Howie visits Japan – Things to note pre-departure.

So now that you’ve booked your ticket and accommodation, you’re all raring to fly out. I’ve put together some things for you to consider. I’ve written this with first-time travellers in mind too, so apologies if it may read like I’m trying to teach you to suck eggs. Hopefully even if you are a seasoned traveller, you might find some helpful tips here.

Currency

This is another thing which you do not want to leave to the last minute. Massive disasters excepting, currency value does not tend to fluctuate that much, and so you shouldn’t necessarily worry about buying too early. Sure, it’s nice to know you have a little extra, but I’d rather have piece of mind over a couple of Pounds more to spend.

Make sure you leave enough time for your currency to arrive if you have to order it before hand, as most bureaux de change only tend to stock selected currencies, and it may be that the one you want will take a few days to arrive.

If you do enjoy shopping around, then have a look at comparison sites, such as Compareholidaymoney.com, which is what I use as a starting point, although of course there are many other price comparison websites out there to use.

As well as hard cash, you can use your cards abroad, but there may be a fee to pay for your conversion. Also, look at WeSwap.com, which allows you to have a pre-paid MasterCard with different currencies stored on it so you can simply withdraw cash without being charged conversion fees, as well as being held hostage to bank exchange rates. They do have some charges, so do check everything thoroughly to check that it’s right for you first.

Language

When travelling abroad, it may be that the native language of your destination is not English, in which case, you either have to hope that the locals speak English, or you can speak the local language. It’s not a bad idea to look up a phrase book before you depart, and even have one which can fit in your bag easily so you can bring it around for those just in case moments.

When I went to Beijing a good few years ago, I ended up having to speak very broken Mandarin because the immigration staff started asking me questions and did not speak English at all!

If you prefer the more digital approach, you can get many phrase apps now for your phone, although be aware that some of these apps may require data and roaming can be pretty expensive. If you do prefer to use your phone and an app, make sure it is fully functional offline.

In the context of Japan, despite its image being the international country it is, many people still do not speak good English, and therefore you may want to prepare yourself in terms of having a phrase book of some kind before travelling out. It would be helpful to have a phrase book with both Romaji and written Japanese so people can see what you are asking.

Clothing

You may think this takes less time than it would, but DO NOT underestimate how long it would take for you to pack your luggage and your carry-on bag! This is definitely a case of do as I say, not as I do, since I always pack the night before, but part of me think that it’s more due to the fact that I know quite well what I need, and where everything I need will be. Plus, I tend to like to stay up all night before the flight in case I miss my alarm. You’ll have plenty of time to sleep on the plane since a flight from London to Tokyo is around 11 to 12 hours long!

To decide what you need, make sure you check the weather forecast for the time which you are going. Don’t only check the immediate forecast, but also make sure you find a graph with the averages, maximums and minimums for the period of time you will be away.

Check whether there will be facilities to wash your clothing. If possible, this is better than bringing with you all the clothes you need for the entire period you’re going to be away. It saves space in your suitcase, and rather than using the super expensive hotel cleaning service, why not take the opportunity to explore the local area a bit more and find a local launderette?

When packing your suitcase, you may think the best way to get everything into a small space is to fold everything neatly. But in actual fact, the best way is to roll up your clothes.

Electronics

You’ll likely be travelling with a few electronic items, so don’t forget to pack your chargers! You may have multiple devices which have the same kind of connection head, so if the current (ampage) rating is safe across all your devices, you can think about bringing only one charger if you’re not fussed about your devices queuing up to be recharged. If you have a laptop, it may be an idea to bring a few USB cables without the plug head so you can charge devices from your laptop too. I would list all the electronic devices you’re taking and tick them off as you pack chargers / charging cables for them to make sure you have everything you need.

Also, don’t forget to check which plug head adaptor / converter you’ll need. If you’re going to Japan, you’ll want to go with the two parallel straight pins.

Also, make sure you visit the website of each airline to find out their general baggage policy. There will usually be guidance on lithium batteries and whether you can put them in your luggage, or have to have them on your carry-on.

Toiletries

What you may want to pack will highly depend on what kind of accommodation. Most hotels will provide towels and basic toiletries like toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and shower gel. If you are staying in some relatively more budget accommodation, you may need to bring toiletries yourself. Be careful when packing toiletries that you have them in a separate bag in case of leakage. Leakage can happen even if the container feels secure on terra firma due to the pressure difference between ground atmospheric pressure, and the atmospheric pressure at 30,000+ ft above sea level. Although cabins and the hold are pressurised, this will be pressurised to less than ground atmospheric pressure in any event. You can practically see the pressure differential at work if you open a plastic bottle at cruise altitude and then closing the lid tight. After landing, the bottle will be crushed due to the higher pressure as the plane descends.

If you don’t want to bring so much with you, you might look up before travelling the location of any convenience stores around your accommodation so you can buy your toiletries whilst there. If you’re going to Japan, find a ¥100 shop (post-tax, you’ll be paying ¥108) as they sell pretty much anything and everything. There is quite a popular chain called Daiso which you can find dotted around Japan. The Daiso store finder is a helpful map with pins, so you don’t need to worry about reading Japanese apart from finding your own location.

Luggage space for goodies

No doubt you’ll be wanting to do a fair bit of shopping when abroad, especially so if you’re into your Otaku culture, and going to Japan! You may want to think about what suitcases to bring with you. The airlines I have flown with so far tend to allow a maximum of two or three pieces of luggage to be checked-in, depending on what class I’m flying.

If my flight allows more than one piece of luggage, I often leave with one suitcase with all my things that I need, packed inside another much bigger suitcase. I know when I am re-packing to go home that everything I brought with me will fit back inside the smaller case, which will leave me with all the space in the bigger suitcase to pack all my shopping. Otherwise, bring the biggest suitcase you can find. It may be empty on your way there, but it’s actually rather easy to fill up the suitcase with goodies… especially if you’re out in Akihabara buying figures (or winning various figures from the arcades)!

Carry-on bag

I always try and travel light in terms of what I bring onto a plane. My carry on bag is usually my rucksack or satchel. You may want to pack a lot for “just in case”, but if you take a step back you’ll realise that you don’t need as much as you think for your flight. You’ll either be sleeping, or entertaining yourself with the in-flight entertainment system trying to sleep.

The best way to think about this bag is what you will need at the airport both flying out, and on arrival.

To give you an example, here’s what you’ll usually find in mine within the various pockets and compartments. I will be including things which might be in the pockets of my clothing because sometimes I do dump them all into my carry-on bag too, especially when about to go through security:

  • Passport;
  • Phone (with boarding pass if checked-in online);
  • Wallet (with home and foreign currency);
  • Medication (as an asthmatic, this is rather important for me as sometimes the air conditioning on planes can play havoc with my respiratory system);
  • Portable gaming device (which usually means either my PS Vita or Nintendo New 3DS XL);
  • Chargers (with detachable cable as some planes will have actual plugs, others just a USB socket); and
  • Book / Kindle.

Other things you might want to consider are a phrase book, and also tickets and / or documentation for onward travel from the airport to your accommodation, and more importantly directions and / or a map of how to get from the airport to your accommodation.

As mentioned above already, make sure you check the baggage policy of the airline with which you are flying. Also do check the hand luggage restrictions guidelines on the HM Government’s website for more information.

Flying out

Check with the airline with which you’re flying when you can check-in online. Most people do this now, so would recommend getting in there early if you have specific preferences as to seating, or if you want to sit together with someone. With international flights, you should aim to check-in two to three hours before the scheduled departure time of your flight.

Do make sure you are at the correct airport, and at the correct terminal for your flight. I have actually heard stories of people arriving at the wrong airport! Check your ticket: if you’re flying from a London airport, check whether you’re flying out from Heathrow or Gatwick. They’re not close, and you may end up missing the flight if you’re spending time stuck on the M25 getting from Heathrow to Gatwick, and vice versa.

When you arrive at the correct airport and terminal, check the screens to find out which check-in counters you will need for your flight. These are usually arranged by airline. If you checked-in online, you’ll likely have an online boarding pass which you could have printed, or most people will have their boarding passes as a QR / bar code on your phone (this is why you’ll be wanting a charger with your carry-on bag: so that your phone has enough battery for you to access your online boarding pass).

After depositing your baggage at the check-in counters, make your way through security to the departure area. Try to make sure you have no liquids with you at this point, as you’ll have to forfeit anything which is over 100ml. Security can be really slow, but this allows you time to get yourself all ready for being scanned. At this point, I usually start putting things which I would have in my pockets into my carry-on bag, just so that it can all be scanned at once, and when I am ready to leave the security area, I don’t end up with multiple bits and pieces to put away.

Past the security check is what people generally refer to as “airside”. Once airside, go crazy and enjoy your tax-free shopping, or the various lounges if you have access to them. Here’s a tip from experience: some lounges do not have the PA announcements, so ensure you keep an eye on the time and gate numbers to ensure you do not miss boarding your flight. There will again be various screens up around airside where you can check the status of your flight and the gate numbers. Otherwise though, enjoy the free food and drink at the lounges!

Actually, let me add a further tip from experience: don’t over-indulge on the drinks at the lounge. I once got so wasted at the lounge due to the free drinks that I forgot about my flight. Luckily I am a docile drunk and was allowed on when fetched from the airline’s lounge, but note that the staff CAN (and likely will since it may compromise the safety of the flight) stop you from boarding if you are rowdy due to being drunk before you even get on the plane!

Check those screens regularly, and I would recommend that you head towards the gate as soon as it comes up on the screen, as often the journey to the gates themselves can be quite a lengthy affair.

If you’ve got this far and managed to get to the gates, then all that’s left is to wait for your flight, and follow instructions of the staff as to the boarding procedure.

Bon voyage!