Other people's travel problems are not interesting. Same with other people's weather, and traffic jams you're not in. Therefore -- believe it or not! -- I try to mention travel issues only if I think there is some larger point they illustrate, admittedly often about the TSA. I'm not going to write about My Noisy Hotel Room, or The Time I Waited for Days to Get My Luggage, because everyone has such tales.
But here is a recent episode I did find intriguing. It bears on the honesty and built-in bias of some popular online ratings sites. Short version of the story:
- My wife and I knew for months that we would be coming to LA for a week at Christmas time, to see relatives and friends. Rather than just stay in a hotel, we thought we should try something from the burgeoning small-B-and-B category. After poring through online listings and comparing reviews, my wife came up with what looked like a funkily nice one. It was called PAH, the Palisades Art House, in Pacific Palisades, and the reviews were uniformly positive, for instance from AirBnB and VRBO [Vacation Rentals By Owner]. We made the reservation for Dec 23-30; wired the nonrefundable 50% deposit; and in mid November got a confirmation note from the German owner-manager saying "All is set" and that he was looking forward to seeing us.
- When we arrived, at 10pm West Coast time on Dec 23, that same manager looked at us in puzzlement. To jump to the end of the story: he had "forgotten" or "gotten mixed up" about our booking, had sold the room to someone else, and had no space whatsoever for the next week when we were supposed to be there.
- This was inconvenient, especially late on Friday night of a holiday weekend after 12 hours of travel from the East Coast; but worse things happen every day. We called friends and relatives and have ended up staying in their houses, which has been fun. We made the manager give us our deposit back on the spot.
Here is where it got interesting. Because this kind of incident would have been relevant to us when we were comparing listings, the next day I did a short "here is what happened to us, be careful" review-note on Yelp and on the same sites where we had learned about the property -- VRBO, VacationRentals, and HomeAway. I couldn't post anything at AirBnB, because it accepts reviews only after sending email to customers at the end of their stay -- and our stay never began. I didn't want to complain to the world at large, which wouldn't care, but rather to supply information only for people who were considering this exact property. The Yelp one went up in real time. From the other three I received a "your review is under consideration" note.
A few days later, I received messages from VRBO, VacationRentals, and HomeAway (which turn out to be three different branches of the same operation, based in Austin), all saying that the review didn't meet their standards and would not be posted. Why? Because they accepted reviews only from people who had stayed at the property; and since we hadn't stayed there, we couldn't comment on the place.