These days, the world is social and we listen to other people - users, customers, friends, as opposed to large corporations trying to promote their own places and services. So why not use the best travel forums when planning a trip?
Wherever you're going, chances are someone has been there, done that - and written about it. And now you get to benefit from their experience.
Even if you've never done it before, joining and participating in a travel forum is simple.
The first thing is to find the right forum for you. Are you a backpacker? Are you looking for luxury along the way? Are you in your 20s or in your 70s? How long is your trip?
Some of the best travel forums have hundreds of thousands of members or posts, and others are tiny. While the smaller ones may be great if you're looking for specialized information, the size of the bigger ones almost guarantees you'll get some sort of answer about your question.
My all-time favorite used to be BootsnAll Independent Travel: the tone is friendly and supportive, people don't waste their time flaming or insulting others, and members tend to be genuinely patient in answering questions but... it seems to have become less active, sadly.
More active is Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Travel Forum. It's probably the biggest of its kind and is a gold mine of travel information. I'm less partial to its tone - a bit less patient - than to that of BootsnAll but it has the most members, the majority of whom are knowledgeable and passionate about travel.
Both cover a wide range of issues. They have destination sub-forums, usually by continent or region, but more important are their specialty travel sections like senior travel, women's travel, gay and lesbian travel, travel gear, responsible travel, adventure travel, travel with disabilities, making money, travel inspiration, solo travel... and I'm only scratching the surface. Have a browse and see for yourself.
Both BnA and Thorn Tree tend to be aimed at independent backpackers so higher-end or group travelers will have to supplement their information elsewhere.
A few worth mentioning include Fodor's, Frommer's, TripAdvisor, Virtual Tourist and Travellerspoint. They're all hugely helpful on specific destination information and recommendations from others. Several have 'experts' and your questions will be answered quickly.
Browse around for a bit until you find one that 'feels right' for you.
A forum doesn't have to have hundreds of thousands of members to be worth visiting. Many smaller online travel forums are friendly, erudite, funny, helpful, and even quirky.
Examples of travel chat forums that fit some of the above criteria could be Aardvark Travel (check out their Space Travel and Food sections, although this forum doesn't seem as active as it used to be) or TravelPod (look through their Couchsurfing and alternative accommodations).
If these don't suit you there are dozens more - just settle in and start surfing.
You will have to register. It's free, and you only have to give out the information you feel comfortable sharing. You'll need a user name (choose something you'll remember - your user name will appear on your forum posts, or conversations) and a password (make sure you jot this down so you don't forget it). And now, you're ready to throw yourself into the fray.
Most forums have a section for new members, or 'newbies'. It's called something like 'Introducing Yourself' or 'Post here first'. Don't worry - it'll be obvious.
Drop in and say hello, tell people who you are - a few sentences are enough. Upload a photo of yourself (or a cartoon or caricature if you'd rather). The point is to signal to people you are interested in taking part in the forum and that you'll be posting once in a while.
Then find a thread - or a conversation - that interests you and jump in. Just click on it and ask a question, or if you can, answer one, all in the spirit of giving back in as well as taking.
What kind of questions are best for travel forums? Here are a few examples:
No question is too complex as long as it's about travel. You'll be miles ahead in your planning if you take advantage of these online travel forums and participate actively. I do!
So far I've mentioned the more general forums - but there are plenty of specialized travel forums. Let me give you a sampling of what you might find if you dig a little:
Whatever your travel question, travel forums are an excellent source of research - straight from the ground and usually answered by people who are right where you want to go.