David Randall: Hotels, and how (not) to choose them

Our own trip adviser warns against web booking

If there's one thing even more mystifying than the meaning of life itself, it's the success of the TripAdvisor website. Just how bereft of common sense do you have to be to take the advice of anonymous strangers on something as important as a hotel stay? And that is even without considering how many reviews, if positive, were planted there by the hotel, its staff, and the sneaky little companies that do so for a fee; or, if they are negative, are put up by rivals. Small wonder that the Advertising Standards Authority is to investigate the provenance of the reviews upon which so many, apparently, set such store.

Even if the site managed to expunge all the fraudulent and fictitious reviews, there is still the issue of subjectivity. One person's "firm, comfortable bed" is, if you think about it for a nanosecond, another's "hard, unforgiving mattress" – and one's "fun-loving laid-back staff" is liable to be another's "insolent waitresses lacking respect". All in all, when it comes to choosing a hotel, TripAdvisor is about as useful as a 60-year-old AA Guide.

So what to do? I must have booked hundreds of hotels down the years, and can recall only one truly duff one (of which more anon). The iron rule is never to make a reservation without first calling. However beguiling the website, however impressive the low-light photographs of the conservatory restaurant, never book without first dialling the hotel's number. Countless times I have rung an attractive-looking place only for the phone to take ages to be answered, or, when it finally is, for a cold voice to sound entirely uninterested in who you are and what you want. If they can't exhibit the will to win before they have sold you a room, they are very unlikely to discover it once they have. (Hence a reason to spurn any hotel which makes you ring a central reservations number – you will not be speaking to the people who will actually be looking after you.)

A hotel website can unwittingly reveal a lot. Ones which make much of the alleged personalities and interests of the owners should sound loud alarms. My advice: never book a hotel run by "characters". Similarly, shun establishments whose website is illustrated by line drawings, especially of the main building or its gardens. There is no surer sign that, although Wren-like in appearance and "on the outskirts of a mainly Georgian town", the hotel is actually located next to World of Leather.

Look, too, for signs that the hotel fancies itself as a bit of a player in the weddings market. This may mean they've invested a few quid in a wrought-iron gazebo in the garden, but it means other things, too. Like the vibrating bass-line of the disco still shuddering at 1am, two ushers fighting over the favours of the chief bridesmaid at 1.45am, or the whole place being so comprehensively taken over by the wedding party that you feel like gatecrashers. And while I'm about it, never book a five-star hotel. Nothing to do with the place, everything to do with the sorts of people who will be your fellow guests.

The one duff hotel? Near Taunton, arrived around 3pm with wife, widowed mother and four sons, checked in, went to our rooms and settled in. Tap on the door. There had been a bit of a mix-up; we would have to change rooms. As I absorbed this, I asked about dinner that evening. "Have you booked?" Hadn't. "Well you should have booked before arrival. Too late now. Good pizza restaurant down the road." I asked for a Yellow Pages, found what I wanted, booked four rooms at the late lamented County Hotel, Taunton, and marched my family out past the protesting owner, and, a short car journey later, into the welcoming arms of the County. It was the last time I ever paid any attention to a hotel review.