Planning a Vacation

GPS ReceiversTechnology related to the Global Positioning System (GPS) has advanced significantly since the system was opened for civilian use in 1983. In the early 90’s my Garmin 45 GPS receiver took five minutes or more to lock onto enough satellites to get a position fix. If left unused for a few weeks it could take an hour to update its database and provide location information. Essentially it was good for primitive navigation over open terrain, such as out at sea. Today I have a Garmin Vista HCx which locks on in seconds and provides color mapping and car like navigation capabilities. With the ability to find location quickly, it is so much more practical to use. Today GPS can be found not just in specialized receivers, but on laptops, in cars, and even in cell phones. In this article, I will talk about using a GPS receiver as an aid in travel. In a later article, we will discuss areas where the overall experience needs improvement.

Figuring out where to go

Recently I had a trip to Osaka, Japan. Before going I did a few quick Google searches to find interesting places to visit. The first search was ‘Osaka Points of Interest‘ which provided quick links for several areas such as ‘Osaka Aquarium‘, ‘Universal Studios Japan‘, and ‘Osaka Castle‘. If you are going to Osaka or Kyoto, then a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple is a must. A search on ‘Osaka temple‘ within brought up a list of candidates. Clicking on the lettered bubbles on the left hand results allowed for quick exploration of the various search results. Since clicking honors the current zoom level, best to zoom in first before selecting the bubbles so that the actual location stands out and is easy to see whether or not it could be interesting.

Simple searches will generally result in a list of popular places to visit. Say you you want to take a trip to Singapore. Then search terms would be ‘Singapore places of interest‘, ‘Singapore amusement parks‘, and ‘Singapore temple‘. If you still don’t find anything of interest, then just about any place followed by ‘tourist‘ generates a good set of choices. ‘Singapore Tourist‘ produces a few sites with lots of information.

Getting the coordinates

Once you know where you want to go, the next step is to find the destination coordinates. Google Maps doesn’t make this easy to do. However with the help of a bookmarklet, it is possible to get the coordinates for the center of the current map. To reduce error, zoom in on your destination as much as possible, and then invoke the bookmarklet by selecting it from your browser’s bookmarks.

Osaka TempleRight click to add the Google Maps bookmarklet to your browser’s bookmarks. This bookmarklet was provided by, a source of Japan maps for Garmin GPS systems.

Once you have the coordinates saved away, it is pretty straight forward to enter them directly into your GPS unit, or into its management software.

Don’t forget to add any train stations, hotels, and anywhere else that you will need to visit on your trip.

Previewing your journey

Unique street markingsOnce you have entered the coordinates into the GPS or management software, it is pretty straight forward to export to Google Earth. My Garmin GPS came with MapSource software which directly exports to the Google Earth format. Double clicking on the exported file brings up Google Earth zoomed into the area around the selected points. Google also offers a Plus version of Google Earth that will directly download from Garmin and Magellan GPS units. Zooming in around each point helps to get an idea of what to expect, and also helps to reveal additional points of interest nearby. For example, near the hotel there were strange lane markings on the road, or looking at the aquarium showed that it was just right across the bay from Universal Studios.

By taking advantage of the satellite imagery from both Google Earth and Google Maps it is possible to quickly find places to visit, and to also identify areas that would not be worth visiting. Being able to quickly view the neighborhood around possible choices helps to figure out which train stations, or subway stops would be the most convenient. Sitting down with the kids to show them the area also helps to get them interested in the trip as well.

Convenience of having the sites prepared

After getting off the bullet train in Osaka, I wanted to put my luggage away in the hotel before going sight-seeing. Since this was my first time to the area, I wasn’t really sure which way to go. However, with the hotel already pre-programmed into the GPS, it did not take long to get a bearing on which way to start walking to get there. Since the hotel was not visible from the station, the GPS made it very clear where to go.

Another advantage of having the coordinates pre-loaded into the GPS was in the traditional kids question, “How much longer?”. Instead of answering, I just showed them how to change screens on the GPS, so they could see where they were on the map, and then switch to the estimated time of arrival page. So whenever they wanted to know how much longer, they could just glance at the GPS and figure it out for themselves. It also motivated them to pay more attention to the surroundings, since the map would show various items coming up, and they could just look outside to see if they could find them. It was not long before they were playing around with the GPS to figure out additional questions such as how far have we traveled from home, what time is sunrise tomorrow, and sunset today.

As your travel, there will also be locations you encounter that you hadn’t thought to pre-load into the GPS. Common locations would be bus stops, train or subway stations, restaurants you liked, and places you pass that might be of interest for a later trip or to research upon returning home.

Reviewing your trip

GPS units have the ability to record where you traveled with them. These tracks can also be exported, and loaded into Google Earth. Once loaded, it is easy to see how you traveled, where you got lost, and where you decided to go exploring. It also allows you to take a virtual tour by moving along the path you traveled. The default settings for the tour are a bit slow, so you will want to move the speed to maximum for really long trips. One part of the tour from the Osaka trip that was very painful to watch was the bullet train ride from Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu, to Osaka on the island of Honshu. The initial speed settings were about the same as originally traveled, so it seemed like it would take several hours to review. However, manually zooming around various points along the journey helped to get a better perspective of the areas we traveled through. It also allowed for discovering the hard to find train tunnel that connects the two islands.

Also, using the captured data it is pretty easy to identify where pictures were taken, and to geo-tag them with the location.

Wrap up

This article has discussed at a high level how to take some of the stress out of traveling. By pre-loading the location of places like your hotel, or capturing where you got off the bus or train, makes it easy to return to the place. This eliminates the need to guess which direction to go, and also the need to stop and ask for directions when you start to feel lost. You won’t feel lost because the GPS is guiding you along.

This preparation really only helps for the parts of your trip where you will be walking around. A hand held GPS really isn’t the right solution for driving, or taking the subway. It won’t help you to know the bus routes, or which trains to take.

Next time we will continue with the travel theme, and look for areas to make things easier.

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