Seasoned travellers: how do you plan your trips?
November 17, 2022 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I am traveling solo next year for the first time. If you travel a lot, help me with your advice, tips and hacks?

I am going to be travelling to Japan next year for 2-3 months in either the spring or autumn (from the UK). I have never travelled before and neither has my family, so I feel a bit overwhelmed! Japan-specific advice is great but general travel tips are also appreciated.

I’d like advice on:
- Where to look for plane tickets and how far in advance to buy to get a good deal?
- How you research and plan an itinerary? I would like to see Tokyo and will also likely be staying with a host in Shimoda.
- How to prioritise where to go and what to see? I have wanted to go to Japan for a long time and so there’s a lot I’d like to experience, but won’t be able to fit in.
- Where do you find places to stay and where to book in advance?
- How far do you organise travel within the destination country in advance?
- How do you plan a budget? Per day? Week? Entire trip?
- [Japan specific] any tips for connecting with locals? I speak a little bit of Japanese and would love to improve and connect with Japanese people in Japanese. I’m already planning on at least one and possibly more Workaway volunteer placements. Any other ideas?
- [Japan specific, LGBT specific] any tips for accessing the LGBT scene in Tokyo?
- [Japan specific] general tips for a solo female traveller? I feel I have a pretty good grasp on Japanese cultural norms for Western visitors, but anything you felt it would have been good to know in advance would be appreciated.
- Any obvious or not so obvious thing I should consider and plan for?
posted by Balthamos to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Not Japan specific but a few things I do
- I budget for the whole trip, both my ideal budget and hard stop. I prefer to be able to do a mix of hostels and nicer hotels/splurges rather than a mid range option throughout. Over the course of 2-3 months, some days will be cheap street food/sandwiches etc and some days might be a fancy dinner out. A daily average doesn’t help me much with that (or than a theoretical average just so I have an idea of what a “normal” day should cost me
- I really love the Eyewitness Guides as a starting point to figure out what I want to see and then I go to other sources for logistic information and the actual planning of the visit
- i have both a passport and a passport card. While petty theft is less of a concern in Japan, in general I keep one in one spot and the other in a second location (one with me, one in the hotel/ one in my purse, the other in my suitcase). This just gives me a little more piece of mind if my passport gets lost/stolen/destroyed that it will be easier to get a replacement. I also have scans in a google drive that my emergency contacts have access to.
- I buy plane tickets pretty far in advance (6-4 months), just I think that’s just because a trip doesn’t feel real to me until I do. I usually also set a google price alert for them. In country tickets depend. For example in Italy train tickets get more expensive as you approach the departure date so it makes sense to buy in advance.
- I used to do couch surfing to meet people, but that site has fallen out of favor. Sorry that I don’t have additional ideas there
posted by raccoon409 at 6:42 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I was once a solo female traveler to Japan. Let me describe my process:

1) Determine what time of year I have vacation, and look at what parts of Japan are best then. I visited in the spring so spent time in the center of the country, I visited later in winter and went to the northern mountains.
2) Search for prices on an aggregator like Kayak or Google Flights. Buy your ticket directly from the airline and not some dodgy third party. If something goes wrong the airline will send you to the third party and they're generally not responsive. Ticket prices usually go up a bit 2 months in advance and up a bunch 2 weeks in advance, but I haven't seen a big difference in the 12-2 months in advance range.
3) Japan is a great country for spontaneous solo travel. As long as you're not there during a major holiday the trains and hotels can be booked same-day, which means you can be flexible.
4) I would spend some time reading travel blogs and get a list together of things that catch my interest. I would narrow down the list by things that are unique to the area or season I'd be visiting, and plan my trip around these 2-3 things.
5) I base my budget on what I can afford, it was a few years ago but usually ~60 USD/day ignoring the flight. I use the website Booking to find hotels rated 8/10 or higher for my first night and any nights I have reservations for activities. Then I plan on reserving the rest as a I go. Japan has a lot of cheap "business hotels" that are small and basic but clean and low cost. Cheap food is available but you could also spend a lot more.
5) In Japan, I found going for medium-sized cities was the best for getting spontaneous interaction with locals. In Tokyo, like New York or London, nobody is going to say hi to strangers. In a small town it's the same. But in the restaurant bars in medium sized cities I had lots of folks want to chat with me in English and got some tips on where to go and good conversation. You could also look at small group tours hosted by local companies in English. I do not know any Japanese.
posted by Narrow Harbor at 6:47 AM on November 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

I start by getting the Lonely Planet book (or your preferred guidebook) for my destination. It will specifically address almost all of those questions and point you to online resources for questions where you want more detail. Best of all, it summarizes and orients you. Once you've read through it, you can always go online for more specific research, such as hotels and restaurants, but there's no better way to get started.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:54 AM on November 17, 2022

Some of this depends on what makes you more comfortable - some people prefer to have everything pretty much planned out from the start almost down to what they are doing each day, whereas other people prefer to have things a lot looser, so that they can do things more at whim.

Logistics will help you to plan out an itinerary/determine what you want to do and see. I usually make a vaguely prioritised list, sometimes with help of a guidebook, and then check if there's any that I can immediately rule out (e.g. it's not open at that time of year). Then check where they are, and how to get from A to B (which sometimes rules out a few more.) Climate/weather can also play a role - that will impact things clothes you need to bring.

2-3 months is quite a long time, so you should have a chance to do a fair amount, but my usual piece of advice is to not try and do too much. There will be days when you are tired, and don't want to really do anything much, and pushing yourself to do something just because it was on the plan for that day is not enjoyable. (Or you need do laundry, or shop, etc.) Don't underestimate the mental effort required to do even normal things somewhere different, either. (The "which type of shop do I need to find X" game is not fun when you need X pretty urgently.)
posted by scorbet at 7:01 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think my best advice for you would be to relax and have fun. I'm as guilty as anyone of subscribing to lifehack culture when it comes to travel, but "hacking" travel will only get you so far. What you're going to remember after you get back, and years in the future, is what you did on the trip. You're not going to remember how much you paid for your flight, or whether you went over your food budget one day, or whether you could've booked a nicer hotel. I'm going to give some planning tips as well, but the best tip is to not let planning stress you out.

For flights, use Skyscanner. I've never found any particular time to get better fares. Skyscanner lets you track prices, though, and you can get alerts if a price is low.

For lodging, I generally just use I don't know how good they are in Japan, but I like that they include both chains and locally-owned places. Generally, I look for hotels by location: I find a place I want to be near, and then I look on in that area. In the US, that's generally near either near where I'll be working if I'm traveling for work, or near a college campus if I'm traveling for fun. Don't worry too much about amenities - you're not going to spend much time in your hotel room. As long as it's in a safe area and has decent reviews, that's good enough.

For a trip like this, there's going to be more than you could ever hope to see, even if you spent a year there. I'm a map person, so what I do is to list everything that sounds interesting - sights, museums, restaurants, whatever - and then put them all on a map. You'll start to see clusters of things together. Maybe one of the restaurants you'd like to try is a few blocks away from one of the museums you want to go to. That's one afternoon planned.

Sorting things into tiers is kind of a meme right now, but it's helpful. In addition to mapping your stuff you'd like to do, I'd sort everything in tiers. Otherwise you run the risk of doing a lot of things but not the most important ones. I'd actually do this in the reverse order I suggested them. First sort into priority tiers, then map.

I don't put a lot of stock into what they say, but I do read sites like Wikivoyage and TripAdvisor for the places I'm going. Reviews are hit-or-miss and usually tell you more about the reviewer than the place being reviewed, but at the very least you can see what kinds of places are common for other people to visit. Generally there's a reason those places are so common.

Final tip: Make sure you have some clean clothes waiting for you when you get home. Either leave an outfit at home, or do laundry before you leave, but the last thing you're going to want to do after an intercontinental flight is to do a load of laundry.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:35 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Japan Guide is a good place to start for planning trips within Japan, because they give you a wide variety of attractions at any one destination, basic information and they're good at the transportation planning part. I usually supplement by just googling name of destination, type of thing (say, ramen or ice cream or art gallery) and either blog or reddit to get away from content mills.

You probably know about the JR Pass already, but there are regional passes (both JR and others covering just one region), with various durations. It might be worth it to keep the JR Pass for when you're planning to really jet it around on the shinkansen, and then when you, say, have a week in just Tokyo, get a ticket for JR East (if you're staying near a JR line) or the subway (if you're staying near it), and when you nip over to Kansai get the Surutto Kansai pass, etc. Whatever you choose, get a SUICA/Pasmo/ICOCA card (various names in various regions, but they all work the same) which you can top up in various machines and manned kiosks - that way you don't have to buy tickets before most public transport trips, just tap in and tap out. Sometimes cheaper than single tickets too.

And Japan's like the best country for a first trip. Safe as houses, tourist-friendly, very hard to find actually bad food. And nowadays you just rent a sim card or wifi hot spot and there's your travel planner and translator in your pocket. For language practice, I'd start with asking older ladies for advice in shops or marketplaces, or even asking random people for directions. I had the best experience in a Nara temple where this lady walked me like a mile to the temple door because she was critical of how the signs directed people, and in open-air markets sellers and fellow customers are usually up for a chat about the wares. I've found this works better in Kansai than in Tokyo, but that's my bias.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 7:47 AM on November 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

I've done a lot of international travel over the past 15 years, both solo and with friends. I've never been to Japan, but I don't think I'd treat it any differently than anyplace else that I've traveled.

When I first began traveling in 2007, I was stressed about it. I overplanned and overpacked. I took way too much stuff, bought too much stuff along the way, and (worst of all) had every day planned before I entered a country. Today, my approach is much different.

Now, I travel with only a single small backpack. In recent years, I've used a 19-liter pack, but even I admit this is silly and tiny. Most of my travel has been done with a 40-liter pack, and that seems like the perfect size. Everything in one bag that I can carry on my back and do not have to check. (Important to note that I do NOT jam this full of stuff before traveling. I leave space to pick things up as I move along.) Tip: Although it's counter-intuitive, I've found that the longer the trip is, the smaller I prefer my pack. Go figure.

I've also learned to largely make up my itinerary as I go along. I start each trip with a rough idea of all the things I'd like to do and see. For the most important stuff, I research costs and times, etc. so that I'm not caught unawares. I also book certain restaurants and lodging in advance. But most of it I just make up as I go.

I'm going to use a two-week trip that my cousin and I took to northwest France in spring 2019 as an example. For that trip, I took my 40-liter pack but left lots of room in it because I knew I was going to buy souvenirs. In the months before the trip, my cousin and I made a list (and a Google Map) containing the places we wanted to go. We also determined that of our 13 nights, we wanted to have lodging booked for four of them before we left: our first night in Paris, lodging on Mont-Saint-Michel (which is limited), lodging at a monastery (very limited), and our last night in Paris. But the other nine nights we left to chance. (We also booked one meal in advance because it was a Michelin-star restaurant.) This worked well. We didn't speak French, but it didn't matter. In every hotel but one (in rural France), the staff spoke some English. And at the one rural hotel, we got along with miming our needs and being friendly.

With this framework in place, we flew into town, picked up a rental car (also reserved in advance, but didn't need to be), then drove to our first hotel. Over the next two weeks, we lallygagged across Normandy and Brittany, letting our mood dictate our destination most days. We knew that we had some fixed waypoints, but we were free to allow serendipity guide our path for the rest of the trip. It was great! We had so much fun. And I'd say half the fun came from doing things and going places that we might not have otherwise anticipated.

This is one example, but it's largely how I've come to travel. Like I say, I used to plan out every day because I was afraid not to. What if I can't find a hotel? What if I get lost? Etc. Etc. But in 10+ years of traveling like this (and probably 200 nights in 20+ countries), I've experienced only one night where it was tough to find a hotel room: the night before Easter Sunday in rural Scotland. (We did find an inn eventually, but for a time it looked as if we'd have to sleep in the rental car haha.)

If I were traveling to Japan, I'd take this same approach. In fact, I'd be even more confident that the approach would work.

As for finding places to stay when traveling like this: In the past, I've used to find day-of lodging. Not saying it's the best source, but it's the one I used. On a trip to see European Christmas markets a few years ago, I used only AirBNB to find day-of lodging. I'm not sure which options exist for Japan, but I'm sure there are sites that allow you to do this sort of thing.

So, TL;DR --> My preferred method after doing a lot of travel is to make a big list of interesting stuff. Book the most important/scarcest stuff in advance, but otherwise give yourself room for spontaneity and serendipity — especially for a trip as long as the one you're planning.
posted by jdroth at 7:54 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

A few things I do before trips:

Check out all the relevant travel guides from the local library. (This way you don't have to choose just one!) Flip through them and see what grabs your interest. Don't feel you "must" go to any of the big sites - instead, choose the ones that intrigue you.

As I read, I take notes that I consolidate into a single document. I focus on things like special exhibits (with dates), closure days for museums/attractions, and discount days. (So for a museum I may note that it's closed on Mondays, but free admission Thursday evenings.) I can use these details to start figuring out a rough itinerary.

Then I look at the TripAdvisor forums and travel blogs for suggestions on how to link together activities/sites/cities. They'll often point out which things are near each other, or have a great suggestion for a nearby restaurant.

Finally, I plan out the first day or two. I don't overplan, especially if I know the jetlag will be intense. But I'll at least pick out a rough route for a neighborhood walk and have a couple of restaurants identified for dinner. There's nothing worse than being jetlagged and disoriented and hungry! I've found that getting some fresh air and sunlight after a long flight helps me acclimate faster and feel more myself.

But like jdroth, I keep my itinerary relatively loose and leave room for serendipity. Last spring, we saw posters in southern France for an upcoming annual festival, and it turned out to be the highlight of our trip. Especially with 2-3 months, you'll have a great time!
posted by writermcwriterson at 8:12 AM on November 17, 2022

Some Japan-specific tips from a frequent tourist:

- If you're coming from North America, jet lag will be serious. Don't plan to do too much the first day or even the second. Find an easy restaurant near your hotel, I usually go for a chain restaurant with an English menu, for dinner after you get in. Then stay up as long as you can and try to sleep at your "normal" time. (Also, be prepared for serious jet lag for several weeks after you return home.)
- Google Maps is a great tool for navigation, down to telling you what exit to take from a subway station. You can make custom Google Maps to map out attractions, restaurants, etc. and start to plan out your days. Don't plan too many things and leave room for discoveries and going off the path.
- The rail system is so thorough that you don't really need to arrange travel in advance unless you're travelling at an extreme peak time like Golden Week. Prices don't change so no need to book early, but you can reserve a seat at the station a couple days in advance for some peace of mind.
- Flying domestic can also be a good option for long-distance travel, often cheaper than taking the train thanks to numerous discount airlines.
- If you're travelling with a lot of luggage, takkyubin service is very useful - your hotel can arrange shipment of your luggage to anywhere else in Japan, and even hold it for up to a week. It's great to leap-frog your bags ahead of you and travel light for a few days.
- I understand that Japan has started to get hit by inflation, but at least before 2019 I'd budget around $100 CAD a day for two people not including hotel. Breakfast was generally some (very good) food from the convenience store, lunch around $10/15 pp, dinner $20/30. You can eat very well for not a lot of money just about anywhere. If you're really on a budget check out Tokyo Cheapo.
posted by Gortuk at 8:27 AM on November 17, 2022

Lot's of good advice above, here's a metaphor for the way I like to travel solo.

Picture a fencepost and in this metaphor the "posts" are the big things you definitely want to do and have researched well.

The "rails" represent the in-between time between those events, and for me, I like this time to be somewhat improvised or plan-less. Wandering around a neighborhood, going into an unfamiliar restaurant etc.

The one thing I highly recommend and always do on my first day in a new city (assuming I'm in an area with good public transportation) is hop on a bus, tram, etc. near your central location and just ride the entire line with no destination in mind. It's a great way to get the scope of a city. (And makes it easy to get back home).

The only other piece of advice I have: Although I love roaming around randomly, I also rely heavily on Google Maps for navigation and you know, getting back to my place. So, battery depletion can be source of anxiety. I like these Anker 733 power banks which are about 2/3 the length of a smartphone and about 3x the thickness.
posted by jeremias at 8:28 AM on November 17, 2022

I like @jeremias' "fenceposts and rail" analogy. That's it. From my experience, a good trip has both.

Also, I should note that on longer trips, it's very important to build in down days. These can seem like they're a complete waste of money — I paid so much to get over here and travel, why would I take down time? — but I find they're vital to mental health. So, maybe once a week (more or less), just take a day off to do nothing but exist wherever you happen to be. Live like a local for that day.

Surprisingly, when I think of my best travel days, many of them stem from these down days.
posted by jdroth at 8:43 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I agree that how much pre-planning you do will depend on your personality type and also how important it is to you to check things off vs. just being immersed in a place. A few general tips though:

-In places like Japan (i.e with robust tourism), I'd want to have pre-planned all of my accommodation and in-country travel. This will also make figuring out a budget easy since this will likely be a big chunk of your budget.

-Less is more, but variety is key.

-I agree with the above advice of planning in down-days, or if you're going 2-3 months, even a down-week.

-WWOOF Japan would be a great way to give yourself a break from being a tourist and work on your Japanese/connect with locals. I have not done this in Japan, but I have done this as a tourist in France, and it was an amazing experience - it's a collection of organic farms - the deal is you work full-time on the farm, and in exchange get free room/board.

-I really like this guy's travel blog, and Japan is one of his most written about destinations (he's also gay- I don't recall if he talks about this in Japan though). He also has another Japan-only site.
posted by coffeecat at 8:57 AM on November 17, 2022

First, I'd like to second the comment that Japan is the perfect place to go for a first time solo traveler. Everyone is nice, everywhere is safe, public transportation is great, hotels and hostels are well run and very clean, the food is excellent everywhere. Actually, Japanese convenience stores are the most amazing anywhere in the world, meaning you can find a good snack or even a whole meal almost everywhere and at all hours.

In Japan, I really liked the parts of my trip that were into the countryside (both little islands and up in the mountains) and to smaller cities. I wish I had gone to Hokkaido.

More general travel tips:
Plan ahead, but don't lock yourself into the whole itinerary for such a long trip in advance, because you don't know enough to know what you will enjoy.
Be curious! Try foods and experiences. Go places you have never heard of. Listen to advice from fellow travelers that you will undoubtedly meet on your way. My experience is that when you are traveling solo, you tend to meet more locals than in a group situation.
Be nice. You cannot know all the mores of a foreign country, but you can be on your own cultural best behaviour. Say hello when you enter a space, goodbye when you exit, say thank you every time there is an occasion, smile, when it makes sense. (BTW, don't tip. That is nice in the US, but not in Japan).
This is general advice, but I felt it worked very well for me in Japan: in big cities, try to live in more domestic neighborhoods. I'm not thinking actual suburbs, but central-ish districts with a mix of residential and small businesses. You are much more likely to have interesting conversations and meet locals that way.
posted by mumimor at 9:17 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am a fairly seasoned solo traveller.

One thing that can be helpful in planning an itinerary is to look at the itineraries of organized tours in your destination. Especially small group tours. You tend to find that they hit the highlights. If they are tours where you change accommodation as you go, as opposed to basing you in a hub, there is a good chance that they follow some kind of semi-sensible order of travel. Both the locations visited and their order are useful data points, if you want to go and plan your independent trip.

In addition, you want a physical map you can put pins in or mark. Lay out all the things you want to see based on your research. Compare that to the guided tours. There are reasons why the tours don't go certain places. Normally, it comes down to how out of the way the place is and how not set up for visitors a place may be. And some places simply aren't very nice, even if they have sight X in them. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't visit places tours don't go to. But just realise there is a reason why they don't go there. A 2-3 week tour can't spend too much time on a detour for one sight - if you're there for 3 months you have time to go there.

Then you can make a loose plan and figure out travel expenses of this plan. Then you layer accommodation, entry fees, food etc on top.

Then you figure out what you have to cut so as not to exceed your budget. At that point you may want to re-visit the tours you rejected for independent travel because solo independent travel typically is more expensive per person than a have nobody to share a room with travelling solo. In 2-3 months you could easily identify parts of your itinerary for which a tour will serve you well and then do the rest independently. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Nthing everybody who says pack light, no even lighter. You will gravitate to a few items of clothing that you just cycle through. You can wash things if required. Ideally, you want your purse and one piece of luggage only. That piece of luggage should be small enough to carry with relative ease, ideally a smallish backpack because that is by far the easiest way to get in and out of public transit, to navigate stairs, uneven road surfaces etc. and walk a good distance if you have to.

If you're travelling alone make sure you have copies of your passport, insurance, any tickets, your bank cards available as back up. Photos or scans work. It is much easier to get an emergency passport if you can show your embassy a copy of your passport. It is much easier to cancel a bank card, if you have the number in front of you. Also make sure you have more than one credit card and don't keep them all together. On my first solo trip, with 3 days to go, my wallet was stolen. I did not have any other cards with me. I had to get a family member to find one in my flat and send me some cash through Western Union. It would have been much easier if I'd hidden a card tugged away somewhere else to use.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:18 AM on November 17, 2022

Ok, so I'll take a crack at this too, since I'm female-presenting, solo travelled a bit (work and pleasure), and have been to Japan a couple of times.

Basics (for you)
- Japan uses American voltage and much of its post-war English as well. The floor layout will follow American not British numbering (no G floors)

- yes, get a travel adaptor

- I prefer getting a mobile WiFi instead of SIM cards (you can keep your number) but if your phone has eSIM function then that's definitely an option. I prefer mifi for Japan because even with my basic Japanese it can get overwhelming, because...

- Japanese culture prefers text-based information overload. A lot of notices bursting with text, and the service staff is trained with a lot (a lot) of scripted speech.

- English: yes they learn it in school but they don't really speak it and in combination with other cultural norms, the people you meet can get intense performance anxiety even if your English is clear in diction. Actually, how would you rate your ability to parse non-UK accents? Be honest now, and just start practicing your facial expressions so you won't make the other party even more nervous. It's not a "wing it and let live" culture for these things, but at least they can be helpful. Due to the Olympics the Tokyo signages have more English translation now but...

- Use Google Translate a lot especially the live translation and camera function because of the informational signage thing, even at the trains and hotels.

- there are homebrew options but Google Maps have made incredible strides in public transport live info for Japan, so that's good enough. In fact, while everyone's planning styles differ, I suggest installing Google Travel just as an assist. It will help keep your info in place especially with flight and travel details and will automatically calculate for time differences which would help your mind a lot especially as a first timer.

- Airbnb in Japan all have to have hosting licenses so while gentrification is also a concern they're basically mostly proper lodgings

- YOU WILL THANK ME FOR THIS: while there's now legal reform in standardising (new) flush mechanisms in buildings, please test any new toilet you're in. Flushing can be: a button at another wall, old school lever on the porcelain, IR sensors that you have to figure out and wave over to see if you're doing it right, push button on top etc etc

- Food courts tend to operate on a voucher system that you purchase at a counter or a vending machine before going to the stall you want, so look for those first if you're at a food court.

- Safety: Ok ok I GUESS comparatively its safe reputation is deserved but be careful regardless especially for a woman. Lecherous dudes is a genuine problem but at least there are police boxes everywhere. Random thuggish behaviour can still happen though, just pretend you have no idea what's going on and keep moving (or in my case, calmly finish my fries while this person kept kicking at my leg). Rowdy drunks aren't as bad as British ones but there are plenty after a certain hour.

- unfortunately for my own personal reasons I never checked out the local queer scene but if it overlaps with the nightlife options I'd say go for it. Other than those little security things I mentioned (which is really luck), in a lively area you'll be mostly fine.

- Get the Suica card for your train/metro travel. IIRC you can get it at the Narita station already.

Feel free to bother me whenever. My friend just came back from recently opened Japan last month so if you want any more specifics I'll give them a poke.
posted by cendawanita at 9:20 AM on November 17, 2022

Jumping back in to say that you should be aware that there are issues with importing medication into Japan, so make sure you check that there aren't any issues for you, particularly if you have a prescription. It does also apply, however, to some medicines that you can get OTC in the UK, (e.g. anything with codeine) or if you want to have a larger supply of paracetamol or ibuprofen.

(As a more general rule, always bring a copy of a prescription with you, and keep tablets etc. in their original packaging in case someone wants to examine them.)
posted by scorbet at 9:36 AM on November 17, 2022

I keep some notes on places I'd like to go, and add to them as I find information useful. You could break this down just on country, but since you're thinking about Japan you might want a separate note (or at least section) for each city you plan to visit, or possibly region if that makes more sense. I use the Obsidian app for this, but I'd use whatever notes app you're most comfortable with.

For itineraries, I like to look for websites that offer tours of the place I'm visiting - they'll usually let you know what cities/sites they're visiting, and I use that as a rough guideline of the things I should see and do while I'm there.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:44 AM on November 17, 2022

I haven’t been to Japan but since no one had replied about LGBT ideas, I always check if Meetup is active in cities I’m visiting, and there are several LGBT groups in Tokyo.
posted by ellieBOA at 12:31 PM on November 17, 2022

Itinerary: I think I bought the Rough Guide to Tokyo. A good travel guidebook will break the city down into neighborhoods and list attractions in each. So I knew that we could cover Shinjuku and Shibuya in one day, that Senso-ji, Ginza, and Akihabara would take us from after lunch through the end of the day/night, etc., after figuring out which things we'd enjoy doing and looking at them on a map. Google Image search can also help with this. If I search for Roppongi, and 90% of the photos are of the Eiffel Tower thingy, it's a sign that there might not be much more there that I'd want to do, and I can decide whether it's worth the trip.

For hotels, I use Tripadvisor. I look at most of the top hotels in my price range for my dates -- sometimes I'll look at as many as 30 hotels, because I'm a little obsessive -- and focus on location, photos showing me how the rooms look, and user reviews. You can sort the hotel list by user rating, and then the one trick I can share is that I often filter out the positive reviews, and just look at the negative ones. When were they -- were they recent? And why were they negative? If a hotel's negative reviews are all centered around the gym, e.g., or the business center, or the hotel restaurant, that isn't gonna affect me very much, where thin walls and heavy street noise will be disqualifying.
posted by troywestfield at 12:52 PM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Just one more thing: if you are not an experienced traveller, TripAdvisor is useless, IMO. You get a lot of people complaining and downrating perfect places, because they are culturally ignorant. If you have visited a place several times, you can see through that, but as a first time visitor, it is totally opaque.
posted by mumimor at 1:36 PM on November 17, 2022

Since this is your first time traveling and particularly since you’re traveling in a place that can be as disorienting as Japan, I would highly recommend staying in a single hotel for the first week, booked in advance, and I would make it an English-speaking hotel that is really boring.

Believe me, you will not be able to step a foot out in public in Japan without encountering something interesting and new to you, but at the end of the day you really need someplace that you feel comfortable to recharge.

Once you’ve gotten over the initial jet-lag and have gotten basic logistics down (How do I use the subway? How do I order food in restaurants? How do I find a street address?) that is the time for more exotic arrangements. But at the beginning make sure you have a home base to retreat to.

30 years of solo travel and this is how I handle going to a new country. Make myself a home, get some experience in the new environment, and then start my adventure.

Oh, and one pro tip: get a business card from the hotel and carry it with you separate from your phone. The only thing worse than losing your phone in a foreign country is realizing you have no idea where your pants are.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:20 PM on November 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

A note on Traveling in general:

The first time I got serious about Traveling (sold everything and went for a walk) I began with a journey to see an obscure watch tower on a small island in Greece. It was chosen at random, and solely because I needed a waypoint. The interesting things were all seen and done while getting there.

These days I tend to find my waypoints in Atlas Obscura, but honestly most things you can stay home and read about you should stay home and read about. Go talk to street cats and figure out what that piece of playground equipment is meant for. Notice the balance of men’s vs. women’s clothing stores in malls. Figure out how it’s possible for an egg salad sandwich served from a train cart be that good.

Seeking out something interesting and new, particularly in Japan, is totally unnecessary. Just go and be and observe.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:52 PM on November 18, 2022

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