Should We Have Skipped The JR Rail Pass?

02.January 2013

Budget, Japan, Our Budget

JR Rail Pass

Train travel in Japan is a treat. Not only do they leave exactly on time but they are quiet, super clean, and comfortable. The extensive network of train tracks links in nicely with an even more extensive network of subway, bus and ferry routes that make it really easy to get pretty much anywhere in the country.

It’s not cheap though.

Luckily the largest rail consortium in the country, JR Rail, offers a pass that can make it significantly more budget friendly.

Getting, and using, a JR Rail Pass is easy. The JR Rail Pass website has everything that you need to know; who is eligible for a pass, how and where to get a pass voucher, pass types and prices, how and where to exchange your voucher for a pass, and how to use the rail system. We found using the pass, and getting around, to be fairly easy. A quick note about the type of pass; don’t bother paying the premium for the Green Pass. We found the Ordinary cars to be more than comfortable and, from looking through the windows, couldn’t actually see how the Green cars were any different!

Is a JR Rail Pass worth it? Well, I’m not entirely convinced that it saved us money.

As we were in Japan for 27 days, and planned to travel around the country for about two and half weeks in between our stays in Tokyo, we opted for the 21 day pass. This cost us $749 CDN each; a good chunk of change out of our budget! (All numbers here are for one person.)

I, of course, tracked every train trip we took as I wanted to see if the pass would pay for itself.

And here’s where I start to doubt whether the pass was worth it.

A ticket on a JR Rail train is a ticket to get on the train; it doesn’t guarantee you a seat. On any train there are ‘Reserved Seat’ cars and ‘Unreserved Seat’ cars. I tracked what it would have cost us just for the train ticket and what the seat reservation cost us.

For the trips we took, the total for ticket cost plus seat reservation was $810.65. The JR Rail Pass cost us $749 so it appears that we saved  $61.55.

However I don’t think we needed to reserve seats for every trip we took. We always reserved seats (where possible) because it was a service included in the JR Rail Pass but, most often the ‘Unreserved Seat’ cars we more than half empty and we could have easily found a seat without ‘paying’ the seat reservation fee.

So, if I look at just the ticket price ($496.10) versus the cost of the pass ($749), it appears we lost $252.90!! Each!

To be fair; there were a couple of trips where it might have been difficult and anxiety inducing to find a seat. We travelled on one long weekend that had increased train traveller traffic and on another day something must have gone wrong as a number of trains coming from one direction were significantly late which set most of the travelling public into a tizzy but that we didn’t have to worry about because we had a guaranteed seat.

Why did we not see significant value in the pass and what can you do to ensure it’s worth your money?

We traveled quite slowly; activating our passes in Tokyo to travel to Kyoto and then stayed there for a week. We stayed 3, 4, or 5 days in all of the other destinations we traveled to. The JR Rail Pass is best for those who will be traveling significantly during the time the pass is activated.

If you are considering getting a pass, take a close look at your itinerary – if you will be moving often during the duration of your pass, then it will likely be worth it.

In the end I can’t say we shouldn’t have gotten a pass. Having the pass made it fast and easy to access and use the train system. We never quibbled over whether we would go somewhere based on the cost of the train to get there and we always knew that we would have a seat. Peace of mind and ease of use trump the few dollars we may or may not have saved in the long run.

 

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17 Responses to “Should We Have Skipped The JR Rail Pass?”

  1. D.J. - The World of Deej Says:

    Good tips…I’ve often wondered if these rail passes are a good value. We have done a few trips by rail but have always bought one way tickets. Never seemed to be worth the pass for us..
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..Discovering Georgia’s History on St. Simons Island

  2. Emiel Says:

    Great thing to share, thanks! We used JR Rail passes, but that was back in 1996 :)
    We do want to return to Japan in the coming years, and then we will make sure to compare!

    Emiel
    Emiel recently posted..50 shades of travel

  3. Eva Rees Says:

    We used the pass, albeit a one week one, but came to the same conclusion. I can imagine planning an itinerary where a week or so is devoted to lots of travel, but my problem with the pass is all the days you want to spend NOT on the train, between trips. I love your precise calculations!

  4. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) Says:

    My understanding is that even for an “unreserved seat” you still have to pay a fee, it’s just not as high as the reserved ticket fee. That might be completely wrong, but at least on Hyperdia, there are two different prices for those two categories… I don’t really understand why you would have to pay for an unreserved seat, but there you have it. With that in mind (i.e., an unreserved seat does not actually cost you 0Y), would your pass still have lost you money?

    But regardless of all that, I do believe that your overall conclusion is correct: in order to make the JR Pass a worthwhile investment, you need to move around A LOT. Although we were in Japan for 27 days, we only went with a 14-day pass, activating it a few days in when we were doing the bulk of our traveling. We pretty much moved around every other day and with that strategy, I think we saved $320USD per person. We still had to buy some tickets out of pocket while we were there, but if we had purchased a 21-day pass, it would have been much harder to save anything!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..The Foreboding City

    • Gillian Says:

      Thanks for weighing in Steph! I really think it depends on your itinerary and, as you noted also, it’s worth at least roughly estimating costs before blindly thinking it’s the best option.
      Gillian recently posted..Should We Have Skipped The JR Rail Pass?

      • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) Says:

        I also meant to say in my comment that one way the pass works best is if you plan to cover large distances (for instance, heading up to Hokkaido) rather than just jumping around Kansai, etc., If we hadn’t moved around as much as we did in the small regions we explored (and hopped on as many bullet trains), we certainly wouldn’t have saved money, but if we had been traveling to more remote places, the pass would have easily paid for itself.
        Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..The Foreboding City

  5. Lauren @ All Things Go Says:

    This is great! I’m going to Japan mid-March for about a month and have been trying to work out my itinery and see whether the pass would be worth it. I have as much time as I need and I plan to stay in some places for up to 4 or 5 days so I was already starting to think the pass would just go to waste.
    Did you by any chance notice if there was a decent bus system (long distance and short distance) and whether it was much cheaper?

  6. Franca Says:

    As I can see from you schedule the JR Pass didn’t really work at its best for you.
    We spent a month in Japan last year and we found we saved quite a bit with the JR Pass but we traveled quite fast from one place to another and we activated the pass after being a week in Tokyo. I guess for these reasons it was worth it for us.
    Based on our and other experiences, I agree with you that before purchasing the JR pass it’d be better to have the itinerary ready to figure out if it is worth it or not. In fact in many cases (like yours) the saving isn’t that much at all.
    Franca recently posted..Artful Adoption for Abandoned Houses in Naoshima

  7. Cam @ Traveling Canucks Says:

    We used the JR pass for a 2 week trip to Japan in 2010. We found it was good value. What we did was activate our 7-day pass in Tokyo on Day 4 of our trip, then we went to Kyoto and stayed there for 6 nights, each day we would wake up and travel to a new city – Nara, Kobe, Osaka, Hiroshima – then on the final day we took the train back to Yokohama and spent the final 3 nights there. It worked out well for us and allowed us to see a lot of the country in a short period – of course, this itinerary was quite full so it’s not for everyone. Happy New Year!
    Cam @ Traveling Canucks recently posted..How to Travel the World using Frequent Flyer Miles

  8. Raj Says:

    Good Tips !

  9. Ali Says:

    I’m sure passes are great in some cases, and it’s a tough call to know when you’ll want a reserved seat. Andy and I were coming back from Frankfurt on a Sunday night last month and there were no open seats for much of the journey. Andy had to stand for 2 hours, and I was able to snag a seat about halfway through. Not fun. Good to know how the pass compares to buying individual tickets, I’m glad you tracked everything!
    Ali recently posted..6 Countries for New Travelers

  10. Maria Says:

    Sounds like it’s a great thing to have if you have hour+ long trips or you’ll be traveling during peak hours/days around busier hubs (thinking of work day rush hours or national holidays).

    Kudos for your tracking efforts though – that’s PRICELESS intel.
    Maria recently posted..Soul Tempting

  11. Stephen S. Says:

    Impressive breakdown. I’ve felt the same way when I bought an Euro Rail Italy/Greece pass.

    I tracked the cost of the tickets compared to the cost of the pass and it didn’t add up.

    I will say that since the I was only traveling through Italy and Greece my trips were always small, which made the pass not worth the money. If I was going through more countries the pass might have been worth it. I think it greatly depends on the distant of your trip.

    Great post Gillian
    Stephen S. recently posted..My 5 Favorite Blogs of 2012

  12. zebrastravels Says:

    I traveled for a month in Japan and found the JR pass to be a break-even for me. I didn’t have to worry about the ‘will I get a seat’ delima AND found it very helpful for my spur of the moment oh, let’s go see this temple.

    the *one* thing i learned about the jr system is that i had to avoid the ultra rapid trains since i found myself prone to motion sickness which has never happened.

    i’m counting down the days until i head back to Japan!
    zebrastravels recently posted..My take away from AWP and a mini-Hollins reunion? Travel as a Need.

  13. Sammy Says:

    Great article and thanks for sharing!

    I used my JR Pass (7-days) with my wife for our travels last year in Japan, and man i made a calculation when i came back and i saved more than twice the pass price! If anyone is interested, i can post my iternary here, but basically our trip was FAR… From Tokyo to Sapporro in Hokaido, to Osaka/ Kyoto and even to Takayama and back to Tokyo. Just the forward trip from Tokyo to Sapporo is already sufficient to cover the price of the JR Pass itself.

    In conclusion, it entirely depends how far and how much you intend to use, before purchasing the pass. There is an excellent website that gives accurate pricing and routes, and thus comparing with the information one can quite accurately estimate if the pass is worth it.

  14. Jordan B Says:

    Great information. I am leaving for Japan in two months (for a 1-month stay) and was beginning the process of planning my use (or non-use) of rail passes. I’m happy to report that I found the JR Pass is definitely for me.

    My plan is to fly into Tokyo and stay in the area for six days, using a couple JR Kanto Area passes to get around the city, out to see Fuji and other close locales. Then I’ll begin using a 21-day JR Pass by heading far north to Sapporo and then work my way down to Fukuoka (where I am flying out of to Bangkok). Using Hyperdia.com to estimate costs for various legs I plan to do, I have the price fairly covered simply by going to Sapporo from Tokyo, back down the west coast, down to Kyoto and further to Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Nagasaki. The Tokyo-Sapporo ticket alone cost about 20,000 yen, or a little more than a third of the JR Pass price. Multiply that by the length and a half of the country I am travelling and the JR pass is more than worth it.

    Looking forward to compiling a similar chart to prove it to myself after the adventure in Japan is over!

  15. Bronwyn Joy Says:

    Good tips, and yes – you have to look carefully at your itinerary, and the breakdown of individual ticket prices, especially if there’s just one or two of you.

    We travelled through Japan last month and calculated the JR Pass wouldn’t be worth it. However, we built our itinerary around the JR East Pass (available to buy in Japan) and that really was worth it. We were travelling in a group of seven, including kids, so the included seat reservation was great for us.

    There are a lot of regional passes if you’re honing in on particular areas.
    Bronwyn Joy recently posted..Ways to tackle kids kicking the back of the seat, given that you probably can’t cut their legs off, especially with airline security restrictions against sharp objects