*To anyone still unsure of whether they should buy the JR Pass after reading the article, you’re welcome to add your basic itinerary to the comments. I’ll be able to give you personalized advice on whether you should buy the JR Pass or not.

To buy or not to buy the JR Pass – that is the question

The decision to buy a JR Pass or not is an important question. They don’t come cheap, and it can be seriously difficult to know if you should buy one or not. The Japan Railways (JR) Group, the company that sells the JR Pass, doesn’t make the decision any easier with their practically endless choices.

Seriously. There are a wide variety of passes available. Beyond the three major country-wide passes, (7 day, 14 day and 21 day JR passes), you can also buy regional passes. The regional passes will allow you unlimited travel within specific borders of Japan. For example, a Kansai-regional pass, which will give you unlimited access to trains within the area that encompasses Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, and Himeji.

Here’s why you probably don’t need a JR Pass, especially not a regional one

If you really want to know the truth, it’s that…You don’t need a JR Pass. Especially not a regional one, since the distances aren’t long or expensive enough within a regional context to make up the costs you’ll sink into a pass. On top of that, regional and inner-city travel often involves using private railway lines, which aren’t covered by the JR Pass. And on top of that…

JR Passes only start to seem reasonable if you lock yourself into the choices that the pass gives you access to

If you’re already intending on using the shinkansen (bullet train) extensively, then the pass is going to look like its worth it. I’d define “extensively” as at least once every 3 days, for a distance of over 2.5 hours on the train. If you add up all the trips you’d take using the shinkansen, you’ll probably want to buy the pass in that case, since it’s likely you’ll make your money back. But that’s only if you’re dead set on using the shinkansen, and are ignoring your other options.

Unless you’re totally panicked by the idea of using a night bus, there’s no good reason to forget about this option. By far and away, night buses are the most economical and convenient way to travel long distances in Japan.

And guess what? Japan has luxury night buses for reasonable prices

If you have a look at Japan’s main highway express bus website, you’ll not only find night buses for an extremely reasonable price (~$40 – $60), but you’ll also find luxury buses. You can tell that a bus will be luxurious if there are only three seats per row, which you can see at your seat selection.

If there are three seats per row, here’s what you can expect:

  1. A privacy curtain that goes around the entirety of your seat.
  2. A charging port for your electronic devices.
  3. A reclining seat that goes to about 30 degrees.
  4. A blanket during cold months.
  5. Multiple rest stops of 10 – 15-minute duration each.

The bonus aspects of using night buses are that you save a full night of money on accommodation, don’t lose any daylight traveling on the trains, have the option for a nearly full refund if processed 2 hours before your bus leaves, and you get to start your day pretty early upon arrival. Especially with the luxury buses, you’ll still wake up feeling refreshed. It’s a total winning situation.

To give a summary answer to the question, I’d personally almost always recommend against getting the JR Pass. Only in certain instances would I tell you to go for it. If you’re still unsure, comment your itinerary below and I’ll tell you if it’s worth the money, or what your alternatives are.

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