Social Assistance

July 9, 2007, Time Magazine

Making new friends and swapping stories about life on the road can be a vacation high point—so why not do so before you set off? Thanks to the Internet, globetrotters can now find travel mates, get trip tips from fellow travelers and even enjoy free accommodation from friendly locals, with just a few clicks of the mouse. Organizing the perfect holiday has never been so easy, or so darn sociable.

HOSPITALITY CLUB: Set up by a German student in 2000, this not-for-profit site offers what it calls “volunteer-based hospitality exchange.” Sign up as a member, then search for compatible individuals living at your destination before checking their profiles to see how far their generosity stretches. Some offer a home-cooked dinner or their company on local excursions, others a couch to sleep on or a spare room—all for free. Naturally, you are expected to offer similar kinds of welcome when members show up at your door. As a safety measure, initial contact between members is moderated and passport details are recorded.

THE THORN TREE: Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum has been a lively, opinionated online meeting place for travelers since 1997. This is the place to visit for peer-to-peer advice on everything from traveling around New Zealand with a young baby to what camera to take on the road or where to stay during São Paolo’s gay parade. You can also advertise for travel companions, propose house swaps and more. A popular offshoot, the Bluelist, lets users post their top travel recommendations.

GUSTO: Many travel sites offer consumer critiques of, say, restaurants and museums, but without knowing anything about the authors, how do you know if their judgments apply to you? You might have a completely different view of the same experience. Clearing up this anomaly is the job of Gusto, a year-old site that asks users to complete detailed profiles before posting reviews. “A review is only so valuable to me if I see that the reviewer has the same likes and dislikes, or travel circumstances,” explains founder Jeff Wasson. After signing on, users can establish Facebook-style networks of simpatico friends to continue swapping travel tips with, and the job is made easier by Gusto Grabber software that allows users to grab, store and share hotel, airline and other web pages.