I am about to embark on a trip alone across Europe overland – mainly by train. It’s almost 15 years since I last made a similar trip. Many things have changes over this period – I’m older, have travelled a lot more and am now more likely to stay in hotels than camp rough – but the biggest change is the way that social media is helping me do things I could never do back then. On that first trip, I had no mobile phone and not even an email address. Now I have many tools at my disposal to help plan and do more.

1. Planning the trip

Then: 15 years ago my only planning tool were two big books – a set of European train timetables that I had to pour over to check if I could get from one place to another, and a Western European guidebook. I couldn’t find out anything about the journeys I might take except for when the trains would be, and I risked falling into the trap of only going to places in the guidebook. I could only plan, not book, and I put my faith in some timetables and 0ne guidebook.

Now: I have bought some guidebooks – but only for cities that I am planning to spend a lot of time in. My main planning tools this time have been online – a mix of more traditional tools (including the fantastic European train directory at The Man in Seat Sixty-One) to reviews sites (such as Tripadvisor), individual forums and blogs about certain destinations and even Twitter and Flickr. I’ve been able to research the different options, discover places I would never have found about in guidebooks and even check things such as what the overnight trains I am getting look like, what people say about them on Twitter and use these user reviews and images to decide when I want to travel in a seat, when in a couchette and when it is worth paying extra for a sleeper compartment.

2. Keeping people informed

Then: Without a mobile phone or email address the only way I could keep people informed was by finding a public phone box and calling home. I had an unwritten agreement that I would call home every five days to let people know where I was. I had left a rough plan with them and that was it. I don’t know, but I imagine there were some worried moments when I missed my planned call as I had to choose between queuing for a phone at a station in Rome and jumping on the train that evening to Sicily (I chose the latter!).

Now: This is an area of real change. Not only do I have a plan that some people can see on TripIt, but social media and mobile internet means I can inform individuals but also anybody who is interested in what I am doing, seeing and experiencing. And where I am. Twitter will let me update people in real time, tell them where I am and even share photos of what I am doing and seeing (if you’re interested you can follow me @mattrhodes). Foursquare is a great tool to allow me to quickly and easily share exactly where I am – the hotel, restaurant, station or beach I am on. People back home will know what I am doing and will be able to share the experiences I am having.

3. Keeping myself entertained

Then: On long train journeys and overnight you need ways to keep yourself entertained and distracted. Back then I had a MiniDisc player and a set of compilations I’d put together before I went. I had some books and then had to rely on meeting people who knew of things to do and things that were on in the destinations I visited. Or I had to rely on myself stumbling upon them – which once found me in a hard rock festival in Hungary…

Now: I’m still taking a lot of books, but rather than making my own compilations I am taking Spotify – and am crowd-sourcing a playlist so I can hear things I wouldn’t normally listen to. If you want to add some tracks to my list find it here: Make Matt a holiday playlist. I can use Twitter to find out what is on in destinations and what people think of them.

So what does this mean for the travel industry?

Social media is changing the way we travel. The way we plan, the way we book, the way we act when we are travelling and the way we report on it (in real-time and after the event). We are using review sites to book hotels and events. We are using Twitter and Flickr to find out what people really think of places we are going to or things we are going to do. We are using these same tools to report, often in real time, on what we are experiencing.

In this environment those in the travel industry need to take social media seriously, and find ways to make it work hard for them and their brand. They should be listening to what people are saying about them, their destinations and services and about their competitors. They should be identifying their advocates and dealing with those who are less positive about them online. They should use their experience and expertise to add real value to the discussions and debates in social media. And they should capitalise on the real-time discussions and reviews to showcase what people think of them, and also to start to service people in social media.

We’ve blogged before about how the travel industry can use social media and it is one of the industries where social media can make a real impact on a brand and a business. Right now, I am just grateful for the way social media has made planning and reporting on my travels much easier than 15 years ago – follow me to find out what I think of the places I visit!

A train passing through the central station of...

Image via Wikipedia