Everyone asks ...
Can I trust the hotel reviews in TripAdvisor?
For the most part, the TripAdvisor website — which allows paying guests to air their views about hotels — is a blessing for travellers. It is true a reviewer can post a fake review. Also true that TripAdvisor has been taken to task, and to court, by hoteliers who claim they have been unjustifiably smeared by reviews on its site.
There are various "reputation management" services that claim to help clients clean up unfavourable reviews. What validates TripAdvisor, however, is critical mass. The site currently has more than 75 million reviews.
A big city hotel such as Sydney's Four Seasons will have more than 1000. With numbers like that, it becomes difficult for any hotelier, public relations operator or grudge-bearer to fly a banner contrary to the winds of prevailing opinion.
Look for hotels with plenty of reviews over an extended period, with the focus on the latest. TripAdvisor's senior contributors, who have multiple reviews to their name, carry more credibility than a one-time reviewer.
What TripAdvisor is all about is empowerment. For the first time, paying customers have a forum in which to applaud or chastise a hotel operator. TripAdvisor helps consumers make an informed choice.
A hot tip about gratuities
I'm doing a 13-day coach tour of Italy and have the option of paying the gratuity ($99) for the tour director upfront. I'm happy to give a gratuity for services rendered but how do I know that their service will be worth $99? The alternative is to contribute cash on the last day. If I don't prepay a gratuity and all the other passengers do, I may get left behind in some small Italian village!
- G. Culmer, Umina.
Tell 'em they're dreaming. It's becoming increasingly common for tour operators to offer gratuities as a "prepay" item. Some cruise operators now routinely include a gratuity as a standard charge, with the option for the passenger to offer more if they've received outstanding service. This is supposedly a matter of convenience since travellers do not have to dig into their pockets at the end of the trip, when they may have spent all their cash on souvenirs, or lost it in the ship's casino, but it grates.
A gratuity is just that, cash given in appreciation of outstanding service, not in anticipation of service - which may or may not be delivered.
You won't get left behind. If the tour director gets their tip at the end of the tour rather than the beginning, surely he or she is going to try harder to please, which is what tipping is all about.
A drive to discover the west's great wonders
My husband and I plan to visit the US in mid-2014 aiming to drive Route 66. We then hope to cruise back to Australia via the Panama Canal. Do you have any suggestions where to fly into from Australia, attractions etc before and after the drive? Time and money restraints limit our travels in the US and I would like to organise accommodation in advance.
- H. de Plater, Wagga Wagga.
I'm guessing you don't plan to drive the entire 3940 kilometres of Route 66 and for my money, the most interesting bit is the 1360-kilometre section between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. For scholars who might be inclined to write, Santa Fe was on the original Route 66, although it was bypassed when the road was realigned in 1937 to run along what is now Interstate 40. This would take you past some of the wonders of the American west, including the Grand Canyon, Death Valley National Park, Painted Desert National Park and, a wonder to some at least, Las Vegas. Los Angeles, your staring point, has more flights from east coast Australia than any other American city. The city's attractions range from the from the incredible J. Paul Getty Museum to the Warner Brothers and Paramount film studio tours to the body-building fetishists on Venice's Muscle Beach.
At the other end of the drive, Santa Fe's style is a chic city with a thriving arts scene and a rich inheritance of Native American and western culture. Check Frommer's (frommers.com) for more information on both cities. You could also be safely guided by Frommer's hotel choices, but check with feedback on TripAdvisor (tripadvisor.com.au).
Dreaming of a white Christmas
I hope to have a white Christmas this year with my husband and children, aged 12 and 14, preferably in Canada. I am thinking about four nights during Christmas before travelling for another two weeks. Could you recommend the best route to get there, any resorts or hotels that offer Christmas packages and if there is much else to see or do at that time of the year (we are not skiers).
- C. Whittingstall, Sutherland.
White Christmases are to Canada what men in skirts are to Scotland, and Banff would be my pick. It's just a one-stop flight from Sydney to Calgary via Vancouver and from there just a short bus trip to Banff, right at the scenic heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Get the kids to try skiing, they'll love it. There are plenty of other winter adventures here, such as snowmobiling, dog sledding and snowshoeing. You might also consider a day trip to Lake Louise, a mainstay of Canada's postcard industry.
For packages and more information see Banff Adventures (banffadventures.com).
Journey north for a contrast of cultures
My partner and I plan to take our 2½-year-old to Vietnam for two weeks in October. After visiting an old friend in Ho Chi Minh City, we have about a week for maybe Hue and Hoi An, in nice hotels with Western-style food for our daughter. Is this doable or do you have a better idea? We spend three nights on an island near Ho Chi Minh City when we return.
- J. Rose, Newtown.
Hue and Hoi An are both possible, but I find it hard to generate much enthusiasm for Hue. The former capital was badly knocked about during the Vietnam War and what remains of the former complex within the citadel is rather disappointing. The old royal tombs and temples are less than thrilling and after a day you might find yourselves at a loss.
A much better option might be Hanoi. The capital is very different from Ho Chi Minh City. Its character, architecture, food and temperament — they don't smile as much in the north - set it apart from its slightly brash southern compatriot. You could easily spend an entertaining few days in Hanoi, exploring the city and its markets, taking in the water puppet show, shopping for lacquerware and silk in the narrow, crowded streets of the Old Quarter, pictured, and perhaps visiting some of its museums and galleries.
October is typhoon season and can bring heavy rainfall in central Vietnam.
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