Travelling in Japan without a JR Pass

One piece of advice often given to the first-time visitor to Japan is “You must get a JR Pass”. This is simply not true – it all depends on where you are going. If this advice is given to you without the person asking about your intended itinerary, then treat their advice with a grain of salt. A JR Pass is a significant cost, and it can be either a great money saver or a huge waste of money.

The JR Pass can be really useful if you are doing a touring itinerary covering long distances. If this sounds like your plans, then find out here how to check whether a JR Pass is worth it. If you are planning for longer stays of several days or more in cities, you may find a JR Pass isn’t worth it. It can be more economical in this case to pay for single tickets between cities.

Now for a couple of examples where a JR Pass isn’t worth it, but it was suggested.

Case 1

On my very first trip to Japan, I had an open jaw ticket flying into Osaka and out of Tokyo. My plan was to take the shinkansen between Kyoto and Tokyo, and only do some shorter local trips apart from that. I had done my homework and knew that only one long-distance train trip meant a JR Pass wasn’t worth it, so I refused the travel agent’s sales pitch to buy a JR Pass.

Case 2

A friend of mine bought a JR Pass as suggested by her travel agent. She was visiting a friend living near Tokyo, and made day trips into Tokyo, plus a two day visit to Hakone. Fortunately her Tokyo friend alerted her not to use the JR Pass, and just pay for transport as needed. The short distances meant the JR Pass would not nearly have paid off. She was able to get a refund on the pass when she returned home, less a 10% service fee.

How do you get around without a JR Pass?

Trains

Trains are still useful. Even though shinkansen tickets are expensive, if you are just doing one journey, then it can be worth it because it is often the fastest method of travel. This means you get more time to sightsee.

There are also some destinations that are better served by private railways, eg Hakone and Nikko. In case 2 above, taking the Odakyu train to Hakone and using the Hakone Free Pass would have been a suitable option.

Planes

Budget airlines and special tourist air fares offered by the major airlines are often cheaper than shinkansen fares. Just remember to factor in the cost of getting to and from the airport which can easily be 1000 yen or more in some cities.

In case 1 above, flying between Osaka and Tokyo would have been another possible option besides taking the shinkansen.

Planes are also great if your travel plans include Hokkaido or Kyushu, which are a long distance from Tokyo by train. Instead of spending a day on the train, a 2 hour flight can be cheaper and free up time.

Buses

Taking a bus can be a really good option for destinations that are a short to medium distance away, such as Tokyo to Hakuba, Takayama, Matsumoto or Kawaguchiko.

If you’re on a really tight budget, overnight buses can be a great cost-saver on longer distance routes such as Tokyo-Osaka. Buses are slower though and will cut into your holiday time.

The JR Pass – possibly useful, certainly not essential.

When considering transport options, look at the total overall costs of various travel options for your chosen itinerary. You may be able to tweak it a little to get some cost savings, for example staying one night less in a city and taking an evening train to get to your final destination to stay within pass time limits. However don’t try to make a pass “pay” by loading in extra destinations and side trips. Think about what you’d like to do on your holiday, rather than allowing a pass to dictate how you spend your time.

Finally, if you’ve already bought a JR Pass and you are now realising it was a mistake to get this for your planned itinerary, don’t worry! It is possible to get a refund, minus a 10% service fee, as my friend did in case 2 above. Although there is some cost to getting a refund, it can still be more cost-effective than continuing with something that is very badly suited to your travel plans.

Do you have any questions about travelling around Japan? Please feel free to contact me.

Would you like to receive my quarterly newsletter with the latest news for visitors, plus useful seasonal information? Receive a trip planning timeline when you sign up!

For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.