Facebook may be everywhere, but for travelers, Twitter is right where you want it to be, when you need it to be.
In recent months, I have come to the conclusion that a tightly curated Twitter list is almost all a traveler needs to remain informed on the road. Easily accessible from a computer or a smartphone, requiring minimal bandwidth and constantly updated, a great Twitter list can provide not only most of the information you might need from the most critical sources during a big trip, but also a direct avenue to interact with those sources if needed.
Before listing my suggestions for a concise Twitter list to build before your next trip, first let me explain why I am focusing here on Twitter, and not on the admittedly ubiquitous Facebook platform.
Twitter's concise, 140-character format lends itself well to traveling for a few reasons.
First, it's easy to scan quickly for items that are important to you. With Twitter, it is no big deal to scan 10 to 12 items at a glance; with Facebook, this is a bit more challenging, with pics and comments and likes all mixed together.
Second, the data demands of Twitter are lower than that of Facebook, which can be important if you are traveling overseas on a limited data plan.
Third and most importantly, with Twitter you can use the list feature to set up a collection of feeds that are specific to your trip, and look only at those feeds while traveling. That way you can skip all updates that are not related to travel at all, and read only those tweets that are relevant to your trip. Here is Twitter's explanation of how to set up, read and edit lists. While you can sort your Facebook friends into groups or view only updates from business pages that you follow (as opposed to friends), Facebook does not offer a similarly clean way to separate feeds that you will need during your trip from those that you follow on a more casual, less mission-driven basis.
Finally, Twitter does not apply the kind of aggressive filtering to your feed that Facebook does, so you are far more likely actually to see all the updates from critical sources. With Twitter, all tweets show up for your review, whereas Facebook shows you the updates it thinks will most interest you (and also make the most money for the company, of course).
That said, adding most of the following to your Facebook feed will never hurt, and if you find yourself checking Facebook during your travels, you will certainly find useful stuff that never makes it to Twitter.
But for a lean and clean source of timely information for travelers, nothing beats a well-curated Twitter list. Here are my suggestions for accounts to follow, wherever you are traveling.
All the major airlines (and many smaller ones) maintain Twitter feeds that can serve many functions, including announcing sales and posting delays. Some have more than one account, such as JetBlue, which offers a regular feed at @JetBlue and a sales feed at @JetBlueCheeps. Follow the airlines you will use during your trip, and you can stay on top of route changes, delays and more.
If something goes wrong during your trip, turn to Twitter. Tweets by stranded travelers that include their airline's account name have resulted in increased customer service efforts by the airlines. Check out this ranking of airlines by their Twitter turnaround times. Other studies show that Twitter is the most efficient way to get an airline's attention.
Airport feeds can sometimes be even more useful than your airline's, as their narrow focus can offer far more relevant information than an airline account that is tracking flights all over the world. Despite this advantage, I have found airport feeds to be a little harder to track down in general; if you can't find one quickly, I suggest going to the official airport website, where you will typically find a link to its Twitter account if it has one.
Train and bus companies tend also to be hit or miss. For example, Amtrak (@Amtrak) has an account that is almost entirely promotional in nature, although if there was ever a feed that could benefit from travel time and delay status updates, it would be a rail company in America.
However, some Amtrak routes have their own Twitter accounts, and these can really come through for you. A good example is the Amtrak Pacific Surfliners train feed at @PACSurfliners, which has extremely detailed delay and cancellation information.
Eurail (@Eurail), on the other hand, has an extremely interactive account that is much more focused on follower engagement than in making announcements; it is a good one.
For bus lines, Megabus has two feeds, one for general information at @Megabus, and one for its customer service team at @MegabusHelp, which appears to be monitored almost constantly (there's also one in the U.K. that is monitored during weekday business hours at @MegabusUK). The Greyhound account also seems very interactive, at @GreyhoundBus. Pretty impressive for a couple of outfits dedicated to "lowly" bus travel.
A bit of searching on your specific train or bus company can produce great results -- for example, NJ Transit has a heap of feeds, many dedicated to specific routes; check out this search, wow.
If you are looking for things to do during your travels, there are almost countless Twitter accounts at your disposal, including tourism bureaus, local newspapers, alternative weeklies (online and in print), "Patch" sites and more.
I suggest combing through some of these feeds before subscribing to them to see what would be headed your way, as many can offer tremendous tips for travelers, while others might exhibit a signal-to-noise ratio that threatens to overwhelm your Twitter trip list. A Patch site in a city I visited recently was purged from my trip list very quickly due to a high percentage of local news tweets that had very little direct interest for me as a traveler.
As a test, I looked at the Patch feed for a town near me late last week, and I found posts about kids' reactions to rotary phones, local homes for sale, a story about a family stealing toys to sell on eBay, a toilet seat toss contest, updates on the high school marching band and other similar effluvia.
However, there were also tweets about a fake bomb threat at a school near us, a power outage due to winter weather and a reminder to set clocks forward for daylight savings, this last of which could be extremely useful when returning from a trip only to find out that you missed your airport pick-up by an hour.
Most museums, galleries, parks and other attractions maintain some sort of Twitter account, many of them very focused and clutter-free. They might include museum and exhibit hours, exhibit closings, discounts, free entry days, and even information about crowds and lines.
For example, the Twitter feed of the Children's Museum of the Arts in New York posts only a few items daily, usually about the day's activities, and then critical updates about wait times, special hours and when they reach max capacity.
We are unfortunately AT CAPACITY! Please call us at 212-274-0986 for capacity updates this afternoon. We're also open tomorrow 12-5 PM!— CMANY (@CMAinNYC) February 17, 2014
Restaurant feeds can be as individualistic as the people who run them, so their utility will be all over the map, but they can be entertaining and extremely useful. On any given day, feeds like @Calliopenyc (a restaurant in New York) might include news of cooking workshops, direct interactions with customers, menu updates, specials and more.
There is one important thing to consider about restaurants on social media, however -- they seem far more likely to be active on Facebook than on Twitter. It could be that the pace of running a restaurant doesn't allow for lots of tweets all night long, but this is for sure one category that you will want to check out on Facebook or other social media sites.
For traffic and transit, many big cities have traffic feeds, whether maintained by the government or by locals, such as a news radio station. They tend to be easy to find -- I put "Los Angeles traffic" into the Twitter search box, and found @LATraffic24. "Austin traffic" returned @AusTraffic, and so on. New York City has a bunch (try @NYCMetroTraffic), while London has @TfLTrafficNews. There are heaps of these, and with a little bit of searching, you should be able to find good feeds at most popular destinations.
Weather is an obvious feed to add, although in truth there may be better ways to track it; there are great weather apps and websites that probably trump Twitter at doing this very specific job.
If you decide to add weather to your Twitter list, I recommend following two feeds: one for weather at your destination, and one for weather at home. This way you can figure out if there is anything you need to worry about in the two places you care about most.
The last thing you might add to your list is a selection of key feeds from back home. As suggested above, news of things like power outages, upcoming school closings, incoming weather and more can help you prepare yourself for reentry, which is as important a part of traveling as getting away.
If you were to collect the best example of each of these feed categories into a new list for your next trip, it might come to 10 to 12 feeds at most, a very manageable collection, especially if you create a list that is specific to your trip as suggested above. Do you have any suggestions for categories or specific feeds that we missed? Let us know in the comments.