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December 26, 2009

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Facebook, Twitter aid tourists

ISAHRAI Azaria is heading to Austin, Texas, next month and thanks to Facebook she already has 40 acquaintances, an invitation to go water tubing, and a line on the best vegetarian lunch place in town.

"It's been unbelievable," says Azaria, a singer who lives in San Francisco. "It was just a quick post on Facebook, but one of my Facebook friends is friends with some people in Austin," and those friends sent her tips on everything from yoga studios to local bus service.

Social media is changing the way Americans travel. It is replacing recommendations from experts and strangers with a targeted selection of information from acquaintances and their networks.

"Social media and travel are a perfect fit, because they both are built around this idea of sharing experiences and storytelling," says Mary Madden, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington, DC. "Content, whether that's a blog post about your favorite restaurant or the story from your latest trip to Greece and photos of that trip, is a form of social currency that you share with other people who frequent your social media space."

Travelers have used the Internet for years to find hotels, restaurants and other attractions. Some Websites offer recommendations from guidebook writers, critics and other experts, while others, such as, Yelp and Chowhound, offer feedback from individuals about their personal experiences. Credibility can be a problem. A good review could be written by the business owners themselves or their friends, while bad reviews could come from their competitors. A destination Website might only list businesses that pay to be featured.

In contrast, a recommendation from a Facebook connection or your Twitter feed may feel more trustworthy and less random than something you stumble across on a Website -- even when the tweet or Facebook message is from someone you do not know.

"I see my social media network as a big focus group, a big travel guide," says Jessica Flynn, who owns Red Sky Public Relations in Idaho. "I don't know all the people directly who I follow on Twitter, but I just find them interesting."

Last summer, Flynn let it be known on Twitter and Facebook that she and her boyfriend were headed to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. She heard back from the owners of cheese shops, wine bars and bed-and-breakfasts.

"It is commercial, in a way, but it also gives me a connection that I would never have had," says Flynn. "I wrote back, 'I'll be 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of you. What do you know about that area?' And then they responded and gave me something."

Azaria, who does not drive, looked on mass transit Websites when searching for a place to stay in Austin. She got bus schedules, but could not tell which neighborhoods were safe for waiting at a bus stop.

"When I have a friend of a friend tell me on Facebook that it's kind of sketchy in this area, I think about a different area," says Azaria.

Airlines, hotel chains, tourism agencies and companies like Orbitz also use Facebook to keep fans up-to-date on specials and deals. Facebook applications like Dopplr let users share travel plans and add reviews.

Outside of Facebook, trip-sharing Websites such as Everlater provide a way for travelers to post their stories and photos.

Twitter has become a medium for travel-related businesses to provide quick messages about coming events, promotions, even weather conditions. It also provides a way for these entities to identify regular customers and reward them with discounts. Other travel businesses use Twitter to build relationships with customers and promote visitor satisfaction by answering individual queries through Twitter with on-the-spot advice.

A Website called Twisitor Center lists hundreds of local tourism authorities around the world that tweet: One of them, Travel Portland, the Portland, Oregon, marketing office, uses Twitter to help travelers get quick answers to their Portland-related questions.

Many of the tweets received at Travel Portland are from people looking for restaurants. A staff member serves as official Travel Portland tweeter, but anyone who sees the feed can respond to a query. "The nice thing about Twitter is (visitors) may also get six, seven, eight answers back from people who live in Portland," says Deborah Wakefield, Travel Portland's vice president of communications. "If somebody is downtown, asking about a great hotel for kids, they may get recommendations from people who have a favorite."

Tweets are especially handy if you are walking around outside looking for a good breakfast place, a common query for Travel Portland.

"Even if your phone has Internet capabilities maybe it's slow or difficult to see a Website -- so Twitter makes it really convenient when you need one of those instant recommendations," says Wakefield.

Also, tweets are limited to 140 words, a welcome contrast to the torrent of information on the Web.

"People start to rely on those trusted portals that help sift the cream from the top," says Madden, of Pew. "Otherwise people would be overwhelmed by information by doing research online."


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