How to Save Money on Your Trip to Japan
So you’re finally ready to dig into your savings and go see the magical country that is Japan. Congratulations!
I bet you’ve heard Japan is an expensive country. In many ways it is, but not everything has to cost you an arm and a leg. In this article, I give some of my favorite tips to either save money in Japan, or to get more out of your money.
Get Cheap Airfare
I won’t go into this too much since saving on airfare is a general thing, not a Japan thing. If you’re looking for how to save on airfare, I’m sure there’s a ton of other articles out there. I will share a couple of tidbits from my own experience, however.
Delta and Air Canada have handy price grids showing the cost of the ticket a few days before and after the specific dates you search. The cost variation can be very significant. Knowing which days are cheaper is good info, even if you end up flying on another airline.
Also, I’ve found that airfare aggregation sites like Expedia, Priceline and Travelocity are good as a starting point for your search, but you’re usually able to get the same ticket for cheaper if you buy it directly from the airline.
Get a Good Exchange Rate
Japan is still largely a cash-based society, meaning your average restaurant or souvenir shop will not take a credit card; plan to use cash for almost everything. Worry not, though, since Japan is also probably the safest country in the world to walk around with a load of cash.
However, if possible (and if your credit card offers a fair exchange rate) it’s a good idea to pay for your lodging with your card. This is primarily because you will need cash for just about everything else.
The best way fill your wallet with yen in Japan is to exchange cash at the airport right after you arrive. There are ATMs at post offices and convenience stores that allow you to access cash, but you won’t beat the airport rate by more than a percent.
In the US, we have the perception that everything is a rip-off at airports, but in the case of Japan this is actually the most convenient and reasonable place to convert your currency. Check out the current rates you’ll get at Narita airport here: http://www.narita-airport.or.jp/exchange_e/ and if you want to have a good laugh, call your bank and ask them what rate you would get if you ordered JPY from them.
(Note: in Japan, the term “Mansion” (マンション) is synonymous with apartment. It certainly does NOT mean “big fancy estate with a butler, swimming pool and two tennis courts”)
There are companies that will rent living space on either a weekly or monthly basis, referred to as ウィークリーマンション or マンスリーマンション, respectively. Primarily, these companies cater to Japanese clients who are temporarily transferred to a job location that is too far from their home to commute. However, many of these companies will also rent rooms to foreigners if the foreigner in question either 1) displays adequate mastery of Japanese to be a signing party to a contract or 2) has a Japanese guarantor who will sign for them.
How much can you save here? Last year, I rented a “mansion” for 1 month (including Golden Week, a time when hotel prices often double or triple) in Nagoya for $1050, so basically $36/day (it was a very small one-room apartment). At that price, alternative options would include hostels, capsule hotels or very questionable business hotels. I’ll take the private apartment, please.
Another big bonus to weekly/monthly rentals is that they’re usually equipped with some basic equipment like a refrigerator, hot water pot, rice cooker, microwave and stove top. Many will rent extras such as bicycles upon request (I rented one for about $35).
If you’ve got the Japanese skills or a good Japanese friend to help you, here’s some sites to get you started:
- http://atinn.jp/ (this is where I rented from, because they specialize in Nagoya-area monthly/weekly rentals)
Rent a SIM Card or Portable Wi-fi
Depending on your carrier and plan, staying connected in a foreign country can cost a ton. But if you’re flexible, you can pull it off for a lot less than you might think.
For my trip last year, I took an unlocked Galaxy S3 and swapped in a rented SIM card from eConnect Japan. Naturally, while I was in Japan people couldn’t call me at my USA number, but I don’t get any meaningful phone calls anyway. The SIM card cost me $50 for 1 GB of data to use over 30 days. That’s plenty to do everything I usually do on the internet (email, a few Skype calls, Line, maps, web browsing, train searching), and the speed/connectivity is better than I was used to getting back home.
If you’ve got a phone that’s locked to your carrier or also need to use the internet on other devices, your best option will probably be a portable Wi-Fi point.
Japan Rail Pass
Many of you probably already know about the legendary Japan Rail Pass, but this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it, so here goes…
If you plan on leaving your arrival city in Japan, you should definitely look into the Japan rail pass. It gives you the freedom to get on and off of whatever JR trains you want (including the Hikari and Kodama bullet trains) at whatever stations you want. In other words, you get almost* free roam of Japan’s amazing rail system.
*: just note that it only works on trains which are operated by Japan Rail. That excludes many intra-city trains (especially subways, which are mostly city-run) and some off-the-beaten-path rural train lines.
It’s glorious freedom, a huge money saver, and hassle saver too since you just show your pass to the station attendant and they’ll let you through the wickets; very VIP treatment. You only ever need to line up to reserve a seat, which is a good idea for long trips or during busy hours, but in many cases you’ll have no problem finding an open seat even on the bullet trains.
Not convinced yet? Here’s some math: the JR pass costs approximately $550 for 3 weeks. If you go round-trip from Tokyo to Osaka twice, you’ve basically gotten your investment back.
Here’s the link to get you started: http://www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en003.html
Save on Food and Drink
Food might be the thing people underestimate the most when they plan their travel expenses for any country. This is especially true with Japan because everything is so goddamn delicious. Here’s some tips that I came up with to keep my food budget down, which served me well when I was actually living there but could also help out a tight-budgeted traveler:
- Buy a jar of Nescafe instant coffee for your mornings. A typical Japanese mom-and-pop cafe charges $2-3 for a cup of coffee (it comes in one size: small) and you won’t get refills. And get it at a supermarket if you can, not a convenience store; the prices are usually very different.
- Supermarket bento (boxed meals) are a great deal, and most supermarkets start discounting their bento 20-50% after a certain time, usually 7 or 8 o’clock at night. Find your nearest supermarket and figure out how to take advantage of this.
- Onigiri (rice balls, usually with some kind of filling) are delicious, cheap and satisfying. The ones you get at convenience stores aren’t bad, but keep an eye out for an actual onigiri shop. A real onigiri is twice as large and three times as delicious as a convenience-store knockoff, and still usually costs less than 200 yen.
- Inari sushi. If you have tried them in the US and didn’t like them, I urge you to try them again in Japan. Like onigiri, these are a low cost way to fill your stomach and can be addictively delicious if they’re made well (in Japan, they usually are).
- Japanese instant noodles are on a whole different level compared to the garbage they peddle to us in the US. It’s almost insulting. Buy a Nissin noodle cup, try it, and cry uncontrollably when you discover just how delicious your college years could have been but weren’t.
Bring Back Stuff to Sell
Put your spare suitcase space to good use! Traveling to Japan means you get to bring some stuff back without paying for shipping. You have to do some research and shopping around, but it’s very possible to do things like buy a Nintendo 3DS in Japan for $100, bring it back and sell it on eBay for $150 (the 3DS is easy to sell because it is region-locked, so gamers need an imported one in order to play Japanese games). Japanese PS3/PS4 games are good for the opposite reason (because the hardware is NOT region-locked, the games can be played normally even on non-Japanese hardware).
Of course if you come home with 10 of the same device or game in your suitcase, there’s a chance that customs will look upon that suspiciously, so don’t overdo it. lol
Do you have any money tips for traveling in Japan? If so, feel free to leave a comment! ^^