Jan 24, 2021

Before booking your next trip, check the dates on those five-star reviews


My favorite Mexico City hotel: Temporarily closed 

If you rely on online reviews and guidebook recommendations for travel planning, you'll notice something different when you start researching your next trip.  

Much of the information will be outdated by almost a year. With Covid-19 halting travel around the world, guidebook authors were unable to update their work. Bloggers were unable to travel. Hotels and restaurants, used to generating hundreds of reviews each month on sites such as TripAdvisor.com and Booking.com, garnered only a handful of mentions, mostly from locals commenting on services eliminated or changed during Covid.

The upside is that if you are traveling now, there's useful Covid-related information included in  recent online posts.

Traveling now? Check hotel websites for Covid policies

The downside for longer-term trip planning is that the research will take more time, and require more cross-referencing to unearth bits of timely and accurate information. A hotel or restaurant that rated five-star reviews may no longer exist, or could be under new ownership with a less-than-charming new manager.

Example: When Google reported my favorite small hotel in Mexico City "permanently closed," I was sad, but skeptical, so I did some checking and found a notice on TripAdvisor that the hotel is temporarily closed until July. When it reopens, it will be hard to know if the standards have changed. The last review was written almost a year ago in February.

For those of us who have taken a few local trips during Covid, or for those who plan to do more once vaccinated, it's important we take the time to contribute fresh reviews. In time, we'll be able to start detecting trends again, and distinguish between one person's bad experience and a pattern of similar complaints. 

I almost skipped posting a review of a Georgian restaurant in downtown Seattle that we tried recently for take- out. The food was excellent, and Yelp reviews were plentiful, but when I noticed that only four customers had left a review on TripAdvisor since November 5, I decided to contribute. 

At the Hotel Theodore in downtown Seattle, someone from management responds to every review posted on TripAdvisor. Sadly there have been only 11 since November, but those included timely and helpful comments for anyone traveling during Covid.

"They brought delivery food up to my room to minimize my contact with the outside world," wrote one guest.

"Due to Covid, some room amenities, like the coffee maker had been removed (The Theadore had in-room Nespresso machines), but the coffee stand in the lobby provided good coffee," another commented.

With Canada's borders closed to U.S. travelers, all four reviews posted since November for the Fairmount Hotel in Vancouver, Canada, were written by people from British Columbia.

"Due to Covid, the Gold Lounge was not open; however, room service was fantastic," one guest wrote. "They brought up a small fridge for us, along with extra tea and welcome drinks given we were celebrating my mom’s birthday. "

For updated policies during Covid, hotel and restaurant web sites seem mostly reliable.

The chapel next door to Il Convento hotel in Naples, Italy

Il Convento, my favorite hotel in Naples, Italy, posts a lengthy list of Covid precautions that include sanitizing the mattresses, cushions and curtains after the departure of each customer, and the elimination of bedspreads, decorative cushions and doilies. Breakfast, normally served around a large, communal table, is now served in the room.

Guidebook publishers research and edit their books a year in advance of publication, so losing all of 2020 will mean most of what's available in print will be information researched in 2019.

Rick Steves planned a new 2021 edition of his Paris guidebook this month, but with France's borders closed to international travel for most of the past year, this would seem difficult to pull off. But Steves' writers routinely post changes to printed guidebook information online, so readers would do well to check his website for current hotel and restaurant information, and use the printed books for historical background and itinerary planning. He maintains an active archive of general types of travel information on his website, along with an archive of past TV shows, podcasts and a tentative line-up of tour itineraries in 2021. 

Other publishers have been using their websites to post topical articles on travel trends.

Fodors.com recently carried articles on topics such as "Thinking about traveling just to get vaccinated," and "I just returned from city packed with tourists (Dubai). Here's what it was like." It's also running a series on "Best Road Trips in America." 

In Your Pocket Guides which publishes free downloadable e-guides to countries and cities many other publishers ignore, tags its online postings with the date they were last updated. Most carry a date of February or March of 2020. A posting called "Basque Food: 5 Must-Try Dishes in Bilbao"  likely is as useful today as it was a year ago. Not so with an article posted around the same time on the "Top 10 Annual Events in Bilbao," nearly all cancelled last year due to Covid. 

Culinarybackstreets.com publishes some of my favorite online city guides, with food-focused articles designed to wet the appetite for its walking tours in cities such as Istanbul, Barcelona, Mexico City and Tbilisi. There's a charge for the walking tours but the city guides are free, and local writers keep them current.

Recent posts include a December, 2020 story about a Syrian man helping refugees become food entrepreneurs in Istanbul and a piece written in early January, 2021 on a family tamale operation near Oaxaca, Mexico. I love both of these cities, so will use these articles to take a culinary voyage for now, then bookmark them for future travels. 

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