An app for spontaneous travel

I arrived in Japan six days ago. Tired from a 10-hour flight after a night-long layover in Calgary, I wandered wide-eyed around Narita airport looking for an ATM — I'd read before coming here that I'd need cash in most places. After buying a subway ticket I didn't need, I eventually found the right ticket counter and the right train into Tokyo.

I don't like to plan a lot when I travel. Not knowing where I'll sleep on any given night frees me up to chase whatever presents itself as I wander around an unknown place. But as the train started to cross the landscape I realized it was 5pm and dark already — and I was tired. So I started looking up hostels near my train's destination, Nippori Station, on Google Maps. I found a decent-looking one, found the directions to get there, and decided to walk instead of taking the subway, to get my first taste of the country.

I checked in at the hostel, left my bag, then headed out for food and a toothbrush. Again I consulted Google Maps to find a nearby convenience store, and then happened upon a restaurant along the way. When I got back I worked on my laptop in the lounge area, striking up small conversations with a guy from Australia and one from California. One mentioned a small town called Gujo out near Nagoya that he said we shouldn't miss. I Googled it and kept the tab open on my laptop for later.

The next day I woke at 5:30, and it was already starting to get light outside. Failing to fall back asleep, I Googled around on my phone to figure out where I wanted to hike — my only real goal for the trip. I found a few articles about trails in the Kita Alps, and kept each one open in a separate Chrome tab. I looked up directions, and saw it'd be a 1.5 hour train ride, a long wait until morning, then a 2.5 hour bus ride to the trailhead.

When I got off the train at Nagano Station I looked for a place to leave my backpack and work for a bit. I found a few neat things to see in the area, again keeping each open in a separate Chrome tab. As I headed for each destination, I'd regularly check the tabs I had open to find exactly how to get where I was going, and later close them when I was done.

That night, the idea came to me for a new app. This whole time I'd been keeping track of various destinations and things to do with browser tabs. They're perfect because they contain all the information you need for one general task, and once you're done with it, one click gets it out of sight. As someone who doesn't want to have his eyeballs in his phone while traveling, this is great.

But it also meant I had to search through 67 tabs on my phone when I needed a piece of information — and then maybe I actually had the tab open on my laptop. So I wanted a simple app that would keep a running list of links, and let me clear them away as I no longer needed them. It would be nice to be able to save them offline, too.

As I thought about implementation: mobile Chrome doesn't let you consistently do third-party actions in one click. There are custom tabs for Android apps, but then I'd have to change my browsing habits just in case I find a link I want to save. Also, creating an entirely new browser app just to get this functionality seemed ridiculous.

Then I realized what it should be: a bookmarklet. It still wouldn't be ideal on mobile, but it'd work on any device and integrate directly with the browser.

So I spent an hour throwing a prototype together. It has two components: the bookmarklet / save link page, and a list of your saved links. You answer two questions about the link when saving it: When? (either now or next) and What? (either go or stay). Then the list shows links organized under the answers to those questions, in descending priority (now: go is first), and each has a “done” button next to it, to tap when you no longer need the information. This way the list becomes a concise jumping-off point of only the most important information you need. When you finish visiting a place and want to go on to the next one, you press “done” on the former, and immediately have the next place waiting for you, right there in the list.

The working title for the project is さまよう (samayou — “wander”) and you can try it out here. As always, it works instantly — no sign up required — and keeps everything saved in your browser. So far it's been pretty nice, but next I'll probably add simple list sharing so you can use it across devices. Let me know how you like it (or don't) if you try it out!