iPhone Travel, or…

Tips for Travelling with an iPhone in Japan (or anywhere)

1. Make sure International Roaming is OFF. Every telco charges like a wounded bull for overseas data. For example, Optus was $25/MB in Japan. Beware the fine print; some telcos will quote in 128 KB chunks or other odd units. Remember: a bit is 1/8 of a byte!

2. Assuming you have an iPhone 3G, you *can* use the built-in Maps app, but you’ll need to preload the maps first, since you won’t have data except on wifi. While you have wifi access (some hostels + hotels, Apple Stores) open Google Maps and move around the areas you want to visit. Zoom in a bit and scroll around that too. The phone will remember at least a few pages worth, and even just a higher level map (“Roughly where are we?”) will help *immensely*. Since the map will be in Japanese, you’ll likely have to match landmarks to your Lonely Planet map to actually *know* the name of where you are, but it’s still very handy.

3. Alternatively, you can download Trails, Trails Lite or OffMaps to cache maps from OpenStreetMaps. Not sure what Japanese coverage is like — Australian coverage is spotty.

4. Get Air Sharing to store PDFs and other documents on the phone. You can add documents to the phone via WebDAV over your wifi network before you leave. Which documents? Every booking reference, every map to every hotel from the hotels’ websites, flight bookings, passport scans, insurance documents. Also, crucially, scans of Lonely Planet maps! They’re in English, almost nothing else will be. Much better than carrying and referring to a guidebook. If you want to get fancy…

5. Prepare versions of the maps to work with the app “MyMap”. This might be a bit tricky, but it lets you position yourself on your *own* map. The hassle is that you’ll need to know where you are twice, in two different places, to calibrate the map — it doesn’t just *work*. (Side note: I had this same idea about a year ago, but my programming skills aren’t good enough to implement it. Glad someone finally did it, though.)

6. I have written an instant currency conversion app called “Ikura Desu Ka” (How much is it?) but I’ll need your iPhone’s UDID to make a version specially for your iPhone. Please follow these instructions to find your UDID and send it to me in an email. If I ever really *finish* it I’ll release it for free on the App Store.

7. Big one: your overseas credit and debit cards will NOT work at most Japanese ATMs, even if they have Visa or Mastercard symbols. The vast majority of ATMs only work with local cards. You’ll need to find an international ATM at:

a) A 7-11 (the easiest and best option — not listed in the Lonely Planet! — but not any other convenience store)
b) A central post office (old, fussy machines)
c) A Citibank (new, relatively fussy machines)

Even then, you’ll probably have to use your credit card rather than your regular account card. Make sure, before you leave, that your bank knows you’re going overseas. The first time I used my card, it worked fine. The second time, it didn’t — the bank froze it as they thought the use was suspicious. Eep.

8. Get the free PennyTel app and set up an account before you leave. Do it now! It takes a few days to get the account set up. This is a VOIP provider that offers 8c untimed calls to Australia, the UK and the US, and they have an iPhone app. It only works on wifi, but it’s virtually free international calling. You can try the Skype app too — it’s similar, though more expensive.

9. Take your iPhone charger. 🙂 If you want to be able to plug anything else into a power point, you might think about taking a double adapter, so you don’t need more than one Japan -> Australia plug adapter, right? Well, no. Australian double adapters etc. have 3 prongs. Japan only uses 2, so while you *can* plug in an iPhone charger (and most other chargers) you can’t plug in a double adapter. However, if you’re handy with a screwdriver and your double adapter is old enough, you can unscrew it and remove the third earth pin so it fits into the 2-prong adapter. Not too hard, just be sure to label it clearly (NO EARTH!) and never use it in Australia again.

Phew! Feedback in the comments is welcome.