Even the best guide can wear you out sometimes!

Deciding where to go and what to do isn’t a straightforward proposition. We’ll decide what kind of break we’re in need of. Then we start looking for places that fit the bill. Then we might come up with a couple of things to do. Then we’ll circle back and look at our “what” again, to be sure we think it’s still valid. It takes a couple of iterations.

I think there are two phases to thinking through the vacation. I’ll call the first research. It’s kind of broad, which helps you decide on the location. Then we plan, getting specifics on hotels, restaurants, museums and tours.

When we are researching, we look everywhere: books we’ve read, magazines like Garden and Gun or Destinations, and friends. Occasionally I’ll look at TripAdvisor’s “Top Ten” lists, or we’ll see something on a movie. It’s very general and open-ended.

But planning–that requires specifics. And specific resources. Here are my favorites:

My own network: We have had enormous success in finding great restaurants, rentals, and guides, by asking someone we had already worked with. Chances are, you’ve met some great people in your travels, too. Most of them are happy to give referrals! For example, several years ago we rented an apartment in Paris through Paris Made Perfect. We highly recommend them, and when we visited London we tried to rent through their sister company in England. They couldn’t accommodate us but put us in touch with one of their competitors whom they knew well. We had a great stay.

At the end of this post I’ve listed a few of my favorite resources from my own network. This is a short list, and later this month I’ll give a much more exhaustive list. Right now, I’m hoping this will spark your own ideas.

TripAdvisor: I could write a whole post on how to use this great, but huge, site. It’s extremely powerful, but it can also be overwhelming. It is excellent for restaurants and hotels, as long as you know what you are looking for. It is less useful for shopping and vacation rentals. It is invaluable for small museums and tour guides.

Travel Agents: I rarely use a travel agent, but they can be very helpful in certain situations. I’ll post later next week about our specific experiences. Don’t overlook them.

Guidebooks: Seriously old school, but when I haven’t had wifi it’s been a life-saver. The smallest guidebooks are the best, I think. For example, DK Eyewitness Travel’s Top Ten in Florence and Tuscany is only about 100 pages, but it has a map and is loaded with the best of the best. These small books also slide into a pocket or backpack easily. The big exception to this is the Unofficial Disney Guidebook series. These are pretty big but are excellent guidebooks.

Hotel and Credit Card Concierges: There was a time that I never, ever considered using these services. But this is what they do best! Our credit card even has a concierge service associated with it, and from what we understand it is very rarely used. My sister has had great success booking concert tickets through them. We tend to use them for tour and restaurant recommendations. I’ve noticed that, in general, the very best concierges are in hotels with the most bustling lobbies. But don’t even overlook the hotel clerk who checks you in. One of my favorite restaurants of all time was a recommendation from a friendly desk clerk.

Do you have some go-to resources? Please share!

A few from my network:

Paris Made Perfect (and London, too)

Henrietta Ferguson and Luxury Tours of London

Uniglobe McIntosh Travel

TripAdvisor (my profile)