LCC vs Shinkansen

A few readers have asked whether it's better to take LCC flights or to buy the Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited train travel for a set period of time (generally 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days). Of course it depends on your itinerary, but if costs are comparable I strongly recommend the Japan Rail Pass.


When to Fly in Japan

Of course if you are only going to one or two destinations, such as if you'll fly into Tokyo, spend a few days exploring the capital and then head to Hokkaido to ski, then airlines are probably the way to go, in which case aim to book as early as possible, and preferably on a good airline, such as JAL. The same applies for trips Kyushu and of course Okinawa, an island chain not served by the Shinkansen.

Travelling all Over Japan

For most tourists to Japan however, I strongly recommend the rail pass.

1. The Rail Pass usually saves money.

The cheapest (one-week) pass costs about as much as a return Tokyo - Kyoto ticket, but can be used for a whole week (longer periods offer cheaper daily rates). While LCC flights may look cheaper at face value, by the time lengthy and often expensive commutes to airports are factored in, and extra costs for luggage, taxes etc, even dirt-cheap LCC flights often work out more expensive.

2. The Shinkansen is An Experience Not To Be Missed

To visitors from Europe or Taiwan it won't be anything special, but to anyone else the shinkansen offers a new and unique way of travelling: get on, sit down, relax and watch the beautiful countryside and small towns zip by. You can relax, eat drink, and be merry. There are no check-in queues, luggage restrictions (within reason) or lengthy commutes: it usually drops you downtown ready to continue your adventure.

3. The Shinkansen is Usually Faster

It's the airport commutes again: it usually takes about an hour and a half to travel from central Tokyo to Narita Airport (used by most LCCs). Add another two hours for check-in time (you should really be there even earlier for LCCs) and half an hour to get your bags and transfer at the other end, and you could have taken the Shinkansen all the way to Hiroshima in that time. 

3. The Shinkansen is Much More Reliable

The average Shinkansen arrives within six seconds of its scheduled arrival time, and that's taking into account cancellations for heavy snow, strong winds and earthquakes. With LCCs there's a serious risk that your flight will be cancelled, or you'll be denied boarding for other reasons (see Vanilla Air), in which case you'll be left stranded and probably never see your money again, and will probably have little choice but to take the shinkansen anyway, on a full-fare ticket. By comparison, with the rail pass even if you miss your train (for your own reasons) you can just take the next one. You can also get off along the way without any extra cost.

Conclusion

Of course it depends on your itinerary, but for most travellers to Japan who will be visiting at least two different cities (which require long-distance transport) then the Japan Rail Pass is the way to go.


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