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How Social Media Is Changing the Travel Industry

Philip Toledano

It’s inescapable, from Facebook’s IPO to presidential campaigns being waged on Twitter. And now for many travelers, social media has become an invaluable tool for virtually every part of planning and taking a trip: they find inspiration on Pinterest, hunt down deals on Twitter, get restaurant tips on Foursquare, share photos on Facebook. For others, it’s a bewildering blur of tweets, posts, and check-ins. T+L looks at how travelers are using the major social networks—plus the apps, sites, and services that seem to launch every day—and boils it all down to the key lessons on the following pages.

Amplify the Word-of-Mouth Effect

Tips from friends are still among the best types of travel advice, and it’s simple enough to post a question on Facebook or Twitter asking for suggestions on, say, a quiet bistro in Paris. But there’s no guarantee your savviest friends will even see the post. Now, a number of niche apps and services promise to help spread the word. The most popular is Gogobot, a website and iPhone app that will send your queries about a specific place to your Twitter and Facebook networks and—for extra assistance—to the site’s own members. I recently requested advice on getting to Dubrovnik, Croatia, when flights to the local airport were sold out. A globe-trotting friend of a Facebook friend saw the post on Gogobot and suggested flying to a city across the border in Montenegro—a tip I hadn’t found anywhere else.

Adding a social layer to travel planning is the goal of a slew of new sites. Tripbirds figures out who in your Facebook, Foursquare, and Instagram networks has been to a destination and directs your questions to them. Twigmore analyzes your Facebook contacts to put you in touch with friends and friends of friends in cities worldwide. Wipolo builds an itinerary from the confirmation e-mails you’ve forwarded to it, then shares the plan with your Facebook friends for comments.

Five Deal Feeds to Follow Now

These Twitter accounts compile the best offers. Or search the site for #traveldeals.

@airfarewatchdog: Carefully vetted price drops and unadvertised sales.
Example:
Newark, N.J., to Tokyo, $736 round-trip on American Airlines.

@cruisedeals: Sales and exclusive offers.
Example:
Up to $1,500 off a seven-night Alaska sail on Royal Caribbean.

@smartertravel: Deals and tips from the travel-advice website.
Example:
Round-trip flights to Asia on American Airlines for 40 percent fewer miles.

@travelbargains: A constant stream of offers.
Example:
$119 a night at the Fairmont Newport Beach hotel, in California.

@travelzoo: Discounts on everything from hotels and vacation packages to all-inclusives.
Example:
Six-night, three-city trip to Ireland from New York for $999.

Wheels Squeak Louder on Social Media

More and more travelers are voicing their dissatisfaction with airlines and hotels on Twitter and Facebook. Why? The complaints are public (prodding companies to respond) and can be made in the moment. Below, three true-life examples.

@AmericanAir: having trouble checking in. Tried “click to talk” 5 times + simply disconnected. please help! —@JCreatureTravel
Result:
An American Airlines agent got in touch and resolved the passenger’s complicated ticketing issue.

@westin @peachtree: disappointed me terribly! Get in the room late 2 lights out in the bathroom what a start maybe I change brands? —@professorinfo
Result:
Management at the Westin Peachtree Plaza, in Atlanta, moved the guest to another room despite being almost full.

@CruiseNorwegian: Wow, another $158 to move two people out of one room and into a new room? No bueno. —@SwtHrtCPA
Result:
Norwegian Cruise Line contacted the customer via e-mail and offered her an additional cabin for a much lower price.

Find Better Ways to Share Your Photos

Three of the best apps for enhancing and posting pictures.

Blurb Mobile
All-in-one “storytelling” app that makes slideshows from photos, videos, and audio.
Pros:
You can use existing images and videos, or take new ones on the fly.
Cons:
No Android version.

Camera Awesome
A full-featured editing tool that works both when you’re taking pictures and after.
Pros:
Whizbang effects: take nine continuous shots or focus on a face and blur the background.
Cons:
The one-touch Awesomize effect looks great, but the interface can be clumsy.

Instagram
Snapshot enhancer and social network in one: take a picture, add cool effects, and share to your stream.
Pros:
Easy to use. And with 50 million members, it’s the app your friends are most likely to use.
Cons:
No video; limited in-app filters.

Check Out Who’s Checking In

Foursquare, an app that lets members “check in” to a restaurant, coffee shop, airport, or other place and broadcast their whereabouts to friends, has become popular enough that it’s useful to all travelers—even those who have no interest in telling people where they are—thanks to its massive database of 750,000 listings. Looking for a nice wine bar in Chicago? The Explore feature displays listings, reviews, and pictures, with places that people in your network have visited shown first. “Seeing an unfamiliar city through the history of check-ins is useful,” says Kevin Systrom, cofounder of photo-sharing service Instagram. On a recent trip to Barcelona, Systrom used Foursquare’s Trending button—which tells, in real time, where the most people have checked in—to find out where the nightlife scene was buzziest.

Foodspotting is a similar app focused on dining. When users check in to a restaurant, they can also submit a photo of a dish—which will help you scan the nearest options when your stomach is growling.

Five Steps to Take Right Now to Protect Your Privacy

Privacy concerns are particularly acute for travelers: you don’t want to trumpet the fact that you’ll be away from home or alone in a strange city. So it’s critical to make sure your travel-related posts can only be seen by people you trust. Here’s how.

On Facebook, go to Privacy Settings and change your defaults to either Friends (if you indeed know and trust those people) or Custom (which will let you create specific lists of who can and cannot see your posts).

Now go to the Timeline and Tagging section and enable the option to review posts that others tag you in—so if one of your travel companions identifies you in a photo, you can choose who, if anyone, will see it.

On the same page, check the privacy settings for all the apps you’ve linked up to Facebook. Also check the settings on individual sites. Travel app Gogobot, for instance, automatically makes your itineraries and check-ins visible to friends and search engines unless you tell it not to.

On Twitter, go into Settings and make sure that “Add a location to my tweets” is unchecked; otherwise your latitude/longitude coordinates will be published along with every tweet you post.

Only Foursquare friends can see your check-ins on that app—but make sure to turn off the option to share them on Facebook and/or Twitter if you want to keep your whereabouts private on either of those networks.

What the Heck Is Pinterest? (And Why Should I Care?)

From out of nowhere, Pinterest has become the third largest social network, after Facebook and Twitter, thanks to its purity of purpose and its simple pinboard metaphor. Users can instantly clip pictures of things they discover on the Web—clothing, recipes, hotels—onto their own themed boards. For travelers, Pinterest is useful in two ways. First, it’s a fun and easy way to create a life list of the monuments, beaches, and works of art you want to see. Second, browsing the thousands of travel-themed boards—devoted to everything from London restaurants to brutalist architecture and quirky maps—is a rich source of inspiration.

Pinterest’s popularity is driving a boom in photo-centric makeovers by other social-travel services. Gtrot is like Pinterest meets Yelp, focusing on local places and events. Wanderfly adds hotel- and flight-booking links to its themed photo pages. Fancy tacks on daily deals offered by upscale online boutiques.

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