Japan

Is the JR Pass still worth it in 2024? A comprehensive guide with expert tips

Japan is a country known for its rich culture, stunning landscapes, and advanced public transportation system. One of the most convenient ways to explore Japan is by using the Japan Rail Pass, commonly known as the JR Pass. However, Japan Railways increased the prices of all JR Passes in October of 2023. This begs the question: Is the JR pass still worth it? Turns out, not always! This comprehensive guide to the JR Pass provides a detailed overview of the JR Pass, including eligibility, pricing, usage, personal experience, and tips for maximizing its value. See if the JR pass is worth it for you in 2024!

1. What is the JR Pass?

The Japan Rail Pass is a special travel pass available exclusively to foreign tourists visiting Japan. It offers unlimited travel on Japan Railways (JR) trains for a set period. This is an excellent option for those planning to travel extensively across the country. The JR Pass covers most of the JR network, including the famous Shinkansen (bullet trains), local trains, and some buses and ferries operated by JR. It is designed to provide convenience and cost savings for travelers who intend to explore multiple destinations within Japan. If you’ve read our blog post that covers everything about the Tokyo subway system, you’ll already know that the JR pass is not worth it if you plan on using it just in Japan’s capital. Later in this blog post we’ll discuss who benefits most from buying the JR pass.

2. Who is eligible to buy the JR Pass?

The JR Pass is specifically designed for foreign visitors to Japan and cannot be purchased by Japanese residents. To be eligible for the JR Pass, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Tourist visa requirement: You must enter Japan under a “Temporary Visitor” visa status, which is typically only granted to tourists. This status is indicated by a stamp or sticker in your passport upon entry.
  • Foreign nationals only: The pass is available only to foreign nationals. Japanese citizens and residents are not eligible to purchase or use the JR Pass.
  • Passport verification: When activating the JR Pass in Japan, you will need to present your passport and the temporary visitor stamp or sticker for verification.

3. JR Pass types and pricing

Types of JR Passes available

The Japan Rail Pass is available in several different types to suit the varying needs of travelers. It offers unlimited rides on JR trains for set periods of one, two, or three weeks and comes in two main categories: Ordinary and Green Car.

  • Ordinary pass: This is the standard pass, providing access to regular seats on JR trains.
  • Green Car pass: This premium pass offers access to Green Cars (first-class cars) which have more spacious seats and often more amenities than Ordinary Cars.

Previous prices of the JR Pass vs new prices in 2024

In October 2023, Japan Railways significantly increased the prices of all JR Passes. Because of this, the JR Pass is not always worth it anymore. Here’s a comparison of the previous prices and the new prices of the JR Pass in 2024:

DurationPrevious price (Ordinary)New price (Ordinary)Previous price (Green Car)New price (Green Car)
7 days29,650 yen50,000 yen39,600 yen70,000 yen
14 days47,250 yen80,000 yen64,120 yen110,000 yen
21 days60,450 yen100,000 yen83,390 yen140,000 yen
Reduced rates (50% off) apply to children aged 6-11.

Disclaimer
The price increase in October 2023 has significantly affected the value proposition of the JR Pass. While the pass was previously a clear cost-saving measure for many itineraries, the new prices mean that travelers need to carefully consider their travel plans to determine if the pass still offers good value. To see if the JR Pass is worth it for you, you can use this JR Pass calculator.

4. Purchasing the JR Pass

There are two primary ways to purchase a Japan Rail Pass:

Through the official website

Buying through the official JR Pass website allows you to set a start date within a one-month period. You can also make online seat reservations, even before you’ve arrived in Japan. If you have a pretty tight schedule and know all your travel days in advance, you can book them before your trip and pick up all the tickets in one go. This method requires only your passport to pick up the pass in Japan.

Through travel agents

Many authorized travel agents, both online and offline, sell the JR Pass. Purchasing from an agent provides a voucher that must be exchanged for the actual pass in Japan within three months of purchase. The travel agency will mail this voucher (usually twofold) to your registered home address. Don’t forget to bring it with you when you fly to Japan! Going the travel agents route can sometimes include additional travel product bundles or discounts.

As of September 2023, the sale of the JR Pass at train stations inside Japan has been discontinued. There are still plenty of information counters to be found in each station, though.

Buy your Japan Rail Pass via GetYourGuide or purchase your JR Pass through Klook.

5. How to activate the JR Pass

Activating your JR Pass is pretty straightforward, all you have to do is get to a JR office. You can find these offices in almost all Japanese airports, as well as in most major train stations throughout the country.

At the counter, hand over your passport as well as your voucher if you purchased through a travel agent. The JR staff will look for the temporary visitor stamp/sticker in your passport, and your Japan Rail voucher (if applicable).

Once your personal data has been verified, you can choose the activation date of your pass. You can choose a date up to 30 days in the future.

After activation, all is set and you’ll be able to use it on all JR trains, buses, and ferry services!

6. Where to use the JR Pass

The JR Pass is valid on the majority of JR trains across Japan, making it an excellent option for long-distance travel. The pass covers:

  • All JR Shinkansen (bullet trains), except for Nozomi and Mizuho services. Side note: you can still go on the Nozomi and Mizuho bullet trains, all you have to do is purchase a special complimentary ticket. This ticket is on top of the JR Pass that you already purchased.
  • Limited express, express, rapid, and local JR trains.
  • The Tokyo Monorail to/from Haneda Airport.
  • JR Ferry to Miyajima (near Hiroshima).
  • Some non-JR trains to access isolated JR lines.
  • A few local JR buses.

7. Real-life example: our May 2024 trip with the JR Pass

To provide a practical example, let’s look at our own experience traveling in Japan in May 2024. We opted for the 14-day JR Pass, costing us a total of € 976,48 for two people, including currency conversion costs. The price for this ticket is 80,000 yen per person, approximately € 488,24. Yes, we know that’s a lot! If you’re interested in knowing how much we spent during our 3 weeks in Japan, make sure to read our Japan budget breakdown.

The calculation

Now, we used the online calculation tool before visiting Japan which told us that the JR Pass was worth it. But, during our trip we couldn’t shake that feeling whether it was actually worth it or not. That’s why we kept track of all the trips we used our JR Pass on. We wrote down how much each trip would cost us if we were to buy tickets on the spot. If we had bought individual tickets for our entire Japan itinerary, here’s what it would have cost:

JourneyCost per person (JPY)Cost for two (JPY)Cost for two (€)
Tokyo to Tokyo DisneySea and back230 x 4920€ 5,48
Tokyo to Hirosaki18,000 x 236,000€ 214,59
Hirosaki to Sendai11,640 x 223,280€ 138,77
Sendai to Kanazawa22,510 x 245,020€ 268,36
Kanazawa to Kyoto7,720 x 215,440€ 92,04
Kyoto to Nara and back720 x 42,880€ 17,17
Kyoto to Universal Studios Osaka and back2,110 x 48,440€ 50,32
Kyoto to Hiroshima11,940 x 223,880€ 142,35
Hiroshima Station to Itsukushima Shrine620 x 21,240€ 7,35
Hiroshima to Osaka10,950 x 221,900€ 130,54
Total cost for individual tickets178,960€ 1066,96
Total cost for the JR Pass160,000€ 976,48
Savings with JR Pass€ 90,48
Total savings per person€ 45,24

Good to know
The prices of the individual tickets are for non-reserved seats. The added advantage of having a JR pass is that you can get reserved seats at no additional cost. You better believe we made use of that! A reserved seat costs around 500 JPY extra per individually bought bullet train ticket. For the 8 bullet trains or express trains we took, this would add another 8,000 JPY (€ 47,23). We did not include this in the total cost since reserved seating is optional and not a must for most people.

8. So, is the JR Pass worth it in 2024?

Angle one: looking back at our own JR Pass purchase

You can see that we traveled around Japan a lot during the two weeks we had the JR Pass. Still, our savings were “only” € 90!

The journeys with the highest cost, amounting to almost 50% of the total spend, were Tokyo to Hirosaki and Sendai to Kanazawa. If we didn’t visit these lesser-known places in the north-east and north-west of the country, there’s no way we would’ve made our money back.

Another thing to note is that you should not buy the JR Pass for intercity travel. And even if you plan on doing multiple day trips with the JR Pass, you will not make your money back. Just look at how little a bullet train ticket from Kyoto to Osaka costs, or a day trip from Kyoto to Nara.

Of course, we’re still glad that getting the JR Pass “made sense” for us, and that we actually profited (a bit) from it. On top of that, we can now proudly say that we rode a bullet train!

Angle two: looking at the current, increased prices

When Japan Railways increased the prices of all JR Passes, they did not increase the cost of the individual fares. This means that buying a pass got more expensive, up to 77%, whilst buying separate tickets remained the same. This is the first indication that buying a JR Pass is way less attractive than it was less than a year ago. If Japan Railways also increases the cost of the fares in the future, then buying a JR Pass might be a better choice again.

Coupled to regular tickets keeping the same price, is that the shorter your JR Pass is valid for, the less sense it makes for you to buy one. The “cheapest” possible JR Pass costs 50 000 JPY (nearly € 300!) for only seven days. This means you’d have to spend almost 45 euros on train rides every single day for a whole week. Either you’re just not getting to that amount, which makes sense, or you’re traveling around way too fast. In any case, it’s probably not a good deal.

The reason Japan Railways increased their prices is pretty simple, by the way. Since increasing the price of the JR Pass only affects tourists, they want to counter the decline of the yen relative to foreign currencies.

Conclusion

All the arguments given above give us a good idea of when the JR Pass is worth it, and when it isn’t.

First of all, we can (convincingly) say that the 7-day JR Pass is not worth it. Maybe in some unusual and specific situations you could make a case for it. Think of someone visiting family back home, with most of their family spread around Japan. Other than that, we see little use in buying the 7-day JR Pass.

Secondly, even in our specific case with the 14-day JR Pass, the returns were minimal. Sure, we did get our money’s worth (and a little more). However, this was only possible after a lot of planning and because we wanted to see a lot during our first visit to Japan. We activated our JR Pass on our last full day in Tokyo (not from the moment we landed), and made sure to leave for Osaka with the bullet train on the last day that the pass was active. Only in this specific case, with this specific itinerary (not a day later or sooner), the JR Pass made sense for us.

To give you an idea, the cost (80,000 yen) of a 14-day JR Pass is currently € 474,13. You’d have to spend an average of € 33,87 per day to get your money back! We recommend getting a JR Pass if your itinerary is similar to ours, and if you’re staying in Japan for at least 3 weeks.

Further, the 21-day JR Pass is the best value for money (100,000 yen, € 592,66), but that requires you to be in Japan for more than three weeks. You’d have to spend around € 28 each day on train tickets, which is doable if you stray off the beaten track for a bit.

However, since a JR Pass is only worth it when you travel to different cities, this would mean that you’d have to spend around 1 month in Japan to use the pass as efficiently as possible. This way you can have a longer stay in your first and last city of the itinerary, and have a pretty packed schedule in between for when the pass is active. For this reason, we don’t think the 21-day JR Pass is made for the majority of people as most people tend to visit Japan for two to three weeks. We recommend looking into the 21-day JR Pass if you’ll be in Japan for (at least) one month.

Lastly, who is the JR Pass made for, then? We would say the JR Pass makes sense if (1) the JR Pass calculator at least says it’s a close call, (2) you’ll be traveling around Japan quite a bit, and (3) you’re in Japan for a minimum of 3 weeks.

9. Alternatives to the JR Pass

Now that we’ve come to the conclusion that the JR Pass is not always worth it, it is time to look at the alternatives.

Seishun 18 Kippu

The Seishun 18 Kippu offers a budget-friendly alternative, especially if you’re traveling during school holiday seasons.

Seasonal availability

The Seishun 18 Kippu is available three times a year:

  • Spring: Valid from March 1 to April 10 (on sale from February 20 to March 31).
  • Summer: Valid from July 20 to September 10 (on sale from July 1 to August 31).
  • Winter: Valid from December 10 to January 10 (on sale from December 1 to December 31).

Cost, usage and restrictions

At approximately 12,050 yen (€ 70), the Seishun 18 Kippu is at least four times cheaper than the JR Pass. It allows for five days of unlimited travel on JR local and rapid trains. These five days do not need to be consecutive. This makes the pass a great option if you’re looking for a little more flexibility.

On top of that, the Seishun 18 Kippu can be shared among up to five people. The ticket is stamped at the beginning of each travel day by station staff. One person can use the pass on 5 different days, 2 people share it on 2 days and 1 person uses it on 1 day, five different people use the pass on 1 single day,… you get it.

However, the Seishun 18 Kippu does have its limitations, too. We already discussed the seasonal availability, for our own trip to Japan in May 2024 we wouldn’t have been able to use it. Also, the Seishun 18 Kippu doesn’t include Shinkansen or limited express trains. It does, however, cover all JR local and rapid trains, as well as certain JR buses and ferries.

Lastly, you should also consider that this pass is less ideal to travel long distances. For example, it takes around nine hours to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by local trains. Compared to the two hours it takes with the Shinkansen, that’s a big difference!

Regional passes

The number of nationwide passes in Japan are limited, but there are plenty of regional passes available. These passes provide unlimited travel within certain regions and often include local attractions and discounts. Here are a few popular options:

  • JR East Pass (Tohoku Area): This pass covers the Tohoku region and costs around 30,000 yen (€ 177) for 5 flexible days within a 14-day period. It’s ideal for exploring northern Honshu, including destinations like Sendai, Aomori, and the scenic coastlines.
  • JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass: Priced at around 35,000 yen (€ 205), this pass offers 6 flexible days of travel within a 14-day period across eastern Honshu and southern Hokkaido. It’s perfect for visiting cities like Tokyo, Hakodate, and Sapporo.
  • JR Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass: This pass is 17,000 yen (€ 100) for 5 days and covers popular destinations in Kansai and beyond, including Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and Hiroshima.

Buying individual tickets

Maybe a surprising choice, but Japan’s railway system and pricing is surprisingly accessible. Whilst the JR Pass only makes sense if you’re moving around every couple of days, buying individual tickets is often the better choice. Even though Shinkansen tickets can be pricey, you’re still looking at “only” 14,000 JPY (€ 80) for a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, for instance.

10. Bonus section: seat reservations

An added bonus of getting the JR Pass through the official website, is that you can make seat reservations in advance – even before you’ve even arrived in Japan. You can make seat reservations for Shinkansen trips, and on rapid express trains. Local trains do not take seat reservations. If you’ve bought through a 3rd party seller, you cannot make seat reservations online. Of course, you can still get tickets from any JR office, and recently you can also get them from the JR machines in the stations.

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