Thursday, April 10, 2014

Websites and Apps To Help Plan A Japan Trip

Thinking of a destination is the easiest part of travelling. The part where you plan for it? Not so much. There are airline tickets to book, hotel accommodation to reserve, budgets to allocate, paperwork for visa application…. and planning the itinerary.

As I have mentioned previously, we do not particularly enjoy joining tour groups; given a choice, we would take a self-guided tour anytime. We really love the freedom and autonomy an independent tour gives us. We love it when the kids take their time to explore a place to satisfy their curiosity, and absorb as much information as their minds can take.

In the face of the perceived difficulties of travelling without a tour group in Japan, I think with enough research prior to the trip, any visitor will find Japan very easy to navigate. Having said that, there was a lot of pressure on my part to make our travel plans as detailed as possible since we went to a place where we do not speak the local language and English is not as widely spoken. The itinerary that I laid out was very specific, complete with directions on how to get to a specific attraction and the suggested time allotted for it. Of course, we were not able to stick to the time on the itinerary but it was essential that it was there to give us an overview on how long we should stay in one area if we decide to cover everything that was on the itinerary. 

To give you an example, I wanted everyone to be up and about by 7:30 am, and be at our destination in Kyoto by 9am. But in reality, what happened was we just stepped out our hotel by 9 am, and got to our destination by 11 am. But since we were on a self-guided tour, there was no stress about being late. 

It was nerve wrecking when I first began to do my research as Kansai is a big area. I found it hard to remember the numerous details which were forced on me immediately.  I wanted to squeeze in so many sights, but realistically I know that I’d have to limit it to 2-3 attractions a day. It is a good thing that I can get help from web sites and mobile apps in helping me create a well-laid out travel itinerary, which is a fundamental and vital part of any trip – but most especially for a trip with kids. 

Here are the 5 websites and apps that I have used to help me plan for our trip to Japan:

This is the most useful Japan research site that I have come across.  It has all the destinations and lots of other useful stuff.  It also has a sakura forcecast, which I used to plan our trip.  Each destination page has an Access and Orientation link with transportation information. 

The site also suggests itineraries based on the number of days you are staying and your areas of interest.  I used their suggested itinerary as a base to make a more detailed one.

HyperDia is web service which offers the route and the timetable of the trains and subways of Japan.  Since I am totally useless when it comes to navigation, I thought it wise that I transfer the responsibility to C.

This is the most important website which helped us plan our train itinerary.  Our train itinerary contained the top 2-3 detailed train routes (screen captured from Hyperdia webpage), and ranked according to cost and travel time.

Since we were taking a self-guided tour, it is of utmost importance that we plan out the trains/subways we were going to take even before we landed in Japan. C used the English version of the Hyperdia website.  It provided us  great deal of information about times, names of trains or train stations, different itineraries available as well as prices. C looked for the route data, while I collated all of it in a single file.

When the time came for us to decide whether to get a Japan Railway train pass or a regional pass, C visited the Hyperdia website to find travel times and fares.  His friends also advised him against getting the pass saying the pass wouldn't really pay-off.  In the end, we did not get any of the pass since based on his computation (yes, at talagang nag-compute siya!) none of the passes (JR and regional) would really pay off for the kind of leisure trip that we wanted to take.  
C is an even more fastidious planner than me.
He had me print out 2 itineraries: one for the trip and the other one was our train itinerary.
TripAdvisor is the quintessential travel planning service in that it has a large collection of hotel and destination reviews, photos and other info. I joined the Kansai forum and I got a lot of travel tips from destination experts by asking them direct questions and also from browsing through the previous threads. 

Trip Advisor is not going to collect travel information, but I was able to save all the data in a favorite folder because I set up an account.  Trip Advisor is available on the web and as a mobile app for for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. I used the websitewhile planning and the iOs app to refer to during the trip. They are both awesome in that whatever I saved in the website, automatically gets saved in the app. The app only works when there’s WIFI. 

4.  Evernote
This app is especially great for people like me who find it impossible to remember details. If there’s any app which helped me organize my travel plans, this is it!!! This note-taking and note-saving app can be used on the iphone, ipad and computer. It helped me keep my ideas in one place, even when I was all over the place. Hahaha! 

As a busy mom to three kids with active schedules, I was really able to maximize the use of the Evernote. I researched for Japan on the web and clipped useful websites, PDFs, photos – practically everything to Evernote. Everything that I clipped gets sent to all my devices, i.e. iPad and iPhone. So it’s like taking all my travelling files with me everywhere I go. While I was making travel plans, I was also making grocery lists, meal plans, driving my kids around, waiting by the pool for training to get done… you get the drift. 

Here’s how I made EVERNOTE work for me:
1. Download the Web Clipper for my browser to maximize usage of Evernote.
2. I researched for our trip by browsing websites and blogs. Using the Evernote clipper, I clipped URLs, PDF articles, Google maps to my Evernote account
3. I am really bad at remembering details, so I organized my clippings further by using using tags and Notebook Stacks. I kept organized by creating separate notebooks for trips and stacking them under a general ‘Travel’ notebook and I made use of tags to help me find them faster later.
4. I included our itinerary, plane tickets and hotel confirmation numbers, as well as scanned copies of all our passports and the address of our hotel. 

5. TripIt
This helpful app made it easy to keep all of our travel planning information in one place and allows for multiple planners to access it as a group. It keeps track of flights and accommodations, reservations, itineraries, maps and other travel necessities before and during the trip. Best of all it’s Free.

I've updated this post to provide a link to ALL MY JAPAN POSTS!