THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
The Connected Traveler
With a smartphone in each hand, Arianne Cohen tests the limits of online networking in a foreign land. No guidebooks. No language skills. Only social media and mobile apps. The destination: Istanbul.
You can always identify a hard-core Facebooker by whether or not she informs her friends of her dietary intake. Each morning at 6 a.m., I check my Facebook feed over coffee—and tell my 350 friends on the website what blend I'm drinking and how many ounces. My friends on Twitter, MySpace, and Google Talk get similar beverage updates throughout the day (seltzer in the afternoon, green tea at night). For everything from shopping to advice, I am—and I say this with self-love—a social media addict.
Which is why it's surprising that it took me until now to apply all that online action to one of my other great passions: travel. I resolved to go on a mission to answer a simple question: Could I toss the tour book and take a trip, beginning to end, with social networking as my only guide? And could I do it in a city where I'd really have to put my connections to the test—a place I'd never been, where I didn't know a soul?
I wasn't just testing my own network. In the past couple of years, companies have decided social networking is the Answer—and none more than travel companies. A whole new category of social travel sites has emerged, and I decided to try out as many of them as humanly possible. I signed up for Twaveltalk and TND_TravelDeals (Top Daily Deals), two aggregators of travel deals you'll find on Twitter, the micro-blogging site where people communicate in "tweets"—short messages of 140 characters max. I soon realized that quantity definitely didn't mean quality—it meant major frustration. In two weeks of perusing hundreds of offers a day, I couldn't find a deal that fit my parameters. It was peak travel season, exchange rates were brutal, and I was flying from Portland, Ore.—an expensive proposition to begin with. Flights to appropriately far-flung places were all over four figures, so I rejoiced when a realistic option, $950 on Delta to Istanbul, came through on Twaveltalk. Finally, I could take a breather from the torrent of tweets.
At the hub
Before I left, I had fearful images of sitting alone on a curb in Istanbul with nowhere to go. So I asked the entire Internet for advice: "I'm going to Istanbul. Know anyone there?" Very few people responded. I complained to a computer programmer friend, and he told me about the "hub" theory of social networking: To tap the full power of your social network, you need to contact the hubs, those hyper-social people who know lots of other people. I put together a list of the three dozen hubs I've met over the years and got in touch with them—the results were astounding. It turns out that my former college roommate has a Turkish grad-school buddy, a reporter friend knows a woman on a fellowship in Turkey, and my literary agent has a client my age in Istanbul. Two other friends connected me with a women's rights worker and a travel agent.
A week before landing, I set up one-on-one appointments with my new Turkish network. My goal was to squeeze as many meet-ups as possible into the first 36 hours of my four days on the ground. By the day I left for Turkey, I had six meals on my calendar.
My introduction to Istanbul was flawless. A dinnertime taxi whisked me from the airport to the Ayasofya Hotel, a converted 19th-century private home just a cobblestoned block from the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the stunning Topkapi Palace. My new Facebook friend Mesture had recommended the hotel because of its location and the drop-dead gorgeous views of the Princes Islands and the Sea of Marmara from the roof deck. I had cross-referenced the reviews on TripAdvisor—solid all around.
Woman about town
Armed with a BlackBerry and an iPhone, I began my first morning in Istanbul on the funicular, a two-minute ride up a steep hill that people pay $1 to not have to climb. I confirmed my meeting with Meline and Suzy, two new Facebook friends, over e-mail on my BlackBerry. As we drank strong Turkish coffee, with eggs on toast and mint lemonade with apple slices, I learned which tourist sites to bother with: the Blue Mosque (yes, it's free), Topkapi Palace (yup, despite the pricey ticket), a Bosporus ferry tour (gorgeous, defi nitely). And which to skip: Hagia Sophia (under renovations), the Grand Bazaar (eh, hit a local one), seedy "tour guides" that mob tourists (avoid with my life).
So far, my new "friends" were coming through with tips that easily rivaled a guidebook's. After breakfast, Suzy walked me down bustling Istiklal Caddesi, the mile-and-a-half-long main shopping drag, and deposited me in Taksim Square, Istanbul's version of Times Square and the site of my next meet-up.