Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; May 19, 2002;

Darren Green Special to the Tribune;

(Copyright 2002 by the Chicago Tribune)

Looking to replace that stack of outdated travel guides (and your quirky next-door neighbor) as your primary travel-planning resource? What if you were granted 24/7 access to an omniscient globetrotter looking to do nothing more than impart up-to-date travel advice?

Well, this once unimaginable being exists in the form of the Internet, and best of all, it never sleeps, is accessible during the journey, is loaded with "local knowledge" and charges nothing. The following is a cross-section of some of the more useful online chat rooms.

www.lonelyplanet.com

Launched by the creators of the ubiquitous off-the-beaten path travel guide series, lonelyplanet.com is the quintessential online destination for adventure and budget travelers to share stories and seek advice. The discussion forum, known as the "Thorn Tree," divides the world into 20 regions (e.g. South America) and 10 special-interest categories (e.g. Senior Travel), and questions are aptly referred to as "thorns." What distinguishes this chat room from most others is the sheer volume of dialogue that takes place within it--most inquiries beget anywhere from 3 to 10 legitimate responses within one week of posting (there's little of value in a chat room without chatting). In fact, the Thorn Tree Q&A is so consistently vibrant that visitors can often find immediate satisfaction by simply scrolling through previous questions and answers in their designated category.

www.concierge.com

For those in search of five-star resorts in Luxembourg rather than hiking trails in Paraguay, Concierge.com is a worthwhile place to start. Created by the always upscale publishers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, their "Forum" section is as good a place as any to hobknob electronically with the jet set. A recent visitor lamented his inability to uncover a "five-star resort in Vienna like the Ritz in Paris." This is no place for the faint of wallet. Posting tip: Allow a month for a meaningful number of responses, as the discussion board tends to be a bit light on traffic.

www.frommers.com

Somewhere between the ruggedness of Lonelyplanet.com and the exclusivity of Concierge.com lies Frommers.com, a solid resource for the budget-minded traveler who prefers a hotel room to a thatched hut. Much like the Web sites described earlier, Frommers.com is operated by a well-respected guidebook publisher and utilizes a "post and return later" conversation method. Posting tip: If you're the bashful type, avoid a public posting and simply click on the screen name of the desired discussion participant in your category of interest to e-mail him/her directly.

www.about.com

For those seeking instant gratification, check out the real-time discussion boards in any of the 50 or so About.com travel-related sites. While real time e-conversation is nifty in theory, in practice it's not all that easy to operate the About.com chatting mechanism, and if a particular chat room happens to be uninhabited during your visit (a common occurrence), you'll more or less be howling at the wind. Posting tip: If you have the time, ensure you'll have company by joining one of the scheduled hour-long fireside chats moderated by an About.com staff travel guide.

Specialty travel forums

General chat rooms are indeed a wonderful resource; however, the Web also abounds with more focused offerings for those looking to dig deep on a particular destination. For example, www.bootsnall.com is probably the premier discussion resource for the fiercely independent traveler. A debate of sorts erupted in the Spiritual Traveler room a few weeks back over the seemingly innocuous question, "Why do you travel? ("because I must" carried the day among the combatants). Backpackers heading to Europe might want to log on to www.eurotrip.com (a.k.a. "Your Backpackin' Europe Site") to discuss the merits of the six-month Eurail pass.

If water's preferable to land, the www.cruisemates.com discussion forum is one good way to avoid mixing your family and college spring break on the high seas. For those coveting first-hand knowledge about the Caribbean, take a peek at www.traveltalk.com, which survived a near-fatal hacker attack last year only to emerge stronger than ever. This discussion board is so focused on the Caribbean that even links to ostensibly African topics point the visitor right back to the Caribbean rooms.

Finally, frequent fliers interested in conversing with other road warriors can connect in the chat rooms hosted at www.flyertalk.com, where travelers who have seen it all can delve into true travel minutiae, such as how much Priceline earns for each hotel booked through its Web site.