Spotting fake online reviews. Solid-ice hotels. Best beaches in Australia

By Dan Barr
This item appears on page 2 of the February 2017 issue.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 492nd issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine.

For the first time since he took the column over from ITN’s founder, Armond Noble, in March 1999, our editor, David Tykol, is not writing the “Boarding Pass.” He needed some time off to attend to family matters, and he gave me the instructions to “write whatever you want.” So buckle your seat belts and please place seat backs and tray tables in their upright positions, ’cause this might get bumpy.

The Internet has become such an integral part of our lives that it’s shocking to think it has only been around in the form we are currently familiar with for about 20 years. 

For travelers, the Internet’s biggest benefit has been the ease with which people can research and book entire trips on their own. No longer having to rely on a travel agent for advice, people planning trips and looking for a good hotel, cruise, tour or any travel-related service can instead turn to sites like TripAdvisor (www.trip advisor.com), Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com) or Yelp (yelp.com) to read reviews from other travelers. 

Unfortunately, some of the posted reviews are fake, placed there by representatives of the companies, themselves, or by people compensated in some way to write favorable comments.

Falling for a fake Amazon.com review that gives five stars to a one-star book might cost you $10 or so, but falling for a fake review of a hotel or tour company could waste not only thousands of your dollars but weeks of your life.

Being able to distinguish a genuine review from one generated or paid for by a public relations company is difficult, even for the most savvy person, but there is at least one website that can help, particularly regarding hotel reviews.

Called Review Skeptic (reviewskeptic.com), the website uses an algorithm to test the veracity of a review that its creators claim can identify a fake with 90% accuracy.

The algorithm was created by computer scientists at Cornell University, who took hotel reviews known to be fake and compared them to bona fide reviews to find out which words and phrases were more often used in the fraudulent ones. If a review contains enough of these key phrases, the algorithm will rate the review as likely to be inauthentic.

This algorithm is constantly updated by crowdsourcing — using reviews posted by people who can verify whether their submitted reviews are real or fake. The more verified reviews that are added by the public, the bigger the database becomes from which the algorithm works.

To check a review for yourself, copy the text in question and paste it into the text box on the Review Skeptic homepage, then click “Test It.” 

The review will be shown with the text highlighted in blue and red; blue indicates text determined more likely to be “truthful” and red identifies text that is likely to be “deceptive.” The overall result of the test will appear just above the review.

Because of the way the algorithm was created, it and, by extension, the website work best with hotel reviews, but it will attempt to assess the reliability of any review you feed it. 

In the end, the result is based only on comparisons made with past examples of “known” fakes; the website cannot tell you with 100% certainty whether or not any review you run through it is a plant. That’s up to you to decide. 

But Review Skeptic can still be a handy tool to use when trying to decide which company you might want to spend your money on.

One review that you can trust is the one that describes the Icehotel (www.icehotel.com) in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, as “freezing.” Carved from solid ice (yes, even the beds), Icehotel was once open only in winter. However, as of the beginning of the winter 2016 season (Nov. 1), it will be available year-round as Icehotel 365

Guests of Icehotel 365 can choose to stay in a deluxe suite or an “art” suite, both featuring rooms designed by different artists, who sculpt everything from the walls to the furniture. The beds consist of blocks of ice topped with reindeer hides and thermal sleeping bags.

The deluxe suite has the benefit of an attached warm room, for those wanting a break from the cold, and an en suite bathroom (also warm). Art suite guests share bathroom facilities.

In winter, the hotel will expand to three times its size with the addition of even more temporary rooms, which will operate during the previous winter-only dates of the hotel.

Jukkasjärvi, 124 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is one of Sweden’s northernmost communities. Between November and March, its average temperature is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the rooms, however, they like to keep it a balmy 23°F.

In summer, when the outside temperature reaches as high as 62°F, Icehotel 365 will rely on solar power to maintain the temperature of its ice rooms. Because Jukkasjärvi is so far north of the Arctic Circle, during the summer it has 100 days of continual sunlight to power the hotel’s cooling system.

Room rates depend on when you book your stay, but guests can expect to pay about SEK2,500 (near $266) per night for a double room.

But you don’t have to visit Sweden to stay in an ice hotel. You can find plenty of other hotels carved from ice during the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere. Here are just a few examples. 

In Valcartier, Québec, Canada, just north of Québec City, the 40-room Hôtel de Glace (www.hoteldeglace-canada.com) operates January through March. It is redesigned each year. Rooms start at CAD199 (near $150) per person, double, but you may want to upgrade to a Premium Deluxe Arctic Spas suite, which has a fireplace.

The first ice hotel in Eastern Europe, the Hotel of Ice (hotelofice.ro), can be found high in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. It is rebuilt at the glacial Bâlea Lake each winter in a different design. You can choose to stay in one of their 13 double rooms, at RON450 (near $104) per night, or outside the hotel in an igloo for RON660.

In Saariselkä, Finland, at the Kaks­lauttanen Arctic Resort (www.kakslauttanen.fi/en), guests have the opportunity to stay in a glass igloo (available year-round) or, when the temperature allows for it (and, at 68°N latitude, slightly farther north than Jukkasjärvi, it often does), guests can choose to sleep in an ice igloo. 

Kakslauttanen insists that, no matter how cold it gets outside, the inside of the ice igloo never drops below 21°F. A night’s stay in an igloo can cost as much as 592 (near $616) for two people.

If cold isn’t your thing, now would be the perfect time to head south — to the Southern Hemisphere — where it’s currently summertime.

If you’re looking for the best place in the Southern Hemisphere to just lounge around on the beach, there are few places better than Australia. And, if you’re looking for Australia’s best beach, there’s a website that can help you find it. 

Appropriately called “101 Best Beaches” (www.101bestbeaches.com), the website is the creation of two Australian surfers, Brad Farmer, coauthor of what is considered the first surfing guide for Australia, and Andy Short, a professor, author and expert of coastal geomorphology. 

In 2012 they published the book “101 Best Australian Beaches,” now out of print, but they continue to update their list on the website, which now also includes their choices for the best Malaysian beaches.

Each year they hold a vote to determine the 20 best beaches in Australia, and in December they announced their list for 2016.

The choices include beaches throughout all of the country’s territories, and some can get a bit remote. For example, the top beach for 2016 is Cossie’s Beach on Direction Island, located in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean roughly 1,300 miles from the nearest point on the Australian mainland. 

On the other hand, the second-best beach, Nudey Beach (not actually a nudie beach), is on Fitzroy Island, just off of the coast of Queensland near the city of Cairns. 

The rest of the top ten, in order, are Moonee Beach, New South Wales; Turquoise Bay, Western Australia; Burleigh Heads, Queensland; Maslin Beach, South Australia; Dolly Beach, Christmas Island; Shelly Beach, New South Wales; Boat Harbor Beach, Tasmania, and Apollo Bay, Victoria.

On the website’s homepage, clicking on any of the top 20 beaches will bring up its vital information, including the beach’s exact location, activities (such as snorkeling or surfing) that you can find there and descriptions of the local environment.

AN OVERSIGHT to note — The second part of Dr. Philip Wagenaar’s article “What If I Get Sick Abroad — an update” was supposed to be printed in our January issue, but it was mistakenly left out of the magazine. You will find it in this issue, starting on page 49. Our apologies to Dr. Wagenaar and his readers. 

CORRECTIONS to note — 

• In our January 2017 issue, on page 4, in the Travel Brief titled “Free London concerts,” we left an “s” off the St Martin-in-the-Fields’ website. The correct address is www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org.

• Last month, in Rosemary McDaniel’s report of her stay in the SeaView Lido Flat on the Portuguese island of Madeira (Jan. ’17, pg. 28), we printed that she paid 56 pounds per night. She actually paid 56 dollars a night. However, be aware that the cost of the flat changes based on season.

The turning of the calendar is one of my favorite times at ITN because we get to do our annual Where Were You In… survey. It’s always a treat to see where ITN readers spent their year, to watch as countries battle each other for the title of “most popular,” to gasp as other countries, so popular the year before, lose ground to this year’s new leaders and to argue about what the definition of “country” is (again). 

Your answers help ITN tailor our magazine to your interests, and the information lets our advertisers know where you want to go. Maybe the results will even inspire other readers to try new places. You never know! 

You also might win a prize in our annual drawing. So write down each nation that you visited in 2016 and email your list to editor@intltravel news.com or mail it to us at Where Were You in 2016?, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. 

Get your entries in by March 31, 2017. Remember to include the full mailing address at which you receive ITN so we know how to find you if you should happen to win one of our prizes. The winners will be announced in the June 2017 issue.

Kris Lindstrom of Pacific Grove, California, wrote, “I love being able to access everything online. I’ve been getting ITN since its inception in the ’70s. One of a kind! Keep up the good work.”

Thanks for the note, Kris, and we will. 

A lot of that good work goes into making ITN’s website the best it can be, and now it’s better than ever because we have dropped the price of our online-only subscription to just $15!

For $15, our online-only subscribers will get to read the complete issue each month on our website and have access to every letter, column, tour and news item that we’ve previously published online. 

Don’t fret, print subscribers, you, too, have access to all of our online content. To create a subscriber account on our website, visit www.intltravelnews.com, click on “Login or Sign up” and then on “Create new account” and follow the instructions.

If you happen to get a message that your registration code has expired, please call our Subscription Department toll-free at 800/486-4968 and they will get your account sorted out.

While speaking with me on the phone the other day, subscriber Judith Osmer suddenly exclaimed, “I tell everyone I know about ITN!” For that, Judith, you have our thanks.

Aside from finding a copy in their library or doctor’s office, word of mouth is how most new readers discover our magazine. So if you know someone who you think would like ITN, don’t be shy; request a sample copy for them today.

We give you three ways to do so: request one by visiting www.intltravelnews.com/samplecopy, email the names and addresses to samplecopy@intltravelnews.com or fill out the form found on page 61 of this issue and send it to us by post. Your friends will receive a copy of the next-available issue of ITN.

Well, I, for one, thought that went pretty smoothly. Thanks for being patient with me. The David Tykol you know and love will be back next month with more exciting news. In the meantime, please enjoy this handcrafted issue of ITN, made with care, affection and more than a little help from our readers.