How to Get the Most Out of Internet Travel Forums

There are a number of travel forums on the Internet.  These are only as good as the people who post, and the editors/moderators who delete spam or inappropriate comments.

I love the Fodor’s Forum.  There are lots of well-traveled people who post reports on their trips and will answer questions about your planning.  The Fodor’s forums have become little travel communities, and people who post regularly have gotten to know each other.

Most of these posters travel independently, and many stay in higher-end accommodations.  There are “flashpackers” and budget travelers who post here as well.  There are occasional reports of group tours, but the regulars prefer independent travel and will “hold the hand” of a newbie trying to plan their first independent trip to Asia.

Lonely Planet has a forum called Thorntree.  More oriented toward backpackers and those who like to “rough it,” there are some posters who stay in upper-end accommodations.  There are many knowledgeable people who know about a destination that is rarely visited by travelers.  Those people are invaluable resources.  When I was planning my trip to Malaysian Borneo, I found a poster on the Thorntree who had written a long post on where to see orangutans in the wild.  Nowhere else did I find this kind of detailed information.

Trip Advisor is a useful site for hotel reviews in particular.  Many people love it, though I find it less user-friendly than some other sites.  I find the ceaseless advertisements distracting, but others have learned to tune it out.

Forum Etiquette

To get the most out of these wonderful resources, there is some forum etiquette that you should observe.

First, familiarize yourself with the site.  How is the site organized?  You’ll want to ask your questions in the right place.  There are usually separate boards for different areas of the world and some forums allow you to tag your question with a country tag, for instance.  Both Fodors and Thorntree have this capability.

Next, read some posts on your intended destination.  Learn how the search function works.  Try searching for an answer to your question before you ask.  Some boards, such as Thorntree, have FAQs (frequently asked questions) that can give you basic information you might be seeking.

Now, you are ready to formulate your question.  What do you need to know?  Take into consideration the research you’ve already done on your trip. Travel forums are great places to get a specific question answered.  In addition to travelers, there are often locals who post on these boards and can give you reports “from the ground” such as at times when there is civil unrest.

Dos and Don’ts

Don’t ask about the weather!  There are weather sites for historical information www.weatherbase.com is my favorite.  And if you need to know the weather today, there are sites for that, as well as the local newspapers being online.  Sometimes you need weather info that isn’t covered on weather sites.  For instance, people often ask about the rain patterns during monsoons – does it rain all day or for briefer periods?  Those are reasonable questions.  Also, even if you don’t mind rain during your beach vacation, you may want to know whether the sea will be too rough for swimming or the water too murky for snorkeling.

Don’t ask questions that are so general that someone would need to write a guidebook to answer the question.  For instance, “What should I do in Thailand?” is unlikely to elicit much helpful information.  But a specific questions such as, “Where can I do bird-watching in Thailand?” or “I’m looking for old house museums in Bangkok” will likely get you clear, specific answers.

Give people enough information that they can be helpful.  A post like “Looking for a hotel in Hong Kong” won’t get you much more than lots of questions.  Even “looking for a moderately priced hotel in Hong Kong” isn’t very specific – your moderately priced isn’t necessarily someone else’s moderately priced.  A post requesting “looking for a hotel in Hong Kong under US$250 a night that has a swimming pool” or “best business hotel on Hong Kong island, price unimportant” will get you responses and perhaps additional questions such as preferred location, dates of travel and such.  You don’t have to get it all in the first question, but do give enough information so people can begin to help you.

Come back and respond to your own post.  Follow up with specific information people wanted in order to be more helpful and thank posters for their advice.  It is always appreciated when someone returns to the forum after the trip to report their experiences, especially if no one had current information on the question you asked.  So if people only knew that there were no ATMS two years ago, coming back to say,  “Just returned from Pokara, Nepal. ATMs are now available there” will enhance the information available on the forum.

Don’t ask for lists:  “What are your five best places to visit in Asia?”  Or “What are your 10 must-see places in China?”  Both of these questions are too general to get useful information.

Don’t ask posters to plan your trip.  “I want to go to SE Asia.  What is a good route to follow to see as much as possible?”   Show that you did some homework before you posted.  “Angkor Wat is a must-see for me.  I have three weeks in SEA Asia, what are reasonable destinations to combine with Angkor?”  You’ve given people enough information to give you some ideas for your itinerary.

If you want recommendations on what to do, give your specific interests. So if you want to ask about shopping, tell people what you want to shop for and the places you’ll be.  “Going to Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore.  Where is the best place to buy silk yard goods?”

Give a title to your post that will let people know what you are asking.  Forums generally show titles only, so you want to make sure the right people are clicking on your post so you’ll get some good answers.  A thread titled “Travel help, please” won’t get the attention of the people who know the answer to your question, but “Looking for a Malaysian beach for November” will get the attention of people who know about Malaysian beaches.

Don’t ask people to research airline prices for you, that’s what airline sites are for.  It’s fine, though to say “I can find an airfare of US$1000 from Washington Dulles to Narita for October on ANA.  Is this a good airfare or should I wait to see if it will come down?”  While no one has a crystal ball, there will be travelers who fly this route regularly who can say – “It’s a great fare – grab it!” or “You should be able to get a sale fare for a $100 or so less if you wait another month or so.”

Do ask about hotel booking sites.  “Has anyone used charliesluxehotelsforless and are they reputable?”  or “How do you usually book your hotels in Singapore?”  If you’ve done your research, you can check and see if anyone has gotten a better price.  “Best price I can find for the Pen in Bangkok in October is US$200 per night including breakfast for two on the Pen’s website.  Has anyone found a better price?”

Interpersonal interactions

The posts on these forums are interpersonal interactions.  As such, they are prone to the complexities of any interaction between people.  But because they are internet interactions, you have much less information that you usually do in interacting with people.  Social scientists say that in face-to-face interactions, we get more than 90% of the communication not through words, but through body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc.

Online you don’t have the luxury of all of that information.  Thus, it can be easy to have misunderstandings.  Also, this is the world wide web we are talking about.  Thus, there will be posters for whom English is not their first language, and posters who speak different kinds of English.  Australian English and British English have not only different spellings from North American English, but some different vocabulary and different shades of meaning for many words.

I remember a post on a board when someone had asked about traveling with children.  They had gotten many good responses about things to do with kids at their destination when a new poster arrived saying that she couldn’t believe how anti-children the posters on the board were – calling children baby goats.  Someone quickly clarified that “kids” is a term of endearment for children in the poster’s culture.

Attend to the tone of your post.  People who post with a friendly tone usually get friendly posts in return.  People who arrive with an agenda to be pushy rather than to offer or request information may not be treated kindly on travel boards.

Travel boards are emphatic about their no-advertising policies.  Spam from someone trying to disguise themselves as a traveler seldom gets by the regulars and the moderators of these forums.  You may see unfriendly responses from posters to such spam.  This will be deleted when the spam is reported to the editors.  Rarely, you will find a really nasty post from a “troll,” or someone who posts on the web just to stir things up.  Ignore any such posts, as they will soon be deleted by the editors.

So familiarize yourself with online travel forums.  You will gain some great information for planning your trip and you may make some online friends of the other travelers on these sites.