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 as far as I’m concerned, nothing is as good as the information you’ll get from the best travel forums, or travel message boards.
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.
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. (Who knows how long this will last, as many forums are now turning to the social media format themselves…)
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 travel guides or 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.
HOW DO TRAVEL FORUMS WORK?
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.
A word of caution – what you’ll be reading on the forums are people’s personal opinions, not necessarily facts, so exercise your judgment and double-check before you spend any money on anything or take it all at face value.
BEST TRAVEL FORUMS – THE BIGGIES
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.
The Tripadvisor Forum may be the biggest community online – or not. It is strictly moderated (sometimes too strictly, cutting off interesting insights) and run by volunteers who are experts in certain parts of the world. This world travel 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 lucky as long as you remember to look. But their destination information is topnotch, as is the special interests section (the reviews I trust less). Bar none, this should be your first forum stop if you’re looking for recommendations.
A great feature of Fodors 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.
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!
TRAVEL FORUMS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Some of the web’s most popular forums have packed up and gone home – well, not quite, but they have moved their forums to social media. True, an increasing number of people are getting their information from social media but the forum structure allowed for much more exchange of information, in a more horizontal way than is possible on social media.
Still, that’s where they’re headed…
Once the premier travel forum online, Thorn Tree belongs to Lonely Planet. It started losing steam after Lonely Planet was bought by the BBC, and provided answers to just about every question you might have on backpacker travel or long-term travel.
With Covid, the Thorn Tree changed the forum to read-only, keeping all its valuable information but sadly not allowing anything new to be posted.
I’ve always been a fan of their guides and have found fine tips in them. The forums were a bit less active than I would have liked, nor were they moderated (at least not properly). So their move to social media might actually be an improvement.
You can find them at Frommer’s Roamers Travel Chat on Facebook.
WHAT IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR SOMETHING SPECIAL?
Most of 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.
- specific destination forums, by searching such things as ‘Russia travel forum’ or ‘travel forum Asia’ or ‘Caribbean travel forums’. Two that I use often are Rick Steves’ forum (specializes on Europe and excellent for itinerary help) and Caravanistan for the Silk Road, which I consulted almost daily when traveling around Central Asia.
- expat forums – there’s nothing like an expat to tell you what a place is really like! Search for ‘expat forums’ and you’ll find more than you’ll have time to read; most are networks with sections for different countries. If you know exactly what country you’re looking for, then Search for “expat forum Spain” or any country you want.
- thematic travel forums, for example food forums – Mouthfuls is a good example of a forum that combines travel and the food themes, or an air travel forum such as Flyertalk forums.
- types of traveler forums, such as a solo travellers forum (I use the solo travel forums on Tripadvisor for this) or a family travel forum
- specific types of transportation forums, like RVing, cycling, or The Hubb, for those of you who travel by motorcycle.
- and if you’re looking for work, why not try job-related travel forums? Many professional forums have sections on overseas work and travel. One of the best of its kind used to be Dave’s ESL Cafe, if you wanted to teach English as a foreign language (when I checked, the last post was in 2020 so I’m not sure it’s still active – I’ll leave it for a few months just in case). Or if you want to make your job portable and take it with you, try Working Nomad.
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.
THE ETIQUETTE OF FORUMS ON TRAVEL
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:
- No self-promotion. so if you have a business, this isn’t the place to promote it; most forums are strict about this and the odd mention of your Etsy shop will get you thrown right out. Same with excessive linking back to your own online content or blog (some will eject you after even one mention!)
- Be nice. Do I even have to mention this? Sadly, yes. Many people see the online world as one they can navigate without civility. Well, most moderators won’t stand for it and if they see any rudeness, discriminatory speech or anything insulting, you’ll get banned immediately. And that’s a good thing
- Talk travel. A travel forum is a place to talk about travel but because of a strange online distancing from normal interaction, people sometimes end up veering way off topic and next thing you know, they’re delving into the minute details of their love life, which is probably of no interest to readers looking for a good restaurant in Madrid.
- Always search first. Before you ask a question, use the Search function. But we forget. It’s so tempting and easy to just type “What’s the best way to get from Paris to Brussels?” But we’re not that original and there’s a very good chance someone has asked that question before. So rather than be gently told off, see what’s been said, and build on it. You’ll get better travel information that way, but so will everyone else reading the thread.
- Do some homework. This one dovetails with the above point but goes beyond a simple search. The number of times I see questions like this: “I’m going to Italy. What should I visit?” Really? You can’t do a quick search online for “top 10 places to visit in Italy”? Seriously… do the homework, then come back and ask about specifics. No one is paid to answer on a forum and everyone does it out of genuine helpfulness. Let’s not waste their time.
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:
- Do you know a great hostel in Mumbai/New York/Kashkai or anywhere?
- How can I cope if loneliness hits?
- I’m traveling to Switzerland for a week and plan to visit Geneva, Lucerne and Zurich. How much time should I spend in each if what I like best is good food/beautiful nature or whatever?
- Should I reserve a place to stay for my first night in Bangkok?
- What size backpack should I take for six months?
- Has anyone else here traveled solo, and what was it like?
- I want to fly RTW through Africa and Latin America. What is the best way to do this?
- I’m looking for a travel companion for an overland journey across Africa/Asia/Latin America…
You get the picture.
— Originally published on 31 July 2011