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Surf Away

Planning a trip? Look online for the folks who've been there.

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The first time somebody showed me the Internet, the magic of the thing was that I could type a message, hit a button, and that message would be in New York City in a minute or two. This was in the dark days of about 1993, and that guy said two other things that stuck with me: One day we'll be able to see live photos of highways to check on traffic, and this thing is gonna kill newspapers.

I thought he was nuts on both counts; Of course, now I get mad if live play-by-play of a football game gets a minute behind.

For a traveler, the Internet has become a dream machine for planning. For example, right now I'm planning a hiking trip to Italy next summer, and by visiting a few websites I managed to get recommendations from actual humans about cool trails, cheap hotels, and excellent food around a town called San Martino di Castrozza, which I'd never heard of. I have also found pictures of, and blog entries about, just about every place recommended.

This is the premise behind a new website called Gogobot, one of several helpful sites I've been hanging out on. Gogobot tries to connect your online socializing (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and so on) with travel recommendations. You can do the usual thing by looking for all the user advice on, say, Venice, or you can create a trip plan and ask users to suggest the details. You can also send out the plan to your social network, and if any friends respond, you'll see their comments first.

"The whole idea is to make it much easier and faster to plan the perfect trip by asking people you trust most," says Gogobot CEO and founder Travis Katz. "There are 750 million people on Facebook, and collectively those people have a lot of great information on cool places to go and fun places to eat."

Katz believes this know-thy-informer vibe is the key to using the Internet wisely.

"The dirty little secret of the online travel industry is there's a lot of fraud going on," he says. "It's almost an arms race for those five-star reviews, and everyone believes people are being paid. If you see that a friend of yours, or even a friend of a friend, has commented on a place, that may be all you need to know."

Gogobot also pays "power users" to take ownership of a particular area.

"We are pretty obsessed with having all the hidden gems and off-the-track places," Katz says, "and that's not something we can do by ourselves. We need to find these super passionate travelers, like one lady who added 40 places in South Africa."

Memphian Jessica Simmons says she finds Gogobot most useful for big cities like New York, where locals can suggest good restaurants or seldom-visited nooks. "It's fun to have friends on there, especially for restaurants," she says. "The best part of travel is the food."

They also have an iPhone app and a fun "Whisk Me Away" random-place feature on their website. I just clicked on it and found 14 reviews of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world. Apparently, tickets to the top are cheaper when booked online, but it isn't worth it on a windy day. And now you know.

Let's say going for a hike is more your style. Why not go to the experts on that one, too? My experience is they hang out in the forums at Backpacker Magazine's website. There you'll find everything from how the fall colors are progressing in the Smokies to hiking and camping suggestions for South Carolina. And that's just the Southern forum. There are also thousands of topics for areas of the U.S. and more than 500 international topics. Mountaineers, or lovers of mountain photography, should hang out with the hard-core crowd at SummitPost.org.

If eating well on the road is your thing, you'll want to visit the sprawling forums at Roadfood.com, the home of Jane and Michael Stern. They have written more than 40 books on the subject, and just one of many discussion areas on their site — "Where should I eat?" — currently has more than 6,800 topics and 73,000 posts. The forums at OpenRoad.tv, associated with a PBS show, are more limited but useful.

If you're headed for Europe, you probably know about Rick Steves and his empire of travel offerings, including books, TV and radio shows, and travel stores. There's also a "Graffiti Wall" on his website where European travelers trade tips and suggestions.

And finally, at least in theory, the Internet is about bringing people together, perhaps even in person. For this, a most intriguing website is CouchSurfing.com, where a community of 3.5 million people (about 85 percent of them under 35) offer crash-pads and show each other around their hometowns and cultures. The site claims members living in more than 84,000 cities and speaking 363 languages. The mission, in short, is to build a better world by building meaningful connections across cultures. And also to help us all avoid hotels.

And to think I was once excited about sending a fast message to New York. Now I can find locals to show me their favorite pizza place.

Gogobot.com

Backpacker.com

SummitPost.org

Roadfood.com

OpenRoad.tv

RickSteves.com

CouchSurfing.com

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