One of the basics of any trip to Japan is traveling by train. With an amazing rail network and so many things to see, it is one of the most comfortable ways to move around on your first trip. But, is it worth buying the Japan Rail Pass or is it better to just buy single tickets or even rent a car?
I’ve already told you about how it is to drive in Japan and whether it is worth renting a car there or not, but since many of you keep asking me about the JR Pass (is it worth? how much do you really save? etc.) I chose to create this easy calculator so all of you can use it for your trip.
But first things first: What will you be finding here?
- What is the Japan Rail Pass and why use it?
- How much does the JR Pass cost and why are there different prices?
- When is it not worth buying the Pass?
- How do you know if the Japan Rail Pass is for you? The calculator
- How it is traveling through Japan by train
- The best alternatives to buying the Japan Rail Pass
1.- What is the JR Pass? and why might you need it?
The pass is a type of “Japanese interrail” from the Japan Rail company which:
- Is only for tourists (you need to have entered Japan with a temporary visitor seal, not to study work, as a Japanese citizen or resident)
- It allows you to take all the trains you need from Japan Rail and all around Japan. It also covers some buses and ships
- For a certain period of 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days since the first use
- For a certain ticket category (there are two categories: regular and Green Car)
- With the exception of certain trains (Nozomi and Mizuho).
So, what is the main advantage of the JR Pass? That Japan is amazingly well connected by train. From the classic trains that connect rural and isolated places in Japan, to the ultra-fast shinkansen, you can go everywhere by train. Which is a delight of mountain views, rice fields, small traditional villages and enigmatic volcanoes in the horizon. Plus, it is very comfortable to travel without having to think of buying tickets and timetables.
Any disadvantage? That, even though most travelers choose to travel by train to save, if you are not planning well, you might not be saving a penny.
So, let’s get to the point:
2.- How much is it a Japan Rail Pass? and… why do you always find different prices for it?
>Reason number 1: the Japan Rail Pass has an official price in YEN, which is set for all the world and which only varies depending on the ticket class (ordinary or Green Car) and length (7, 14 or 21 days). For this year, the price of the pass is:
|7 consecutive days||29,650 yen||39,600 yen|
|14 days||47,250 yen||64,120 yen|
|21 days||60,450 yen||83,390 yen|
Having said that, you will not buy the pass in yen, but in your local currency (euros, dollars, etc) and that is where the different prices come from. Some update the price daily depending on the currency exchange rates, others take a bit off the price to charge you at the delivery and some just have a standard fixed price that goes with the average yen-euro or yen-dollar exchange rate.
This means that if you search through the net, you will find a lot of different prices for the same thing and…
Reason number 2: Even when each seller applies a different exchange rate, sometimes it is hard to compare because when you add the different “extras” and delivery costs, the difference is only a few cents.
Yes, you read right, the pass is not a downloadable thor virtual document, you need a paper voucher (Exchange order) delivered to your address which you will have to exchange into the real pass when you arrive to Japan. And, some companies also add to that some optional items like express delivery, insurance or even a travel guide (that you can usually opt-out before paying).
I recommend my friends to check the different options and choose what provides the best combination of delivery and price. For example:
- Getyourguide is a bit expensive but it does deliver it to your hotel in Japan if you are in a hurry
- Viator has an average pricing, with delivery to your home included (worldwide)
- and jrailpass.com which is usually cheaper than other options, you can pay it by bank transfer (saving a few euros) and they deliver via FedEx in 4 days or less. Just remember to uncheck the cancellation insurance, the travel guide or the paypal payment (unless you need them).
And yes, the bank transfer option does work, that is how I paid them on my first trip to Japan. For the second, it was 3 of us, so we got free delivery and we paid with a credit card so we could manage the payments differently.
Do kids travel for free in Japanese trains?
Yes, up to 5 years old (inclusive) kids travel for free if they don’t occupy a seat. When they are 6-11 years old, they pay 50% of the ticket, including the Japan Rail Pass (other rail companies might apply different discounts on their passes).
When they become 12 or more, they are considered traveling adults (kids in Japan have their own discount prices, but you need to live/study there).
3.- When is it not worth buying the japan rail pass?
Basically, if you are not traveling to many cities/villages or if you are booking many guided visits that include transport. But there are more things to consider:
- If you are not doing at least 2 or three big trips (Tokyo – Kyoto or Osaka Hiroshima, for example) as you would need to take many (many) short trips to pay off.
- If you are only to use the pass to save on your Airport-Tokyo trip from Narita, there are plenty of cheaper options than the JR Pass, and it will only pay off if you are near a JR station.
- If half of your trip (or pass length) is going to be only in Tokyo or Kyoto, you will find cheaper options to move around town. In Tokyo, because the Metro pass takes you to more places and in Kyoto, because the JR has a limited network and it is way better to buy bus day passes
Is Japan Rail Pass valid to travel at night?
Yes and no. The pass is valid for all the trains, so you can technically sleep at your seat or on the floor (for real), but if you want to sleep in a bunk bed or a private room, you have to pay an extra. Tip: some trains only offer the floor or private rooms options and get booked way in advance.
Plus, you always have to book a seat, which can only be done at the JR stations in Japan (or calling by phone one month in advance, in Japanese, or at a travel agent.)
4.- How do i know if it’s worth for my trip to japan? (the calculator)
Ok, you already know a lot about the pass, but how do you know if it is worth for YOUR trip to Japan? And which pass to buy?
Now that you know what you want to see in Japan (and when), you should write down:
- the trips from airport to the city
- The trips between major cities
- Day trips or half-day trips outside those cities (such as Nikko, Matsumoto, etc) and guided tours in which you need to pay for transport
- If the city has a good JR network to move around (Tokyo, for example, does have one, Kyoto doesn’t)
Once you have all of these written down and set on a calendar (I recommend drawing a calendar where you can set where you will be each day), you can now search how much it is to move from one place to the next.
In Japan, you can do this at Hyperdia, which is the meta-search of trains and transport. There you can set where you want to go, time of departure (if you have one) and type of transport you want, and it provides you with all the options. As you can see, it is quite easy to use, and if you want to compare prices here are some tips:
- Search without taking the Private Railways, you will find some cheaper routes with them
- Select the un-reserved seat, you don’t always need it and it’s easier to compare the pass without adding this extra cost (reserving seats is free with the pass, but you won’t use it all the time)
- Choose whether you prefer going fast or going cheap. Also, remember that most tourist spots close after 5:30 PM (museums, parks, temples)
And once you have the numbers, compare them with the official prices of the Japan Rail Pass.
Too much work? Ok, I promised a calculator, didn’t I?
Here it is:
How does it work?
- Choose which trips you will be doing in Japan (I’ve added the typical choices on a first or second trip to Japan, but don’t add those you will not be doing with the pass if any)
- Select whether you will doing a one-way trip or going back (price won’t change if you are going from Tokyo to Kyoto or from Kyoto to Kyoto) and if you will be traveling standard or Green Class
- For those trips not on the list, you can check the cost on Hyperdia and write it down below, it will be added to the math
And that’s it, the calculator will add the updated prices of train tickets, add your custom trips and compare the cost with the amount in YEN for each pass type. That easy to know if it is worth buying the Japan Rail Pass.
And, now that you know…
some extra tips before you buy the pass
- Check if you really need it and don’t push everything there trying to save. If you have to add extra trips to save, you sure have cheaper alternatives that will allow you to enjoy each place better (and you will not have to rush everywhere)
- Buy it at most 3 months before your trip to Japan. If you buy it before that, you won’t be able to use it.
- If you buy it online, remember that they have to send it to you on paper. Digital receipts and emails are not exchangeable for the pass. There are some options that allow you to get it delivered to your hotel in Japan (some hotels don’t allow this, but it’s an option available at Civitatis and Getyourguide for example) and some others that also offer free pick-up at their office in Tokyo.
- And, if you didn’t order it before arriving to Japan, right now you can still buy it at some Japan Rail offices in Japan, but it is an average 13% more expensive than the overseas one.
5.- Tips for traveling by train in Japan (for those with and without the JR Pass)
- You will find lines at the platforms, they tell you the wagon number, the type of seat (ordinary, green) and if they are reserved-seats or not. You can trust them 95% of the time
- Next to these, the lines also let you know where to wait in line to board the train (they are super strict with this at some stations.)
- If you are traveling during the high season, you might need to book a reserved seat for some trains or stand during the trip. Booking a reserved seat is free with the pass (at a small cost with single tickets) so plan the longer routes ahead and book at the JR sales office (for any trip, you don’t have to be in Kyoto to reserve a seat for a train that departs from Kyoto).
- You can book your seat on the same day and even half an hour before the time of departure, but these last-minute bookings might not be available for high season travels
- If you didn’t get a reservation, check the lines on the platform and look for un-reserved seat wagons and wait in line to be the first in, there is a higher chance that you find a free seat if you wait in line. If you don’t find any, you can either wait for the next train or travel standing up
- You can reserve a seat and don’t use it. Just try not to do this a lot, you wouldn’t like to spend 3 hours standing when there are seats available around. And you can always go to the office and cancel the reservation.
- Trains are almost 100% on time, so they are easy to spot by the time, the signs with the name of the train, the number and the route (in English in Japanese) and for the lines of people waiting
- You can arrange your travels around the pass, but don’t be obsessed with it, some options are not worth the extra time, such as going to the Japanese Alps (where trains have amazing views but are slow) and at some places like Hakone or Nikko, there are travel packs that allow you to save more including local transport, major visits or hotel discounts.
And if you have chosen to buy the pass, remember that…
- All the Exchange Order has to be exchanged by the paper passport in Japan (this is the real pass, not what you get delivered to your address). You have to exchange it at some offices of Japan Rail and some of these get a bit crowded, so I would recommend trying to exchange it right at the airport (you don’t have to activate it for that day, you can set a different start day when you exchange it).
- Once you have the real pass, you just have to show it at the station gates that have staff from Japan Rail. Big stations might have staff at every gate, but most of them only have these small offices at some gates (they are marked at the signage of the station)
- Avoid the trains with Nozomi and Mizuho at the name, these are not included with the pass and they can charge you the full ticket if you end up in one (and they are the most expensive ones)
- Download the Hyperdia app at your cell phone, it’s the easiest way (yes, better than Google Maps) to move around with the pass. Just remember to uncheck the private railways, sleeper trains and the Nozomi and Mizuho options when searching.
- If you already know when you will be traveling from A to B, book your seat, it is free and you just have to go to a sales office at any Japan Rail station
- Take your passport with you (your country passport, not the JR Pass), they might ask you for it. You will need it to exchange the pass on the first day as it is the document that entitles you to get the pass.
- Keep the pass at a safe place, inside a folder or something that protects it, as it is made of cardboard and it can easily get wet, broken, etc.
6.- Some alternatives to the JR Pass to travel in japan
- The car. Renting a car in Japan can sometimes be cheaper than the train, faster and it allows you to explore more on your own.
- The regional passes. If what you want is to explore a specific place in Japan, you might save more buying a regional pass instead of a general pass. Might not be the most common option for a first trip there, but they are worth for slow travelers.
- Some private companies and governments offer regional passes too. For example, the Kansai Thru Pass won’t allow you to use the Japan Rail trains, but it will allow you to explore Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Osaka, etc. including local buses, connecting trains from some companies, etc.
- The buses. They are a slower option than the trains, but if you can sleep at the bus you can save a lot by traveling by night. You can check (and book) for the major routes at 12Go.asia
- The plane. You have a few low-cost airlines in Japan that will allow you to save some bucks when booking in advance: Peach, Skymark, Jetstar Solaseed… you will find them at Skyscanner and 12Go.asia