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Planning a trip? Ask the crowd on travel websites, Facebook

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It’s a familiar ritual among backpackers: ripping a chapter out of a thick Lonely Planet travel book as they move to a new destination, leaving the tattered pages at a hostel to lighten their load.

But as more travelers turn to friends, Facebook and other online communities to plan their trips, the Lonely Planet paper trail has begun to shrink. In its place is a new crop of high-tech startup sites that use online crowdsourcing to offer real-time travel information and personalized recommendations.

“There’s no way I’m going to carry around a big thick book (about) China or Europe,” said Shanti Christensen, a world traveler who calls San Francisco home. She wants to know what her friends are doing in those places, “because we all have similar traveling habits.”

Online portals

Startups from Silicon Valley to India are building online portals where travelers can find ideas for their next destination, tips on the best places to eat and sleep, build itineraries and share their adventures. Crowdsourcing — soliciting contributions from a large group of people — has turned the average traveler into a travel adviser.

“We look at what our friends say and we change our plans accordingly,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing, a financial advisory firm in New York. “It boils down to two words: trust and credibility. If you know the person, if their perspective on how to travel is similar to yours, you’ll give their insights more weight.”

Until recently, there were few options to quickly find timely recommendations from trustworthy and like-minded travelers, say travel experts. Many tourism bureaus don’t have the technology resources, and a Google search of “best restaurants in Bangkok” will dredge up about 16 million results. Recommendations in Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are often at least a year old by the time they land in the bookstores.

Travelers also complained about the number of anonymous, outdated and fake reviews on leading travel site TripAdvisor. The company said it screens all reviews and removes any that are fake or offensive, and recently started a crackdown on fraudulent reviews after discovering thousands of bogus hotel reviews.

“Travelers want to get right to the point, get a great recommendation they can trust and then move on with their busy lives,” said Trevor Morrow, a Los Angeles-based travel blogger and video host. “They want help making a decision, and they want to feel confident about that decision.”

Billion travelers

A record 1 billion people traveled internationally in 2012, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and top destinations included Guatemala and the Ivory Coast, where backpack travel is more popular.

“The travel industry … is changing, and it’s no longer built around busloads of tourists arriving and departing iconic monuments like clockwork,” said Alissa Haupt, a freelance photographer who has blogged about her world travel experiences.

Some travelers have turned to Flightfox, a Web service with offices in Mountain View, Calif., that crowdsources cheap flights by asking an online community to find the lowest-cost airfare.

Haupt cautions that crowdsourcing in a digital community has its limitations, and she would be nervous “to rely on strangers online to give me personalized advice.”

Others warn that the quality of the information on crowdsourced sites is only as good as the crowds.

“It’s the icing on the cake, but not something to rely solely on,” Morrow said.

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