Stretching over more than 3000 km Japan is served by an extensive domestic air network. In this article the discount air ticket system for foreign travellers is explained. Unlike for the Asian traveller who can easily fly directly to the islands of Okinawa, Kobe, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Osaka and other big cities, the travellers from America, Europe and Africa arrive almost always in Tokyo (Narita or Haneda).
Air or train
Although Japan has one of the best train networks in the world if you are on a tight schedule and connecting to a place more remote from Tokyo then a domestic flight is your best option. Indeed, for foreign visitors the domestic airfares are more favourably priced compared with the cost of the Shinkansen (high speed) trains. This is mainly because there are a variety of special discounts available for foreign travellers that makes flying in Japan great value for money.
Only if you have time and you are on a 7 day or more journey through Japan then the JR rail pass becomes a better alternative or a good compliment. In such case you can connect many places by train and fly back to your departure destination. More on that in a future article.
The cost of a one week JR rail pass is around 220 EUR or 250 USD. As I explain here below for much less than that price you can fly return to any destination in Japan and have money left for the journey from the airport to your hotel and local train.
As a rule of thumb if you are in Japan for a short period and visiting only one major place more than 400 km away from Tokyo (or any other big city) then flying is normally cheaper and more fast.
Discount tickets for foreign travellers vs. budget airlines
JAL (Japan Airlines) and ANA (All Nippon Airways) are Japan’s main airline carriers. Both offer discount tickets for foreign travelers that are so well priced that without JR pass using the train is not even an option on a longer journey.
Surprisingly and despite publicity from the tourist board, these discount tickets are not very well known and I hope by reading through this article that you will realize that contrary to widespread believe flying in Japan is as cheap as in Europe or the Americas.
Since 2012 Japan also has a number of budget airlines that offer a good alternative for passengers that are not eligible to one of the discounted air fares. Sometimes their prices are even a bit cheaper. However unless you speak the language and are used to the country the fact that you can travel to Japan and within Japan on the same carrier network (Star Alliance or One World) is a far better option. In case of cancellation, adverse weather condition or other problems you only have to contact one help desk.
ANA and Star Alliance discounts
The “Star Alliance Japan Airpass” must be purchased outside Japan and is available to non Japanese residents on ANA and Star Alliance Partner Carriers to or via Japan. From one up to five domestic flight tickets can be purchased, each flight costing 10,000 JPY (roughly 85 USD or 75 EUR in May 2015). Tickets are only sold via ANA.
In addition ANA is also selling a slightly higher priced “Visit Japan Fare” costing 13,000 JPY per flight. The main difference with the above mentioned ”Star Alliance Japan Airpass” is that travelers using the ”Visit JAPAN Fare” can use any airline flying to or from Japan and not necessarily have to be booked on a Star Alliance member.
JAL and One World discounts
Similar to their competitors and for the same price Japan Airlines (JAL) is selling the “ One World Yokoso/Visit Japan Fare “ pass. The ticket can only be purchased by a non Japanese resident in conjunction with a JAL or a oneworld carriers international ticket prior to departure for Japan. Passengers can buy between one and five domestic sectors, with each sector costing 10,000 JPY. Tickets are sold via JAL only.
In addition JAL is also selling the “Welcome to Japan fare” ticket that is available not only to “One World passengers” but also to any other airline carrier passenger flying to or from Japan. The pricing is the same as on Star Alliance and one flight is costing 13,000 JPY excluding sales tax.
Needless to say that the saving is huge (up to 70 %) and helps a lot in making Japan a much more attractive destination pricewise than most foreign travellers tend to think.
A final note. All the above prices are excluding the 8% sales Tax. To save even more and avoid the sales tax my tip is the following:
The sales tax does not apply to the domestic flights immediately connecting to or from the international flights, provided that the connection time between the domestic flight and the international flight is less than 24 hours.