After the cake episode, I ask around before I talk to any potential vendor. Not just are they good or not, but can I get what I want? How much did it cost? Were there lots of fees? Almost as important as all of those things (to me at least) how long was the turn around between voice mails/emails and a reply? I've already been emailing some photographers and I eliminated some out of the gate because of budget and another group for bad communication. I have a lot of different ideas so I'm wary of vendors without a sense of humor who are used to working "in the box."
I have been posting on a board for west cost Florida weddings. It has been extremely helpful for finding out which local vendors are good (and budget friendly). I recently read a bride's review of the vendors she used and found a hair and makeup service that comes to you (no travel fee). I may not use them, but now I know such a deal exists.
I've done pretty well by cutting wedding dress and alterations out of the budget concerns by getting them at thrift stores and having family alter them. We're not having a DJ (on average those run you $700) because we're running a play list from the laptop to speakers ourselves. We may have to rent lighting since that's part of the DJ's service normally. Which is ok because our venue provides tables and chairs (for ceremony and reception). The caterer will bring the place settings (we're saving money by doing nice disposable ones). Instead of renting linens for the tables we're buying fabric from Joann's with our 50% coupons. You get the picture.
Recently, I scoured the internet for reviews of local photographers. I find starting from scratch is daunting when searching reviews. It's better to check websites, look at galleries and when you have a few you like go read their reviews. Weddingwire.com has a ton of reviews so I usually start there and then Google the company. I started double checking vendors I've already "decided on" too. Looking for anything I should bring up before I sign a contract.
Just be careful because as much as it can give you peace of mind it can also cause you anxiety, reading about things that went wrong on other brides' big days. It's like watching shows about NICU babies while your pregnant. I have identified among a sea of glowing reviews the issues I should address upfront with our venue and which employee in their events department is "moody". I'll buddy up with her first. I also worry that because they are like a well old wedding machine that my strange requests will be frowned upon. I'm going to spell out all our strangeness right up front to avoid issues (I hope).
Luckily, we live in an age of technology and even if do your research passively there is a ton of information out there. Email anyone who doesn't have price information listed. Don't assume you can't afford someone you want because their prices aren't public. I tend to be very up front about my budget in this case. I'm not afriad to do a little internet stalking to track down a vendor. I message frinds, friends or friends and beyond if I see something I like in some else's wedding photos. When I do contact the vendor I try to ask the important questions first.
Generally it would go something like this: Hello _________, I am looking for a __________ for a small spring wedding. Have you worked at (my venue) before? How much do you charge? Does that include _____ & ______? How much would the deposit be? My theme is _______ and here's a link to my inspiration board ______________. Thanks The Bride
Most vendors return emails within 48hrs in my experience so far. Remember not getting an immediate response means they're out working, it's a good thing. They usually want 50%(ish) deposit to book and the remainder within 30days of the wedding. Check into your highest priority things as soon as possible to avoid going with your second or third choice because your first choice is booked. Easy to say, but you have the deposit when you have it. For me the venue will be first, caterer next, photographer and then florist. We'll be pretty set as far as the ceremony and reception. It'll just leave attire, paper stuff (save the dates, invites, programs) and rings.
Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions! You truly never know until you ask. Don't be afraid to be a Bridezilla, ask for what you want (it can almost always be done with respect and kindness). Don't settle, it's your wedding.