By Brian Hindo
Here's a novel idea: a consumer Web site that delivers what it promises, free of strings, free of ads, and free of charge. Any site doing that should get a medal, right? Well, IgoUgo hasn't won anything yet, but it is up for a Webby Award in travel, with results set to be announced July 18. Unlike the other nominees in the travel category (expedia.com, bestfares.com, iexplore.com, and frommers.com) IgoUgo isn't about commerce, it's about community.
That IgoUgo is up against online bookers like BestFares and Expedia in the Webby Awards may be misleading. IgoUgo, rather, evokes the spirit of print books like St. Martin's Press' Let's Go series or the Frommer's travel guides. If a Frommer's guide and Epinions.com had a kid it would look a lot like IgoUgo. But instead of relying on professional travel writers to tell you about cities, IgoUgo taps regular people to create a sort of electronic back fence where you can always ask travel questions of your "friends." It has its flaws, but it works.
OFF THE TRACK.
IgoUgo is basically an ever-growing archive of travel journals, submitted by the site's amateur members from around the world. Interested in a trip to Antarctica? Ulaan-Bataar? Orlando? You can read first-person accounts and see pictures of these and other destinations, obscure or otherwise. The site, founded in August, 2000, by Harvard MBA Tony Cheng and University of Georgia MBA Jim Donnelly, boasts journal listings for more than 2,000 destinations on all seven continents, including an extensive list of off-the-tourist-track American cities such as Gatlinburg, Tenn. and Missoula, Mont.
Although members of IgoUgo's 11-person staff post journals, the most of the site's content comes from people who have made trips and felt compelled to write about them. Once you become a registered member, you can enter as many journals as you like, using a template provided by the site that gives you places to make general observations and also specific recommendations about where to stay, where to eat, and what to do in the city you're reviewing.
IgoUgo has a few competitive advantages over the print guides. First, it's free, while the print books usually cost anywhere from $10 to $20. Lonely Planet Portugal runs $15.99 on amazon.com, and Frommer's New Zealand guide costs $17.59. Second, because a Web site is not bound (literally) by a book's space constraints, IgoUgo can, and naturally does, have multiple journals for the same destination.
While you only get one editor's take on Amsterdam in Let's Go Europe, for instance, a quick search on IgoUgo yielded 41 separate journals -- each one tailored to its author's tastes and experiences. If you've ever shown up at an "out-of-the-way" spot only to find a horde of other tourists clutching your same guidebook, you might appreciate the variety of journals.
IgoUgo doesn't pay its members for their reviews, but the site does have a "Go Points" rewards system, similar to frequent-flier miles. For each service you provide IgoUgo -- writing a journal, posting pictures, or referring friends, for example -- you earn Go Points, which are redeemable for prizes like cameras, backpacks, Palms, and other travel-related knickknacks. You can even turn your Go Points into American Airlines' AA Miles.
But the community of 20,000 reviewers (to date) that gives IgoUgo its flavor is also its biggest limitation. The quality of the journals runs from great to unhelpful at best. A peer rating system does help site users filter through the junk: IgoUgo's registered users can rate any journal they read on a scale of one to five stars. Also, the editors highlight "featured guides" -- those who get consistently good reviews -- on the site's entry page.
But while getting a nonprofessional travel writer's opinion is good for a breather, you really never quite know what you're getting. For instance, a search on Chicago yielded a number of good tips. One guide posted a great journal about finding Vietnamese restaurants. Another gave detailed instructions about architectural tours of the city. But my search also turned up a four-star rated journal that amounted to be curiously little more than an admissions brochure for a small college in suburban Downers Grove, Ill.
One Philadelphia journal writer actually called the soon-to-be-replaced monstrosity Veterans Stadium "awesome." Awesome apparently includes character-free oval stadiums in the middle of a parking lot, next to a highway, in an industrial zone, with Astroturf yet, at least for some of us. So even a high rating doesn't mean the journal is worth reading. While you gain from amateurs' unjaded eyes, you lose professional travel writers' perspective.
Overall, IgoUgo's positives outweigh the negatives. From a travel book, you get the viewpoint of one -- albeit, professional -- traveler. IgoUgo gives you not only a second opinion, but a third, a fourth, and quite often a fiftieth. Also, because space is not an issue, many journals can afford to spend time talking about what not to do. Rarely will a print book waste precious pages on spots the traveler should avoid. (Plus, there's nothing stopping you from using both IgoUgo and a good book from an established publisher.) Finally, you can shape the content yourself. If you've even been stung by bad travel-guide advice, IgoUgo lets you take revenge of a sort by responding in your own journal.
So I didn't like what the Philly reviewer said about the infamous Vet? Well, I bellied up to the bar and threw down a journal of my own about the city where I went to college. Mortified when a peer gave my journal a meager three-star rating, I hopped back on the site and improved it. Now, it commands a respectable four stars (and rising). And since the site's editors deemed Philly a "Hot Destination," I got a Go Points bonus. Now I'm one-sixth of the way to a Swiss Army knife.
Hindo is a summer intern for BusinessWeek in New York