Quite smug of me isn’t it? 😛
I like to think I travel smart whenever I go abroad or even travel within India. Of course, it’s not that I haven’t made my share of mistakes, but I’ve learnt from it. Friends and readers alike contact me seeking travel advice all the time, so since I am planning a trip to a dream destination of mine since childhood — Japan — I figured I might as write down the process of how I go about it.
When to travel
I always plan my journeys around events, festivals, concerts, etc. besides just considering the seasons. The reason I do this is because it makes my trip all the more special and I get to see something most tour packages may never be able to include. I’ve been to Thailand when Loi Krathong festival was on, timed my trip to Macau just so I could see my favourite K-pop group live and visited Singapore a second time around F1 week. Timing your vacation around a festival that is unique to a particular country is an experience that makes your vacation a lot different from the norm. Not to mention the unique photographs and memories you take home. So for my Japan trip, my hope is to be in the country during the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) festival from April-end through May.
Planning your itinerary
Now this depends on your interests, and mine largely revolves around photography. Photography also depends on factors like events, best time of day to shoot and most of all — good weather. So although I keep a schedule, I shift unreserved activities around based on the weather conditions.
How to save money when making flight bookings
Every online travel agent brags about the offering the “lowest fares” — but in my experience, there is no one website that consistently gives you the lowest rates. There’s always the chance a brand new entrant to online space offers the lowest rates compared to the established peers but more often than not, the new website is simply making less profits (or zero margins) in order to give you the lowest rates. This is just a customer retention tactic used by many new businesses as soon as they launch just to win customers over. A year or two later, expect the once ‘new’ website to offer you rates comparable to the established websites. No vendor can stay unprofitable for long.
So use websites like SkyScanner for price comparisons, flight timings and average rates, or visit every single brand — Yatra, MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip, GoIbibo, etc. and see what their best rates are. Trust me, I’ve used most of them and no one website has consistently given me the “lowest” rates every single time.
You may even visit an airline’s own website. The advantage of using the airline’s own website is that they give you more options for the same ticket. Meaning, many airlines have different pricing tiers on a flight ticket. The lowest price quoted on an airline’s website will be more of less the same quoted on websites like Yatra and the like. But it’s low because they strip away privileges like air miles, the ability to edit information after booking and changing dates for free. Pay for the higher tier and the airline will offer benefits like the freedom to change name and dates without incurring any further charges, and throw in the air miles for your frequent flyer card. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to book like this when your dates are not set, because third party vendors often charge a hefty fee for re-scheduling or cancellations.
As for budget airlines like AirAsia, know that many a times the rates advertised are often excluding taxes, surcharges, baggage fees and without food. Go step-after-step and you may end up with a price no better than what is quoted by premium carrier. Also check for undisclosed fees and other inconveniences like the lack of connecting flights and poor timings.
Once decided on a flight, I don’t book right away. I instead scout for deals. Like coupon/discount codes. One trick I use (and many booking portals facilitate this), is make a search query on a particular website — say for example, Cleartrip, and select a flight but don’t buy it just yet. Close the page and continue browsing. If you enabled cookies in your browser, it won’t be long will before you start seeing Cleartrip ads being served on Google AdSense on the pages you browse soon after. Many a times, Cleartrip (and it’s also happened with GoIbibo) will entice you with an ad flashing a voucher code. It’s like they push coupons to lure you back in to ‘close the deal’. Obviously use the coupon code that way or just search online on coupon websites to get an addition discount.
Book hostels for cheaper accommodation
In an expensive country like Japan, you have no choice but shell out when in major cities like Tokyo. But expensive city or not, I often enjoy staying at good hostels. For my hostel bookings, I largely use Hostels.com or HostelWorld.com. But no matter how fancy a hotel or budget a hostel I stay in, what matters to me most is — location (besides cleanliness and Wi-Fi)! How do I figure out if the location works for me? Well, most hotel websites will have a map embedded showing you where the hotel/hostel is located. I take the extra step by going to Google Maps and getting a satellite view of the location. From there, I check what’s near the hotel. Like which is the nearest metro station, are there many eateries nearby so that I can get some food even if I were to come back late at night, convenience stores, etc. I also check how far a place of accommodation is to the attractions I want to see in a particular city or place.
The reason why I don’t mind spending a bit more to stay close to an attraction is because staying somewhere cheap far away is pointless when you consider you have spend much more on taxi rides to get to a place you intend to see. So you don’t just waste money, you also waste time — which is precious on shorter trips. From a my research thus far, I have decided to stay somewhere near Akihabara station. From Akihabara, many of Tokyo’s most popular attractions are no more than 15 minutes away by train.
Money exchange and ATM
From my research of Japan, many ATMs aren’t available 24hrs… which I found to be quite weird. None the less, being a Citibank account holder has many privileges and one of the best is the fact Citibank has its own ATM network and office branches in most of the world’s cities. Tokyo is no exception. Of course, I don’t need to rely on Citibank’s own ATMs, as even 7-11 (a chain of convenience stores) has 24/7 ATMs that accept international cards. Although I haven’t been able to confirm if there will be any withdrawal fee if I use my India-issued Citibank card in Japan, I hope they extend the ‘no withdrawal fee’ benefit I get to enjoy in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong as a Citibank account holder. This saves me the trouble of having to buy US dollars from India and convert them in Japan. One tip for money exchange centers: the more expensive the location looks, the worse the rates being offered by an exchange center located there.
In cities such as Tokyo, do as the locals do — use the train. Tokyo – and Japan in general- has one of the best rail networks in the world. After all, Japan is home to the Shinkansen, or the bullet trains. You may get a map of the train network, but a smarter way to go about town is to download the many free apps available for smartphone. Both iOS and Android users can download apps showing you the network of Tokyo’s train stations. You can even use certain websites to calculate taxi fares to and fro destinations. Of course, when in Japan, you can’t help but not ride the bullet train. So for that, it’s best to get a JR Pass (JR = Japan Rail) as like many metro cards, the rates are lower if you use them. Some JR Passes even allow for unlimited rides at a set fee.
I always learn a few phrases in a foreign language whenever I go abroad because it’s rude to expect everyone to speak English. In Japan, English is hardly spoken by the majority of Japanese so it is important to learn a few phrases in their language before arriving. And by learning, I mean reading and speaking.
Fortunately for me, I have been studying Japanese for a few years now. (I wasn’t kidding when I said Japan has been a dream destination for a while)
Food and shopping
I’m a foodie, and I’m a non-vegetarian from Kerala, which means I’m okay with pretty much everything! Beef, seafood, chicken, pork and a whole lot more. Food in Japan isn’t as expensive if you eat the food the locals eat, like ramen, noodle soup and such. Of course, I’ve already listed out a few Indian restaurants just in case I miss the taste of our desi masala.
You can check restaurant menus online as many restaurants list prices. This way you can budget your food spend accordingly. Be prepared though. Non-veg thali meals cost on average Rs. 700-900! Oh, and for vegetarians, good luck!
I try to travel as light as possible. Two bags at the most. One, my Kata camera backpack that holds my laptop and camera equipment, and the other, a sports bag with trolley wheels. I specifically use trolley wheel bags as they are easy to walk around with in places where you have clean, leveled roads and pavements. I also don’t carry too many clothes because I always end up buying some new t-shirt or two whenever I’m abroad, so I just wear that in addition to the clothes I brought with me. I also carry a detergent sachet to wash clothes by myself wherever I am allowed to do so. If not, I just hand my clothes over to a laundry service.
To save space and weight, try and carry small tubes of toothpaste, small bars of soap (if needed), thinner towels and smaller bottles of perfume. Like when I usually listen to music, I prefer headphones, but when travelling, I carry ear phones which take up a fraction of the space. I’m also thinking of carrying a fold-able bag inside my sports bag just incase I end up buying too much.
I always keep my shopping for the last few days. This way I don’t end up spending too much cash early on, I can go around scouting the best deals and find where goods are sold cheaper, and I don’t have to lug around more luggage if I have to shift hotels or travel to other destinations within a country. For example in Japan, I looked online and found electronics aren’t that much cheaper and a Macbook Air costs the same in Bic Camera (a popular electronics chain) as it does on Flipkart. But I did find out about Takeya, a mall in Tokyo filled with outlet stores of designer fashion brands!
So that’s the gist of how I go about planning my trip. Hope many of you found this to be a rather ‘smart’ way to travel. Just pick another destination and apply the same tips. I for one still have a lot more research to do on Japan before I set off. That… and money 🙁