To rail pass or not to rail pass – Japan edition

As opposed to a European rail pass, it’s pretty easy to calculate whether a Japan rail pass is going to save you money:

  1. Decide whether you are more likely to spend 1, 2 or 3 weeks in Japan
  2. Plug the trips you plan to take into Hyperdia (make sure Nozomi, Private Railway and Airplane are not ticked under “Search Details”)
  3. Add up the total cost of these routes (note the total cost of each journey is made up of the fare + seat fee)
  4. Compare the grand total with the price of a rail pass for the duration of your stay

(Personally I don’t think it’s worth paying for Green (superior) class as the regular class on Japanese trains is already of a very high standard.)

If it’s a close call it’s probably still worth getting because it makes it easier to take extra day trips and some of the subway lines in major cities (e.g. the Yamanote Line in Tokyo or the Osaka Loop Line) are also covered so you’ll be able to travel on them for free.

(Note that private subway lines are not covered, but you get the bulk of your value from a JR pass by travelling on shinkansen (bullet trains) and local intercity trains.)

We bought JR passes for our recent 3 week visit to Japan and in our case it certainly saved us money:

  • Number of trips taken: 20
  • Average cost of short distance journey (e.g. day trip): ¥390
  • Average cost of long distance journey (e.g. shinkansen/intercity): ¥12,000
  • Total travel value used: ¥88,690
  • Cost of pass: ¥57,700
  • Money saved: ¥30,990 (approx AU$360 or £235)

This is a significant saving, but it’s still a pretty big outlay in the first place. If you want to travel on a tighter budget it might be worth looking into a long distance bus pass as a cheaper alternative. I’ve not travelled this way in Japan myself but we met a couple that were doing it and they said it was comfortable and convenient. They normally took night buses so by the time they woke up they were in their destination, killing the two birds of transport and accommodation with the same stone. (And I don’t know about you, but I certainly sleep more easily on a bus than I do on a plane.)

Tip 1: seat reservations

It’s free to make a seat reservation using a JR pass and you can do it up until minutes before you actually board the train. Sometimes the reserved cars are sold out but if this is the case you can more often than not get a seat in one of the the unreserved cars. However, sometimes the entire train is made up of reserved cars only. If you absolutely must take that train and all the seats are booked out you can try to book “standing only” tickets.

At the end of the day I do think it’s worth the extra effort to make a seat reservation as it just eliminates any uncertainty.

Tip 2: buying a pass while travelling

The biggest rule about a JR pass is that you cannot buy one in Japan. You have to buy a voucher for the pass before you arrive, then you exchange it for the actually pass at any major train station in Japan. This is all good and well if you’re travelling from your home country to Japan and back again, but what if you’ll be on the road for more than 3 months before you hit Japan? (After 3 months a voucher that hasn’t been converted into a pass expires.) We encountered this exact snag on our recent visit.

The good thing is, while you can’t buy a pass in Japan, you don’t have to purchase the voucher in your home country. The official website lists worldwide agencies that you can buy a voucher from, but if you’re having trouble tracking one of these down you could try what we did in South Korea. (This might be less effective for countries that are further away from Japan.)

We were able to request, purchase and collect JR pass vouchers from a desk at the Tourist Information Centre in Seoul (to the right of the main information desk). The only conditions were we had to do so on a week day during normal business hours (the rest of the centre is open longer) and it took 24 hours to turn around. (Also note that this particular desk may be on lunchbreak for an hour at any time between 12:00-14:00.) But apart from that the whole process was very easy, and those passes saw us travel all the way from Shimonoseki in the west up to Sapporo in the north.

Shinkansen

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Visiting Škocjan Caves on the way from Ljubljana to Piran

After a random guy on the train, our host in Ljubljana and a friend from Melbourne all raved about Škocjan Caves we decided we’d have to go there. Since the caves are situated roughly between Ljubljana and Piran, and Piran was our next destination after Ljubljana, they seemed like the perfect stop over on the way.

The actual logistics of achieving this by public transport turned out to be surprisingly complicated. In case you want to replicate our journey, here is the only combination of public transport I could work out where it was possible to make all the necessary connections:

08:12 - 09:49 train from Ljubljana to Divača
10:00 - 10:07 free shuttle bus from Divača station to the caves
11:00 ~ 12:30 guided tour through the underground canyon
12:30 ~ 14:00 self-guided walk following the Reka River through two more caves
14:00 - 15:15 kill some time at the info centre
15:23 - 15:30 last free shuttle bus back to Divača station
15:30 - 17:15 kill some time at Divača
17:19 - 18:08 train from Divača to Koper
18:30 - 19:16 bus from Koper to Piran

Divača station

Some things to bear in mind

  • Buy both train tickets in Ljubljana – the ticket window at Divača was closed when we got back to the station after the caves and I didn’t notice if it was open when we first arrived.
  • A train ticket for Ljubljana to Koper “via Divača” doesn’t seem to mean you can stop off at Divača and resume your journey later, you have to buy two separate tickets.
  • You don’t need to buy the bus ticket in advance.
  • The whole journey (2 trains and 1 bus) will cost you a bit less than €15 in total.

We looked at taking a bus direct from Divača to Piran, or taking a train back to Ljubljana then a direct bus to Piran, all to avoid the 2 hour wait at Divača station but the timing just didn’t work out. If you want to investigate it yourself or see if the timetables have changed here are the links you’ll need:

Slovenian train timetables
Free shuttle bus between Divača station and Škocjan Caves
Slovenian bus timetables

Luggage lockers

Once you arrive at Divača there’s just enough time to grab one of the only 3 luggage lockers on the station platform before you hop on the shuttle bus. (Only 2 of the lockers were functioning when we were there.) It costs €3 for the day but it only accepts €1 and €0.50 coins and there isn’t anywhere to get change. The lockers are not very tall but they are deep: we were able to fit 2 large travel packs and 2 normal backpacks inside without difficultly.

Lockers at Divača Station

If you can’t get one of the lockers at the station, lockers are available at Škocjan Caves – they’re not mentioned on their website but they confirmed it by email when I asked and I saw the lockers when we were there.

At the caves

When you get the info centre buy your tickets for the 11am tour (you’ll just miss the 10am). You might as well buy a 1 + 2 combined ticket because it’s only €5 more, you get to see more more cool sights, and you’ll need to kill the extra time anyway. (You can’t get to Piran any earlier than shown above!) To pass the time before your tour starts there’s a fantastic view of the collapsed doline a few minutes walk from the info centre (follow the signs).

The info centre has lots of tables and chairs, toilets, a cafe, a souvenir shop and free wifi. The food at the cafe is not cheap but it’s not overly expensive either. The food’s pretty good but the beer is very good. ;)

The canyon tour and additional walk afterwards are AMAZING… you can’t take any photos until the very end of the canyon tour (with or without flash) but here is a little teaser…

Exiting the underground canyon

I won’t say anything else, you have to experience it for yourself!

To rail pass or not to rail pass?

Is a European rail pass worth it? Always wanting to get the most value for my money, this is a question I agonised over in the months leading up to our 4 month journey in 2010.

We knew we wanted to travel by land wherever possible and mapped out a rough circuit which ended up taking this shape:

Map of Europe

At the time I was researching it, a 15 day pass (for use over 2 months) was going to cost AU$1,100 per person.

Cons:

  • We wanted to travel for 4 months so we would have required two passes. But…
  • The first 2 months were going to be interrupted by Morocco (where the EU rail pass doesn’t apply) and we didn’t plan on making 15 trips before Morocco.
  • The second 2 months were going to include Italy (cheap rail anyway) and the Balkans (better to travel by bus) so we wouldn’t have gotten our money’s worth there either.

In other words, our plans didn’t include 2 solid months of travel in countries covered by the pass.

I briefly considered a French-and-Spain-only pass but again, we weren’t planning on making enough trips in those countries for that to be worthwhile.

In the end I decided we’d be better off just buying point-to-point tickets and I budgeted AU$3000 per person for 4 months. We ended up making 41 trips (mostly by rail, but some by bus and a couple by ferry or plane) which cost a total of AU$2440 each. This works out to be an average of AU$59.50 per trip – the rail pass would have averaged at AU$73. (And 13 of the trips we took wouldn’t have been covered by a rail pass anyway.)

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So for us, buying individual tickets worked out to be cheaper – and more convenient – than a rail pass.

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Some points worth bearing in mind:

  • It really depends on where you’re going, how long you’re travelling for, and how quickly you plan to move on from each place. There are other rail passes available, such as the 15 or 21 continuous day passes (you can travel as much as you like within 15 or 21 days), which if you were planning a 2 or 3 week blitz of Europe would be great value… although the pace might not suit your plans.
  • Different countries offer different rail pass options. Since I was coming from Australia I was only looking at the options (and prices) available to Australians.
  • Obviously, all my prices are 1.5 years out of date (I should have written this earlier :P). Rail pass prices have since dropped, but this is probably the result of today’s better AU-EU exchange rate. I think point-to-point travel still would have worked out cheaper for us given our chosen itinerary.
  • Rail travel was most expensive in France, Spain and Germany. If you were only planning on travelling in these countries a select pass (or individual country pass) would probably be worth it.
  • If you’re not pressed for time, it’s significantly cheaper to travel by bus in Spain than by train. This is great for shorter distances (eg Seville-Granada) but probably not worth it for long journeys such as Barcelona-Madrid.
  • Rail travel was cheapest in The Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. A rail pass is probably not worth it for travel in these countries unless you plan on making a LOT of trips.
  • Even if you have a rail pass some countries (such as Spain and Italy) require mandatory seat reservations which reportedly can cost more than buying a single one-off ticket.
  • Also, in Italy you can often save a lot by taking slightly slower trains – from memory you could save something like 50% by taking a 30 min longer journey. (I noticed this particularly for trips between Rome and Naples.)
  • Rail links are not brilliant in the Balkans (eg Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia) but the buses are convenient, efficient, cheap, comfortable, and I think sometimes even faster than the trains!
  • It’s not relevant to the EU rail passes, but as a side note: train travel in Morocco is extremely cheap. (But very slow.)
  • We bought all our tickets at the relevant station a few days before or on the day of departure and never had any problem with getting seats (although we had to sit in separate carriages from Lisbon-Porto).
  • We tended to find the ticket prices were pretty standard and didn’t seem to fluctuate like UK train tickets or airline prices.
  • However, if you’re prepared to book in advance you can save significant money on German trains by buying online. (You can even do it while on the road, you’ll just need to find access to a printer to print your tickets.)
  • Often you can buy tickets from machines (which always had an English menu option), otherwise we usually found the people behind the ticket counters very helpful. We were usually able to use English (except in Toulouse, but we got by in limited French), and when we had a slightly complicated request for the ticket office in Barcelona we wrote all the details down on a piece of paper with the help of a phrase book and handed that over. (The guy that served us was amused and somewhat chuffed we went to the effort.)
  • The only tickets we bought online in advance were our bus trips in Spain, which I think was worth doing because from memory those buses were pretty full. (It would also be worth buying any high-speed train, eg Eurostar, tickets in advance because those prices do get more expensive the closer you buy to your date of travel.)
  • We always travelled second class. Personally I always found this perfectly comfortable and the times I have ridden first class there wasn’t enough of a difference to justify paying extra. (The exception to this would be overnight trains where I do think it’s worth paying more for a private cabin.)
  • If you’re planning on doing a lot of rail travel in Europe I highly recommend buying a copy of the latest Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable before you set out – ours was invaluable for planning ahead. (In the case of buses in the Balkans, your best bet is just to visit the station and look at the timetable posted on the wall as any info you find online might not be accurate.)

For any more info about rail passes or rail/bus/ferry travel in general I can’t recommend The Man in Seat 61 more highly.

If you’re curious how much each of our point-to-point tickets cost click the link below!

travel costs table »