Is The Japan Rail Pass Really Worth It?
The last time I visited Japan, I remember asking myself, is the Japan Rail Pass really worth it? I thought, it’s too expensive, it’s probably just a con. I seriously considered not getting it.
“Nah, you definitely need to get the JR Pass”, everyone in my office warned. With flights to Japan at an all time low, someone in my office was jumping on a plane to this incredible country, every two weeks. So I thought, what’s the harm in looking into it further?
Turns out, my office mates were right.
What is a Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail (JR) Pass is a pass that allows you to catch unlimited amount of JR transport and some partner trains, buses and ferries, in a consecutive duration of days.
The most popular pass covers all of Japan, but you can get passes for specific areas.
Most of the time you don’t need to pay anything extra for a train ticket, the pass covers you. But there are some train lines and aren’t covered. In Tokyo, for instance, there are two metro lines. The pass covers you on the JR East lines only.
The transport system in Japan is beyond amazing. Just take a look at your options in that map. Let me tell you, coming from Australia, that's like a form of heaven. You can get just about anywhere and everywhere with the transport system, it's eco-friendly and locals love it.
How much does it cost?
The price depends on two things, whether you’re travelling economy or first premium, and the pass duration. The duration comes in 7 days, 14 days and 21 days.
Now, don't get scared off from the price. I get it, it's quite a lot of money to be spending before you've even booked your train tickets. But it evens out, just keep reading.
How do you get one?
Funnily enough, you can’t buy the Japan Rail Pass in Japan. You have to organise it before your trip.
Whatever country you’re from, should have an agency that organise this for you. In Australia, that’s JTB Travel.
Best option is to order your pass online and get it posted out to you (AU $8). This usually takes around seven days, but don’t count on the post, give yourself time.
For those who live in Melbourne or Sydney you can request to pick it up from the JBT offices on the same day. This will cost $10 per pass for counter service.
If you’ve left it too late and leave for Japan in less than seven days, then you should call JBT Travel on 1300 739 330 and see what they can organise for you.
How do you use it?
The thing you receive in the mail isn’t actually your pass, it’s more a receipt or a coupon. Once you arrive in Japan, you need to exchange this for your actual JR Pass. You’ve got up to three months to get this pass exchanged before it expires.
To exchange your coupon, you need to find a valid exchange office in Japan. Here’s a list of those offices…
I would recommend exchanging your pass before you need to use it. These exchange offices can get busy, and it can take some time – sometimes, they even want a photo of you (true story). The pass doesn’t start until the day you specify it to start, so you can exchange it before you plan to use it.
In typical Japan form, you kind of need an itinerary in order to exchange the coupon. You only have a set amount of days to use your pass – either 7 days, 14 days, or 21 days. This period works consecutively, so once your travel period has expired, you can’t use it again, whether you used the pass every day or not.
The pass doesn’t really work like a ‘touch on/touch off’ Oyster Card or Myki, you still need to reserve seats on most trains and transport options. The good news is, you can reserve all your transport at once when you visit the exchange office. But come prepared, have everything written down, because sometimes the exchange officers don’t speak very good English and let’s be honest, your accent pronouncing towns is pretty damn horrible.
If you’re travelling around Tokyo with a valid pass, you can use the JR Metro Line. To use your pass, you need to show it to the manned booths at the edge of the ticket gates, and they will let you through.
Be sure to have your passport, pass and your train tickets on you, and easily accessibly, whenever you’re on trains outside of Tokyo, for the person checking tickets.
What's covered by the JR Pass?
As you can imagine, not EVERYTHING is covered with the JR Pass. But what is covered, is enough to get you around Japan. You will have to pay extra for local transport, like bus fares and metro tickets. You may even need to purchase a ticket on non-JR trains. An example is going to Mt Fuji, you have to take a non-JR line some of the way.
What is covered, is the shinkansen, the iconic bullet trains. These bad boys will get you from point A to B in absolutely no time, making travelling around the country much more manageable.
If your pass is still active on your last day in Japan, you can take the NEX, Narita Express to Narita Airport. This will cut off a lot of time, as Narita airport is actually quite a long way from Tokyo itself. The JR Pass also gives you access to the monorail to Haneda airport.
When is it worth it?
I get it, the pass it pretty expensive.
If you’re only visiting Tokyo and not planning on leaving the city, it’s not worth you getting a pass. You can use the metro lines and avoid the JR East lines, and get around Tokyo perfectly fine. It would be a waste of money for you to buy one.
The general rule of thumb here is, if you’re going to be taking two trains outside of Tokyo, then the pass has paid for itself. The train systems in Japan are world-class, and for that, they cost money. Trains usually cost AU $100 – 150 each, depending on the distance of the trip, so take a return trip and you’ve already covered the cost of your pass. If you take multiple trains around all of Japan, then you’ve basically made money.
The pass has been created for fast travel – the kind of travel that most of us can only afford. If you're planning on slowing it down, and taking time to really truly experience Japan's towns and cities, it may not be worth it for you. Or it might be worth looking into purchasing regional passes instead.
What do I do if a JR Pass isn't going to work for me?
Don't worry, you can still reserve seats on trains while in Japan, you just need to pay each time.
So, is it worth it?
Definitely. If you’re looking to travel around Japan between 7, 14 or 21 days, on multiple transport trips, then this pass has been made for you. It really doesn’t take much to make this pass worth it.
Are you heading to Japan? Tell me about your trip! Or, got any questions? Ask me in the comments below.