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It's time to find the world's best vacation spots

Do you want some help finding great restaurants and hotels around the world? Check out these travel research sites.

It's almost spring, which means it's time we all start planning our vacations for 2009. To do so, we need sites to help us research new places, decide where we want to go, and figure out what we can still afford.

I've picked five sites that try to do just that. Each site offers outstanding resources to help you find the right destination. And thanks to their user communities that often discuss affordability, you can make a better-informed decision about the price tag.

Like other services in this roundup, Driftr relies on the intelligence of the traveling community to provide information about where to go around the world and how to get there. And although much of the information is useful, Driftr isn't a well-trafficked site, so you won't see as many reviews from tourists as you would on TripAdvisor.

Regardless, I liked Driftr's design because it makes researching areas around the globe quick and easy. Its home page features a clickable map that allows you to explore user reviews for places both at home and abroad. In fact, the vast majority of the world is covered by Driftr and almost any country will have at least one review.

At first glance, that's great. But once you start drilling down into the different countries, you quickly realize that the number of reviews for individual locations are generally few. In fact, when I searched for tourist reviews of Florence, Italy, the site only returned two. That's not enough to make a decision.

Aside from reviews, Driftr also allows you to upload photos and videos and discuss the best way to get around a particular city. All those features come in handy when people are actually employing them, but on some pages, only a few sentences were left to discuss the viability of going somewhere, which, once again, leaves little room for you to decide if you want to visit.

I like Driftr because of its potential, but right now, it's not an ideal site due to its sparse user support. As more people join the community, it may be a more worthwhile site, but until then, only use Driftr if you want to go to popular locations like New York City or Rome.

RealTravel is a well-designed site that, much like Driftr, uses the power of the community to deliver travel guides to those who want to learn more about a specific locale. And generally, it delivers a great experience.

The first thing that struck me about RealTravel was its friendly design. Unlike some sites, which feature too much information on the home page, RealTravel makes it easy to find what you're looking for as soon as possible. Want to go to Rome? It's right on the front page. How about Prague? Yep, it's there too. Simply put, finding frequented locations was quick and easy.

Once I started diving into the travel guides, I wasn't as impressed as I was with the site's design. Generally, the travel guides feature basic information you can find on any respective city's Web site. And like on Driftr, the community isn't active enough, yielding a site that's relatively light on solid details about a particular place.

That said, there are some city pages--Rome and Prague, for example--that offer outstanding information, since they're frequented by quite a few RealTravel's users. Those pages offer travel guides, flight guides, a look at where to eat, and more, which makes the site shine. But if you want to travel somewhere that's off the beaten path, don't waste your time with RealTravel. Its community and best content is focused on major locations.

There's quite a bit to like about TripAdvisor. Not only does it rely on its huge community to provide great research tools for tourists, it's the best site in this roundup.

TripAdvisor is designed relatively well, although its home page is a little cluttered. Once you get past the clutter, though, you quickly realize that TripAdvisor's destination pages make it easy to find information about a particular city, restaurant, hotel, or landmark. And since there are so many users, you won't have a shortage of good information to go around.

To evaluate TripAdvisor, I looked through its Cancun pages. I went to Cancun on my honeymoon in November and feel I have a solid understanding of the city, where to go, where to stay, and what to do there. TripAdvisor's Cancun pages, thanks to users, delivered the most informative reviews I saw on any of the travel sites.

That said, TripAdvisor's best features--its users--is also its biggest issue. Sometimes, especially with new hotels, TripAdvisor won't help you decide if you should book a room. Some patrons have a bad experience and blow it out of proportion. Others love it so much, they fail to mention that the rooms are smaller than they look in the pictures. On popular locations, that issue is easily fixed thanks to sheer volume, but in less-frequented locations where only a few reviews exist, you'll need to find outside evidence to make a judgment.

TripAdvisor is the most popular travel-research site and it's easily the best, thanks to an active community and extras like photos, videos, and partnerships with travel sites that make it easy to book a vacation. TripAdvisor is your ideal travel research site.

UpTake is a unique travel search site because it requires two things from its users: that they travel in the United States and that they know what they want to do.

UpTake is designed well and it makes searching for locations quick and easy. In fact, it's the best-designed site in this roundup.

But when I started digging deeper into UpTake, I was a little disappointed by what I saw. Instead of a site that offers vacation information on destinations all over the world, you'll only find articles and reviews on places in the U.S. Worse, the individual listings were fraught with poor reviews and worse descriptions, making the site practically useless. That said, the sheer number of listings--UpTake returned 49,000 results for New York City--might make some want to use the site since there are so many more options than on competing services. But quality should trump quantity.

As much as I didn't like the listings pages, I like that UpTake allows you to search for places based on what you're trying to accomplish on your vacation. Whether you're looking for a romantic getaway to Hawaii or a fun-filled trip with the kids to Florida, the site will automatically find locations that satisfy that desire and allow you to compare your options. It's a simple feature, but one that I really enjoyed using and is easily UpTake's most redeeming quality.

Virtual Tourist
Virtual Tourist is a nice travel research site that cuts down on all the extras you might find in sites like TripAdvisor and keeps it to the basics: the best restaurants, the best hotels, and the best places to visit.

That sort of simplicity defines Virtual Tourist and also makes it a great choice for when you want to plan your next vacation. I searched for locations like Prague and Paris, and each time, it delivered a slew of great resources that I was able to read through and find detailed information on.

Much like the other sites in this roundup, you'll be forced to evaluate each Virtual Tourist review on a case-by-case basis. For example, one review of a hotel in Rome, Italy, features two reviewers. One claims the hotel is the "nicest hotel" the reviewer has ever seen, while the other says that the hotel "is inundated with vermin." Who should we believe? Once again, more input from third parties is needed to make that decision.

Regardless, Virtual Tourist makes it easy to find locations with the help of its "Tour Guides" section and generally, each of those pages are populated with outstanding information. It may not be TripAdvisor, since it has fewer listings and less users, but Virtual Tourist is a great alternative for those who want a different view on some of the finest locations around the world.