New ways to trade travel secrets online
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When Adrienne Mills and her fiance were deciding where to stay before a recent trip to the Greek island of Santorini, they scoured guidebooks and online reviews. But they ended up following the advice of a stranger.
Through Tripmates.com, a new travel-oriented social network, Ms. Mills met someone from London who had traveled to Santorini, and he said she should check out a town called Imerovigli instead of the more expensive hotels in Fira and Oia. It was "one of the best locations on the island," she says. Without his advice, she says, she wouldn't have chosen to stay in the town.
Another recommendation on Tripmates helped Ms. Mills choose a sunset cruise. At half the price of the competition, the Thalassa, modeled after a pirate ship, was a well-kept secret and the highlight of the trip for her fiance, who "has a 12-year-old's fascination with pirate ships," she says.
Reader reviews have been a staple of many travel Web sites for years. Now social networking is becoming one of the latest innovations in the online travel world, allowing people to correspond directly with locals or other travelers with similar tastes and interests to find the hidden gems of any destination. As with the popular pioneering social-networking sites like MySpace.com, members must register online and post personal profiles that include information varying from favorite travel destinations to musical tastes, which allow other users to judge the value of a given restaurant review by checking out the reviewer's interests. Users can also email members to get more-tailored travel advice.
Internet start-ups like Tripmates, Gusto.com and RealTravel.com are looking to tap into the resources of user-generated content that have propelled advertising-supported networks like MySpace. Established travel sites, like Yahoo's Trip Planner, also are building social-networking features such as profiles into their sites so that travelers can read about reviewers. Such sites also offer online communities where members can meet traveling buddies.
Travel tips from family and friends can be among the most effective resources in influencing itineraries, and the new sites exploit that desire for first-hand, word-of-mouth reviews. Customized recommendations also are a big draw. "People are going to be able to find out things like where is the best place to go with a 2-year-old child, or with my dog," says Diane Clarkson, an analyst at market researcher Jupiter Research.
Tripmates, which was launched in August and has about 2,500 members, markets itself to younger travelers who want both inside advice and the chance to meet, or date, fellow travelers or locals. Jodi Nelson, 35, an actress and filmmaker in Los Angeles, is using the site to plan trips to Paris and Italy's Tuscany region, where she has found members who have offered to take her to dinner.
Gusto, which went online in June and has 2,000 members, targets a wider age group and puts less emphasis on the social aspects of its community, instead highlighting insights from fellow travelers. "I would give more credence to what 'Joe Smuckey' in Midwest America had to say than any travel experts in the guidebooks," says Gini Briggs, 43, an air-traffic controller in Marshfield, Mo.
Whenever Kay Douglas travels, she tries to join friends she met on IgoUgo.com, which started in 2000 as a site for travelers to post trip journals before it added social-networking features. She met a member for a camping trip in Missouri's Ozarks in June. He knew how to navigate the area's rivers by canoe, and because he lived nearby he was able to bring food and equipment. The 52-year-old community-college instructor says that she is careful about screening traveling companions and dismisses concerns about traveling with someone she has never met. "After a couple of days, I've had enough of anybody," she says.
Sites such as craigslist.org, couchsurfing.com or hospitalityclub.org also facilitate connections between travelers and locals. But IgoUgo members say the site enables more-successful pairings because prospective companions can find similar interests by reading each other's detailed travel journals. Carole Soldat, 51, went pub crawling with a London member when she visited in 2002, and when she and a friend met up again later that week, she says he helped them find great Indian food in a part of town that she wouldn't have found on her own.
Meeting an online acquaintance for a single activity at the destination, instead of going on an entire trip together, can help avert a potential mismatch. Isabelle Esteves, 56, says she met a member in Vancouver, British Columbia, at an IgoUgo meeting two years ago whose picture and personality didn't fit the person she'd known online for years. "After that first meeting, my itinerary definitely changed," she says.
Other review sites, such as TripAdvisor, which says it has more than five million reviews, are watching to see if the social-networking trend draws more online traffic. "The concept is on the money," says Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor founder and chief executive. "But we don't yet know how compelling the offering is for the relatively infrequent travel visitor." He says that his site will add features later this year that provide more profiles of reviewers and allow for email communication between members.
Mainstream guidebooks have also added online forums and reviews to their Web sites, but the growth of online travel sites will only complement the branded content that professional experts offer, says Fodor's publisher Tim Jarrell.
First Published September 21, 2006 12:00 am