Need to know the effects of the SARS epidemic on a region you want to visit? Want a recommendation for a good hostel in Sydney, Australia? How about volunteer opportunities from travelers who have tried them?
You can find the answers on Internet bulletin boards, where you can post questions or just scan messages left by other travelers. Here are some popular sites:
An extensive online message board is operated by guidebook publisher Lonely Planet, www.lonelyplanet.com. Head for the site's "Thorn Tree," so named because travelers used to leave messages on thorn trees in the Australian outback.
There you'll find postings by destination or topic, such as cycling, health, women travelers and more.
Thorn Tree postings have ranged from reports on good hostels in Mexico City to accounts of taking the trans-Mongolian train between Beijing and Moscow.
Guidebook publisher Let's Go also operates a popular message forum at www.letsgo.com, where you'll find discussions on destinations and topics from "General Budget Travel" and "Volunteering Abroad" to "Gay and Lesbian."
Hostels.com, www.hostels.com, which was recently purchased by Web Reservations International, lists more than 6,000 hostels worldwide and offers online bookings for about half of the listed locations. The site includes "Talk to Travelers," a bulletin board that requires participants to register online before they can post messages. Nonmembers can view postings from the last seven days without joining.
It was on BootsnAll.com (www.bootsnall.com), a site for backpackers and independent travelers, that I learned from a traveler named Dan about Parque Machia, a wild animal refuge operated mostly by volunteers from all over the world.
He described it as the best place in Bolivia. The animals, including 200 monkeys, parrots, toucans, two pumas and one jaguar, had been poached and kept in circuses, hotels and private homes before their rescue. Besides destination-related discussions, BootsnAll.com features forums on travel writing and photography, the "Spiritual Traveler" and "Reading on the Road."
Another worthwhile site is www.ricksteves.com, run by Rick Steves, author of "Europe Through the Back Door." Look for the Graffiti Wall, a message board covering topics from "Planning & Packing" to "Worst Tourist Traps." Steves' site is geared toward European travel, but its archive of messages is extensive and is helpful to backpackers heading other places.
Under the site's "Packing Creative Extras" category, one traveler wrote: "One of the best items I have ever brought with me is a universal sink stopper. The smaller version runs about $1.49 at your local hardware store." I agree. In budget hotels and hostels, they seem to be missing most of the time.
Contiki Holidays, the world's largest tour operator for people 18 to 35, offers a community board at its site, www.contiki.com. You can read about the experiences of tour participants and post questions to former Contiki patrons.
On EuroTrip (www.eurotrip.com), a site for backpackers in Europe, travelers discuss the pros and cons of backpacker bus and rail services there and exchange information on other topics, such as favorite places, hostels, "Nightlife, Eating, and Drinking" and more.
The European hop-on, hop-off backpacker bus service Bus- about has a chat site at www.busabout.com/chatabout, where you'll find comments and discussions on destinations, planning and packing, as well as "Gossip From Home" and "Lost and Found."
Also helpful is Backpacker Headquarters, another resource for backpackers and student travelers. Its site, www.backpackerhq.com, features a single board where backpackers can share tips.
The Backpackers Ultimate Guide, www.bugeurope.com, has forums where backpackers can exchange information on traveling in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Pacific islands.
At the Village Square section of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine site, www.budgettravel.msnbc.com, you'll find forums listed by destination and topic.
Village Square attracts budget travelers of all ages. Not only are questions answered by other travelers, but you'll also get advice from the magazine's editors.
Don't confuse the Budget Travel site with www.frommers.com, which is the online arm of Frommer's guidebook series. At Frommers.com, community message boards are also geared to travelers of all ages. In the student section, under "Lifestyles," you'll find a variety of topics, including "quirky hostels."
If you want to reconnect with people you met during your travels, there are several sites. Backpackers Reunion (www.backpackersreunion.com) is an online meeting place where you can register and post your journal and photos and locate long-lost friends. Two similar sites are www.travelpackers.com and www.trekshare.com.
Lucy Izon, a Toronto-based freelance writer, is the author of "Izon's Backpacker Journal." Her Internet site is www.izon.com.