How do you like to go about researching and planning before you go on a trip somewhere? It might seem like a weird question, but I'm curious about your process and if there are certain resources you like to use.
Joel and I probably won't go on a nice trip until this summer, but I figured it would pay to start thinking about it now and doing some more in-depth learning about our destinations (Italy to be specific). I plan to start leafing through my art history books again as one resource and inspiration on where to go and what to do - those books and classes always made me want to travel and see things firsthand. I'm sure Joel could think of some things too of course, having spent some time in Italy while in the service.
This summer! Better get crackin'.
For us, the vacation starts when we decide to go. The planning part is always a lot of fun.
The place to start is the library. They usually have very good travel sections and will have a wide selection of guide books. Different people have different tastes in books. We prefer the Lonely Planet & Rick Steves. Those twoare on opposite ends of the spectrum so they cover a lot of ground. But get others to see what you like before you end up buying a couple to take along and make notes in.
Our library also has extensive travel videos. Again our favorites are Globe Trekker & Rick Steves. I'm sure that your library system has both.
Once you determine a region you need to answer a couple of questions. First, do you want to cover a lot of ground and see the highlights of and area or do you want to stay longer and see it more in depth? Second, do you want to stay in fancy hotels with a lot of amenities or do you want to stay in cheap (but clean & safe) places where you'll probably have to carry your bags up the stairs but will be closer to the locals. You may not know the answers to those questions, but it doesn't matter. Decide for this trip then if you think you'd rather do the other, do that next time.
That leads to another concept that I think is important: plan your trip with the idea that you'll be back. There is so much to see in Rome (or Paris, NY, etc) that you'll never see it all, even if you lived there. So plan your itinerary like you'll be back someday. Don't worry if you miss something that everyone else considers a 'must-see' attraction because you wanted to see something different. It's your vacation and, if it's a must-see, you'll be back.
Along with that, shift your mindset from that of being a tourist to being a traveler. You're becoming a temporary denizen of the city your in, and manage the city from that perspective. That being said, don't be shy about looking like an American tourist. You are American tourists and no one will mistake you for anything else. If you don't know what to do is some restaurant, ask them what to do - they'll be glad to help.
A good philosophy is "The less you spend, the closer you get to the reason you went". I like the idea of staying as local as possible and both Rick Steves and Lonely Planet have excellent recommendations that fit the bill.
So once you've determined a rough itinerary, e.g. 3 days in Rome, 2 Florence, 2 Venice, 1 Padua or 4 Rome, 4 Venice, you can get more specific.
Now's the time to buy your guidebooks because your going to be writing in them a lot and putting post if flags all over (remember that the flags can stick out on 3 sides!) Read about different areas and see where you want to stay. Figure out how the public transportation systems work. Laurie and I try never to take a cab unless we absolutely have to (I think I like that more than she does, but buses and metros get you in with the people).
We reserve hotels via email. They all look pretty nice on there website, so location and price are really the determining factors.
We like to set out a general itinerary. Day one X in the morning Y in the afternoon. We list other things we'd like to see and fill in the gaps along the way. Our plans are always very flexible, but we like having a general overview so that w don't sit around in the morning asking "what do you want to do today"
There is an excellent series of books "Cities of the Imagination" that gives interesting histories of the cities, stuff you normally wouldn't learn about. I'd recommend these, if they have on on the cities you're going to. They can get somewhat ponderous, so skip over stuff you don't care about ("Dark Theater" in Prague in the 1960s??).
I'm excited for you guys! Planning a trip is a lot of fun. Keep me posted on your progress.