Back in 2007, I planned my three-week honeymoon to Southeast Asia relying solely on information I found on online travel forums. The detailed tips I received from mostly anonymous members proved to be invaluable: Advice on the best rooms at the Bangkok Shangri-La, an outline of customs procedures at the Siem Reap airport, the name of a guide for Angkor Wat.
Social media networks have reduced the impact of Internet message boards, as this recent New York Times article notes. If I have a question about a destination today, I'm more likely to ask other traveling friends on Facebook, or contact the tourism board directly through Twitter. And why write up a detailed trip report for a message board when I can simply leave a tip on Yelp or Foursquare?
Yet travel forums and message boards still have their place in trip planning, especially if you're looking for very specific information. On Frommer's Community Forums, for example, recent users were getting answers on everything from weekend train routes between Sorrento and Perugia to safety concerns in Madagascar.
And during a political crisis or natural disaster, forums can be the best place to get on-the-ground reports from other travelers and local experts. During and after the tsunami in Japan, residents in Tokyo and elsewhere regularly posted updates about places that were safe for tourists to go.
If you're looking to use travel forums to research your next trip, here are a few tips:
Search out niches. TripAdvisor's Forums, Frommer's Community Forums, Fodor's Travel Talk Forums, and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree are the most well-known message boards for general travel. But don't overlook specialty forums. Business travelers get all their mileage questions answered at FlyerTalk. Chowhound and eGullet are tops for foodies. Avid cruisers hold "roll calls" for upcoming trips on CruiseCritic, where you can find out anything from cabin configuration to shore excursion reviews. And no detail on backpacking in Southeast Asia is too small for Travelfish.org.
Look for like-minded demographics. If you're the type who loves five-star hotels, you wouldn't take advice on where to stay from the grungy kid carrying the backpack, right? Read a few threads before you post to make sure you're talking to the right people for your interests and comfort level. Some forums may cater to younger travelers on a budget, while other message boards may excel at providing travel advice for certain regions of the world, such as North America, Europe, or Asia.
Use the search function. Nothing annoys forum regulars like seeing the same questions pop up again and again. Before you become the 2,000th person to ask what time the ferry goes to Lanai, search old threads to see if your dilemma has been answered already.
Provide details. General questions -- such as "What Caribbean island should we go to for our honeymoon?" -- aren't as likely to get responses, says Fodor's regular Denise DeRocher. Try something like this instead: "We're looking for a romantic resort for our honeymoon and are considering St. Lucia or Jamaica. We'd like great food, access to activities, and have a budget of $500 per night."
Consider the source. Some of the "destination experts" in TripAdvisor's forums have a vested interest, either as a hotelier, a restaurant owner, or a tour guide. Trust the ones who disclose their connections up front, and be suspicious if someone directs people to the same property repeatedly.
Give back. Don't post and run. One of the best things about travel forums is that you can build relationships with like-minded people. If you've received excellent advice from a travel forum, stop back after your trip and let them know how it went. It's just good Internet etiquette.
Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust dishes up travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World. She's also the author of the Philadelphia Essential Guide, an app for iPhone and iPad. Follow her at @CAroundTheWorld.
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