Is the JR Rail Pass worth it?

Asia, Destinations, Japan, Travel Tips

Planning a trip to Japan? Wondering whether the famed JR Rail Pass is worth it? Well wonder no more, as we take an in-depth look at the JR Rail Pass this week in our complete guide to the JR Rail Pass

Back in 2015 when I was planning my trip to Japan, one of the things that I considered was whether I’d get a Rail Pass on my trip. I ultimately ended up getting one, but over the years since then, I have come to realize that there are many nuances to when you should consider before getting one. So I thought I’d put together a short guide to let you decide if you need one.

What this post covers:

  1. What is a JR Rail Pass?
  2. Where can I buy one?
  3. What does it look like? How can I use it?
  4. Where can I use it?
  5. It is worth it?

What is a JR Rail Pass?

Riding the Tokyo Subway
Riding the Tokyo Subway

Traveling by train is one of the most convenient ways to get around in most countries and more so in Japan. The JR Rail Pass functions like an all access ticket to most trains in Japan. Additionally you can also access some bus and ferry routes.
The pass is exclusively available to foreign tourists and must be purchased before entering the country. It’s available in variants that entitle pass holders to 7, 14 and 21 consecutive days of travel. Note the emphasis on the word consecutive – simply put, this means that once you use the pass for the first time, you can use it for the next 7, 14 or 21 calendar days only. The pass can only be used on trains operated by JR Rail.

Where can I buy one?

First of all, the JR Rail Pass is only available to foreign tourists on a “temporary” visit visa to Japan. You normally must purchase this pass before you enter Japan (though a variant of the pass that can be purchased within Japan, for a higher cost, is being trialled). The pass is available in two classes – Ordinary (2nd class) and Green Car (1st class). The approximate costs for an Ordinary pass are below:

DurationPrice in JPYPrice in USD
7 days¥ 29,110$ 261
14 days¥ 46,390$ 416
21 days¥ 59,350$ 533

Frankly, you probably don’t need to splurge for the Green Car pass. I used the Ordinary pass throughout my trip and found it quite comfortable.

If you are in Mumbai, you can approach JTB Travels to arrange a JR Rail pass for you

What does it look like? How do I use it?

When you buy the pass, you actually get a voucher that you then exchange for the actual pass once you enter Japan. The pass can be exchanged at any JR Rail office. In fact, there is one right at Tokyo airport that is quite convenient to use, but can get quite crowded. When you exchange your voucher, you will be asked for an activation date to be inserted in your pass. This is the date from which your pass will be active, and functions on a 24 hour basis. Your pass days are not counted from the time you actually used it, but rather from the first hour of the activation date.

My JR Rail pass from my trip to Japan. The pass needs you to fill in some basic information like name, nationality and passport number. The large date indicates the date till which the pass is valid (25-11-2015), while the smaller date indicates the activation date (05-11-2015)
My JR Rail pass from my trip to Japan. The pass needs you to fill in some basic information like name, nationality and passport number. The large date indicates the date till which the pass is valid (11-11-2015), while the smaller date indicates the activation date (05-11-2015)

To use the pass, merely walk up to a manned gate at the station and present your pass. The attendant will glance at your pass and let you through. That’s it – it’s that simple !!! After entering the train, find an unreserved compartment in your car and jump on to a vacant seat and you are on your journey.

Which brings us to the next important question …

Where can I use it?

You can use your JR Rail Pass to ride "bullet" trains like this one
You can use your JR Rail Pass to ride “bullet” trains like this one

The pass provides access to all lines operated by JR Rail, some buses and local trains. Here’s what the pass gets you:

  • Travel on all “shinkansen” trains except “Nozomi” and “Mizuho”. “Nozomi” and “Mizuho” are faster bullet trains and will probably get you to your destination just about 20-30 minutes faster
  • Tokyo monorail (from/to Haneda aiport)
  • JR lines in cities (like Tokyo, Osaka etc.)
  • JR ferry to Miyajima
  • JR Buses except highway/express buses
  • Some regional trains

The pass does not let you use the metro network (e.g. Tokyo Metro, Kyoto Metro etc.). On my trip I used it to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. From Kyoto, the pass came handy for day trips to Naoshima and Himeji.

To plan your trip, Hyperdia is super handy app. While it is paid after the trial period, you can easily use the web version for free.

Is it worth it?

I think a simple answer to that question is …. it really depends, which actually leads us to our next long-winded explanation of when it’s not worth it.

First of all, the JR Rail pass is definitely not worth it, if you intend to largely only visit one region or just stick to one city. For example, if you plan to visit Tokyo for about a week, using the JR Rail pass you would spend ¥ 29,110 for seven days, activating the pass as you land in Tokyo.

On the other hand you could purchase a combo Keisei Skyliner + 72 hour Subway ticket for ¥ 5,400. Then purchase another 72 hour ticket for ¥ 1,500 and a 24 hour ticket for ¥ 800. This will let you roam about Tokyo with unlimited access to the metro for the entire 7 days and return to the airport in style on the Skyliner. Total damages – ¥ 7,700, a whopping ¥ 21,410 saving (or 73%) saving over the pass.
Also if you plan to only spend time in one region, you may want to look at regional passes that may be cheaper. For example, the 3 day Kansai pass will only set you back by ¥ 5,200 and lets you access the entire Kansai region.

Another factor to consider is time. If you have time to spare, and don’t mind long bus journeys, then a bus pass might be actually a good alternative. Willer offers bus passes at ¥ 10,000 for a three day pass and ¥ 15,000 for a five day pass. The best part is that these are days and not consecutive days, so you can make that pass last longer.

To conclude – if you plan to get around Japan rapidly in a short time frame, the JR Rail pass just might make sense for you. It offers definite advantages like access to JR trains, ability to reserve as seat and unlimited travel. It’s drawbacks though, do make it unattractive in some cases.

From my experience, the JR Rail pass is best combined with other options to help maximize the pass value. For instance on my trip to Japan, I used the Keisei Skyliner to get to Tokyo and then the 72 hour subway ticket for my first three days in Tokyo and only activated my pass on the fourth day for a ride to Nikko. Thereafter I used the pass to get me to Kyoto, Himeji, Arashiyama and Naoshima. For trips within Kyoto, I used the Kyoto one day (¥ 900) and two day passes (¥ 1700) to travel freely within the city. The JR Rail pass lasted me till my last day in Tokyo,  and I returned back on the Keisei Skyliner. Overall I reckon I managed at least ¥ 50,000 worth of travel on the ¥ 29,000 JR Rail Pass.

While I spent a fair amount of time figuring out whether the pass was worth my money, you can take the guesswork out of this by trying this handy Japan Rail Pass Calculator that will give you an estimate of your savings (or lack of) from the JR Rail pass.

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