Traveling to Japan on budget #1: Planning
I’m pretty sure most of us would travel a lot more often if it didn’t cost so much. Trip to Japan can feel especially expensive to many of us as especially Tokyo is famous for being a very expensive city. Unfortunately, I can’t make traveling to Japan free but I can tell you some things that will make your trip cost a lot less.
I will write about this subject in a series of posts, covering everything from planning, accommodation and side trips to eating, shopping and returning to your home country. Today, I will focus on planning and purchasing the flights.
So, you have decided to go to Japan. First thing you need to decide is when you want to go.
1. Decide the season of travel based on airplane ticket & accommodation fares.
There are four seasons in Japan and each of them have their pros and cons. Summer is hot and humid but as light clothes don’t take that much space, your suitcase will be lighter and have more space for omiyage – souvenirs. There is also a possibility of typhoons and this might, in the worst case, ruin your trip. In Tokyo, you usually don’t have to worry about typhoons too much but if you’re planning a trip to southern Japan, you should take the weather in accord.
As much as I love the summer of my home country, I personally can’t stand Japan’s summer. It’s way too hot and humid, and I usually look like a sweaty dog from the middle of July until the end of August. Even if you absolutely love hot weather, remember that in Tokyo, you might frowned upon if you dress up in micro-shorts and sleeveless tops. However, if you’re going to Hokkaido, northern island of Japan, I really recommend summer. The weather is very nice and summery without being too hot.
Autumn and spring are usually the most recommended seasons to go to Japan. It’s not too hot nor too cold, the weather is moderately sunny and you might get a chance to see either autumn leaves or cherry blossoms. However, since I’m talking about traveling on budget here, I have to tell you the harsh truth: flight tickets and hotels tend to be more expensive during the season of autumn leaves or during hanami season (the season of cherry blossoms). Especially during hanami season, many hotels will rise their prices and most cheaper ones will be booked out months before. I have also noticed that flight tickets tend to be more expensive during these high seasons.
If you’re looking for the cheapest time to travel to Japan, I actually would suggest summer or winter. December and the beginning of January might be a bit expensive but especially February has comparably low rates. In my own experience, June and July are also relatively cheap – probably because the rainy season often lasts from middle of June until the middle of July. However, if you don’t mind the rain and just want to come to Japan no matter what, I suggest looking on the rates of that season as well.
Summing up some dates you should avoid:
- Christmas season
- New Year holidays
- Hanami season (usually from mid March to mid April in Tokyo)
- Golden Week in the beginning of May
- Obon season in the middle of the August (a high season for domestic travel, around 11-20th of August)
- The season of autumn leaves (usually from mid October to mid November)
Basically, avoid all the seasons you most likely would like to go to Japan. Not a nice thing but if you want to save the most in hotels and flights, this is one of the choices that might make your flights remarkably cheaper. However, if you want to go to Japan during one of the more popular seasons (I totally understand if you do), read on.
2. Book your flights early (but not too early!) and be on a lookout for sales.
Since I often fly to Japan from Europe, I often use Finnair for the long-haul flight. They’re not very cheap but they have some great offers sometimes, and you’ll get to know of these offers early especially if you are a member of Finnair Plus member club (completely free of charge by the way so nothing to lose – expect the space of your email folder). I actually managed to buy ridiculously cheap flights for cherry blossom season a few years ago thanks to a sale campaign.
Other than looking out for sales, it’s important to book flights early – but not too early! If you try booking i.e. about year in advance, the ticket fares will most likely be somewhat expensive. The fares will probably drop a lot before your trip but might start raising again when the day of departure approaches. I can’t really tell you anything specific since this depends on your country, the airline you’re using and many other things so I would just recommend to be on a lookout for fare changes too + maybe do some research on the airline you’re using.
3. Consider a flight with a stop-over
In my experience, flights with a stop-over or two often tend to be a lot cheaper than direct flights. My friend managed to buy a round-trip flight ticket from Europe to Japan with one stop-over for around 200€, whereas another friend paid 500€ for a direct flight with nearly the exact same flight dates. Of course they also used completely different airlines but nevertheless, if you can bear with stop-overs and are not in a hurry, I think you should consider this option if you live far away from Japan.
4. Don’t buy guide books or maps.
This is not a big save but there is a great amount of information in the internet lately so I highly doubt you need a guidebook or map during your trip. I understand that there are people like me who just love reading real books though – in that case, you probably shouldn’t save on this point. I also wouldn’t put my money on guided tours or packet traveling but that’s up to you: it might be a good choice if you don’t speak Japanese and like being leaded around.
5. Decide where to go on your trip early
If you wish to visit Tokyo, remember that it will be a lot more difficult to find a cheap hotel than it would be in some smaller cities. Osaka, for example, is also quite a big city but I have found a lot more cheaper hotels there than I have ever managed to find in Tokyo. If you wish to visit Tokyo, consider staying a bit further from the city center. You should also look at the train ticket prices – for this, I suggest site named Hyperdia. Type in the name of the place you possibly would like to stay, look at the fare and calculate which one is cheaper: staying there and riding a train to city center everyday, or staying in a more central area and paying a little less for trains.
The reason why you should think about this point early is because 1) the hotels will get booked out while you’re thinking and 2) you could save a lot of money by buying some kind of train pass. You can buy most train passes after your arrival as well but JR’s Japan Rail pass is still officially only sold for those who haven’t left their home country yet. As an easy rule, if you wish to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka and back in one week, you might want to think about purchasing Japan Rail Pass. However, there are also other options for traveling and if you’re not in a hurry, you can get to Kyoto a lot cheaper by bus (which you can’t use JR pass for). If you are petite-sized like many Japanese people and don’t have a claustrophobia, you might also want to consider night buses.
So, anyone planning a trip on Japan in my readers? Do you have any other tips to share?
If you live near Japan, this post might have been a bit useless to you but I’m sure you’ll find the posts coming up on accommodation, transport and other important things more helpful.
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