Power to the people! Once social media shook up the travel world, there was no turning back—and that's a good thing! The right hashtags, check-ins, follows, and downloads can steer you toward the sights you'll love, introduce you to new travel buddies, and find discounts you'd never know about otherwise.
1. Trip planning is now much more personal
Firsthand recommendations from your peers for where to fly, eat, or stay next sure beat sifting through pages of strangers' reviews. Start simple: Use Facebook's Graph Search to find which of your friends has been to a destination you're considering visiting. In the search bar at the top of the page, type something like "My friends who have been to London" or "My friends who have been to Kensington Palace." Up pops a list of friends who have journeyed to the Big Smoke, so you can ask them for their recommendations. If nobody you know has toured the royals' abode, you can instead see a list of friends of your friends who have—and then message them to see what they thought of it before you shell out $27 for a ticket.
If you're tossing out a travel question as your Facebook status, be as specific as possible. Instead of, "Does anyone know any family activities to do in Chicago?" say, "Does anyone know of a zoo in Chicago that I can take my five-year-old to in September?" Facebook reps say the more specific and engaging you are in your post, the more recommendations you'll get.
Pinterest's Place Pins feature—pins that have a location attached to them—was built specifically for travel planning, says site community manager Enid Hwang. Create a new board and enable the "Add a map" option, then start adding Place Pins to create nice-looking itineraries for weekend trips, road trips, and dream trips. Share the board with your travel companions who can pin ideas too or send the whole board to others who are thinking of taking a similar vacation.
2. Hungry? No more wandering aimlessly for mediocre food
Ugh—what's more of a travel bummer than wandering into a restaurant that looks authentic, then later realizing it's a tourist trap slinging slop? Tap on "breakfast," "brunch," "lunch," "dinner," or "dessert" on the Foursquare app to see highly rated restaurants that match your tastes nearby, including those recommended by people you know. Food truck hounds, rejoice: Roaming Hunger's app tracks street food via tweets and a finely honed calendar, so you can check out the most popular carts in major cities, add your favorite cart to the list, and see which vendor are nearby. The new GPS-enabled mobile site from Eat Your World, a guide to traditional, native foods and drinks around the globe, points you in the direction of inexpensive local foods and encourages member participation: If you see it and eat it, snap a pic and add it to the site. If an authentic food "experience" is what you're after, request a home-cooked dinner via Meal Sharing—in return, you can help prepare the meal, bring a gift or entertain with a story, or pay a "chip-in" price for ingredients.
3. It's a great way to scoop up deals
To save major bucks on travel, be liberal with the "like" button. Following airlines, hotel chains, booking sites, and rental-car companies on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest and liking them on Facebook plugs you in directly to special rates and discounts—you'll see them in your feed before you even seek them out. On Pinterest, bloggers like Great Walt Disney World Tips pin discounts and time- and cash-saving ideas.
While you're strolling in a new neighborhood, open Foursquare's app and scroll down to "offering a special." Check in to one of those establishments, and you could nab anything from a major discount to a free item—we once scored a free glass of champagne at a Las Vegas nightclub and complimentary strawberry fondue at a martini bar in the Midwest. Wherever you go, look for promotions featuring special Instagram hashtags: Share your snapshots to enter contests that shops and travel brands hold to win free swag—or free trips.
4. Inspiration has never been so beautiful
Have you ever fought the urge to buy a plane ticket on a whim solely based on seeing a gorgeous photo of a place you'd never been to? Us too. Following Instagram and Pinterest accounts that post lush, eye-popping pictures, like Tourism Australia—and BT, of course!—can increase your wanderlust and help you pick where to go next. Instagram's official blog's Local Lens series spotlights talented snappers' favorite places to shoot in their city—if you like what you see, hit up that neighborhood. While you're traveling, search for the hashtag of the place you're in on Instagram or Twitter—#berlin, #montmartre, #strawberryfields, you name it—to track down cool sights and perspectives you might have missed. Racy as it sounds, #travelporn is one of our favorite 'gram hashtags to peep for pretty pics.
5. Making brand-new friends while traveling is less intimidating
Solo travelers don't have to feel alone while they're globetrotting. Obsessed with Instagram? You'll love Instameet, photo-snapping events organized by Meetup that are offered everywhere from Melbourne, Australia, to Shreveport, Louisiana—often during "magic hour," the time of day when the sunlight is just right to grab that perfect photo. Backpackers unite on Backpackr, a social network for nomads that shows you who's nearby and doles out virtual passport "stamps" in for every country you visit. If hotels are more your speed, the brand-new HelloTel app's network enables you to meet new friends and/or business contacts who are staying at the same hotel you are—choose "business" or "socializing" and connect on either a public forum or via private message. (Yes, you can block people from seeing any of your information.) We've also heard of "Tinder tourism," in which singles use the popular Tinder dating app to find very, ahem, personal tour guides abroad. What happens in Bulgaria stays in Bulgaria, we suppose.
6. The postcard and scrapbook aren't obsolete—they're just different
Why bother sending a physical letter when you can just take a picture of the Eiffel Tower on your phone and post it on your mom's Facebook wall? Well, because Mom, Grandpa, and pretty much everyone else still likes postcards. The Postagram app melds the social and the physical worlds by sending custom paper postcards using photos from your Instagram, Facebook, and Dropbox accounts for a dollar or two a pop. You can even schedule the delivery.
And although most of us wish we had enough time to keep a physical scrapbook of all of our travels, let's face it: Posting them online is easier. Facebook says it's constantly tweaking its photo album feature's organization so your most-liked photos float to the top. After a family vacation ends, Dropbox is particularly handy for compiling everyone's photos in one place for the rest of the group to see and upload to social media. While you're still luxuriating on the beach with the fam, consider creating your own personal vacation hashtag, like #TheSmithsInMexico, to use on Instagram and Twitter to see everyone's thoughts and photos at once.
7. There's an extra incentive to behave
Cause a scene on a plane, train, or automobile, and you could find your antics uploaded to YouTube or Vine, live-tweeted, or—worse—posted on the popular Passenger Shaming Facebook page, run by a former flight attendant. Bad behavior that the site has documented includes bare feet propped up on an airplane headrest (ew!), two travelers pounding on the inside of an airport's plate-glass window to try and stop their plane from leaving, and a woman changing a diaper directly on the tarmac (yes, the actual road that airplanes taxi on). Regular citizens are getting in on the act, too, using the hashtag #passengershaming on Twitter and Instagram. Might want to re-think that third whiskey soda, lest your aggressive snoring end up on SoundCloud.
8. Fellow travelers can be your new virtual, in-the-know BFFs
Travel-specific social networks just "get" passionate travelers, which is especially nice if your IRL friends aren't adventurous. The soon-to-be-launched planning and booking app UnPaved's interface will show which of your connections has been to a destination before, who's there now, and what tips they've shared. If you're a sucker for a nice narrative while you're exploring, read others' lovely short travel stories and savvy tips on Findery. Or trust in the hive mind at Trippy and ask vetted travel experts questions like "What are the best hikes in Slovenia?"—readers upvote the best answers, so you see the best recs first. Road warriors, you'll want to download Waze, a navigation app that helps you beat traffic and find the cheapest gas prices with the help of real-time info from other drivers and community-updated maps.
9. You can chatter with airlines and travel fans without picking up the phone
Lost bag? Delayed flight? Lack of snacks on the plane? Whatever's bugging you in the air, you can tweet directly at airlines to get answers or, at the very least, information on what to do next. Delta's @DeltaAssist account answers questions 24/7, and @JetBlue and @AmericanAir have also been noted for their responsiveness. Have your confirmation number handy and be prepared to direct-message them your specifics. If you're feeling proactive and do the research yourself, you can even ask them to rebook you on specific flights if yours is delayed.
Looking for good, old-fashioned travel conversation and useful money-saving tips? Twitter's head of travel, Jeff Flores, recommends searching for Twitter hashtags like #ttot (travel talk on Twitter), #SMTravel (social media travel), #TravelTuesday, #CruiseChat, #RTW (round the world), and #TNI (traveler's night in).
10. Options for local, personal tour guides are limitless
Travelers looking for a targeted, authentic experience no longer have to rely on big, expensive tour companies to show them around a new town. Sites like Vayable and Localyoo connect you with activities proffered by real, live locals for a nominal fee, from a $25 bike tour of sights and eats in Barcelona to a historical, communism-focused tour of Berlin, given by a woman who grew up under communist rule, for $10. On freelance task site Fiverr, five bucks buys you local travel and language expertise—it takes a little searching, but you can find gems, like a culinary tour of Mumbai given by a tech geek. Sure, they're more of a gamble than going on a traditional tour, but other users' comments and ratings can help you decide which ones to pursue, and some sites have a money-back guarantee.
Or, combine the tour experience with a place to crash. For years, Couchsurfing has touted the "good vibes" that come from staying with its members in their homes, and newcomer Voyaj helps you "pitch" yourself via YouTube video to find a host family abroad. In return, you're encouraged to exchange something from your culture—like dance or language lessons. Money saved, immersive experience earned.
11. Your favorite works of art are now interactive
Stuffy museums get a whole lot more exciting when you make a game of taking in the exhibit. Considered controversial in some circles but invigorating in others, the first-ever Museum Selfie Day was held this past January 22: Museum professionals encouraged visitors to turn the cameras on themselves and pose with the art, then post it to social media with the hashtag #museumselfie. People in hallowed halls around the world—from the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatarto the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh—participated. The institutions themselves are getting in on the act too: Follow your favorite old-school museums and contemporary galleries for promotions, exhibit previews, art humor, and peeks behind the scenes. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's YouTube channel, for example, features videos of artists discussing their work; New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art posts Instagram photos of the museum after all the visitors have left with the hashtag #emptymet. #eerie