These days, it's so easy just to flick an app if we want travel information. Click, download and voilà, everything you ever wanted to know about a destination.
Or just Google it.
But here's the problem.
However technological, we remain social animals and we listen to other people - users, customers, friends. We seek the validation of our fellow humans and sometimes, we even trust them more than machines.
We could always join a Facebook group, but while that's useful for immediacy, it also has its drawbacks. Because things are posted in real time, searching is a bit complicated and you might have to scroll quite a bit if your search yields a lot of results. Plus, the pool is limited to members of the group, so it's limited.
While I belong to plenty of Facebook groups (too many, I'd say), when I need travel information from knowledgeable sources I'll try a travel forum. Some have been around for a long time, and they're full of human interaction, where humans interact with one another, ask and answer questions and share their travel knowledge and passion.
Somehow, I also perfer to listen to my fellow travelers rather than to a corporation trying to promote its packages...
You could also just Google (or Bing or...) the information but there's a problem with that too. If one person posts wrong information, that will be picked up by hundreds or even thousands of other sites who may not bother to check it. Next thing you know, that train or ferry you were counting on no longer exist and that corner restaurant has long since become a computer shop.
And of course you could read guidebooks, which are full of in-depth information and great for pre-trip research, less so for immediacy (many guidebooks are written up to two years before they're published).
So yes, there are better ways of getting fresh information from or about your destination.
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 you have to do is find the right forum (more on the best travel forums below).
Once you've found a place that speaks to you, 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.
Remember, a forum is a two-way street.
The first thing is to find the right forum for you. Are you a backpacker? Are you looking for luxury along the way? A solo traveler? Are you in your 20s or in your 70s? Are you looking for something destination-specific?
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.
Here are the heftiest ones.
This may be the biggest travel forum online - or not. I can't tell but between this one and the Thorn Tree (below), you'll be covered. This one is a bit more upmarket and mature, I'd say, with a slightly older crowd than the Thorn Tree. It is strictly moderated and run by volunteers who are experts in certain parts of the world. The forum is full of information, although I kept thinking no one was answering my questions because the notification comes up in the tiny little message icon in the upper right-hand corner... you'll be luck as long as you remember to look. But their destination information is topnotch, as is the special interests section. Bar none, this should be your first forum stop if you're looking for recommendations.
It belongs to Lonely Planet, once among the best travel websites (still good but much less engaging since it was bought out by the BBC). This is the forum for backpackers and long-term travelers, young in age but so huge and so ancient you're bound to find what you're looking for, no matter what it is. There's a section for absolutely everything, especially a focus on cheap travel destinations. There are extensive destination forums, of course, often several for a given region but where Lonely Planet (who owns the forum) really strikes home is in the Interest forums, with sections for different kinds of travel including LGBTI, disability, older, culture, you name it. It's usually my first stop. Members can be a bit abrupt if you commit a cardinal sin, such as not doing a bit of homework first. But you'll get answers to your questions, no question!
A great feature of these forums are the Trip Reports, which often provide in-depth views into top travel destinations you won't get any other way (than by going yourself, that is). It's strong on cruises and its destination sections are quite helpful, with a strong focus on Europe, which you can browse by country. It's also easy to get around... This isn't the place to look for travel tips or any 'how to' unless they're destination-related, however. But if you're in the mood for a narrative posted by bona fide travelers, head for the Trip Reports section.
I've always been a fan of their guides and have found fine tips in them. The forums, however, are a bit less active than I'd like but it does have a section on Tips, Tools and Deals. I also don't think they're moderated, or at least not well, because on my first try on the Europe forum, I found an ad for an escort service in Udaipur, with no way to "report" or "block". I write this on a Sunday and that post is only a day old but still...
Travellerspoint has been around forever. Well, since 2002, anyway, so it knows what it's doing. There's a good, active forum but a few additional bells and whistles as well, such as a trip planner and a blog platform. In fact before everyone started a Wordpress blog, this was one of the few places you could host a travel blog for free, along with itinerary maps and photos. The blog function is still there, if all you want to do is share your travels with family and friends (and not the rest of the world). The map is basic but oh so much easier to use than Google maps!
The forums I listed above are global forums. Wherever you travel, you'll find information there. But there are plenty of specialty forums that might be worth your while.
Whatever your travel question, a travel or tourist forum is an excellent source of research - straight from the ground and usually answered by people who are right where you want to go.
Every forum has its rules, and you're often requested to indicate you'll abide by them. Above and beyond the rules, there are basic forum etiquette behaviors that are common on most every forum. Here are just a few:
While some questions may be too simple, no question is too complex or detailed as long as it's about travel. In fact, forums shine by their granularity - it's all in the details. Forums are also great for those questions people don't tend to ask online because they don't expect to find a page with the answers.
Here are a few examples of the kinds of questions you'll find on forums and that will yield answers:
You get the picture.