And take note that within those 15 days, I did not starve. There were even days that I even splurged on restaurants (Korean Barbeque and Japanese Sukiyaki, yums!) and presents for my family and friends back home. So I'm here to share a few tips on how to travel Japan for cheap.
1) Find a cheap flightA no-brainer tip I suppose , but it’s important to stalk the different airlines and constantly check their flight prices. Also remember sign up for their newsletter so they can inform you when a sale pops up.
Travel booking websites such as Zuji.com , FareCompare, Expedia and Wego are your friend. The tip however, is to use them for flight comparison only because purchasing directly from the Airline websites itself will allow you to skip their steep booking fee (Zuji.com charges SGD$20 for booking! ). However, there are times when certain offers are only available at these booking sites so make your own comparison and decide wisely.
The best way to ensure a cheap flight is to book early and travel during an Off-Peak period. That said though, you never know what deals may pop up in the last minute. I choose to fly on the 30th December and bought my tickets a week before flying for just SGD$420.
2) Travel light. Skip the check-in baggageTravelling light not only allows you to sprint faster, it also allows you to get away with paying extra for check-in baggage. Choosing to check in your baggage for a return flight can sometimes cost you as much as nearly 2 blue notes! (That’s SGD $100 btw).
Check out my Tips to packing light by clicking here!
My tip is to travel with just a cabin baggage when you depart and then buy baggage space for the return trip so you can lug your souvenirs and new clothes back . Doing so easily saves you half the baggage cost!
3) Choose between a return or an Open-city ticketIt’s important to know what options you have. While return tickets are usually cheaper, Open-city tickets can maximize your travel options and even save you money in the end. Especially if you intend to fly into Tokyo and have Kyoto as your last stop. If that's your plan then either an overnight bus or a pricey Shinkansen back to Tokyo would need to be arranged.
The time and money spent on getting back might just be worth the Open-city ticket. It’s up to you to weigh your options so make sure you plan everything out before buying your tickets.
4) You cannot see everything, plan a logical itineraryIt’s easy to get carried away when you plan your trip because you want to make every second count. What may look like a good idea on paper might turn out to be a bleak, unmemorable and frantic chase. Don’t squeeze too much places into your limited time. Instead, plan to spend quality time and make sure you allocate enough time to explore that city before moving off. Of course, do your research beforehand to determine how long you should allocate for a place.
What I learnt from my travelling is that transport expenses usually ranks the highest after flight. Sometimes going to a place slightly off the beaten path can cost you a lot more due to the lack of public transport which in turn pushes the cost up.
For example, a day trip from Kanazawa to the World UNESCO heritage site ShirakawaGo will easily put you back by 6780yen (SGD$81.90). If you are going to spend so much money just going to one place, might as well spend a little extra and put up a night there. While staying in ShirakawaGo was not cheap, it allowed me to leisurely take in the beauty of the place at my pace instead of rushing for the last bus.
Download official catalog here: https://www.alpico.co.jp/access/ticket/pdf/mitsuboshiroute2014%5B1%5D.pdf
Check out the local tourist office to see if there is any discount package.
There is a “Three star Route ticket” that goes from Kanazawa – ShirakawaGo – Takayama – Matsumoto for just 5140yen! With this discount package, you can save money, explore new places and plan a logical itinerary all at the same time! If you understand mandarin, check out this blog for more info about the Three Star Route Ticket. I bought my tickets at the local Bus office in Kanazawa.
Also remember to arrange your itinerary in way that minimizes excess travel. It is important to sync your itinerary up with your flight locations and travel in a path that leads you smoothly to your Fly-out Airport.
5) Scrimp reasonably on AccommodationsI know there’s a lot of buzz around AirBnb. While I agree that many times, Airbnb indeed gives you a better deal by providing bigger rooms and sometimes even free portable Wifi. However my experience thus far have taught me that Hostels are still the cheapest, especially if you travel alone. A big room is unnecessary for a solo traveler and they usually come with a bigger budget. Airbnb in my opinion, is usually more suitable for people travelling in a small group so you can split the cost.
Hostels in Japan are the best. Every single hostels I’ve stayed in Japan provide some form of free toiletries, heck my hostel in Kanazawa even provided cotton pads, hair clips and hair bands! The Bunk bed quality and size usually ranges from good to great too!
I always book my hostels with Booking.com. Not only is booking free, there is usually also zero cancellation fee! If you book via booking.com often like me, your account gets upgraded and special perks are given to you. Booking.com’s mobile app also deserves a thumbs up for it’s easy to navigate UI. The App allows you to keep essential information about your stay such as telephone number, location map, rental price and more in a single place. Certain popular destination even have free travel guides for downloads!
* Just a disclaimer, I may earn some commission when you book via the search engine below. It wouldn't come from you but from Booking.com & the hostee. I would really appreciate it if you do though, as it's a nice way to fund all these unbiased reviews and travel tips. But if you don't want to, of course I won't (be able) to force you to haha. Enjoy travelling!
Sometimes a Hotel room might be slightly more expensive but it’s closer to town and saves you travel time and money. So my advice is to search all possible options before making a choice. Below is a list of questions I ask myself before settling on a place.
- - Is it close to the train station or some major Bus stations? Is it easy to locate?
- - Is it easy to reach the attractions from here?
- - How big are the rooms or the bunk beds?
- - What are the reviews on the hygiene, location and staff attitude?
- - Are bicycle rental available for free?
- - Are towels provided for free?
- - Are there shops around to get affordable meals?
- - Is breakfast provided?
The questions may seem trivial but little things can add up. If the hostel provide free bicycle rental, you’ll be surprised by the amount of money you can save by choosing to bike around the city instead of messing with the public transports. You’ll also save the time needed to wait for the buses or trains and enjoy the city from a different perspective. I love biking around compact cities because it allows you to control your own sight see schedule and I can stay out as long as I want without fear of missing my last transport home.
Don’t just settle for the cheapest, take in all your options and select the most suitable!
6) Find the cheapest way out of the AirportA couple of years back, before I first stepped into Japan. Everyone around me who has been to Japan complained about the exorbitant prices to travel there. They told me it’s an expensive place where you cannot save because even getting out of the airport will cost you $80! I was appalled! Thanks to currency fluctuation and introduction of more transport options, getting out of the airport is much cheaper now. However, do your own research and make a choice most suitable for you.
- The Airport limousine ferries visitors to/from Airport to various parts of Tokyo such as main train stations and Big Hotels. It cost 3100yen one way, 4500yen for return tickets. Other than the heavy cost, another downside of the Airport Limousine is that it usually doesn’t bring you to 3 star hotels, Hostels or Airbnb. So after alighting from the expensive ride, you’d still have to take another bus/train.
- The Access Narita is another Airport bus shuttle service that cost just 1000yen. The travel time from Narita Terminal 1 to Tokyo Train Station is roughly 1 hour 25 minutes. Payment is via cash to the driver so you do not need to buy the tickets in advance. You just need to queue up at the bus stop and wait for your ride. Check out their website for a more detailed timetable and route.
- Keisei Bus is an even cheaper option. If you reserved a seat, you can get the tickets for 900yen, without reservations it cost 1000yen. However, since the only contact option I can find in the website is a Japanese phone line. Without proficiency in the language, I doubt I’ll be able to reserve anything and will likely go with the 1000yen unreserved tickets.
Don’t forget the trains too! There are many options out of Narita Airport but I categorize them into either Express trains or Normal trains for easy understanding.
- Keisei Skyliner : Takes just 41 minute from Narita Airport to Ueno Station. Typically cost ¥ 2470yen but for foreigner travelers, there is a discount E-ticket available to us that cost ¥ 2200yen
- Narita Express : One of the priciest shuttle train. Ordinary seats cost 3020yen one way and 4000yen for a round trip. However if you have a JR Pass, this ride is free.
- Keisei Limited Express: Don’t be confused by the name, it’s really just a normal train on a normal train line but it is faster because it skips a lot of stops. From Narita to Ueno takes 70 minutes and cost 1030yen for a single trip.
If you’re staying in Hostels or Airbnbs that are slightly out of the way, you can try searching Hyperdia for the cheapest route. Jump to point 9 below. For more details about cheap transport out of Narita Airport, check out this website.
Even though I only covered transport out of Narita Airport, my point here is that you should research all available options before buying anything.
7) Avoid a JR PassYes, avoid a JR Pass if possible. While the JR Pass does indeed provide huge savings the fact is it doesn’t suit most travellers!
JR PASS: http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/
If you’re not sure what JR Pass is and would like an introduction, check out my earlier blog entry.
Why do people usually purchase a JR pass? There are probably many reasons but the most common would be the fact that they intend to use long distance Shinkansen(bullet trains) at least twice. If you're not crossing provinces or regions then there isn’t a point to purchase a JR pass because you won’t be taking any long distance shinkansens. While you can use the pass for normal train rides within the province or region itself (for example Osaka to Kyoto ) it is far cheaper for you to get a SUICA card or buy a single ticket.
Unless you’re on a long trip, I recommend you plan your itinerary conservatively and avoid travelling long distances. A 5 days 4 nights trip should not include Tokyo and Kyoto because you wouldn’t have time to fully enjoy either. If you intend to cross regions (example from Tokyo to Osaka), there are cheaper alternatives such as an overnight buses.
8) Take the overnight busesIf you have more time on hand and intend to travel broadly across Japan; I suggest taking buses instead. Overnight buses with Willer Express are comfortable, clean and comes with a power socket. Some of the buses even have privacy shades! The seats are fairly spacious for me though I cannot vouch for a tall man.They host a wide variety of routes and even have a special tourist pass.
The tourist pass allows 3, 5 or 7 non-consecutive days usages of the pass. You can book up to 3 bus rides a day (even though I wouldn’t cram that much). If you do the math, you’ll know this is a good deal.
9) Choose the cheaper routeIf you’re travelling in a place that has train lines as complicated as Japan, your best bet is to let the computers do the brain work for you. Hyperdia is probably one of the most used travel timetable and route search for tourist. It not only tells you which trains to take, where to change and how long the journey is. It also displays alternative routes and how much each route cost.
In the example below I’m searching for routes from Osaka to Kyoto Train Station. As you can tell, taking a Shinkansen is only 2 minutes faster but cost exponentially more. Which is why I wouldn’t suggest a JR Pass for visitors intending to use it for short distances.
Google also functions impeccably in Japan. Just do your usual google search in the format below and it will show you a list of train routes based on the closest time. It will also show the price and details such as where to change lines.
The JR trains are usually more convenient but more expensive. Hyperdia and google allows you to make the best decision at the point you need them. Don’t underestimate the amount of money you can save by skipping unnecessary rides and choosing to walk for 5 extra minutes!
10) Stay connected. Buy a Data Sim cardThis last point might appear to spend more money than necessary but keeping yourself connected allows you to make the most suitable decision at the point you need it. It allows you to check the opening hours and find the travel route to the attraction you suddenly have time for. It also allows you to check for the last train, something really important in Japan.
As a solo traveller, a Data Sim card fits my travel style better. Not only is it more convenient than renting a Mobile Wifi, it is also significantly cheaper.
Check out the blog entries I’ve written on acquiring a Data Sim Card in Japan. This is a competitive market in Japan now. More and more companies are competing to dish out the cheapest product to tourists so I cannot guarantee the data sim cards I blogged about will forever be the cheapest. I suggest doing your own share of research to ensure your information is up to date.
> Data Sim Card Vending Machines in Narita Airport
> Getting a Data Sim Card in Kansai
> Acquiring a Data sim in Japan
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