International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Two decades ago, cafes around the world had corkboards with postings about hostels, safaris and other travel information, which backpackers passing through could pause to read. But since Internet access became prevalent, many notes and thumbtacks have been replaced by their digital equivalents --- online message boards.
Today message boards compete with a cacophony of voices online, especially since the advent of social networks like Facebook, user-generated review websites like TripAdvisor and mobile location-based recommendation apps like Foursquare. Yet a handful of message boards have remained surprisingly resilient resources for travel information, with thriving communities whose members swap relevant tips every day.
These forums have been joined by a few websites that provide similar, message board-style information in interfaces that more closely resemble social networks, but ultimately, what matters most in an online community of travellers isn’t the how slick the website is --- it’s how up-to-date and useful its information is. Here are four of the best:
Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree
This message board, run by Lonely Planet, a unit of BBC Worldwide and a BBC Travel partner, excels at providing specific information that printed guidebooks don’t have room to cover, such as a recommendation for a reliable local tour guide in an obscure town. The site has an effective search engine, but users can also navigate their way around by clicking on relevant sub-topics, such as a forum called “On Your Bike”, which is regularly updated with information by people travelling by bicycle.
Thorn Tree has 1,050,000 members, making it larger than rival forums, such as Fodors Travel Talk Forums, Frommers Forums, Rick Steves’ Graffiti Wall, Reddit’s travel forum, IndiaMike (a discussion board about India travel), and TripAdvisor Forums, though these other sites also offer valuable insights and lively debate.
As a downside, Thorn Tree’s interface can feel infuriatingly outdated. Also, the site isn’t optimised for viewing on mobile devices, so looking for answers on a smart phone can feel like trying to solve a 500-piece puzzle while looking through a pinhole camera.
In another flaw, some Thorn Tree forums don’t seem as thoroughly moderated as they once were, with publicity-seeking tour operators and hotel owners increasingly able to post their opinions unquestioned alongside the genuine advice of authentic travellers. Reddit’s travel forum, in contrast, may only have about 50,000 members but Reddit is mobile-optimised and its system for having users vote on the most useful answers -- and thus promoting them to greater prominence -- serves as an effective substitute for expert moderators.
This online message board has about 40,000 members who are mostly frequent travellers trading tips on how to max out award miles and points in frequent flier and other loyalty programs. The message board is only two years old and has fewer members than the better known forum FlyerTalk, but its information is just as fresh. Users can sign in with their Facebook account and receive “likes” from other members when they make valuable contributions to the community, which makes it possible to independently check whose opinions are worth noting.
MilePoint also has an advantage in that many of its heavy contributors are among the most respected experts on their subject matter, such as Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, and Gary Leff, founder of the award booking service, BookYourAward.com.
MilePoint also stands out for featuring user-edited articles called MilePoint Wikis on how to max out miles and points, which do a better job of explaining the basics of loyalty programs to new members than comparable discussion threads elsewhere on the Internet.
Drawbacks to MilePoint include the fact that threads of discussion can sometimes seem thin and inadequately supported. A recent discussion about the best credit cards to use to earn points insisted that American Express and Chase Sapphire were the best without always supplying enough evidence. Meanwhile, there’s also a share of off-topic discussions, such as a recent long thread on the pros and cons of buying a MacBook Air versus a MacBook Pro.
Rather than post a travel question to a message board where thousands of anonymous people might answer, you can post a question via Gogobot, which directs your query to people within your social networks who have mentioned that destination on their social network profiles and photo albums. Since 2010, this site has signed up more than a million members, about half of whom live in Europe and half in North America. Approximately one out of every two members use its iPhone app for recommendations on the go. (An Android app is coming this autumn).
The downside to Gogobot’s method of “friendsourcing” instead of “crowdsourcing” is that you may not have any friends that have gone to the specific place you’re researching. In the absence of tips from within your networks, Gogobot presents you with items based on popularity among all of its members, which can be dodgy, as my anecdotal experience found that the site’s members aren’t as experienced travellers as those on the Thorn Tree or MilePoint sites.
Some users may also not like how pushy Gogobot can be in marketing itself. If you choose to use it to contact one of your friends for more information about a destination, your friend will receive a message that strongly encourages them to join Gogobot, too. Whether that bothers you or not will depend on your style.
Traditional message boards often sprawl over too many topics to provide inspiration on which destinations are worth visiting. Wanderfly steps into this void by presenting more than five million user-generated recommendations and letting people sort the options by their personal tastes. Tell Wanderfly about your travel interests, such as whether you’re into art or shopping, and the site will point you to recommendations for two dozen cities you may like based on what people who have similar tastes have recommended.
Unlike a message board, Wanderfly encourages users to create social network-like profiles with avatars and brief biographies. If you find a member whose recommendations you admire, you can follow them to be updated on their latest tips or contact them. Yet when it comes to going beyond discovering an interesting spot in a country you’ve never been to, Wanderfly isn’t helpful in planning an hour-by-hour itinerary. In another downside, Wanderfly has an undisclosed fraction of the users that Gogobot has, which means that on some days it can feel like a ghost town. No iPhone app, but the site is mobile optimised to be viewed easily on a tablet or a smartphone.