The most common advice glaring from your Japan vacation research is the JR Pass. But first thing first, you might not need a JR Pass depending how many time you will ride on the Shinkansen also known as the “bullet” or high-speed train to get to your destination, and the number of days you will be moving around.
JR Pass Overview
JR Pass offers foreign visitors unlimited use of all six JR rails which covers the entire country.
- JR Hokkaido
- JR East
- JR Central
- JR West
- JR Shikoku
- JR Kyushu
It is ideal for long-distance travel between cities on the Shinkansen train and direct access between airport and major cities. Example:
- Narita Express – Narita Airport <=> Tokyo
- Haruka Express – Kansai Airport <=> Osaka or Kyoto
The pass is available for a period of 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days.
Calculate the Most Cost-Effective Use of the JR Pass in Four Simple Steps
The quickest way to know if the JR Pass is worth it or not and save money for your trip is by following these steps.
- Calculate a single journey ticket for each of the ride on your itinerary
- Add the cost together
- Compare the total cost to the best suited JR Pass (7 Days, 12 Days, 21 Days)
- Choose the best day to activate the first day of use
Here is an example of a nine-day trip itinerary and use of the express train five times. I tally up the cost for every single journey and compare the total to the JR Pass. I omit the fare for local metro because it is minimal. I didn’t always need to use the JR train in the city, and when I do, the average cost, more or less, is 200 yen per ride.
In a nutshell, the 7 Days pass (29, 110 yen) is the best and cheapest option for this itinerary. However, it is not valid for all nine days. We must consider further, and choose wisely the date to activate the pass and know when to buy separate tickets to maximize saving.
For the same itinerary, here is a scenario use of the JR pass and end up overpaying:
In this scenario, using the JR Pass as soon as Day 1 – 11/23 of the trip costs 9,670 yen more than to buy single tickets for the same journey. Your out-of-pocket expense requires even more with the need to buy a separate ticket purchase on 12/01 to travel from Kyoto to Tokyo on the Shinkansen train, then Tokyo to Narita Airport via Narita Express. The total out-of-pocket cost is a whopping 46, 440 yen, far exceeds more than the total cost (36, 770 yen) of only buying single tickets. It even costs more than the 14-day pass.
Are you following me?
For the same itinerary, here is a scenario use of the JR pass that gives you the most for your money:
Waiting to activate the JR Pass a few days later is the best scenario to maximize the pass, and purchase single ticket going from the airport to Tokyo. The next trip on the Shinkansen Tokyo to Odawara is on 11/26 but could first use as early as 11/25 and still covers for the rest of the trip. On 11/25, you can use the pass for local trains. Factor those rides in, a traveler saves more than a minimum of 4,440 yen.
To calculate the fare for your trip, you can go to HyperDia website and look up the route.
Have questions about your scenario? Leave your comment below.
Buy Japan Rail Pass in the US or Japan
The Japan Rail Pass is now available for sale in Japan until March 31, 2019. But it’s more expensive to buy in Japan, nearly ¥4,000 more than to buy it from the US.
Japan Railway Group does not sell the pass outside of Japan, but you could buy a voucher through authorized travel agents and exchange for the real pass in Japan.
Click here for the official list of sales offices in the US.
If you opt to order online, many of the websites have similar names like “jrpass” and “japanrailpass” that could easily be mistaken for the rail company. Keep in mind that they are an individual business, hence, prudent to check for reviews, refund policy and shipping, and compare costs as they may vary. The spread is $10 – $20.
Their physical address could be anywhere in the world. Mine came from an authorized agent in Barcelona, Spain.
Set Start Date for the First Day of Use
Upon exchanging the voucher for your pass at the JR Office, you can set any Start Date within one month. The ticket agent will validate stamp your pass and print a ticket showing the validity period affixed to your JR pass. You cannot change the date after you have selected your date.
You can also wait to get your pass on the first day you plan using it before you get on a train.
The countdown begins from the first day of use. If you start to use it in the evening, it still counts as one day.
Reserve Seat on the Shinkansen (Bullet) Train in Advance
The JR Pass entitles you to a reserved seat on the bullet train. However, it is optional. You can get seat assignments for all your trip in advance at the JR Office specifying the route and schedule. The agent will print you a separate ticket with your seat assignment to go along with your JR Pass.
If you could careless, skip this step, and head to the platform with your JR Pass and board a non-reserved car, but seats are by first come, first served.
During peak season, it is recommended to secure your seat in advance and especially traveling in a group so everyone can sit together.
It was a low season when I went in November. So I chose to reserve my seat right before I boarded the train because I didn’t want to commit to a time. I would check the schedule a day before and arrive early enough to get a seat assignment.
I would be very interested to know the repercussion, if any, for not showing up to a booked reservation.
Make a Seat Reservation Online before Coming to Japan
Online reservation is available to reserve your train before you come to Japan but only by region and certain trains only.
To check for the scope of train covered by the online seat reservation, you would have to visit each regional website to find out. The six JR rails work together as a group, but they are privately owned and operated.