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How Do I Know if My Travel Provider Is Reliable?

On the Internet and in print ads, all suppliers are created equal—or at least, they can look equal. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, you don’t have to be good at what you do—or even honest—to publish a great looking website or slick ad. And as a result, we often get questions such as this one last week:

“I have rented a car for next March through a car-hire company in the UK. How can I check it out to see if it’s reliable?”

This reader asked about a company I didn’t know, so I checked it out on Review Centre, the website that claims to be the largest such site in the U.K. What I found should give our reader pause: All six comments reported that the company charged a deposit to their credit cards—not just a hold, but an actual charge—and delayed many months in refunding these deposits. Clearly, this is a company to avoid.

Equally clearly, review resources such as Review Centre can be an extremely valuable resource for checking out any sorts of suppliers you don’t know. Here’s a brief look at the consumer review landscape for coverage of major travel suppliers.

For travel questions, you can potentially use three types of user-based ratings: those that rate just about anything, those limited to all things travel, and those that focus narrowly on an individual segment of the travel industry. For the most part, the wider the coverage, the less detail in any one category. That’s why I recommend starting with the specialized sources before falling back on the more general sources for questions the specialized sources don’t cover.

Airline Sources

Of all the main supplier categories, airlines are the most exhaustively surveyed and ranked. I can’t begin to list all of the resources available; here are a few of the most popular:

  • For the “quality control” elements of airline service—how closely each large U.S. line comes to delivering what it promises—you can’t beat the Airline Quality Ratings from Wichita State and Purdue Universities. These annual scores reflect a composite of what can go wrong with an airline: lost baggage, delays, bumpings, and complaints to the Department of Transportation (DOT).
  • For the “how good is the product” elements, you have plenty of surveys at your disposal. Skytrax is the most comprehensive, but it emphasizes worldwide airlines and tends to lump U.S. lines together. J.D. Power provides yearly satisfaction studies of seven large North American legacy lines and five of the biggest low-fare lines. Zagat posts “top rated” lists for a handful of larger domestic and international lines. Travel Truth posts grades for 16 large worldwide lines—slightly out of date.
  • And for objective information on seating, our sister site, Seat Guru, is out in front of the pack for U.S. and major worldwide lines. British-based Seatplans has the coverage edge for obscure overseas lines.

Hotel Sources

You can find so many user hotel reviews available that you’re as likely to be overwhelmed as to be informed. As far as I know, sister site TripAdvisor remains at the top of the heap, worldwide, with coverage just about everywhere you’ve ever heard of and many places you haven’t. These days, the big online agencies, such as Expedia and Travelocity, post customer comments for many of the hotels they list. Other big hotel review sites include Global Hotel Review, Hotel Shark, IgoUgo, and TravelPost.

Major guidebook series rate hotels, including AAA (“diamonds”) and Mobil (“stars”) in North America and Michelin (hotel symbols) in Europe. The online Fodor’s and Frommer’s sites also include hotel reviews. And the Hotel & Travel Index—published mainly for travel agencies—also lists thousands of hotels, with reviews, along with their position in the industry-standard 10-level rating scale.

For vacation rentals, TripAdvisor mounts a special section for that niche market. And most of the big rental sites include some customer derived comments, although I haven’t seen any actual ratings.

Rental Cars

I know of only one rating source exclusive to rental cars: CarReview. However, several of the rate-it-all sites listed below cover rental cars.

Most sources I know focus mainly or exclusively on the multinationals plus some North American companies. For Europe, you’ll find much more on local outfits at Review Centre, with separate reviews for 10 countries (but not Germany, for some reason, even though Germany generally offers the lowest rates on the Continent).

Cruise Lines

As with hotels, you find all sorts of cruise reviews online and in print. CruiseCritic (another sister site) probably posts more cruisers’ reviews than any other, but you also find reviews on CruiseReviews and CruiseMates, as well as many of the big online cruise agencies. The Frommer’s and Fodor’s cruise guides also have lots of information about individual ships and ports. And TripAdvisor and several of the other sources listed mainly for hotels also cover cruise lines.

Tour Operators

Tour operators, in general, seem to occupy something of a “behind the scenes” position in the travel industry, and that relative obscurity carries over to ratings. I haven’t found any specialized tour rating sources at all. However, several of the all-travel sites include a few operators. Still, this is an area where more consumer input is desperately needed.

Rate-Everything Resources

Quite a few sources include various travel topics as part of broader consumer review coverage. Among them:

These sources are generally much less useful for airlines, hotels, and cruise lines than the specialized sources, but they may be your only resource for rental car companies and tour operators.

Gripe Sites

If you’re concerned mostly with possible bad news, you should also check a few of the big gripe sites that we covered last year. You won’t find any attempt at balanced coverage, but you are likely to see comments from previous customers who were ticked off so much they submitted a complaint.

See the earlier story for more detail.

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