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Hotwire review

Here is the skinny on Avoid hotwire. Beware of hotwire. Hotwire sucks.

For the longer version, read on.

Next month I’m taking a little trip to Seattle with four unrelated people. My job was to book the hotel. Somehow I ended up on They had an unnamed hotel in the location I needed for a good price*. Before booking I read all the rules, restrictions, terms of use, etc. on their site. One said, “room type will be determined by the hotel based on the number of guests provided at time of booking.” This worried me a bit as there are no couples in my group of five. Therefore, I needed at least five beds. So I called hotwire before booking and asked them if booking three rooms for five people meant three beds or five (or six) beds. I was assured that I would get at least as many beds as people. I was told to call the hotel after booking to confirm this.

So I booked the non-refundable rooms and called the hotel. The hotel told me that I was booked for three rooms with only one, double bed in each room. I explained my situation and asked if they had rooms available with two beds in each room. “Yes,” they replied, “we have plenty of those rooms open on the night you are staying here, but hotwire won’t let us give you those rooms.” “You will have to call hotwire and have them change you to the rooms with two beds.” I explained that hotwire told me to call them. “Sorry,” the hotel says, “hotwire will have to make the change. We can’t on our end.”

I contacted hotwire again. This time they said if I want two beds in two of the rooms I have to pay extra. We went back and forth in a dozen email messages and they wouldn’t budge. Each time a different representative regurgitated the same lines over and over again. “You should have read our terms of use.” I did. And I called you before booking just to be sure. “No refunds.” I know. That is why I called you first to make sure I wouldn’t need a refund.

Anyway, moral of the story. Don’t book with hotwire. Not only will you be stuck with something you may not have bargained for, they don’t follow through on any assertions or promises they make prior to booking. Once they have you in the non-refundable category, they have no incentive to please the customer or make you happy.

*To top it off, the hotel they booked me with has lower rates on their website than the rate I paid with hotwire. Lesson learned.

Japanese cell phone plan results

Before going to Japan I mentioned my research on the various Japanese cell phone plans. Now that we have actually experienced a year with Japanese cell phones I’ll give you a review.

Getting the phones was more complicated than I imagined. We couldn’t get them as soon as we got to Japan because the providers require a gaijin card which may take a few days to obtain–especially if you arrive in Japan on a Friday or Saturday. A passport is not good enough. Once we had the gaijin cards (gaikokujin-tourokushou or 外国人登録証) we visited several different Softbank stores. They all quoted us different offers. We ended up going with the Harajuku store for two phones for a year on the White Plan Family. We were expecting about 800 yen a month per phone, the seemingly low price due to the fact that we only planned to use them to call each other. The first few bills came in at more than double these amounts so we went in, they made some adjustments, and the bills dropped to about 2,000 yen a month–not the 1,600 yen we were hoping for but with taxes and whatever we didn’t push it.

We had to pay with a credit card which meant the bills were even higher as the currency translation for our US credit cards always stuck us with a few more bucks. Most monthly bills ended up being about $28 after all of the fees.

When we went to cancel we had to pay 20,000 yen (again, credit card only–no cash) so we got stuck with a final bill of over $250 with the strong yen. Ouch!

If I had it to do over again I would have purchased cheap phones and a prepaid option. With the amount we called I probably could have saved a few hundred bucks during the year.

Shopping for electronics in Japan

not a picture of akihabara this is actually shinjuku but it looks like akihabara

Many people think that Japan is a great place to travel to in order to purchase electronic goods. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the case due in large part to the strong Japanese yen. If the yen were ever to trade again at, say, more than 130 to the US$ (compared to the current 93) then yes, Japan may once again be a good place to purchase hi-tech gear. As it is now, you are likely to find lower, sometimes much lower, prices back in your home country.

There are still some reasons why you may want to purchase a camera or similar item in Japan. Perhaps the item you are looking for is only available in Japan, and you can’t wait the extra few months for it to show up in your neighborhood. Or maybe the version sold in your country is made in China rather than Japan. (I once sold a camera second hand, and the only reason the guy paid me as much as he did was because it was Made in Japan. It turns out most of them sold in the USA were Made in China and sometimes had quality problems the Made in Japan versions did not.)

After arriving in Japan I started looking to purchase a Panasonic DMC-TZ7 (ZS3 in the USA). I could purchase it from the US for about $350. I saw it here in Japan for prices ranging from 33,000 yen to 38,000 yen. Amazon Japan had it for 34,480. I figured I would take the plunge and purchase it in Japan if I could find it for under 30,000 yen (i.e., < $320). I planned to take a trip across town to the Mecca of Japanese electronics--Akihabara. Before making that journey, however, I did a little research on the internet and found that going to each store in Akihabara to see the price was horribly inefficient and didn't necessarily provide the best price anyway. Instead you can go to (kakaku means “cost” or “price” in Japanese), enter the item you are looking for, and find out who is offering the best price on your sought-after item. The site also provides maps, store hours, and other useful information.

It turns out that the TZ7 cost several thousand yen more in the shops right around the Akihabara Station. If I walked 10 minutes beyond Akihabara Station I could purchase the camera for under 30,000 yen. I also found out on the above site that I didn’t even have to go to Akihabara. A place much closer to home had the best price. So I went and purchased it there instead.

The place I purchased my TZ7 is called PCとらや, and I wouldn’t even had known it was an electronics dealer from the outside. I slipped inside to see three guys typing away on computers in a little office. Along one wall were shelves of electronic goods. Apparently they do most of their business over the internet. I could have had the camera shipped for under 500 yen to anywhere in Japan.

So if you are in Japan, and can read a little Japanese, shop on the net instead of going to Akihabara and paying more. Of course, if you don’t know what you want, and/or just want to browse, then it doesn’t get any better than Akihabara. Don’t count on saving any money purchasing things there though.

MagicJack update


Since last posting about magicJack I’ve actually had the chance to use the magicJack USB device on a daily basis. Initially I was really excited. Then there were some problems, but now my hopes have been bolstered, somewhat, again.

The problems:
– Sometimes incoming calls wouldn’t connect. I had this happen three times on the second day I was using it full time. One time I was the caller. The incoming calls were coming from different places so it wasn’t a problem on the other end. This hasn’t happened since.
– Initially there was lots of static on my calls. Once I removed the cable connecting the magicJack to the USB port (the USB extension cord pictured here), the static disappeared.
– An echo or lag sometimes happens. This is heard more by the person on the other end than the caller on the magicJack end.

The possible solutions:
– I think the first problem was solved by a reboot of the computer.
– Don’t use the cable to connect your magicJack to your USB port. Connect the magicJack directly into the USB port.
– I believe the echos and lags occur because of an upload speed that is too slow. Something I have done that has made this better, if not made for perfectly clear calls in most cases, is the following.

1. Go to an internet speed test site like this one: Test your speed and write down your results.
2. Download TCPOptimizer.exe from here: and run the program. Move the Connection Speed slider bar to the far right. Click on “Optimal settings” and then hit “Apply changes.” Reboot.
3. Run the internet speed test again and see if your results aren’t better. My test results weren’t much better, but my phone calls using magicJack seem clearer with less echo and lag on the other person’s end.

Is my magicJack connection crystal clear and perfect in the US yet? No. I’m hoping with a better connection in Japan it will work better. I’ll let you know soon. Until then, I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Electricity (power converter, adapters) for Japan

power supply electricity volts watts hertz conversion japan usa canada converter plugs outlets

Some of the most often asked questions on the travel Japan boards are “Will my electronic devices work in Japan?”, “Can I bring my hair dryer to Japan?”, “Do I need an outlet converter or adapter when traveling to Japan?” and other similar ones. The answer depends on where you are coming from and what you are bringing.

Japan’s electrical outlets work on 100V and either 50 or 60Hz. The outlets are two pronged like those in the US and Canada. Most devices (NiMH or camera battery chargers, AC adapters for laptop computers, games, small appliances, etc.) will run and plug in just fine in Japan if you purchased them in North America. To be sure check the back. I’ve shown a few examples in the photo above. Notice that all four items (computer AC adapter, DS game AC adapter, rechargeable battery charger, and camera battery charger) were made in China for both Japanese and North American consumers. North America works on a slightly higher volts 110V instead of 100V in Japan. Even if your device says 110V-240V it should work fine at 100V.

Hair dryers may not heat up well in Japan if they are made to work at 110V or 125V. If you are going to be in Japan for an extended period of time you may want to purchase your hair dryer there. They can be had for under $20. In addition to possibly functioning better, it will be one less thing you have to cram into your suitcase.

If you are going to Japan from a high voltage country (Australia, Europe, China, etc.) then you will need a converter for some devices. You will also need a plug adapter.

One final note, three prong plugs are less common in Japan than they are in Canada and the USA.

Cell phone plan for a family in Japan

I’m one of the last people on the planet to own a cell phone. Being that my family can’t speak Japanese, they are pretty adamant that I get one in Japan in case they ever need to call me to help them out of a sticky situation. That being the case, I plan to obtain my first (and hopefully last) cell phone in Japan.

The first plan I was referred to was by NTT. The NTT family plan appears to be about $16 a month. Not bad. But then I found that Softbank has an even better plan at only about $10 a month.

Given that nearly all of our calls will be to each other, the fact that both of these plans allow for free calls to family is great.

We’ll also have to purchase phones. However, I understand that if you get the bottom of the barrel variety the phones are almost free. And I’ve heard that the worst cell phones in Japan are better than the best elsewhere so the cheapest Japanese phone is fine by me.

Most of these plans have large penalties if you don’t continue the plan for at least a year. Since we will be in Tokyo for a year that shouldn’t be a problem for us. If you plan to go to Japan for a shorter period of time then you probably just want to purchase some prepaid minutes.

Do you have any experiences with a cell phone plan in Japan that can be of use to me (or others reading this)? If so, please respond to this message with any hints, feedback, etc.