How to Use Online Travel Communities to Plan Your Next Trip

Shivering with ANTICI…..PATION*, I start the planning of a Big Trip. For me, planning the trip is almost as fun as going on it. First, I start with an inkling, a desire for a place. This knowing gets me a country or a destination. Then, I research, research, research on what to do, visit, and experience. Google directs me on my initial searches (“things to do!”) giving me points on a map. Guidebooks serve as a valuable resources on the nitty gritty (“how to get there!”). Along the way, friends helped, but I was going to places my trusted circle had never been. I was limited to the sites Google served up and the travel section at Barnes and Noble.

Now travel planning is all social and good thing too! Because, really, where do the best recommendations come from? Like-minded travelers! Friends! Locals! Essentially, people who have been there, done that, and are just like me. Luckily for us travelers, there are now many online communities out there to help us plan that next Big Trip. We just login, browse, ask away and voila! Answers (and so many new destinations) abound.

Best Site to Decide Where to Go: Wanderfly

Wanderfly Home Page

Last fall I was planning a trip to Ecuador for Thanksgiving with my friend J. I’d researched the surfing, the coffee plantations, and the beach side shacks. It seemed to be the perfect place to get what I wanted – ocean time, natural beauty and some cultural activities. Right before I was ready to book the pretty-expensive plane ticket, J backed out.

Still, the wanderlust had taken root and I started to ask myself, where do I really want to spend this holiday break? I went to Wanderfly to decide where to go.

The site asks four questions that yield a set of destinations that meet one’s criteria.
+ What do you like?
+ What’s your budget?
+ How long do you want to go for?
+ Any particular region?

* They had a very handy feature called “when do you want to go?” which I assumed meant they would just show results that were right for the travel season, but it’s since been removed.

Wanderfly Results Page

The results are big pictures of destinations.  I can click to go further for more details like where to eat, how enjoy the culture, and relax on that beach. I like the combination of choices because trips are multi-faceted with many different elements and the recommendations are shown to cover all I’ve chosen. For my holiday break, I entered beach, adventure, and nature. Wanderfly showed Kauai and Kauai delivered: I got ocean, spectacular greenery, and snorkeling and kayaking all on the Garden Island. My latest search: Off the beaten path, culture, art food and budget. I think my next Thanksgiving holiday just showed up: Mexico City. Go to Wanderfly.

Best Site for Inspiration: AFAR.com

AFAR home page

When my AFAR magazine shows up, I get all misty. I swoon at the pictures of near and far and dive into the articles. On AFAR.com there’s an interwoven relationship between the magazine and online community. The site has those same gorgeous pictures from the magazine peppered with pictures from readers. Magazine articles appear alongside “Highlights” from readers. Advice from the community is often pulled out and published in the magazine.

But the magazine content just accents the real value of AFAR.com: a dedicated community of travelers who are committed to sharing the best of what they know about experiential travel and their favorite places. Because of AFAR.com, I added canelles as a must-have Paris pastry on my next trip to Paris, connected with Sarah Lavendar Smith to work with Meet Plan Go (where I’m the San Francisco host this year), and answered questions on India, the destination closest to my heart.

The home page asks a simple question, “Where do you want to go?” Ask a question and get helpful advice. If you have something to share, upload a Highlight and contribute to a growing list of travel experiences that only those who have been there, done that know. Overall, prepare to be inspired. Go to AFAR.com.

Best Site for On The Road Advice: Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum

Lonely Planet Thorntree home page

It’s 2009, I’m in Jordan at the Internet cafe and I really want to go to Syria. My hands are pounding on the keyboard desperate for an answer. I had not obtained the visa before leaving the US because time was too short before I boarded my plane to Cairo. My question: could I show up at the border and get the visa? All official documentation I found at the time said, no, that’s not  the case. However, I’d heard from travelers that it’s something that does happen and one could try it at the border.

I went to the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and got several responses within 24 hours. The verdict: you can risk it if you have time as sometimes tourists do receive visas at the border. This information helped me make my decision – I didn’t have the time to chance it. A regret, yes, since I’ve always wanted to visit Syria, but felt comfortable not going because of the Thorn Tree’s information.

Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum

The Thorn Tree appears a little ancient and hard to navigate, but it’s the best resource I found for quick answers and resources while on the road. The huge community has country branches that cover pretty much destinations and topics. From broad itinerary advice, “I have three weeks in Vietnam, where should I go?” to specific on the ground recommendations, the TT is carefully moderated by its members. The volume of activity gives a traveler answers on practically any travel question in times of need. Go to Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum.

Best Site For Hotels: Trip Advisor
Trip Advisor home page

I don’t want to admit it, but I always go to Trip Advisor to find out about hotels. The reviewers take their review duties very seriously and give extensive descriptions of what it’s like to stay at a place. It feels like a generic site for the travel masses, but it’s so helpful. Go to Trip Advisor.

Best Community Mobile App: Gogobot

Gogobot

I’m headed to Peru for two weeks in September with my friend L. We have one day in Lima before joining the tour group. I’m looking for a chill day with lots of good food since I’ve heard Lima is a new foodie paradise.

I downloaded the Gogobot app, logged in, and searched for Lima. The top things to do and restaurants were all featured immediately with very helpful ratings.  Most useful was the button on the bottom of every screen: Add To Trip. I tapped, tapped, tapped to add La Mar Cebicheria for “one of the best ceviche restaurants in Lima” and El Mercado for a close competitor and San Francisco Cathedral for a ghoulish and beautiful site. The only thing I’d recommend is a way to ask a quick question about Lima right there from the destination’s screen – I’m in the zone and want to know more from the community! Go to Gogobot.

The Big Trip traveler spends so much time planning and getting ready for a few months or more on the road that we need a huge toolbox of resources – more than a Google search and those guidebooks. Luckily, technology and the global community is ready to help us with our journey.

Happy Planning!

Do you use these online travel communities? Which ones do you like best?

A couple of notes:

The Bay Area Travel Writer’s new anthology “Stories From Around the Globe” was just published. Read 23 short travel narratives, including one I wrote about volunteering in India, about “surprise, serendipity, and transformation” – all the beautiful parts of travel. Buy it online.

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8 Responses to “How to Use Online Travel Communities to Plan Your Next Trip”

  1. May 22, 2012 at 8:46 am #

    You plan and I will accompany ! Great article, gets me excite to start wandering again. Hope you are well.

    • Kristin
      May 22, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

      Thanks Tim!

  2. May 22, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    All great sites that I probably should use more often. I’m guilty of TA too. Peer reviews can be helpful many times. I really wish there was yelp all over the world to help tell me where to eat! =P MyGola seems to be another good service for trip planning too. For a small fee, they do all the planning for you.

    • Kristin
      May 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      Thanks Gerard – my favorite part of Trip Advisor is reading the cranky reviews, they can be pretty amusing. Happy Travels!

  3. Jessica
    May 23, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Hold it – is that your kitty? He is awesome! My big orange cat is also very helpful with travel planning.

    • Kristin
      May 23, 2012 at 11:11 am #

      Thanks Jessica! It’s not, but I love cats 🙂 my sister’s cat Hercules has listened to many of my travel plans.

  4. Darren
    May 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    I like WAYN.com. You can meet and chat with people who have been to and live in the places you are going to. Feels more real when you actually chat and connect to someone rather than just forum posts

    • Kristin
      May 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Thanks Darren! I’ll have to check that out. I really like the idea of connecting with locals immediately – especially on the road.

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