TripAdvisor rates, along with Facebook and Twitter, among the planet's most successful online communities, linking the social need to brag and berate with the instantaneous infinity of the world wide web.
Millions of users have contributed reviews, some of which will make uncomfortable reading for proprietors of British hotels – particularly those hotels that appear in the TripAdvisor list of "10 Dirtiest Hotels in the UK". At the Cromwell Crown, for example, which tops the list, Swifey of London warned: "There was rat urine on my bed and pillow and there were rat droppings on the bed."
While I deplore any hotel that fails to provide a good night's rest, this raises two questions about the reviewer. First, what was Swifey doing in a hotel in their home city? And second, how did they become so expert about rodent secretions?
Further down the list, one reviewer at the Gresham in Bloomsbury claims he'd "rather sleep at Euston Station," while another gives it full marks and says: "A very nice price for a hotel in the centre of London."
Some travellers (for example, investment bankers who don't have too much investment banking to conduct right now) may have time to sift through the dozens of reviews for hundreds of hotels on the web, and no doubt will come up with a fair picture of what's best – and what's worst. But I would rather spend £10 or £20 on a guidebook where the author has done the legwork for me, making sure that duff hotels get nowhere near the listings and providing fair and concise evaluations of those that do make the grade.
I want my travels to be guided by someone whose credentials are as strong as their opinions. The first Lonely Planet guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, sums up the climate in the complex Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in just two words: "Like Nepal."
Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the enterprising Brits who wrote up their transcontinental adventures for the seminal backpacking guide, can be forgiven for the odd short-cut – after all, this guide had the backpacker market almost to itself when it first appeared half a lifetime ago. Since then, Lonely Planet has become a publishing empire. It is a gold-plated purveyor of information and – just as important – opinion. Proof of the value of its intellectual property was provided last year when BBC Worldwide took control of 75 per cent of Lonely Planet, in a deal reportedly worth £100m. Sadly, Lonely Planet has just made one in 10 of its staff redundant, citing the financial crisis and in particular a declining guidebook market. It seems that a lot of people would rather go for the democratic option: the bigger the scale of TripAdvisor, the better the user can build up a picture of Paris or Prague that's quite sufficient for a short break.
User-generated reviews also have the great virtue of being up to date; research for a new guidebook may have been done six months ago. And if you ever need to research the climate in Bhutan, TripAdvisor can offer the essential advice that "all the seasons have some rain". Like Nepal. Simon Calder
Barnet braces itself for the Winehouse effect
Expect to hear the sound of champagne corks popping if you're in Camden tonight. Amy Winehouse has finally moved out of north London and into a gated, five-bedroom mansion in Barnet, Hertfordshire.
A Camden neighbour has described living cheek-by-jowl with the troubled singer as "no easy ride", yet the main problem is not Winehouse's carousing itself, but the army of paparazzi and hangers-on. "I don't think you'd be overly impressed if you were one of her new neighbours," admits Trevor Adams, co-owner of photographic agency Matrix. "Everyone's going to want to get the first picture of Amy back on the party scene."
The 24-hour paparazzi and police presence could make local residents feel more secure, but this will be small recompense for the disruption.
So, should her new neighbours up sticks? They'll be lucky – the houses around Winehouse's new pad will now be even harder to sell, according to Edward Peer, a local property consultant. "It's generally a good thing when celebs move in," he says, "because better shops and amenities open and house prices go up. But you really don't want someone like Winehouse moving in because the press will be there 24/7."
Unless she gives up the partying, neighbours who thought they'd bought into the suburban dream can look forward to sleepless nights, blocked driveways and burly paps wolf-whistling their daughters on their way home from school. Whatever happened to The Good Life? Sophie Morris
Every politician needs a good foundation
A woman's hand runs over Gordon Brown's haggard face after his aircraft has landed in Maryland for his first meeting with Barack Obama. She is applying a touch of make-up before he steps out to confront the wall of cameras waiting on the tarmac.
What is this? A man, being made up, for a meeting with another man? Has Britain's much vaunted "special relationship" with the USA entered a homoerotic phase?
Actually, no. It's nothing special at all for a modern PM to slap on a bit of powder. His meeting with the US President is a very big occasion for Gordon Brown, and he was not going to spoil it by allowing the cameras to pick up any sign of jet lag on his face.
World leaders have been dabbing their faces with make-up since that famous television debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the presidential election of 1960, when the dark morning shadow on Nixon's chin cost him thousands of votes.
Brown is quite modest in his use of make-up compared with Tony Blair, whose face was plastered in the stuff almost every day. Blair's aides insisted that he needed it because he sweated easily. John Major was also a modest user, whereas Margaret Thatcher had so much work done to her face that, close up, there seemed to be a 20-year age gap between her cheeks and her wrinkled neck. Andy McSmithReuse content