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I finally made one of my bucket-list destinations a reality and visited Japan in April!
If you’ve been before, you know that no first trip to Japan is complete without visiting its most popular cities: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Fortunately, Japan has a well-developed rapid transit network that allows you to go pretty far without spending too much time – unfortunately, not without spending a fair bit of money.
If you’re in Japan for the first time, I recommend investing in a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. Its price tag might deter you from buying it in advance, but trust me, if the following circumstances are true, you’re better off with a pass.
Why Should You Get a Japan Rail Pass?
If you’re traveling to multiple Japanese cities: A JR Pass won’t do you any good if you stay in Tokyo exclusively. While some JR lines cover the Japanese capital city, metro and subway lines (not the same thing) are also plentiful. To travel from place to place within the city in the most efficient way, you’ll likely use all three, which makes a JR Pass useful only sometimes.
However, if your trip involves taking multiple JR lines and Shinkansen (bullet) trains to other parts of Japan, then I recommend purchasing a JR Pass. The pass offers unlimited use of JR lines and high-speed Shinkansen trains during your specified time frame, whether it’s a week, two or three. By using it strategically, you can save a lot of cash.
If your trip is longer than a week: Because you want to extract maximum value from your transit pass, buy one if your trip is at least seven days, unless you plan on traveling super long-distances during a short trip.
The shortest validity timeframe of the pass is one week, or seven consecutive days. The time starts on the day you use the pass for the first time and ends at midnight on the seventh day. The more trains you take during the time the pass is valid, the more money you save.
If you enjoy saving money: Because the number of train rides you can take with the JR Pass is unlimited, you can save quite a bit of cash, and no, it doesn’t mean spending your entire vacation on a train. By planning your itinerary wisely and including the most expensive rail segments in the time the pass is valid, you can see the Land of the Rising Sun without breaking the bank.
If you’re not a Japanese national: The JR Pass is designed for foreigners and isn’t available to citizens of Japan (with some exceptions). You can get one in conjunction with a tourist visa for stays shorter than 90 days. Those traveling for work, research or military duty aren’t eligible to buy the pass.
How to Buy a Japan Rail Pass
Because of all the restrictions, the best way to buy the pass is before you leave for Japan. In fact, it used to not be possible to buy one while in the country. Although you can now get one after arrival, it’s more expensive that way. Since we all want to save money on our travels, you’ll want to buy one in advance.
If you perform a Google search for “Japan Rail Pass,” you’ll find lots of companies selling them online. Because of the abundance of choices, make sure to do your research. For example, one website I’d found when purchasing a pass charged $261 for the pass plus $21 for two-day shipping. The next site I checked wanted $262 for the pass plus free two-day shipping. Bingo!
Make sure to give yourself enough time to receive the passes before boarding a Japan-bound plane. No one is insured against shipping delays, and you don’t want to deal with getting a new pass mid-trip.
Keep in mind that the document your selected agency sends you isn’t the train pass itself but rather an exchange order that you redeem for the pass upon arrival in Japan. I exchanged mine after landing at Haneda International Airport (HND), but you can find exchange offices at dozens of train stations and airport locations.
When you exchange the voucher, present your passport and select the pass’ validity dates, which are then final.
How to Offset the Cost of Japan Rail Pass with Rewards
Although you can’t use points or miles toward train reservations, you have an option to redeem fixed-value points from cards such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Barclaycard Arrival Plus toward such purchases.
Editors Note: The Barclays Arrival Plus seems to be closed to new applicants at this time.
My specific purchase coded as “Travel” on the website I used, which makes it a perfect candidate for redeeming fixed points to erase the cost. As such, consider using the following credit cards to cover your Japan Rail Pass purchase.
Capital One Venture Or Barclaycard Arrival Plus?
The Venture Card from Capital One earns 2X miles per dollar spent on every single purchase. You will earn 50,000 bonus miles, worth $500, after spending $3,000 on the card within the first 3 months.
The miles can be redeemed at a rate of 1 cent each. Use the miles as a statement credit toward a travel purchase made in the last 90 days and erase the cost of the JR Pass. Any number of miles can be redeemed toward the full transaction amount, unless you’re redeeming for a partial credit, in which case at least 2,500 Venture miles must be used.
The Arrival Plus Card from Barclays is another great option when it comes to earning fixed-value points. You will earn 70,000 Arrival miles worth at least $700 after spending $5,000 on it within the first 90 days of account opening, and each mile is worth 1 cent apiece.
Statement credit redemptions start at 10,000 Arrival miles worth $100, but the JR Pass costs more than that, and you should have no issues redeeming your miles as a travel statement credit. Additionally, you will earn 5% of your miles back after making a redemption. If your specific purchase isn’t coded as “Travel” for any reason, consider making a phone call to the issuer and making a redemption over the phone.
The beauty of the Capital One points is in their flexibility. They used to be worth no more than 1 cent each, but the introduction of transfer partners has made them more versatile. The benefit of the Arrival Miles is in getting the rebate after redeeming miles, plus the introductory bonus is higher at the moment.
If you have a big purchase like a JR Rail Pass, the Arrival Plus Card is a great way to cover the cost. However, if you also want to transfer points to an airline partner in the future, the Capital One Venture Card might be just what you need.
How Much Money Japan Rail Pass Saved Me
I planned a classic 12-day Japan itinerary that included visiting Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara and Osaka. I didn’t stay in all those cities but instead took day trips, especially when I was based in Kyoto. In fact, I didn’t use the pass while in Tokyo at all and opted to pay for single train rides within the city. It turned out to be less expensive that way.
The JR Pass paid for itself on day four of being valid when I took a Shinkansen train from Kyoto and Hiroshima and back on the same day. As mentioned earlier, I paid $262 (29,200 yen) for the seven-day pass and used it enough to get $380 (42,550 yen) worth of train rides during those seven days. I finished my trip in Osaka and didn’t return to Tokyo, but my pass was no longer valid anyway.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reduce the cost of my JR Pass with points. I’m watching my 5/24 status like a hawk and therefore can’t afford to open non-Chase credit cards willy-nilly. If that wasn’t part of my consideration, I would’ve opened the Barclaycard Arrival Plus to offset the high cost of the pass—no annual fee for the first year and a high welcome bonus give this card a slight edge over the other cards that earn fixed-value points.
However, I did pay with the United Business Card as I’m working on a minimum spend right now so there’s at least a small silver lining to spending more than $500 on two train passes.
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Editors Note: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.