Our Honeymoon was the first really big trip that I have ever planned. I did not want to do a tour group because they are exhausting and they limit you (did it in Europe, and I will never do it again). I wanted to make sure that I got to see everything that I wanted to see, but I had no idea where to start. These are some of the things that I considered important when planning my trip. This is mainly for travel to Japan, but I'm sure some of these tips could apply to travel to other countries as well.
- Research, research, research! You want to make sure you get to see everything there is to see, and then some. Utilize websites like Trip Advisor and Kayak to see what people are saying about the places you are going to visit, and you can sort the attractions by ranking, etc. For Japan, I used Japan Guide a LOT. They provide maps, as well as train routes and day-by-day itineraries.
- Make a plan. And by plan, I mean itinerary. I am usually a go with the flow, fly by the seat of my pants kind of gal. I like to just do what I want to do. But when you have limited time in a country that has a gazillion things to see, you need some sort of a plan. For this, I used Tripit. It is a website as well as an app, and it is free. It's super convenient because it automatically imports your flight information, hotel information, etc., and adds it into your calendar. I used this app to plan out where and what I wanted to do every day, which included times, places, maps, and notes. You can also share your itinerary with other travelers, or email a copy of it to your parents so they know where you are, if your parents are like my mom...
- Stay near public transportation. If you aren't renting a car, that is. If you are visiting a country that relies on trains for transportation, as Japan does, definitely stay near a station. It is extremely convenient, and noise isn't really that much of a factor. Staying near a station also does not mean sacrificing luxury. In Japan at least, really nice hotels are located near the stations. There are also more affordable hotels nearby as well.
- Buy a JR Rail Pass. I say this if you're going to be traveling a lot all over Japan, like from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto, for example. This was a huge lifesaver for us while we were there. The JR Rail Pass is basically a pass that allows you to ride on any rail that is run by JR, as well as certain bus lines and ferries.
Instead of paying for a ticket at the station, you just walk right to that side door and show them your pass, and off you go. You can purchase a pass for seven, 14, or 21 days. We purchased our passes from JTB USA. I know they are expensive, but in the long run, especially if you are visiting multiple cities, this is really going to save you a lot of money. But when we went on our third trip and just stayed in Osaka, we didn't bother buying a JR Pass because it wouldn't have saved us any money in the long run. It was cheaper to just buy fares, or get an Icoca (the Kansai version of the Suica). The best you can do is think about where you're going and calculate the fees if you were to buy them outright to determine if the JR Pass is right for you. Keep in mind that the JR pass doesn't cover all Shinkansen.
- Bring mostly cash. Back in the day, we used to use things called traveler's checks. Nowadays, people don't even know what they are when they see them. Japan is primarily a cash country, so that is what we took. I also took my credit card with me to pay for the hotel, and also just in case of emergencies. Many places, like restaurants and department stores, take credit cards. However, hole-in-the-wall restaurants (the best kind), souvenir shops, and places like that don't always take credit cards. Utilize the hotel room safe and keep your cash safe in there. Take out so much money every day, and keep the rest in the safe. If you are pretty frugal like us, you won't even spend all the money you take out every day, and will end up with extra money when you are done with your trip that you can put towards your next trip!
- Don't tip! I know it's going to feel really strange to not leave a tip on the table, but you just don't tip in Japan. Some people even feel insulted if you leave them a tip. And remember, you can't leave your cash on the table either when you get your bill. You have to go up to the register to pay.
- Learn the language. I don't mean learn ALL of the language, that's just silly. But learn the important phrases, like, "Where is the bathroom?" "How much does this cost?" "One beer, please." If you are in a very touristy area, chances are people will be able to speak a little bit of English, but it's always nice when you make an effort to speak their language. Some good apps you can use is Mirai Japanese (although you have to pay for extra lessons), and I was a big fan of the Learn Japanese app because it was a dictionary at your fingertips with phrases and words. The best part was you could use it offline!
- Plan some down time. I did not do this the first time we went to Japan and me and Kevin were worn out before we were even done with our trip. It's great to have a lot of things that you want to see, but don't exhaust yourself, or you won't enjoy your trip. Plan to just chill at the hotel, or at a cafe, or to sleep in. I know it seems like you're wasting time, but it's really important to let yourself rest, in my opinion.
Shinkansen Travel Tips:
- Forward your luggage to your destination. This service is called takkyubin (or TA-Q-BIN) and there is likely one in your hotel. We used Yamato Transport Co. LTD., and you will recognize it by the yellow logo with the two cats. You see it everywhere in Japan. Remember, there is no room on the shinkansen for your large luggage. It would just be a hassle.
- Pack a carry on if you choose to forward your luggage. It will not get there the same day, so plan accordingly. Don't be like me and forget to pack walking shoes and have to spend 12 hours at Disneyland in platforms.
- Buy an Eki-ben! The shinkansen makes stops (this one did), but it doesn't give you enough time to get food. So grab an eki-ben (train station bento) before you get on. There's usually a stall near the platform that has all kinds of bento! There are also vending machines in the shinkansen, and if you are a smoker, there are smoking sections.
Miscellaneous things that will make your life easier:
- Portable Wifi. We did not have one of these the first time we went, and it would have made our lives so much easier if we did. The last two times, we couldn't live without it. A portable wifi is going to save you if you're lost because you can access maps and rail line information, and if you need a translator you have that on there too (although there are some offline ones that are available). If you're into social networking (like me), you'll be able to Snap and Instagram and Facebook like you normally would, and you can even Facetime or Skype or livestream from wherever you are! We got our wifi from Global Advanced Communications. The rates are pretty cheap for unlimited data, you can connect up to 10 devices, and the battery lasts all day. It's ready for pick up at the front desk of the hotel when you check in, and just stick it in a prepaid envelope and ask the front desk to add it to their outgoing mail when you're done. So easy!
- Hyperdia App. This app will help you navigate the rail in Japan. Just punch in your station to your destination station, and it will tell you multiple ways to get there, including travel times and fares. It was a total life saver, but play around with it first because it is a little bit overwhelming at first.
- Some places have free wifi! For example, the Shinsaibashi shopping area in Osaka has free wifi. Starbucks Japan also has free wifi, but you must sign up on the Japanese website before you leave America in order to connect when you are there. Some trains have free wifi, too, and also some restaurants and department stores! Chances are, if the area is very touristy, there just might be free wifi. Here is a handy dandy map of free wifi hotspots all across Japan! I think you need to download the Japan Connect Free Wifi app, though.