Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Do You Trust Your Friends' Advice When It Comes To Travel?

The headline is a question I posed in a recent column for The Toronto Star on the uses of social media for gathering travel advice. In that piece, I profiled the sites Traxo and TripIt, each of which makes it possible for friends to share travel advice and itineraries with friends.

I guess it was only a matter of time before the giant names in the industry also got involved in friend-to-friend travel advice. Just yesterday, the massive TripAdvisor.com (34 million users per month) launched a new program in affiliation with mega-site Facebook.com (400 million active users) called TripFriends. The program will tap into Facebook's "Cities I've Visited" app, allowing users to see which of their friends have gone to the places they're about to visit. They can then contact those friends, either through direct messages or by posting a message to a group of friends. Then, apparently, their friends will deluge them with perfect advice, based on their recent travels and knowledge of their peccadilloes.

The system sounds like an improvement on TripAdvisor's regular one, which has been widely infiltrated by PR and marketing folks posting phony reviews for the hotels, restaurants and attractions they represent (to read more about that, see this Associated Press article on the topic)

On a personal note, I can't tell you how many times hoteliers have bragged to me that they've gamed TripAdvisor's data base, by posting fake reviews themselves, or pushing guests to post (sometimes with rewards attached to that action). Negative reviews on TripAdvisor are getting harder to trust as well, as business people anonymously skewer their competitors.

At least with TripFriends, you'll have good assurance that your friend's advice hasn't been bought, in some fashion.

But let me play devil's advocate here: will your friend give the best advice? I'd say sometimes yes, sometimes no.

When it comes to hotels, frankly, there's no way a casual visitor will be able to give as good advice as a professional guidebook writer (and I write that knowing that it sounds self-serving).

Why? Because a guidebook writer will have visited every hotel in the vicinity and will be able to compare and contrast. Your buddy will have stayed at exactly one hotel and will have no idea, say, that the place up the road has better bedding, a larger pool and lower rates. 

The same could be said of restaurant recommendations, tours, attractions, etc. Likely your pal will have been to the destination once, for a maximum of a week. So his recommendations will be based on the places he made it to while there. Some will undoubtedly be terrific recommendations, especially if your friend shares your tastes (not always a given, at least with my wide group of Facebook friends). But others will likely be misses, not hits.

This is a long way of saying: don't give up on the pros! "Citizen journalism" has its place and can be helpful. But casual travelers rarely have the stamina or the time to investigate a destination as thoroughly as professional travel writers do. Balance what you hear from your friend with advice that's been thoroughly researched. I guarantee by doing your homework thoroughly in this fashion, you'll have a better vacation in the end.

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