Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, is a travel destination that has been on my bucket list for over 25 years but like many other solo travelers, exploring this country has been avoided because, frankly, visiting Japan in an affordable luxury fashion was too expensive. At the end of last year after some extensive travel cost analysis, I decided that now was the time to take the plunge and just go.
Japan Has Become More Affordable
In 2020 Japan will host the Olympics which, consequently, has led to the development of more affordable travel options. In the past, most travel to Japan by foreigners has been for business purposes. Business travelers tend to be willing to pay more for lodging, flights, taxis and food because high quality entertaining is part of doing business there. Since the Olympics designation, the Japanese government and tourist industry has focused on developing more affordable luxury options and now traveling to Japan in style is not a budget buster.
A Travel Budget Is An Essential Planning Tool For The Solo Traveler
Once I decided I was going to make the trip, I started putting pen to paper by developing an itinerary and estimating the projected trip cost in my trip budgeting guide - something I always do to lay out any trip that I am about to embark upon. This tool helps me save on key items such as flights, accommodations and domestic logistics, as well as, project a target total trip cost number. I have found pre-trip budgeting to be one of the most valuable planning aspects of any solo journey. Here’s my Trip Budget Guide which can be downloaded at the end of this post.
Specifically, my Japan trip developed as follows: it would be twenty-five days in length with a day and a half stopover in Helsinki, since I decided to take the Northern Route over Russia instead of flying 11 plus hours over the Pacific Ocean. I flew Finnair business class-one of my favorite upperclass flight options that I will elaborate more on why in a future blog-from New York to Helsinki and them from Helsinki to Tokyo. Even though the total amount of flying hours was slightly more, breaking up the super long flight is more palatable for me. I tend to get antsy after about eight hours in the air without a break!
My itinerary for the Japan trip was 7 days in Tokyo, 4 days in Hakone, 7 days in Kyoto with a one day trip to Nara, 4 days in Osaka, 2 days in Hiroshima and 1 travel day from Hiroshima back to Tokyo via the bullet train to catch my flight back home the following day. Basically, I planned to spend 22 days in Japan exploring the fascinating culture of this beautiful country with numerous bullet train jaunts to get me from one place to the next.
Flight and Accommodations Costs Are The Most Expensive
The two biggest expenditures of any trip are your flight and accommodations, and spending 22 nights in Japanese hotels is a challenge to any budget. I set my target 5-star hotel costs in Tokyo and Kyoto to stay around $365 per night and in the other cities I looked for lodging in the neighborhood of $250 per night. The total projected accommodations cost based on these numbers came to $7,610 but after an exhaustive booking search I managed to reduce this figure to $6,152. I am stating these expenditures with the caveat of projected cost because often times local taxes are tacked onto the final hotel bill that are not indicated in a booking site’s number.
International Flights Out Of New York Or Los Angeles Are The Cheapest
Because I am from Louisiana and always leave from New Orleans on all of my international trips, I usually travel to New York or Los Angeles to start the main leg of my flight journeys. I have found more international flights go out of these two cities and thus, offer the best fares on international flights.
Traveling to Japan from either New York to Tokyo or Los Angeles to Tokyo entails considerable flying hours, most with lengthy layovers between connecting flights. Non-stop flights from New York have a 14 hour duration and from Los Angeles its 11 hours and 35 minutes- both too long for my liking. The flight from New Orleans to New York takes roughly 3 hours and to Los Angeles, 4 hours. Flying for between 15 to 17 hours in one day without a layover is torture to me.
On Extra Long International Flights I Prefer One Connecting Flight
Accordingly, I like to break up these types of flights with one stop to get out of the aircraft and regroup! This is a great way to squeeze in an extra side trip. My best options from New York with one intermittent stop were Air China which flew non-stop to Beijing with a 5 hour layover there and then on to Tokyo or Finnair flying first to Helsinki with a 9 hour layover and then on to Tokyo. Total travel time via Air China was just over 22 hours and via Finnair was 26 hours. Even though the Finnair flight time was longer, I liked the option of doing some sightseeing in Helsinki for the day rather than being stuck in the Beijing airport for 5 hours.
Flying West to East leaving out of Los Angeles gave me one option worth considering. Air Canada offered a flight that had a relatively short layover, 2 hours and 45 minutes in Vancouver, before flying to Tokyo for another 10 hours which was somewhat over my tolerance level. Total flying time via Air Canada was roughly 13 hours, the quickest option of all the potential West to East flights from the US.
Flight Cost Is The Deciding Factor
The deciding factor for me 9 times out of 10 is the total flight cost. Luckily, I am retired and thus, have the luxury of taking my time to get somewhere. The cost of a Japan Airlines non-stop, business class ticket from New York was $6,244, entirely too expensive, and from Los Angeles a direct flight was $3,081, not bad but the flying time was too long. Air China’s flight with the layover in Beijing ran $2,950 and the Finnair option came in at $2,297!
Yes, I selected the Finnair option with the long layover in Helsinki both inbound and outbound which forced me to book a night in a hotel which cost $250 on my return flight. Even with the added hotel cost the total flight cost from New York to Tokyo via Finnair was $2,547. Tack on the $219 fare from New Orleans to New York flight via Delta and the total flight fare with the one night hotel expense came in at $2,766. Not bad for a business class ticket half way around the world and a nice added travel stop in Helsinki!
Don’t Overlook Pre-Trip Expenses
Now that I have the two biggies tied down, I can move on to develop the rest of the Japan Trip Budget. For any trip there are Pre-Trip expenses that many solo travelers neglect to calculate into a trip’s total cost. Visas, needed new clothing or gear for the excursion, recommended or required vaccinations and immunizations are a few of the typical Pre-Trip expenses you need to include as part of the a solo adventure’s expense.
The most important Pre-Trip expenditure is travel insurance which I can not strongly stress enough, do not leave home without it! Many uncontrollable events can happen while traveling that could cost you some serious money and hence, ruin your trip. For my 25 day Japan/Helsinki trip the travel insurance cost was $798. I use Allianz as my preferred travel insurance provider, an Astrid Solo Travel Advisor affiliate, to bind all of my travel insurance policies.
Transportation Cost Estimates
Other than flight costs, in your Transportation projections you need to estimate how much you think you will spend on Taxis, the Subway, Buses and car-shares such as Uber or Lyft.
Taxis in Japan are expensive but many times grabbing a taxi is necessary because the Japanese language barrier is a deterrent to readily using public transport or communicating successfully to a car share provider where you want to go.
Important! Know that very few Japanese people speak or understand English very well.
Japanese taxis are safe and reliable. Travel tip: get your hotel concierge to write down in Japanese all of the addresses you will be traveling to and give these instructions to the cab driver. Likewise, always carry the address of your hotel in Japanese with you to insure you can communicate how to get back to your home base.
Alternatively, I have found it helpful to have photos of the places I wish to go so that I can easily show someone exactly what I am talking about.
Subways are also a safe and a cost efficient way to get around any city in Japan but be forewarned, stop names are not always displayed in English along side the Japanese kanji symbols. I had no trouble taking the subway in Tokyo but in the other cities I visited I used taxis, walked or visited the sights on my agenda via day tours in sightseeing buses. I didn’t want to risk wasting time trying to navigate the subway stops and then struggling to find my desired destination. Another travel tip: many cities in Japan have few street signs or addresses and, when they do, most of them are in Japanese kanji characters. Know even the most experienced solo traveler can easily get lost in a Japanese city! Consequently, I put a substantial amount, $500, in my cost estimate for taxis, subways and buses.
Purchase A JR Rail Pass
If you are traveling to more than a couple of cities or you are needing to go long distances by train buying a JR Rail Pass is a money saver. Since my itinerary required travel to 6 different cities from Tokyo south to Hiroshima and then back to Tokyo to catch my flight home, the JR Rail Pass was a smart move. The trains in Japan are fabulous, especially, the Shinkasen, the famed Bullet Train. Japanese trains are ultra clean, punctual to the minute and many times the best option in which to travel from one city to another in a day. I chose a First Class rail pass which cost me $764 for unlimited train travel anywhere in Japan for 21 days. An Economy Class pass was about $200 less.
Food And Drink Costs
I’m not a big foodie; so routinely I tend to save money on Food and Drink expenses when traveling but I was liberal this trip with my estimates in this category because Japanese dining tends to be on the pricey side, and sampling all of the delicious Japanese cuisine is part of the cultural experience here. As you will see on my Trip Budget Worksheet below I plugged in $1,500 for Meals, $250 for Coffee, Snacks, etc. and $250 for Alcohol or Bar expense for a grand total of $2,000 to nourish my body and please my palate.
This category was the most difficult to estimate correctly. I knew roughly what the specialty day tours would cost from my pre-trip research on the Internet, between $50 and $200, but I couldn’t really determined which tours I would want to take until I was on the ground in Japan. Before I left, I thought it would be easier to find the different sites or activities I wanted to see and do than it was in reality. Also, there really are not a lot of day tours offered on the Web. Consequently, I decided to let my hotel concierges recommend which tours I should take once I got there. For Tours and Sightseeing, I estimated a cost of $600.
On every extend solo trip, I always make a pit stop to the spa for a much needed massage or pampering. For this trip I allotted $400 to the Health and Wellness category.
Japan has tons of wonderful Museums and I am a museum lover. Cultural literacy, understanding the culture of my travel destination, is a very important component of all of my solo adventures. I strive to come home with a deep understanding of what makes every place I visit unique. Visiting museums is a vital part of my cultural literacy focus. Since museum fees tend to be low, especially for Seniors like myself, I estimated I would spend $300 on these fees.
Theaters and Shows, like the Tours and Sightseeing estimates, were likewise difficult to easily project. I don’t usually go out at night on my solo travels but when I do it’s typically to some sort of cultural performance, so I plugged in $300 for the Theater and Shows expense.
Beware of Blowing the Budget Shopping
Even though Shopping expenditures are not a pure Entertainment expense I put these activities in this broad section. Souvenirs, gifts and oh yes, a few new clothing items, shoes or inexpensive jewelry are in every trip budget I develop because I am a die-hard Shopaholic! The souvenirs for myself are usually some type of beautiful, ethnic apparel or jewelry. I love to wear my trip memories once I return home! This is one way I keep my travel experiences alive and forever with me. Hence, I estimated $600 for Shopping in Japan vowing to myself I would be disciplined?! I must confess this category is usually the area where I go over budget!! Total for the Entertainment expenditures came in at $2,300.
The Miscellaneous Expense section is a catchall category comprised of fees, unusual items that occur unexpectedly which you have to pay for or the all important Emergency Fund that should be built into any realistic, projected travel budget. The International Phone Plan with AT&T I routinely use costs $60 for one month. This reasonably price plan gives me all of the tech capability I need phone wise while traveling abroad. Currency and Exchange fees are difficult to project because they differ in mark-up, percentage cost depending where you are converting currency. The Banks are typically the best place to convert your money but they are not always readily available when you need one. I estimated $100 for Currency and Exchange fees which might be a little on the high side because I have a no fees ATM debit card with JP Morgan. Last, my Emergency Fund amount for this Japan trip is $500 which brings the total Miscellaneous Expense estimate to $660.
Unique Money Issues In Japan
One of the biggest money saving pluses when traveling to Japan is for Gratuity expenditures. Tipping in Japan is not standard practice. In fact, tips will never be listed on a bill and if you try and tip someone for their services they will refuse it. Bottomline: it is rude to tip in Japan.
In addition, Japan charges a 8% retail tax on most items you purchase but if you go to a tax-free store and show the merchant your passport, this fee will be waived.
Last in Japan, free wifi is offered at very few places. Most people traveling to Japan choose to purchase a portable, individual wifi unit that you must carry with you at all times in order to stay connected to wifi. I highly recommend purchasing a portable wifi unit as a solo traveler. The cost of the portable wifi for 21 days was about $100.
My Japan Projected Budget Worksheet
As you see, I have projected my 25 day Japan trip with a stopover in Helsinki to cost $15,938 or roughly $16,000. Many travel experts use a formula of totaling your trip’s lodging expenditures and multiply that amount by 3 to determine what your maximum trip cost should be. My accommodations totaled $6,152. Multiply that number by 3 and you get $18,456 or roughly $18,500. Accordingly, I am about $2,500 under what the experts project my trip cost should be. I will be doing a follow up blog where I will compare the actual cost of my Japan trip against my projections to see if I came in under budget. I think I can if I don’t blow it with my shopping issues!
Affordable Luxury Solo Travel To Japan Is Not Inexpensive
As I shared at the beginning of this blog, traveling solo to Japan in an affordable luxury style is costly, especially for a trip as lengthy as the one I have created. Another option is one could take a luxury tour, but the excellent tours are expensive and usually have the dreaded solo supplement added to the base price. Quality tours cost in the neighborhood of $14,000 for 14 day not counting air fare which translates to over a $1,000 per day. If you divide the amount of days I will be traveling, 25, into $16,000 the rounded off total trip amount including airfare of my Japan trip comes to a cost of $640 per day, significantly less than a quality luxury tour!
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Author: Astrid Clements
Astrid Solo Travel Advisor CEO and founder, Astrid, has spent over 40 years traveling around the world. She is passionate about embracing the world’s diverse cultures and sharing with others the global need and personal benefit of cultural literacy. Her focus is on affordable luxury travel that is both substantive and fun! To read more about her and each one of our Solo Travel Advisors, head over to theAbout page!