KICKING THE TIRES
Three Websites That Promise the World
After moving to Portland, Ore., writer Ashley Griffin searched for tips on where to eat, shop, and hang out.
SCOPING OTHERS' PLANS
Yahoo's Trip Planner (travel.yahoo.com/trip) allows the curious to browse thousands of member-created itineraries, which include reviews and photos.
The Verdict: There are no profiles to check a reviewer's age or interests, so you have little choice but to sift through itineraries one at a time; Portland had nearly 400 trips when I last looked. Using specific keywords--like "Portland Oregon shopping" rather than "Portland"--helps narrow the results. Most itineraries tend to be simple lists of sights with cookie-cutter reviews: All trips recommending the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, for example, have the same description--which comes not from another traveler but Wcities, a San Francisco--based online destination guide partnered with Yahoo. There's a spot for members to voice their own thoughts, but most don't bother. Overall, the Yahoo trips are less useful than a guidebook or tips from an informed local. However, the site does provide good driving directions between activities.
USING PROFILES TO CONNECT
At TripConnect.com, members create profiles listing age and interests, as well as reviews of hotels, clubs, markets, and more from the places they've traveled. There are a few methods for getting tips: You can surf the profiles looking for recommendations, create your own profile with a wish list of destinations and hope that another member responds with advice, post questions to special-interest groups (art, bicycling, seniors, shopping, etc.), and send messages directly to members. The site went live in 2006 and is still in the beta-test stage.
The Verdict: Seeking advice directly from other travelers yields the best response, though browsing through profiles is a good way to get an overview of a destination and learn about hotspots. In-depth reviews are few and far between, and weeks after posting a question I had still received only a single response. After a few messages targeted at members who seemed knowledgeable, however, I found out about a cool bookstore (Powell's Books) and a great pub (McMenamins). Unfortunately, as it turns out, neither of these recommendations are anything special; both spots are well-known and listed in just about every Portland guidebook.
HUNTING FOR A TRAVEL GURU
TripMates.com looks and operates like Facebook or MySpace for travelers, with detailed profiles--occupation, languages spoken, even personal blogs and videos--and networks of "Tripmates" (friends) around the world who exchange info and occasionally meet up. The site's most interesting feature is that it can hook you up with a "Trip Guru" who supposedly will share insider tips--and sometimes even guide visitors in person.
The Verdict: There's no application process or specific requirements to become a guru; anyone willing to help travelers gets the title, so finding a good one is hit-or-miss. I sent requests to 13 Portland gurus and received three responses. One guru briefed me on five different shopping districts, including details on a few of her favorite stores. Another guru was no help, though I appreciated her honesty: She replied to say that she wasn't really an expert and didn't have any tips. Finally, one young woman not only responded, she met me for an afternoon and showed me an eclectic jewelry store, a snowboarding shop, a denim boutique, and a fun upscale shoe store. She also pointed out good restaurants and trendy bars, supplying what seemed to be better information than what I'd gather from a search engine or outdated guidebook.