Vacation and trip planning: has it changed in age of Facebook? First look at TripAdvisor “TripFriends” feature

I’m taking the first real family vacation in years in two weeks (we’ll be offline from June 28th through July 10th). The process is instructive and gave me a chance to try out a new feature from TripAdvisor that shipped this morning:

1. We picked Los Angeles because we have two young children and a flight somewhere just didn’t sound fun.
2. We ask our friends for help. Not enough experience from our personal friends to be much use.
3. We visited tons of sites like Nextstop or Trip Advisor.
4. I posted on Google Buzz and Twitter for advice from a much larger group of people. Bingo! We received dozens of great ideas. I then took all that feedback and laid it out on my own custom Google Map, which, by the way, I’ve opened to the public so that other people can add even more places on top of.

Then I added all the major spots into my own page on NextStop, (please add other places that we should visit!) We’ll add places we want to eat next now that we’ve picked some of the major spots we want to visit.

Southern California Coastal Roadtrip |

More Los Angeles recommendations ยป

It’s interesting that I like the ideas we received from our social network the best. Even better than the professional pages on Trip Advisor, NextStop, or other places. Why? Because many of them were from people we talk with every day or, gasp, have even met at conferences. There’s something about getting advice from people you know something about.

I’m not the only one noticing this. Trip Advisor, this morning, turned on a new feature that lets you see which of your personal friends can give you advice on the cities you want to visit. has more info on the new feature, which was done using Facebook’s new social plugin. For instance, using that feature I learned that Brett Schulte is living in Los Angeles or that Ben Metcalfe can give me advice about Los Angeles. That is useful to know, because Brett lives there and Ben worked for MySpace and was frequently in Los Angeles. Now I know the friends to hit up that actually know something about Los Angeles, thanks to Facebook and TripAdvisor.

If I look at the page for visiting Laguna Beach, CA, on Trip Advisor, for instance, I learn that 101 of my 1,700 Facebook friends has been to Laguna Beach. I bet if I ask them what we should do that we’ll get some good answers. That’s cool. I’ve already asked my friends on Facebook what we should do in Los Angeles.

But, compare that to Gowalla’s page for Laguna Beach. This shows me where people are ACTUALLY checking in, so I can get a sense of how popular each place is.

So, looking at it, planning vacations has changed in the age of Facebook. How?

1. We can now get feedback from a lot more people than we could 10 years ago.
2. We have far better mapping and visualization tools.
3. Integration into our existing social networks is dramatically improving (and, heck, five years ago most of us weren’t using Facebook or Twitter to aggregate friends and business contacts).
4. Location-based services are keeping track of what’s really popular.
5. We have far more contacts outside of our personal friends and we now know a LOT about those friends.

Where do we still have to go?

1. We need malleable social graphs. Maybe I want a great sushi restaurant recommendation. Why are all these systems treating everyone the same? They are not. People who have visited five sushi restaurants, or more, are more credible on sushi restaurants. I don’t care about seeing restaurant reviews from people I don’t find very credible on what I’m searching for, so why are these systems showing them to me?
2. We need way better planning tools. Right now I’m planning our vacation on a whiteboard. Why? Because we don’t have really great mapping tools that join in calendar tools and let us move things around easily. Maryam and I are still arguing about dates we’ll be in Los Angeles, vs. Santa Barbara, etc while we’re doing all the other research. No tool I’ve found so far is flexible enough to let us radically change our plans. Also, figuring out what hotels are in our budget and which ones have appropriate rooms for us is still pretty difficult and time consuming.
3. Finding extraordinary experiences is still tough. Yeah, everyone wants to go to the San Diego Zoo. But how do you make that experience extraordinary? That’s where having friends who know the zoo and surrounding area very well comes in handy, but the Facebook feature that TripAdvisor shipped this morning isn’t granular enough to let me know which of my friends are very knowledgeable about the zoo. Maybe one of them is friends with a zoo keeper who could give us a private tour. But I have no way of knowing that (I got a private tour of the White House thanks to a personal friend I met at Microsoft, for instance, and THAT was extraordinary).
4. Location-based services are still too hard to use. Now that we know where we’re staying I wanted an easy way to look at Foursquare’s tips for everything in that neighborhood, but I couldn’t find a way beyond lying and checking in and then poking around. Still way too hard.
5. Making — and sharing — a really holistic view of a trip is very difficult. The tools are too siloed. TripIt knows my flights. TripAdvisor knows my hotels. Gowalla and Foursquare know where I checked in. But none talk with each other.
6. Lots of sites, like TripAdvisor, still aren’t mobile friendly enough. I tried poking around from my iPhone and found formatting troubles and other things that didn’t work. Yes, they have a mobile version and an iPhone version, but those versions are very limited compared to the full-blown site. Kayak, on the other hand, has a great iPhone and an iPad app, and works very well. Plus, many of them are, well, pretty ugly and a bit hard to use. Now I know why apps like Foodspotting are taking off so quickly. Photos are important, so are videos which show you around, but these sites often downplay the visual stuff.

How has your vacation planning changed? What tools and services are you using?

By the way, here’s my first pass of all the cities around the world I’ve visited, thanks to TripAdvisor’s mapping feature: