The question of whether or not to buy a JR Pass raises endless debates on a regular basis. Opinions vary greatly on the subject of the cost-effectiveness of this train pass and we would be tempted to define the JR Pass as a must-buy which one may do without, as its benefits largely depend on your travel options. It seems to us, however, that it provides many benefits not only because it may turn out to be a very cost-effective solution but also because it will smooth out some of the discomforts of traveling and provide a gateway to the discovery of Japan. Since many of you are actually wondering whether or not to order a JR Pass and since you must imperatively complete your purchase before leaving, we have chosen to take a practical approach in order to allow you to weigh the pros and cons of the JR Pass in your own particular situation.
The main issue however is about money and boils down to the following : “Will I be able to save on transport while touring Japan once I have paid the price for the JR Pass?” First of all, let it be clear for everybody that the price of the JR Pass is a fixed rate in Yens and variations merely result from currency fluctuations. For detailed information (exact rates, length of validity, compatibility, booking…), please (re)read our article about the Japan Rail Pass.
If you’re travelling to Japan, chances are that you will have to settle the question of whether or not to buy a JR Pass. It is actually rather simple to calculate whether the Pass will be cost-effective in your particular situation, and, for the sake of accuracy, you should work it out in Yens and not in Dollars or any other currency. As we have already explained on several occasions, it will only take one Tokyo to Kyoto return trip to almost make your 7-day JR Pass cost-effective. It is actually quite obvious when you compare rates: as shown on Hyperdia, the ride will cost you at least 25,420 Yens (~US$ 235.50 / low season, no seat booking, except Nozomi) whereas a 7-Day Pass costs 28,300 Yens (~US$ 262.20) i.e. a 2,880 Yens difference (~US$ 26.70 at the current exchange rate), and the Pass is also valid on all the other lines included in the offer for a 7-Day period!
Let’s take a comparatively popular tour with foreign tourists in Japan, based on a two week-stay, return flight to and from Tokyo, spending the first week in Tokyo and the second in Kansai. In this particular instance, it would be best to purchase a 7-Day Japan Rail Pass (as opposed to a 14-Day Pass, a frequent mistake that we’ll explain later in this article) to cover the second week’s following rail trips:
- One-way from Tokyo to Kyoto = 13,220 Yens (~US$ 122.50)
- Return trip Kyoto-Nara = 1,380 Yens (~US$ 12.80)
- Return trip Kyoto-Miyajima = 22,220 Yens (~US$ 205.90) for the train ticket + 340 Yens (~US$ 3.10) for the ferry
- One-way from Kyoto to Tokyo = 13,220 Yens (~US$ 122.50)
- One-way Tokyo-Narita by N’EX = around 3,000 Yens (~US$ 27.80) depending on the station and the season
It adds up to a total of 53,380 Yens (~US$ 494.50) which means that buying a JR Pass amounts to saving 25,080 Yens (~US$ 232.40, quite a sum actually) compared to buying individual tickets. And we certainly haven’t crammed in that much travelling as this travel plan allows no less than three full days just to visit Kyoto.
Do not forget either that the JR Pass also offers plenty of other advantages:
- The comfort of not having to buy tickets before each trip or having to plan multiple expenses.
- Seats booked for every trip you take so that you’re sure to be able to travel even in rush/busy periods (especially during the Golden Weeks or Obon).
- Plenty of other trips, even short ones, are covered, for example Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari, Osaka, Uji, Himeji, Kobe… but also in Tokyo (Yamanote, Chuo…) and round and about: Nikko, Kamakura, Nokogiriyama, etc.
It is obviously necessary to do a little advance planning, but you will find that more often than not, the JRP is definitely worth it.
What length of Pass should you go for?
So why not book a JR Pass valid for the whole length of your stay? Simply because it would not be such a good deal. It is indeed wiser to plan to take the most costly trips covered by the Pass at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of your stay, according to your preference. It will not only allow you to save money on transport but also to set apart a few days for quiet visits inside the cities.
Transport will typically take up a large proportion of your travel budget, even larger than accommodation if you’re out to enjoy the amazing diversity of landscapes of the Japanese archipelago. The money saved on transport through a smart use of the JR Pass may therefore allow you to consider a longer stay, more extensive sight-seeing and visiting, more purchases, or it may quite simply help you stay within your budget.
Although you may hear the contrary, the cost-effectiveness of the JR Pass does not depend on the number of people travelling together or the length of their stay: five people touring Japan together for 3 weeks may work out an itinerary which will be less costly without a JR Pass. The most reliable way of working this out, in our opinion, is as explained above, if you wish to enjoy the simplicity of use and variety of options offered by National Company Japan Rail.
Travelling on a JR Pass does not exclude the use of other passes/cards!
You must be aware, however, that if you buy a JR Pass, you may not be able to travel exclusively on that Pass: It may be necessary, as is often the case, to complement it with a Suica card covering all other trips (private companies and time periods outside of JR Pass validity) as well as with passes covering specific trips:
- Regional JR Passes: Hokkaido, East, Kansai, Shikoku, Sanyo, Kyushu…
- Other regional or local passes: Enoshima Kamakura Free Pass, Koyasan World Heritage, Hakone Free Pass…
- Other national passes, for example Sheishun 18 Kippu.
If you opt for a Japan Rail National or Regional Pass, we recommend Jrailpass.com, one of the cheapest providers in the face of fierce competition. Your exchange voucher will be delivered fast by letter with tracking service.
Do not forget either that some trips are not covered by any pass, for example the Keio bus between Shinjuku and Kawaguchiko (a visit we strongly recommend!). One last point, as regards car rentals, to warn you once again that you may very easily exceed your budget (very costly toll fees and car parks…) and even though driving may seem to be the ideal solution to reach the remotest places, it is hardly as comfortable as riding Japanese trains.
Finally, if you don’t like the idea of travelling by train with heavy and/or bulky luggage, don’t forget that takuhaibin is the perfect answer.