Travels May 2008

Weni, Widi, Wiki

Our correspondent visits Seattle with only the hive mind of the Internet as his guide.
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"The Trip Advisory: Tune In, Turn Left"
Where to go on the Web for travel advice

A light rain was falling when I arrived in Seattle late at night after a long flight from the East Coast. A shuttle driver collected a half dozen of us by calling our names off the tiny screen of his pager. In the damp, woolly-smelling van, a GPS unit on the dashboard issued directions to downtown in a soft and soothing female voice, at least up to the point where she said, “Three hundred feet, turn right on Seneca.” The driver ignored her advice, going straight and muttering, “What the hell?” The GPS lady retaliated by endlessly repeating, “Recalculating, recalculating,” in that bland, passive-aggressive way GPS units have, until the driver reached up and shut her off. We then circled the block three times in silence, looking for a hotel that refused to appear, the neon signs of Seattle beautifully pixelated through windows spattered with raindrops.

To travel these days is to plunge into an information cloud that, like a real cloud, can look more substantial than it really is. Booking travel online was among the first popular applications of the Web, to the great annoyance of travel agents. Now, with Web 2.0 and the ubiquity of user-generated information, someone setting off on a trip can dredge up all manner of suggestions and insider tips online, to the great annoyance of professional travel writers. Travel bees everywhere, it seems, are gathering nectar and bringing it back to the hive.

Which leaves one to wonder: How sweet is their honey?

Curious, during a four-day trip to Seattle last fall I relied solely on user-generated information. Seattle seemed the perfect destination for this experiment—I was unfamiliar with the city, and I figured that its hypercaffeinated, digitally literate residents (the region is home to Microsoft, Amazon, and Expedia) should make for a complex online ecology. I’d leave guidebooks at home, ignore the racks of tourist brochures in hotel lobbies, and not so much as make eye contact with a concierge. All my decisions would be based on advice from TripAdvisor, Yelp, Chowhound, Wikitravel, and other online travel communities.

In Seattle, I would depend on the kindness of strangers.

The van eventually let me off at the Sixth Avenue Inn. I had chosen this hotel after reading through exhaustive user write-ups on TripAdvisor, which has more than 2 million reviews posted by everyday travelers. It piqued my interest not because the travelers raved about the place—it was ranked 80th out of 115 Seattle hotels—but because the conditions some described were so colorfully deplorable. (Also, one review was titled “Stinky and dirty, but otherwise great,” which appealed to me with its koan-like quality.) I was curious whether TripAdvisors could be trusted to know a bad hotel room when they saw one.

Reading through the reviews was time-consuming—by my count, there were about 5,000 words, or nearly three times the length of this article, of commentary about just this single hotel. But the reading wasn’t particularly burdensome. Clicking through the reviews is a sort of guilty pleasure, like leafing through magazines that have only unkind things to say about celebrities. Reviewers seem most inclined to log on when they have complaints, and they almost always mention small, novelistic details of the sort you don’t find in traditional travel guides.

Of the Sixth Avenue Inn, for instance, one reviewer reported that the guest rooms smelled of “a mixture of smoke and various bodily odors that apparently mixed into the establishment over the years.” Another wrote, “I mistook a bath towel for a hand towel because the towels were so small.” On they went: “My first night I awoke to water pouring through the ceiling in my bathroom”; “I slept fully clothed and wore socks at all times. The shower was gross”; and “If Todd happens to be your waiter, you’ll also get entertainment” (it was unclear whether this was a good or a bad thing). A reviewer also noted that the pillows were “uncomfortably flat.”

The information online is often piping fresh—some of these reviews had been written just days before I arrived. (Indeed, I had decided against another hotel based on a recently posted account of a child sneezing lavishly in the whirlpool, “using the water as his tissue.”) What’s more, the site allows you to post “candid traveler photos.” Future historians will be pleased to discover that no hotel carpet stain has gone undocumented.

I opened the door to my room with mild trepidation. But it turns out that the Sixth Avenue Inn is absolutely fine. Not fancy, but fine. The shower was not gross. I could detect no unfamiliar bodily odors. The pillows did not strike me as unusually flat. I met no one named Todd. And the end of the toilet paper was even folded into a crisp equilateral triangle, the international symbol of hygienic attention. I slept well.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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