Even though I'm spontaneous about when we take our trips, once the decisions are made, I do a lot of planning and research.
Yapta - I use this to compare prices on tickets on the airlines I use most frequently. It's great for tracking prices if you are planning a trip months in advance (which I actually do occasionally!) I have an account with them so I can select the flights that I am interested in and it will remember those flights so I can come back and check them later on. The prices can fluctuate from day to night so I just keep on checking until I see a price that I think is reasonable. The thing about yapta is that once you buy the tickets, you can keep on tracking that flight and if the price goes under what you bought for, they let you know and you can try to get the difference back from the airline. I've done it before and the airline gave me a voucher for that amount towards my next flight.
Kayak - also to compare prices on flights. I'm the type that doesn't always rely on just one source so Kayak is my back up when I'm done checking on yapta.
Hotwire - if you are okay with surprises, than I highly recommend Hotwire. You choose your dates, location and then they show you several prices for hotels. You can narrow your search even further with the area of the hotel (so say if you are coming to Seattle they have it separated by downtown Pike Place, downtown Seattle Center, Bellevue, Redmond, etc...) and what star rating you prefer to really get it down to something you want. The prices are great but the catch is that you won't find out the name of the hotel until after you book it. When you click on your selection, it often shows you the reviews given by people from trip advisor (leaving out the hotel name still) so you can see what people say about the hotel. I've done this several times, always choosing 4 star and up hotels and have never been disappointed with the results. And the prices truly are fantastic. After it's been booked, I will comparison shop with the hotel booking and other sites like Expedia and the price booked on Hotwire is always a huge discount. Note: You can book flights on Hotwire as well but I've never done it before
Tripadvisor - When I don't go through Hotwire, I always check Tripadvisor first to read the reviews. Most of the reviews I've found are reliable. You definitely find the disgruntled people that seem to complain about everything but you'll also find reviewers that review everything from the service to the bathrooms to the bedsheets. I usually determine where I want to stay by clicking through their "top rated hotels". You just type in the city that you are going and they have a list of hotels as rated by travelers. And what's great is that the top rated does not always mean most expensive, you can find some really great and affordable hotels rated in the top 5. I just click through the top 10, read the reviews and see which one would be the best for us. For example, when going to Cabo, we wanted to find a place that wouldn't have lots of children and no "party hotels" where all the college kids go to. I looked through the reviews and lots of people will tell you that kind of information. I stayed away from the hotels where the reviewers mentioned loud music and lots of kids. We ended up picking Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach (#6 hotel of Cabo hotels) and we really loved it (see our pictures of it here). It was far away from the crazy college kids and there was a separate pool for families so we got what we wanted. Once I've picked a hotel from tripadvisor, I then compare prices through websites like orbitz.com, expedia.com and hotels.com. Always check more than one site. For our hotel in Hong Kong, two of those sites had the same prices but orbitz had it for $80 less per night!
Small Luxury Hotels of the World: Sometimes, I can be quite picky about where I stay so when I'm not in the mood to search for a deal, I head on over to this site which is one of my favorites to browse. I am a huge fan of smaller hotels and this site shows you some of the best of the best.
Design Hotels: If you love modern design like I do, you will love any of the Design Hotels. I can spend an hour on this site clicking each of the different locations and oohing and aahing over the pretty hotels and dreaming of staying at each one. I actually started my search of where I wanted my wedding at by looking at all the Mexico and Caribbean Design Hotels. I fell in love with Rockhouse Hotel in Jamaica but it was booked so then I went looking for hotels nearby which is how I picked Tensing Pen. Lots of people asked me why I picked Jamaica for my wedding and that's basically the events that happened!
Travelzoo - A lot of my spontaneous trips come up because of the emails that travelzoo sends to me (sign up on the website). They compile a list of all the great deals, mostly around the US and let you know when airlines are having great flight sales and they mention a lot of package deals for hotels in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Frommer's or Lonely Planet travel guides - I'm the type that likes to have guidebooks so I can read it and highlight stuff that I want to do. J and I don't like to have schedules when we travel (that's the only time I don't schedule my life!) but we do like to know certain places that we want to see so sometime during the trip we make sure to go see it. Read the reviews on amazon to decide which travel guide might be better (it's usually a toss up for me but I usually go for Frommer's unless the reviews tell me it's not worth it.) And make sure to buy the most recent edition, I've seen some places still sell the 2003 version!
Not for Tourists - great website that's supposedly for the locals and I can say that for the Seattle one, it's pretty spot on and a lot of the places they recommend, I would too.
Yelp - I rely on yelp a lot for restaurants in Seattle, so I started using it for when we travel too (US only). Download the iPhone App and a great feature on there is that it can figure out where you are and there's a "what's nearby" feature so you can see reviews for shops and restaurants that are right by where you are standing! It's a great way to figure out a place to eat if you are starving but don't know where exactly you are and don't feel like taking a taxi some place.
I'm no travel expert but I've traveled enough and these tips that I just shared have worked great for me so I hope that this has helped those of you who don't travel as much! Planning travel is hard, there's a lot that you have to look into and you don't want to pay unnecessary high prices. It's definitely a lot of shopping around so be patient, take your time and then look forward to your vacay!
San Francisco was super windy! my hair was in knots after this day.