reserved for when someone overshares details about something such as their romantic endeavors, or their bathroom habits. But I never thought I’d be using it when it came to reading online customer reviews while trying to book a vacation.

Admittedly, this is not the first time I’ve struggled with online customer reviews. A few months back I blogged about the “paralysis by analysis” I encountered while sifting through countless Amazon customer reviews for iPad Mini cases. The sheer volume of reviews became overwhelming, but luckily my time spent reading them paid off, as I ended up with a great iPad Mini case from Devicewear. Still, it was a tedious process considering the item was relatively inexpensive ($27) to begin with.

If my Amazon experience was the minor leagues of reading online customer reviews, then I was called up to the majors last month while planning a Caribbean vacation with my fiancee. We headed over to TripAdvisor to see which hotels had the best reviews based on the handful of islands we were interested in.

Knowing that there would be more reviews on TripAdvisor than I could possibly read, my strategy for reading reviews was to read only those in which the reviewer graded the hotel a “3” on a 5-point scale. I’ve found these reviews to be the most honest and useful ones. Too often, a 1 out of 5 review overstates the negative aspects of a customer experience, e.g. an indifferent hotel staff becomes “rude,” or a mediocre meal becomes “inedible”; while a 5 out of 5 is too glowingly positive to the point that there’s nothing to learn from it, and it often lacks any detail, e.g. an “amazing” dinner. (The 2’s and 4’s are usually not much better than the 1’s and 5’s as far as exaggeration.)

Luckily, TripAdvisor’s reviews do allow readers to filter by “Couples,” “Solo,” “Families,” and “Business.” Traveling with my fiancée, I selected Couples to see only reviews written by those people who had been on couples-style vacations. Using this filter we got a few good tips, such as asking for a free room upgrade upon check-in.

But despite my 3-rating strategy and the Couples filter, after a few days of reading reviews my head was spinning. Where one reviewer would laud a hotel’s staff for friendly and helpful service, another would trash them. Some people loved the beach at a hotel, where others found it too crowded or noisy.

Just as I was reaching the brink of complete frustration, I had an epiphany.

Because my TripAdvisor account is connected to my Facebook account, I could see that one of my friends had previously visited one of the hotels we were looking at with his wife back in 2006. His wife wrote a glowing review about a particular hotel and about the island in general. Though a lot about a hotel could change in seven years, I reached out to them anyway in the hopes that they could give me the inside scoop. They explained that their trip to Curacao was a great vacation for them at the time, in their mid-twenties, especially since it was their first Caribbean vacation together. However, they said, Curacao was not necessarily a place they would go back to after having been to other islands such as Turks & Caicos, where they were married and have been to several times since.

My epiphany was that I wanted to read more reviews written by people I know–friends and family are typically a more trusted source of information and recommendations than strangers. However, going off of only personal recommendations would be a little impractical unless I planned to solicit reviews about specific destinations or hotels from my social network via Facebook.

The next best thing, I realized, was to read reviews by people like me, even if I didn’t know them personally. By people like me I mean people who are around my age; have a similar travel budget; who live in New York City like I do or at least another major city (preferably on the East Coast); and who have comparable previous travel experience. (That last one, travel experience, is important because someone who rarely travels might not notice or care about the same things I do when they travel.)

I began to re-scan the reviews (already filtered on Couples) for people from the New York area, since this was the only real demographic information available on TripAdvisor. I knew I was on the right track when I found one NYC-based reviewer who said that a hotel bar had “New York prices.” To further filter for travelers like myself and my fiancee, I skipped over reviews from people who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, as they were obviously in a different lifestage than we were. (Note: This is not to say older travelers’ opinions aren’t valid, just that they don’t resonate with me as much as the opinions of travelers closer to my own age. Again, it comes back to travel experience.) I also read the reviews more carefully for language that might suggest these people were frequent travelers.

Ideally, I’d like to be able to filter reviews by the factors I mentioned above to give me a reasonable chance to make sense of all the reviews. (This might require TripAdvisor asking a few innocuous demographics questions to its reviewers before they can post a review, but it’s worth it!) I’d also like to see a search box like they have on Yelp so I can search within the reviews for terms like “renovations” (is the hotel under construction?) or “palapas” (do I have to get up at 5 am to reserve a little tent on the beach?). TripAdvisor’s current set up shows frequently used words in its reviews, but they’re not useful for anything more specific than “restaurants” or “happy hour.”

I love that TripAdvisor allows me access to so much information, but sometimes it’s just TMI and goes past the point of usefulness.

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