OK! So you've decided you're up for a trip to Japan. Let's get this ball rolling right away.
You do want to do this cheaply, right?
Of all the places where you can save money on your trip, your own desk is where you'll actually save the most. We'll look at the three big ways of saving cash in a second, but first, a couple of important things:
How long should you go?
I usually recommend that first-time visitors schedule a trip between 1 and 2 weeks. People with more international travel experience typically do better with longer stays.
Do you have your passport?
If you already have your passport, skip this section. If you've never had a passport, follow this process [this guide assumes you're a US citizen]:
1. Get passport photos taken at your local photo processing place (like a CVS Pharmacy). You'll be able to take them home with you.
2. Get this form from the US government [hit the "Complete Online & Print" button] and fill it out.
3. Take the photos, the form, a valid ID (like a drivers license), your birth certificate and $135 to the nearest post office. Take $195 if you want rush service (which you do if you're leaving in less than a month).
Got your passport? Lovely, let's get around to the saving money part. There are three big steps:
1. Don't go on a guided tour vacation.
Guided tours are no fun. I promise. All the fun stuff in Japan is what you find in between the famous places: the shops, the restaurants, the random people you meet along the way, and most importantly, the stuff you can't possibly predict. Plus, they're really expensive. If you're independent, you'll get to choose what you want to do and when to do it.
2. Book your flight with help
The flight can be the trickiest thing, and many people people think this is where they save or lose the most money. Not true - that's number 3. Still, there's a lot of money to be saved here. When I book my flights, I do the following things:
- Fly to Tokyo Narita. The most flights go through here, and Tokyo is the best place to start your trip. If your airline serves Tokyo Haneda, feel free to go there. Haneda is more convenient, but flights are more rare and more expensive.
- Find a non-stop flight, or the closest thing to it. The fewer layovers you have, the fewer times you have to have your luggage inspected, take off your shoes, show people your tickets and passport, stop to eat expensive airport food, and turn your iPhone off then on again. Plus, it's a shorter trip, and who doesn't love that? Non-stop flights aren't the cheapest option, but they're still the best.
- Use FlightFox to get you the cheapest flight. For $29 you can hire frequent flyers to play travel agent and plan your flights for you. They'll save you way more than $29.
3. Book your hotels online.
Hotels, not flights, are where you're most in danger of spending too much money. Since you'll be staying several nights in Japan, price differences add up quickly. To get some help, there are three great English websites for finding and booking hotels:
- Rakuten Travel: Basically like Expedia for Japan. Lets you search by location, sort by price, see photos, and make reservations online. Mostly has Western-style hotels.
- Japan National Tourist Organization: The Japanese government's official tourism promotion agency runs a hotel search engine with links to multiple reservation sites. Good for cheaper hostels and Japanese-style ryokan hotels.
While you're using these sites, keep these tips in mind:
- Expect to pay over 5,000 yen per night for a single room with a private bathroom, and closer to 10,000 yen for a room for two. I typically pay about 6,000 yen for a single and anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 yen for a room for two. Anything over that and you're getting luxurious.
- Prices vary based on location. Expect to pay more to be in really famous spots like Shinjuku's business district or Shibuya Crossing.
- Pick a single room if you're alone, a twin room if you want separate beds, or a double room for a room with one bed that sleeps two.
- If you want to enjoy Japan's night life, pick a hotel that doesn't have a lock-up time or else you'll be stranded until it re-opens.
- On Rakuten, choose Central Tokyo as your City and start with All locations unless you know you want a specific neighborhood.
- On JNTO, choose the Tokyo & Yokohama Urban Area to start searching.
- On any site, my favorite areas to stay are Ueno and Asakusa for their neighborhood feel. Other good places include Shinjuku for a city feel, Shibuya for nightlife and shopping, and Ginza for fashionistas and foodies.
- Shinagawa is a hotel hub where there's always rooms available at any price. There's nothing immediately in the area, but it's less than 15 minutes to Shibuya and Ebisu, and less than 30 minutes from Shinjuku, Ueno, Akihabara, and Ginza.
- Both Rakuten and JNTO allow you to pay once you arrive at the hotel. This is normal in Japan, so there's rarely a need to pay in advance. This also means you can cancel your reservations.
- Searching for just the right hotel takes a little bit of time, especially the first time you try it. Once you make your first reservation, you'll be managing your hotels like a pro in no time.
OK, so you've got a flight and a place to crash. Time to pack your bags!