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Forget the Hotel

For mostly twenty-somethings who'd like to make new friends and keep their travel expenses down by crashing on an Internet buddy's couch, there's CouchSurfing. Here you can connect in advance with people located on your route; even if they don't invite you to their home, they might at least be willing to grab a latte with you at a local cafe. Since many people are understandably nervous about dealing with strangers, the site lets users post recommendations about other users; to bolster your own credibility, you can pay CouchSurfing to verify your name and address--but the process requires a $25 charge to a credit card in your name. One page of the site offers common-sense tips for women traveling alone.

Several sites cater to planners who want to organize their trip or gather research in a central location. TripHub takes a sort of Evite approach to travel: You create a home page for your trip (complete with maps and a schedule), and then invite friends and create a blog. Gusto lets you put a free Gusto Grabber button in your Internet Explorer Links toolbar; click it when you see a page that you want to save, and that page (along with any comments you enter on a pop-up form) is saved to the Gusto folder you choose (Places I've Been, Places I'm Going, My Other Interests, My Travel Deals). Unfortunately, Gusto itself has attracted little user-generated content (only one reader-recommended restaurant in all of Cancun, Mexico?), so it isn't a great source of information.

In fact, for a number of sites that depend on users for content, this is a major problem: There don't seem to be enough content-generating users to go around. I visited World Wikia)--a free-form wiki where anyone can add information to city and travel guides--and found only blank pages for hotels and restaurants in Florence, Italy, for example. Wikitravel) seemed to have more content, as did World66, a wiki-like site with such extras as an Internet cafe guide and selected offerings in PDF, XHTML (which enables viewing on a phone browser), and another format called RepliGo (which is also for phones). But I ran into the same relative dearth of reader-supplied content at 43Places, ThisPlaceIKnow.com, and Epic Trip, one of several sites that encourage users to create travel blogs (MyLifeOfTravel, TravelPod, and VCarious are others).

Travel blogs tend to be more detailed than standard reviews. And like blogs in general, the good ones are fascinating, but many writers wander off on boring tangents. Also, you can't count on finding information on a specific hotel or restaurant. Overall, I'd say these sites tend to be more useful for getting travel ideas than for researching specific destinations.

Finally, a couple of sites combine elements of community, professional third-party content, and tools for planning and blogging, as well as travel booking: Real Travel and Yahoo Travel. Exploring these two sites gives you a sense of what Web 2.0 travel is all about without your having to visit a lot of smaller ones.

But if you look at planning a trip as part of the fun, then you have more ways than ever to enjoy your vacation--even before you set foot out the door.

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