Crowd-Sourcing for Travel Advice (from New York Times)

Great tips from New York Times Travel on how to choose a vacation destination! We LOVE these social media and Internet tools to find recommendations.

Crowd-Sourcing for Travel Advice
Published: August 17, 2011

LOOKING back at my favorite vacation spots, several have one vital thing in common: they were suggested by friends.
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Jason Logan
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Ten years ago, a tip from my good friend Amy allowed me to experience Tulum well before the crowds arrived. And my husband’s former roommate Will, a finance executive who worked in Tokyo for a while, deserves credit for the best sushi dinner of my life.

My friends, in turn, have followed the itineraries of several of my favorite vacations in places like Vieques, Hanoi and Holbox, an island off the Yucatán.

It’s no surprise that travelers tend to trust the advice of people they know. Now, several new travel sites are trying to put those inclinations to use by allowing travelers to use social media sites for targeted trip advice.

Take Gogobot.com and Afar.com, which both made their debuts last year. Each allows users to post specific questions about upcoming vacations to both Facebook friends and users of the sites: Where are the best family-friendly restaurants in Paris? Should we hire a personal driver to get around El Salvador?

“It’s not who you know, it’s who you need to know,” said Derek Butcher, chief technology officer of Afar Media, which also publishes the two-year-old travel magazine Afar.

Gtrot.com, which focuses on users’ immediate network of Facebook contacts, operates on the premise that 10 recommendations from friends you trust are better than 100 suggestions from people you don’t know.

Planning a trip to Ecuador, I signed up with these three sites to see what kind of travel insights I could glean. For the most part, they offered advantages to simply posting a question on Facebook or Twitter. Below, an overview.

AFAR.COM An interactive extension of the travel magazine with the same name, this social networking site offers personalized recommendations from travelers, locals who share your interests, and editors and writers at Afar.

An initial travel personality quiz is designed to connect you with people with similar tastes. Based on my answers, I was dubbed an “active adventurer” who likes to get outside as much as possible, avoids tourist haunts and doesn’t mind roughing it a little. (Not too far off.)

I then filled out a profile with a Facebook-like layout that allowed me to post previous trip highlights with photos and ask questions about my coming trip. The site sends your queries only to members who are familiar with the destination at issue. (You can also link your account to Facebook, which allows you to send the same question to your contacts there for more feedback.)

By the next day, Jeremy Saum, an editor at the magazine, had posted a response to my questions about where to stay and eat in Quito, offering several ideas from an article that ran in the May issue, with some very specific tips. “Ask for the room on the first floor with the claw-foot bathtub,” he noted about Café Cultura, a Quito B-and-B.

A nifty feature aggregates previous recommendations from members and automatically files them under a tab with the name of the city right above your question, allowing you to find extra tips easily.

Bottom line: A clean, simple layout makes navigating this site a breeze. But while you get good personalized advice, it’s up to you to search out phones, addresses and other service information in order to put the advice to use. And like the magazine, the site seems to tend toward off-the-beaten-path destinations; if you’re looking for more-mainstream recommendations, Afar might not be your best resource.

GOGOBOT.COM This trip-planning site also taps your social networks (Facebook and Twitter) for advice, but provides a few added layers. Unlike Afar, it will supply photos, phone numbers and addresses, if available, for the recommendations users make. It also includes tools to help you build a working itinerary that you can adjust as you go.

I chose not to query my Facebook friends or Twitter followers, just to see what advice might surface from Gogobot users. Within a day, I received a response from a well-traveled member. It was only one response, but it included six insightful recommendations about where to go in Ecuador.

“I’ve never been a big fan of touring old churches, but this one stands alone,” he wrote of one popular church. And his description of the Mitad del Mundo, a monument that marks the Equator, which I knew from past visits, was dead on: “The one and only reason to go here is for the novelty of taking your picture spread eagle across the Northern and Southern hemispheres.” (Turns out he is such an avid user of Gogobot that the company now pays him on a freelance basis to help cover some of its more-obscure destinations.)

Gogobot can also sync with Foursquare and Facebook so your public check-ins on those sites show up on your Gogobot profile as well. Members can review or rate hotels, restaurants and activities, earning stamps in their virtual passport, which can then be shared with friends.
Bottom line: an efficient way to build an itinerary based on recommendations from friends and other travelers. The site makes it simple to record where you’ve been so that you can easily share your favorite places with friends.

GTROT.COM Essentially a travel companion to Facebook, Gtrot was created by Harvard students in 2009 as a way for college students to keep track of friends while on school break. Now anyone can link their Facebook accounts to the site to share their travel plans, find out who they know in the destination they are visiting and get travel advice.

The first step is to search for the city you are headed to and plug in your travel dates. You can also e-mail your itinerary to trips@gtrot.com to add it automatically to your planned trips. The site will then pull up a list of Facebook friends who have visited, lived in or are planning a trip to those cities at the same time as you.

You can ask your friends for tips or invite them to meet up by typing a message into Gtrot, which posts to your friends’ Facebook page. Gtrot then pulls all the related comments back into the site and files them with your trip. (For members traveling in parts of the United States, Gtrot also aggregates daily deals from sites like Groupon.com based on their destination.)

The more active you and your Facebook friends are, the better Gtrot works. It didn’t work so well for me. For my trip to Ecuador, I sent a Gtrot message to nine of my relatives who live there. Only two responded.

Also, because Gtrot determines which friends may have advice on a place based on what they make public in their Facebook profiles, not all of my family members who have been to Quito showed up as potential resources.

Gtrot says it plans to address this glitch by allowing users to add Facebook friends who they know have visited a region but may not have indicated so on their profile to trip queries. By the end of August it plans to offer lists of hotels, restaurants and things to do that have been crowd-sourced from Gtrot’s 10,000-member base.

Bottom line: Until that happens, when it comes to travel advice, Gtrot is only as helpful as your Facebook friends.