I'm a neophyte when it comes to international travel, but something of a nerd on the Web. That's why, on a recent two-week trip with a friend through Europe, I had two resources at the ready: a traditional guidebook spanning the entire continent and a BlackBerry stocked with links to Wikitravel.org.
Wikitravel borrows more than a prefix from the giant online encyclopedia Wikipedia. It takes its anyone-can-edit philosophy, too, and applies it to the travel world. Whereas guidebooks are the product of a handful of writers and editors, the English version of Wikitravel alone is compiled by more than 40,000 contributors, each pitching in anything from full city guides to a line about their favorite local café.
In the seven years since it was founded, Wikitravel has accumulated enough entries (some 24,000 and counting in the English version) to be considered almost comprehensive: the city guide to Paris, France, may tip the scales at nearly 20,000 words, but Paris, Texas, has its own small guide too. Globetrotting duo Evan Prodromou and Michele Ann Jenkins created the site in 2003, after a guidebook they were using on a trip through Southeast Asia led them on a lengthy hike through the forest to a hotel that no longer existed. "The typical editorial cycle on these guidebooks is three to five years," Jenkins says. "The worst part was not that we made this mistake, but that hundreds of others would too."
Though the two seeded their travel-centric wiki with its first entries, taken from notes scribbled during their trips, it wasn't long before word of the project spread and the contributions started coming in. "There's this huge desire for travelers to share information from their trips," Jenkins says. "We gave them a format to do that in."
Whereas Wikipedia is criticized for letting anyone edit its articles who's to say I know anything about astrophysics? that uncensored access is a strength in the travel world. A guide written by committee has something for everyone tips from business travelers dining in a city's swankiest spots to pointers from backpackers on the best street meal.
And when local experts chime in, it makes for entertaining and sometimes tongue-in-cheek advice. Taking a vacation to Mongolia? Avoid eating marmots, as they can carry the bubonic plague. Planning a trip to Mogadishu? At busy intersections, just fire a machine gun in the air to clear pedestrians out of the way.
Jenkins and Prodromou still contribute to Wikitravel, but it's no longer theirs. The pair sold the site in 2006 to Internet Brands, a conglomerate of some of the Web's larger online communities. But thanks to the unique attributes of the wiki format the site contains a license that lets anyone use, modify or even sell the online guides the two were able to start up Wikitravel Press, which produces dead-tree copies of some of the site's meatier entries.
Having already published guidebooks for seven cities (three more will follow shortly) Wikitravel Press is partially a nod to practicality not every country nor every traveler has always-on Internet access. But traditional publishing could learn something from the Wikitravel model too: new editions are issued every few months, the better to incorporate the latest contributions from the site (once they're looked over by a professional editor).
The market for ink-on-paper travel guides won't dry up anytime soon. But whether it's online or in print, Wikitravel has a speed and convenience the books' publishers can only envy. On my trip through Europe, a budget spaghetti place ($6.50 plates!) in Bruges, Belgium, recommended by our guidebook was shut down for the summer. Not only did Wikitravel help me locate an alternative, it also let me leave a note for other tourists to warn them their spaghetti night might have to wait for the fall. "We have a very understandable goal and premise: the traveler comes first," Jenkins says. "We're not interested in how the world should be; we're interested in how things are on the ground now for a traveler." And whether that ground is well-trodden or rarely covered, there's no better guide than those who have gone before you.
This article originally appeared in the September 27, 2010 issue of Time Europe magazine.