10/09/2003 - Updated 03:39 PM ET

Online haunts lead travelers to cross paths

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

When Phil Kaiser learned that a British acquaintance would be flying into Los Angeles to begin a West Coast sightseeing trip, the retired aerospace industry worker offered to pick him up at the airport.

The thing is, Kaiser lives in Portland, Ore.

"It's only 900-and-some miles," he says.

Actually, it's more like double that when you consider the trip back up the coast with stops in Seattle, Mount St. Helen's and elsewhere.

Kaiser's largess is all the more stunning considering he'd never before laid eyes on the British visitor. The two struck up a friendship via the Web site VirtualTourist.com, which invites members to post accounts, photos and reviews of their travels. While in L.A., they had dinner with seven fellow VTers — as site regulars call themselves — before heading north.

Gatherings of this sort are becoming not only more common but also more structured as travelers seek a sense of community as well as nuts-and-bolts information from their favorite Web sites. Online forums (also called bulletin boards or message boards) on these sites foster online interaction. Regulars take it from there to meet face to face.

For instance, habitues of LonelyPlanet.com's forum, the Thorn Tree, regularly meet up in the farthest reaches of the world for "piss-ups" (Australian slang for having drinks). Hard-core members of FlyerTalk.com post their flight schedules on an online calendar and carry screaming-yellow bag tags, the better to identify each other in transit. CruiseMates.com hosts six to eight cruises annually that have drawn up to 400 Web site regulars. Groups of "Fodorites," as members of Fodors.com call themselves, set up meetings around the world. So do VirtualTourist.com regulars, 150 of whom came from as far away as New Zealand in August to attend a three-day beach bash in Southern California.

Online interaction that spills into the offline realm has been occurring since the advent of the Internet. But increasingly, these offline dealings are being carried out in highly organized ways. It's part of a broader phenomenon — witness the success of presidential hopeful Howard Dean's online efforts to rally supporters to real-world venues, notes Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which examines the Internet's influence on society.

"(These interactions) are getting more organized, and that's the power of the network," he says. "Clearly, in a variety of areas, people now are taking advantage of features on the Internet that allow them to meet others."

That's partly due to the ubiquity of the Web in everyday life — 63% of Americans are now online. But as a topic of interest, travel is particularly well suited to bridge the on-offline gap.

"Travel is a very low conversational denominator," says J.R. Johnson, cofounder of VirtualTourist.com.

Still, even the orchestrators of some popular forums profess astonishment at the degree to which stalwarts have bonded both on and offline. FlyerTalk.com, the forum for Webflyer.com, geared to frequent travelers seeking to fatten their airline mileage accounts, got started in May 1998. Before long, regulars on the site were organizing meetings.

"We didn't think of it as creating a community. It just happened to us," site creator Randy Petersen says. "I don't think there's a city I've visited where I haven't been greeted by other FlyerTalkers at dinner or for drinks."

Or more elaborate doings. A year or so after its inception, 60-plus FlyerTalkers and guests met in Hawaii for a three-day "Party in Paradise." Petersen and several staffers decided to attend, though even as he was en route, he wondered if the event might be a hoax.

In fact, Sylvia Au, a Honolulu health care worker who helped organize the party (and is staging a second one this month), says she was joking when she initially posted the notice. But replies flooded in and the idea took off. It's understandable that frequent fliers might want to weigh in on "bulkhead seats and the dolts who sometimes sit in them" (a recent topic on the forum). But spending an entire weekend in Hawaii with fellow chatters?

"Because (FlyerTalkers) travel so much, they're willing to meet other people when they travel," Au says. "They share information and they're nice about it."

Six years after the creation of its forum, Fodors.com earlier this year began requiring users who post travel queries and opinions to register on the site. Managing editor Danny Mangin assumed a thousand or so hard-core users would sign up. To his amazement, several thousand registered within days.

"Lots of people love to travel and we've provided a good venue," he says. "They feel comfortable about it and about the people they meet."

Similarly, Anne Campbell of CruiseMates.com, which three years ago added a "Meet me on board" section to the site, says she is surprised at the number of people who sign on for site-sponsored cruises.

"People have no qualms about meeting people from the Internet on ships. It's a safe environment," she says.

Barry Haynes, a federal employee from Oceanside, Calif., figures he has met 30 to 40 members of VirtualTourist.com at social events. Those occasions included a surprise party thrown by a fellow VTer in honor of his marriage this year to piano teacher Laurie-Jeanne Haynes, whom he met on the site.

She had gone online looking for a map of Germany. He'd never been to Europe. She'd lived there. She built a Web page highlighting her travels. He critiqued it. One thing led to another and, despite Haynes' assertion that the site is strictly "a friendly thing — you don't go on looking for someone to marry or hook up with," 15 months later they got married.

Says Laurie-Jeanne, "I never did find that map of Germany, but look what I picked up along the way."