Planning on traveling? Ask the crowd

San Jose Mercury NewsNovember 24, 2013 

It’s a familiar ritual among backpackers: ripping a chapter out of a thick Lonely Planet travel book as they move to a new destination, leaving the tattered pages at a hostel to lighten their load.

But as more travelers turn to friends, Facebook and other online communities to plan their trips, the Lonely Planet paper trail has begun to shrink. In its place is a new crop of high-tech startup sites that use online crowdsourcing to offer real-time travel information and personalized recommendations.

“There’s no way I’m going to carry around a big thick book (about) China or Europe,” said Shanti Christensen, a world traveler who calls San Francisco home. She wants to know what her friends are doing in those places, “because we all have similar traveling habits.”

Startups from Silicon Valley to India are building online portals where travelers can find ideas for their next destination, tips on the best places to eat and sleep, build itineraries and share their adventures. Crowdsourcing – soliciting contributions from a large group of people – has turned the average traveler into a travel adviser.

“We look at what our friends say and we change our plans accordingly,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing, a financial advisory firm in New York. “It boils down to two words: trust and credibility. If you know the person, if their perspective on how to travel is similar to yours, you'll give their insights more weight.”

Fake reviews a problem

Until recently, there were few options to quickly find timely recommendations from trustworthy and like-minded travelers, say travel experts. Many tourism bureaus don’t have the technology resources, and a Google search of “best restaurants in Bangkok” will dredge up about 16 million results. Recommendations in Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are often at least a year old by the time they land in the bookstores.

Travelers also have complained about the number of anonymous, outdated and fake reviews on leading travel site TripAdvisor. The company says it screens all reviews and removes any that are fake or offensive, and recently started a crackdown on fraudulent reviews after discovering thousands of bogus hotel reviews.

“Travelers want to get right to the point, get a great recommendation they can trust and then move on with their busy lives,” said Trevor Morrow, a Los Angeles-based travel blogger and video host. “They want help making a decision, and they want to feel confident about that decision.”

Crowdsourced travel site Gogobot was born out of Travis Katz’s nightmarish experience planning trips while living in London. Katz and his wife would sit down in front of the computer to plan a trip “and pretty soon the sun had gone down. Headache, bloodshot eyes, and really not any smarter about where we were going,” he said.

Travel industry changing

Katz, now 41, founded Menlo Park, Calif.-based Gogobot almost three years ago, and the site offers forums and tips from locals and experienced travelers. Each hotel and restaurant review includes the name, picture and profile of the reviewer; more than 90 percent of the site’s 3 million users connect through their Facebook accounts.

Christensen, 36, started using Gogobot while in China, where she lived for six years. She said she couldn’t find a Lonely Planet anywhere in the country and travel websites pushed her into “tourist traps.”

“When you’re living in China, you can’t just hop on Amazon and quickly order a guidebook,” she said.

A record 1 billion people traveled internationally in 2012, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and top destinations included Guatemala and the Ivory Coast, where backpack travel is more popular.

“The travel industry … is changing, and it’s no longer built around busloads of tourists arriving and departing iconic monuments like clockwork,” said Alissa Haupt, a freelance photographer who has blogged about her world travel experiences.

Only as good as the crowds

Some travelers have turned to Flightfox, a Web service with offices in Mountain View, Calif., that crowdsources cheap flights by asking an online community to find the lowest-cost airfare. The Flightfox crowd found a ticket for Andrew Mackenzie-Ross of San Francisco to fly to the U.K., Indonesia, Australia and back to the U.S. for $1,300, which was $600 cheaper than anything he said he could find. Bowei Gai, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, said Flightfox found a way for him to fly to 29 countries for $8,000.

Haupt cautions that crowdsourcing in a digital community has its limitations, and she would be nervous “to rely on strangers online to give me personalized advice.”

Others warn that the quality of the information on crowdsourced sites is only as good as the crowds.

“It’s the icing on the cake, but not something to rely solely on,” Morrow said.

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