Japan On a Budget

10714010-a-close-look-of-japan-moneyHow much do you think it would cost a U.S. family of three to visit Japan for a week? $7500? $10,000? More?

There is no doubt that Japan can be an expensive place to live and visit (although Tokyo is no longer ranked as one of the top ten most expensive cities on some lists). It’s also one of the most expensive destinations to reach from the U.S. But, there are ways to go and have a memorable visit for much, much less than you probably imagine. Brett, YaYu, and I will spend nine days in Japan next year for $5450, including airfare, an amount many might imagine it would cost for just one person to go. By the time we leave next spring, we’ll have been saving for this trip for nearly a year, and by taking advantage of some of our military benefits, and using our experience and other tips we’ve picked up along the way we’re going to have a great vacation at a very affordable price.

We have family in Japan, but we won’t be staying with them – their condo is too small to add three adults, even for one night. Our son and daughter-in-law may take us out to eat while we’re there, and we’ll probably eat at their home once or twice, but we will reciprocate and take them out as well so our budget wasn’t based on any “family” savings.

When we start planning a trip, Japan included, we break expenses down into three main categories: transportation, lodging, and dining/other expenses. Here’s a look at what we’re spending on our Japan trip as well as some tips for enjoying a visit there for a lot less than you might think:

  • Transportation: Other than arriving by cruise ship, the only way to get to Japan is by air. This is where research becomes vitally important because transportation to and from Japan can take the biggest bite out of your budget. To begin with, and in order to find the best deal on airfare, you have to know what typical round-trip fares are. From Honolulu, for example, nonstop economy fares to Tokyo typically run in the $900 – $1000 per person range, sometimes more (fares are generally a bit lower from the mainland). There are sometimes much lower fares available, but check carefully because often those ‘good deals’ involve long layovers somewhere and a long travel day either coming or going, something we try to avoid. For our trip next year, we set our upper limit for airfare at $900 per person ($2700 total), with upgrades, if any, included in that amount. A few weekends ago I found nonstop round-trip fares and a terrific flight schedule at $750 per person, and we snapped them up. Premium economy seats were $1060 per person at the time and over our maximum, but as I’ve written, I was able to upgrade via the airline’s website for just $158 per person, making the total cost for each ticket $908 per person, or $24 total over our budget, an amount we could live with, especially for upgraded seats. Patience (and a little bit of luck) is key for finding a good ticket price and schedule to Japan, and you have to be willing and ready to jump in and buy when you find a good price that works for you, and then live with your decision. Another consideration when purchasing tickets for Japan is whether to fly in and out of Narita or Haneda airports. Haneda airport is the most convenient for Tokyo, only around 40 minutes away, but flights in and out of there will almost always cost a few hundred dollars more than ones into Narita. Narita airport is unfortunately convenient to nothing other than the town of Narita, but a round-trip ticket on the NEX express train into Tokyo and back can be purchased by international visitors at the airport for a little less than $40 per person ($120 total for us).

    There are lodging bargains in Tokyo: This entire small apartment, located in the posh embassy district near Roppongi, can be rented for $60 per night
    Affordable Tokyo lodging can be found on AirBNB: This entire small apartment, located in the posh embassy district near Roppongi, is just $65 per night
  • Lodging: On our upcoming trip we will be using one of Brett’s earned military benefits and staying at the New Sanno Hotel, run by the U.S. Navy for the exclusive use of military personnel. As retirees, we can stay there only if Brett is along; without him, I can use all the facilities and restaurants, but not stay overnight. Our room (queen bed plus single sofa bed) will cost us $67 per night, tax included, so our entire lodging expense for nine nights will be $603. The hotel is in a great location for us, just a 10-minute walk from our son’s condo. If you’re not eligible for someplace like the New Sanno, business or boutique hotels run around $115 to $125 per night. The rooms are smaller and not as luxurious as the major hotels (which can run $300 to $500 per night), but they’re clean, comfortable and sometimes very stylish. AirBNB in Japan is another affordable option, where you can find entire small apartments for less than $100 per night. The AirBNB rentals we used on our last trip exceeded all expectations for comfort and cleanliness, and our hosts were extremely helpful. Brett and I are planning to use AirBNB when we go to Japan for longer stays in the future, for the savings and the cultural experience.

    A typical Japanese bakery – those creme-filled coronets in the front left cost just $1.50 each. Some of the rolls above contain cheese and bacon or ham and are a little over $2.00 each.
  • Dining/other expenses: We’ve budgeted $200 per day for the three of us for our meals, in-country travel, and other expenses, plus a couple of extra hundred dollars “just in case” ($2000 total). Our days will start with coffee and pastries – Japan has the most incredible bakeries, and a Paris-worthy pastry and coffee cost around $5 – $6 (less if we make coffee in our room). For lunch we often buy something ready-made from a convenience store or supermarket, for around $8 or less per person. Stores like 7-11 or Lawson carry all sorts of interesting bentos, but there are also noodles, fried chicken (yum!), potato salad (yum!), sandwiches, yakisoba, and several varieties of the girls’ favorite onigiri (rice balls). Another inexpensive lunch option is noodles, such as soba (buckwheat noodles), udon (wide wheat noodles), or ramen (Chinese-style noodles). A big, filling bowl of noodles can be found for around $10. Other inexpensive lunch options are kare-raisu (rice topped with curry) and gyoza (potstickers), and ‘set lunches’ can be found at many restaurants for an affordable price. There’s almost always a plastic model of these lunches out in front of a restaurant so you can see what’s available, and only have to point to it when you want to order. The evening meal is when we typically ‘splurge’ and allow ourselves to spend a little more, up to $18 or so, and the possibilities are endless. Besides Japanese foods, there are restaurants serving almost every type of foreign cuisine you can imagine. Meals in Japan come with water and tea, but you can usually order beer or soft drinks at most places, although they’re not all that inexpensive. Besides dining, in-country transportation is factored into our daily expenses as well, for train and taxi fares. A round-trip train trip within Tokyo can be up to $10 but is usually less, maybe $2 or $3 each way. The most expensive journey we’ll make on our trip next year will be to Kamakura at around $18 per person for a round trip ticket, but Kamakura is located over an hour and a half outside of Tokyo. If we were planning some longer day trips, traveling to another part of the country, or staying longer than two weeks we would most likely purchase a rail pass, which would save loads of money. These passes can only be purchased outside of Japan before arrival though – they’re not available once you’re in country. We don’t use taxis all that often, but they can be very convenient. Taxi fares in Tokyo currently start at 730¥ – around $7.00 – and to go around a mile will add another 580¥, a bit less than $6.00. Your fare will add up quickly though for longer rides, especially if you find yourself stuck in traffic. Other daily expenses can include entrance fees to museums or gardens (anywhere from $3 to $5 per person), but we spend most of our time walking around and visiting places that don’t cost anything, like temples or shrines or parks, and window shopping is also fun and doesn’t cost anything. There are free guided walking tours available in Tokyo (in English), and you can sign up for free, private full- or half-day guided tours with an English-speaking guide if you want to visit Kamakura, the only cost being lunch for your guide and possibly some entrance fees. Free guided tours are also available in Kyoto. We usually splurge for an afternoon treat of some kind when we’re out, like crepes in Harajuku, or some ice cream or another fabulous pastry. There is no tipping in Japan, either for food or transportation. Other than picking up interestingly-flavored KitKats and other foods we can’t find here, or a couple more tenugui for the kitchen, we don’t expect to buy much of anything. Pictures and memories are our favorite souvenirs to bring home. One new expense this trip will be a prepaid SIM card for our phones, around $33 for seven days. They weren’t available on our last trip (we rented a phone), but we want one this time so that we can contact our son or daughter-in-law if necessary. Many AirBNB rentals offer pocket WiFi that you can carry with you for free or a very small fee, and/or you can rent them from your hotel.
A Tokyo train & subway map looks complicated, but is not really, and will help you get around Tokyo cheaply and efficiently.
A Tokyo train & subway map may look complicated, but is actually quite easy to figure out and will help you get around the area cheaply and efficiently. I’ve always had someone offer to help if I seem confused about how to get somewhere.

The absolute best way to save money and see Japan for less is to come with a sense of adventure. Japan is very different from the U.S., from the language to the food to the customs, and even if something looks familiar it will always have a unique Japanese twist to it. But, a visit to Japan is an experience like no other. It’s clean, it’s safe, and the Japanese are courteous and helpful to a fault. If you speak a little Japanese, even a simple phrase, you will be praised to the skies. If you get lost someone will help you. I’ve had Japanese people get on a train with me to make sure I got to the right station, or walk with me somewhere to make sure I didn’t get lost. Trains, subways and sites around Tokyo have plenty of English signage these days, in preparation for the 2020 Olympics, making it much, much easier to get around than even just a couple of years ago. Seeing Japan on your own is only limiting or frightening if you let it be, but armed with a good guidebook and map, you can get around and have one of the most memorable times of your life for way less than you might imagine.

8 thoughts on “Japan On a Budget

  1. Great post! I went to Japan last year for 10 days using a tour company that had a Groupon. For two people, the total cost came out to a little less than what you are paying. The flights, hotels, some of the meals and the airport transportation were included in the price. We visited quite a few cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji. It was worth every penny because it was an amazing experience. There were very few signs in English when I was there, but maybe that’s changed.


    1. I think a tour is a great way to see Japan . . . the first time. If you want to go again, you should try it one your own. It’s not as difficult as you might think.

      I can barely read any Japanese, and I’ve always thought of it as a kind of secret code. I try to figure out as much as I can whenever I’m there. I learned hiragana and katakana, the two phonetic “alphabets,” and that opened up a little of it; I also started learning to remember the kanji of city names from road signs so that helped a little too. English is there if you look for it (w-a-y more than a couple of years ago), although it’s not always easy to find. The further you get away from Tokyo, the less you’ll see. But, after you’re there for a while it really begins to stand out, like a lifeline.


      1. Yes, we did a tour because it was our first time there and we didn’t know what to expect. We were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get around because we’d heard no one speaks English, but that really wasn’t the case…at least in Tokyo. Most everyone we met there spoke English and people who work in stores, transportation, hotels speak it. If I ever get the chance to go again, I think I’d feel comfortable on my own. As you said, people are friendly and helpful. I never felt unsafe. We had a couple of days on our own and took the train and had no trouble figuring it out.

        My friend’s daughter and fiance went to Japan on their own a few months after I went. They stayed in AirBNBs because they wanted more of a cultural experience. They also were able to stay longer because they saved money doing it that way and by eating a lot of meals from the vending machines! They’re in their late 20’s though so they were being more adventurous.


      2. There’s nothing wrong with tours if you can get a good deal or the tour is highly-rated (like Rick Steves). I took tours all over Japan when we lived there. One of my favorite “Japan experiences” happened with a tour.

        There are several places I want to go but would only do it on a tour, like India. Anyway, now that you’ve been to Japan, you could probably do it on your own and have a great time!


    1. It depends on how long you’ll be there. For a short trip, a basic phrase book is fine; otherwise Japanese For Busy People is a good text. Rosetta Stone is good too, and helps with pronunciation, but it goes well beyond what you’d need for travel.

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  2. Sounds like you’ll have a wonderful trip. Very good planning and budgeting. This brings back fond memories of my backpacking trip to Japan. I was able to visit Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Hakone area and Kyoto. Love all three, especially Hakone and Kyoto. When I arrive at a new town or city, I like to walk or take public transit. I find walking is the quickest way to get my bearings, keep travel cost low, and I can do sightseeing at my own pace.


    1. A trip to Japan can be more affordable than most people realize. It takes research and careful planning, as well as a sense of adventure once you get there, but it can be done.

      The one type of public transportation that always unnerved me were the buses. I always felt when I stepped onto one that it could be taking me anywhere and I’d have no idea where I was or how to get back. Also, I always had a hard time understanding the female announcer’s (it was always female) high-pitched voice compared to the announcers on the trains or at the stations.

      I’d love to be able to backpack around Japan again.


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