A Needle in a Haystack
Finding Travel Websites That Are Worth the Search
Think of the Internet as a giant haystack that is increasing in size every hour. Now imagine the information that will make or break your travel plans is a needle buried somewhere in there. Sure, there are some scattered signs pointing the way (like this magazine) and you’ve got a powerful magnet in the form of Google to help you find the needle you’re looking for. But now picture the most nefarious bunch of scheming touts you’ve run across in India, Egypt, or Morocco. Imagine they are holding giant chunks of metal and their own competing signs, trying hard to lure you to their corner of the haystack so they can sell you something before you figure out what happened.
That’s the picture we are confronting today. The great irony of the Internet is that despite all the sophisticated search engine algorithms, finding the answer to a simple question like, “What are the best budget hotels in northern Costa Rica?” can lead you down a never-ending path of errant clicks and dead-end sites, wasting hours of your time. If you’re trying to find out sample activity costs, narrow down the tour companies with the best reputation, or get the lowdown on the best towns for handicrafts, good luck.
You’re often better off giving up and spending that time consulting a guidebook, old-school style. If nothing else, a guidebook is a great filter. It strips out the extra noise and if there’s a part of the book you don’t care about, you just skip it instead of having to surf through its pages.
There are travel websites, however, that are truly useful, well organized, and trustworthy. When you find one of these, bookmark it immediately. Use it as your anchor, your site that will tell you what you need to know and will lead you down the right paths. These sites can generally be broken down into three categories:
- the macro niche site
- the regional site for independent travelers and
- the local expert site.
The Macro Niche Site
You are probably familiar with big commercial sites that do one thing well, such as TripAdvisor.com for user-generated hotel reviews, BNM.com for finding the best published rental car deal, or Kayak.com for searching multiple airfare sites at once.
There are less famous versions of the macro niche site serving independent travelers. One of the most obvious is from guidebook publisher Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). Much of the destination info barely scratches the surface, but the long-running ThornTree message board is like an information pot of gold. With the idea that travelers know more about a place than the official sources do, this is a great place to turn to with a question. Others, such as VirtualTourist and IgoUgo can also provide some helpful “been there, done that” info. Moon Handbooks’ site (www.moon.com) has some great itinerary suggestions.
For cheap places to bunk down, sites like Hostelbookers, and Hostelz can be handy for booking a bed somewhere or at least tracking down what’s available. Whichbudget can help you find which airlines serve a specific route for cheap. Planeta.com is the place to go for eco-tourism and responsible travel. Of course TransitionsAbroad.com is the best resource around for working or studying abroad (among other things).
The Regional Site for Independent Travelers
For travel in a specific region, there are some sites that cover multiple countries fairly well. These are usually set up as commercial enterprises of some sort, either by a tour company or someone who is earning money from advertising and merchandise sales spanning a wide area.
For Southeast Asia, for example, TravelFish.org is a fantastic resource for finding a guesthouse, checking a good map, and reading what other travelers have experienced. Links lead you to where you need to go, not to spammy sites with pages of ads.
South American Explorer (www.saexplorer.org) is the online branch of the long-running club.
EuroCheapo.com is primarily a site for booking inexpensive hotels throughout Europe, but they also have good city guides, even calendars, and ground transportation links.
RickSteves.com is the connection to tours and guidebooks from the affable TV host (and Transitions Abroad contributor), but it’s packed with great tips on travel in Europe.
Covering a lot of countries does not make a site comprehensive, however. CentralAmerica.com may look promising when you land on it, but after a few clicks you realize most of the country sections are all icing, no cake.
The Local Expert Site
When it comes to researching a specific country, things can really get hairy. Pull up “Turkey Travel,” for instance, and you’ll get 45.4 million results, some useful, most not.
When you stumble upon a real local expert site, you may just want to jump up and kiss someone. After hours of searching through sites that are really just ad shells with no content, one of these will come across like a lungful of fresh air. They are authoritative, frequently updated, and packed with more solid information than you can probably ever get to read.
Sometimes these are tourism board sites or an extension of them, such as the excellent ToucanTrail.com hotel listings site for Belize. Sometimes the site is an extension of the local English-language listings magazine. More often though, they’re set up by an expatriate who has moved to the area or a guidebook author who knows the place inside out. Here are a few random examples that will show you what to look for.
AndeanTravelWeb.com: a fantastic guide to Peru. Two years ago I planned my whole 3-week trip to Peru from here without visiting another site.
BrazilMax.com: written by an expat journalist who knows his stuff and can manage to cover a huge country effectively.
BelizeFirst.com: an incredibly comprehensive guide to Belize, from a magazine editor and Fodor’s guidebook author.
The Other El Salvador (www.theotherelsalvador.com): the typical homespun expat-built site. It’s not pretty and the design may make you cross-eyed, but the owner obviously put lots of time into it and cares about the country.
IndiaMike.com is really a sprawling message board, but if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to know about traveling in India, odds are it has been covered here.
TurkeyTravelPlanner.com: the long-running resource with over 2,500 pages of info, written by a former Turkey guidebook author.
YucatanToday.com: the best guide to “the other Yucatan”—the area outside the package tour crush of the Cancun coast of Mexico.
So how do you find sites like these on your own?
Ironically, one of the first places to look is in a guidebook. The resource section usually lists local websites with authority (though check the publication date as things change fast). Also, go deeper than the first page on Google or Yahoo when you type in “Mali hotels” or “Cape Town travel.” The sites that have been around a long time may be the first or second ones up, as several of the above are. Other times they haven’t been around long enough to beat out the well-funded commercial sites. For example, prolific Lonely Planet guidebook author Robert Reid recently developed a great guide to Vietnam (www.reidontravel.com) but it probably won’t show up prominently in the search engines for six months to a year. That’s the way Google works in order to keep web developers from trying to game the system.
There’s something all these sites have in common beside their extensive info: credibility. They may still feature plenty of ads—few people are going to build and maintain a website without at least making back a little pocket change—but it should be clear where those end and the content begins.
One sure way to see how useful a site is will be to click through the links and see how “deep” it is. If the clicks just lead you to pages of ads, get out fast. If they lead you to pages of solid information, relevant blogs, and great external resources, you’ve found a gem.
Also look at the “About Us” page to see the writer’s credentials. Does the person or group show that they know what they’re talking about? Do they live there or cover the area frequently as a writer? Is some information suspiciously absent—like listings of competing hotels or tour companies? Is the editor’s address or location suspiciously absent for no good reason? Heed the warning signs.
All this takes time, of course, but a well-run site that respects its visitors can serve as a giant shortcut to the rest of the Internet. When you find a site you trust, use it as your anchor. An anchor in a haystack is much easier to find than a needle.