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When getting together all the guidebooks I was going to need for my forthcoming trip I was faced with a couple of dilemmas. For information on just the northern part of Turkey I was going to have to drag around a huge volume devoted to the country as a whole; luckily one volume covered Russia and Ukraine (as well as the section on Belarus which was redundant to us) although it was rather enormous because it covered the whole of the vast country which is Russia while we wanted only the area around the Caucasus. The Russia book was rather pricey and so we tried E-bay for a cheaper copy. We went online to buy a book for Georgia but found that the most recent edition was two years old and although the new edition was due soon, we needed the information quickly so we could make plans.
What I am basically saying is the guidebooks are not only heavy and expensive but that they go out of date fairly quickly. While this is not really a problem if you just want a quick write-up on the main attractions of a city but if you are travelling independently and without pre-booked information you really do need the information to be up-to-date. Last June we walked several kilometres in Andalusia in 40 degree sun carrying backbacks only to find the "hostal" we were heading for was no longer open. So how do you make sure the information you are looking at is correct and up-todate?
The best and cheapest way is by joining one of the many online travel communities where members can share their knowledge by answering questions for other travellers. Bootsnall is one such site where visitors can book transport and accommodation as well as find out about their chosen destination. Although it has some sponsors it is possible to compare prices from a wide selection of airlines, car hire companies, hotels and travel insurance providers.
BACKGROUND Bootsnall came about in 1994 when a couple of Aussies (who else!) and an American got together over some beers (you're starting to get the picture...) to discuss the perfect walking boot (honestly) and somehow the idea came about for a website where travellers could ask other travellers for advice and information. As the website has evolved, there is more emphasis on booking travel - the things which help sites like this generate an income though most sponsored links are discreet and down the side of the page in a tidy column.
The main focus, though, are the community forums where visitors can participate as much or as little as they like. Membership is free and spam is remarkably low - infact the only thing I receive is atwice monthly newsletter with competitions and news about new features on the website. It also announces big stories in the travel business and forthcoming member meetings all over the world.
That last feature is quite important because it indicates the type of person who uses Bootsnall.com - in the main, backpackers - young people between 20-35 who are on gap years or extended vacations. Unfortunately it's often the case that some of these people are know-it-alls when it comes to answering questions from less clued-up travellers and give condescending answers. It's great to learn from someone who has first hand experience of a country and its culture but everyone has to learn somewhere and some people clearly forget that.
It takes a while to find your way around this website; it's not so much that the design is poor than that there are lots of tabs to click on on each page. In fact everything seems to come off one page rather than the user clicking on a larger section which would then offer a choice of subsections - here everything is thrown at you at one and it can be bewildering the first few times you try to navigate.
It's too complicated to go through every option available, suffice it to say that the independent traveller should be able to book transport and accommodation without too much bother; you can even book airport parking and sign up for courses abroad.
The colours are quite muted and earthy which isn't very eye-catching but spend a cpuple of hours on the site (it's easily done) and you'll be grateful that it's not too garish. There aren't as many photographs as on other similar sites and the pages are qute wordy as a result. this can be a little off-putting.
There are several features which are intrinsic to Bootsnall. The idea of a travel community is at the heart of these features and it's easy to sign up and get going.
There are two ways of finding out the answers to questions you may have. One is to "Ask an Insider" - this could be someone who has lives in a particular area or who has travelled extensively in that region. You may apply to Bootsnall to become an "Insider" - unpaid alas - if you feel you could offer other travellers detailed help.
The other way is to post a question on the forum for that country, city or region and wait for other members to come up with the answer. Since many members are currently on the road, this is a great way of getting really up-to-date news. Have train services in a certain area been restored? Does anyone want to share the costs of hiring a car bewteen Istanbul and Sofia? Is there an internet cafe in central Mombasa? You name it - someone is bound to know.
As well as the forums for asking travel questions, there are ones to discuss travel writing - give a tip about new books or suggest reading matter on particular destinations. There is a forum for people looking to get into paid travel writing and another which focuses on travel photography. There should be something for pretty much everyone; if you can't find a forum dedicated to your particular interest contact Bootsnall and they'll look at starting a new one.
OVERALL Bootsnall.com is great for the independent traveller even if it is directed in particular at backpackers so the advice on accommodation is often hostel orientated, for example.
There is a good sense of community although it is not easy to break into it, you're not welcomed immediately. It feels like you have to earn your stripes before sopme people stop treating you lkie you're a travel virgin!
As a source of practical information this is a good place to start. Posts rarely go unanswered and its often a good idea to search first before posting as the chances are someone has already asked what you want to know. The best feature of the site is undoubtedly that the information is usually up to date. If so,eone answers a question you can respond directly to them and ask how recent their experience is.
I have booked hostel accommodation on two occasions through the site but when I clicked I was sent to the website for that hostel so it seems the site merely provides links to other services. In this respect the website's success is harder to assess but it does provide access to a wide range of services.
Recommended for travel advice but with reservations over community spirit and friendliness.
PLEASE NOTE - some of the ratings below are not applicable to this review. Ciao just insisted they should be answered!