Should I Get The Japan Rail Pass?
Should I Get The Japan Rail Pass?
One of the first things travelers often bring up when we’re discussing their trip is purchasing the Japan Rail Pass.
However, while it’s commonly thought to be *hands-down* the best – and least expensive – way to travel around Japan, in fact it’s not always the best option!
JAPAN RAIL PASS “BASICS”
First, some basics for those unfamiliar with the Japan Rail Pass (also known as the JR Pass).
The JR Pass is a special rail pass available to tourists visiting Japan. It can be used on both local & express trains and the shinkansen (bullet trains) throughout the country (with some exceptions).
So it can be an amazing and affordable way to explore Japan!
The Rail Pass is available in 7-, 14- and 21-day denominations, and comes in Standard or Green (First) class.
While prices can fluctuate, the 7-day JR Pass usually costs about US 300 (US 400 for Green class); US 450 for the 14-day Pass (US 600 for Green class); and US 600 for the 21-day Pass (US 800 for Green class).
Standard class in Japan is comfortable, but if you prefer luxury then Green class is the way to go!
So Why Is The Japan Rail Pass Not Always The Best Option?
Even though the JR Pass is great... it's not always the best option!
Below are a few examples of times when the JR Pass isn't necessarily best:
SCENARIO 1: YOU’RE TRAVELING DURING PEAK SEASON
During major national holidays – when domestic travel spikes hugely - trains can often sell out.
One of the few problems with the JR Pass is that it does not permit you to make any train or seat reservations until *after* you have arrived in Japan.
So if you’re traveling during one of Japan's busy travel seasons (for example, Golden Week, Obon, or during Cherry Blossom season), it may actually be more convenient for you to simply pre-reserve seats and tickets before you arrive in Japan.
While this is not strictly necessary, having this peace of mind before you arrive in Japan is pretty nice!
SCENARIO 2: YOUR TRAVEL ROUTE DOESN’T JUSTIFY THE RAIL PASS
The JR Pass doesn't always save you money.
For example, let’s imagine that you’re flying into Tokyo, taking the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, and then flying home from Osaka (near Kyoto).
In this case, with only one long-distance bullet train trip, it’s likely that the Japan Rail Pass would actually work out to be more expensive!
While it's true that the JR Pass does let you ride local JR trains within cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, the cost of short local train trips is not going to be enough to justify the Rail Pass in a scenario like this.
SCENARIO 3: YOU PREFER THE SIMPLEST POSSIBLE SOLUTION
As mentioned above, one of the few drawbacks of the Rail Pass is that you can't make seat/ticket reservations until *after* you've arrived in Japan.
While this isn't always a huge nuisance, it can take some quality time away from your trip.
With the Rail Pass, after you've arrived in Japan you need to set aside some time (as little as 15 minutes, as much as 30-45 minutes or more) to visit a JR ticket counter, where you will need to exchange your JR Pass voucher for the actual Pass.
Only after you’ve done this can you begin making train and seat reservations!
On the other hand, if you have your seat reservations made in advance (which can be done through travel agencies) they can usually deliver your train tickets directly to your first hotel – with zero hassle.
CONCLUSION: TO RAIL PASS OR NOT TO RAIL PASS?
Generally speaking, the Japan Rail Pass is one of the best - and most affordable! - ways for travelers to explore Japan, especially if you are making several journeys on the bullet train.
But if any of the scenarios described above apply to you, we hope this helps you determine whether or not you should get the Rail Pass!
Andres Zuleta, Boutique Japan