Social travel sites let ‘friends’ help you plan trip

Wondering where to go on your vacation this year, and what to do? A growing number of “social travel” startups offer alternatives to the trusty, dusty guidebook.

Sites like Twigmore and Triptrotting help you troll your social networks for friends who have friends in new places, then hit those people up for advice from a local’s perspective – or arrange meetups when you get there.

Another new site, Trippy, helps you keep track of all those interesting places you’ve come across on the Web while researching travel destinations. And when you’ve decided where to go, it finds connections in your networks who can help you get there.

“I travel all the time, but I rarely have time to research and explore the cities I visit,” said Randi Zuckerberg, the big sister of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. She’s an investor in Trippy and said via email that she likes the site because “I can get insights from my Facebook friends on where to eat and what to see before I hit the ground.”

Mili Narayen, a startup entrepreneur in New York City, said she ran across 5-month-old Twigmore after several of her friends began using it on Facebook.

“There is a trust forged in that tribal mentality that traditional travel companies or guides can’t tap into,” she said. Because she and her friends generally share the same tastes, she trusts that they – or their friends – won’t steer her wrong.

Networking recommendations

After using the site to plan a recent trip to Mumbai, India, Narayen’s now relying on it to scout an upcoming vacation in Bermuda and a possible summer getaway to Europe.

“I use it to expand my network, make new friends abroad and generally enhance my travel experience by getting access to insider information,” she said.

Millions of people in thousands of cities have signed up for such services. The space seems likely to keep heating up given Groupon’s recent acquisition of social travel startup Uptake for a reported $20 million.

And with Airbnb, RelayRides and other “social-sharing” startups disrupting the hotel and rental cars industries, it’s fair to say the Facebook generation is traveling on its own terms.

“I suspect that all travel-planning sites and applications will become more focused on harnessing the social signal in the near future,” said Brad Gerstner, who sits on the board of Orbitz and is an investor in travel startups HotelTonight and Room 77.

Another travel recommendation engine is San Francisco’s Gogobot, which launched in 2010 and now boasts 460,000 monthly active users, according to tracking service AppData – significantly more than Twigmore, Trippy and similar site Wanderfly.

Veronica Sartori of Fremont, Calif., has been using Gogobot since last summer. “It’s very intuitive, and that got me hooked right away,” she said.

She likes the site so much that she’s stopped using the more established TripAdvisor, which is owned by the parent company of BookingBuddy and VirtualTourist. “I would read reviews there that were either extremely positive or extremely negative,” she said. “I felt like they were very one-sided.”

With Gogobot, she said, “I feel like I almost get to know the people who review more frequently, so I start to follow their reviews, and they earn my trust.” Based on user feedback while planning a trip to Miami last year, she added a Key West day-trip to her agenda.

“I took a tour of Hemingway’s house and ate Key lime pie,” she said. If it hadn’t been for the recommendations she found on Gogobot, “I probably wouldn’t have gone.”

Gogobot CEO Travis Katz, a former MySpace vice president, said the site sorts recommended hotels, restaurants and “things to do” based on places people in your network have recommended – so every user gets a different experience. The site also uses check-ins from Foursquare and Facebook to help personalize its recommendations.

Sartori and other social-travel evangelists say that because recommendations come from people in your extended networks, you’re less likely to see reviews that have been dressed up glowingly by hotel owners and restaurateurs.

Linking ‘ambassadors’

Triptrotting, founded in 2010 by two University of Southern California graduates, takes things a step further, offering a network of “ambassadors” in cities around the world who can help travelers learn the ropes and find local hosts. The site also uses “compatibility matching technology” – similar in concept to online dating sites – to help match travelers and hosts based on their personalities and shared interests.

The founders, both women, know what it’s like to land in an unfamiliar place: They grew up in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia and moved to the U.S. for college.

Trippy is among the newest entries in the space but has launched with a bang, lining up a cadre of celebrity endorsers including Randi Zuckerberg, singer Jason Mraz and chef Anthony Bourdain.

Zuckerberg, who runs social media startup R to Z Studios, said she’s advising Trippy’s team – which is led by the founder of VirtualTourist – because they’re building “a travel tool that I want to use.”

She and Trippy’s other advisers each maintain their own “visual inspiration boards,” filled with photos from their favorite travel destinations, along with tips and insights for each place. (Zuckerberg’s, for instance, includes her favorite restaurant in Buenos Aires, which she said made her “never want to eat red meat again anywhere else in the world.”)

Travelers can browse the site’s images, collect what sparks their wanderlust and add the photos to their own boards. Think Pinterest for the travel set.