I regret buying the JR Pass. Find out why I don’t intend to buy one again when I’m in Japan next
I finally visited Japan in 2023 after having two trips cancelled during the pandemic lockdowns. Planning a trip to Japan felt daunting – so much to see, so little time. Where to even begin planning a trip?
The only thing I knew with any certainty was that I was going to get a JR Pass. Every blogger, every influencer, every Facebook group touted the importance of the JR Pass. You’ll save money! It’s so convenient! It’s a must-have for travelers!
I don’t regret much from my recent trip to Japan, but I can tell you one thing with certainty: I regret buying the JR Pass.
The JR Pass is not worth it. It’s expensive, flimsy, and wildly inconvenient, and I regret purchasing it. Save yourself some money and headache and skip the JR Pass on your next trip to Japan.
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What is the JR Pass?
The JR Pass, or Japan Rail Pass, is a travel ticket that allows unlimited travel on Japan Railways (JR) trains, buses, and even some ferries for the purchased duration of time. The Shinkansen, or high-speed bullet trains, are the main use of the JR Pass. Generally, the JR Pass is meant to provide travelers with near-unlimited access to the massive network of transit available in Japan.
You’ll be able to go just about anywhere between Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with the JR Pass. It’s even available for more off-the-beaten-path destinations.
It is only available for tourists and must be ordered ahead of time and exchanged prior to use.
It sounds super useful, right? Well… read on to find out why I don’t think the JR pass is worth it.
The JR Pass is expensive
I bought my JR Pass prior to the price increase and I barely broke even. With the price increase now, however, it is eye-wateringly expensive.
80,000 yen for 14 days translates to roughly $570 USD, even with the weak yen right now! Prior to the price increase, it was just under 50,000 yen or ~$330.
A Shinkansen ticket is ~$100, so you would have to be spending a lot of time on the bullet train in a two-week period for the pass to make any sense.
Overtourism is rampant in Japan following their long-awaited re-opening, so some people think the JR Pass price hike is actually meant to curb tourism somewhat.
The JR Pass is flimsy
I don’t know what I expected, but I figured the JR Pass – costing literal hundreds of dollars – would be more than a floppy 1.5″ x 3″ piece of plasticy paper.
I was wrong!
The JR Pass is literally just a vulnerable piece of paper. Robust paper, sure, but paper nonetheless.
Imagine trying to keep track of it for your entire trip. My JR Pass had 14 days of validity so I had to be responsible for it for two weeks. No tears, no damage, no dropping it. It was daunting.
Add to that, to use the JR Pass, you have to run it through the ticket reader when you enter and leave the train station. So this means you have to pull it out of wherever you’re keeping it safe & sound and use it in the busiest dang train stations you’ve ever seen.
You’re probably rolling your eyes at me and saying “ah c’mon, you can put it back in your wallet after each time through the ticket reader!”.
On the Shinkansen? 100%. But on the Tokyo Metro during rush hour? Where exactly do you think you will stop to put it back safe and sound? No, you will put it in your pocket or hold a nervous death grip on it until you exit the ticket readers at your final station.
Sure, I have anxiety, so I’m likely more neurotic than most. But for those with kids… can you imagine letting them handle a multi-hundred dollar piece of paper?
Most importantly, the JR Pass is inconvenient
The flimsy nature of the JR Pass is enough to label it as inconvenient. The fact that it has to be read entering and exiting a platform area is inconvenient. But, dear reader, those are not even the main reasons the JR Pass is inconvenient.
Standing in line at the airport to exchange the pass sucks
You’d think it would be quick to exchange the JR Pass at the airport, but you would be sorely mistaken.
I entered the JR East Travel Service Center to exchange my JR Pass at 4:10 pm. I didn’t exit until just before 5 pm.
Sure, 50 minutes, how bad can that be?
After a 14.5 hour flight, it’s pretty miserable.
I could have instead just purchased a ticket for the Narita Express and hopped on my train to my hotel in that time period. That wait was enough to be over halfway to Tokyo.
50 minutes from the comfort of your couch doesn’t sound awful. But wait until you stand in line after a trans-Pacific flight and then we can talk.
You can’t pre-book Shinkansen tickets unless you buy the pass from one specific website
There are a bunch of authorized websites where you can purchase your JR Pass, and ironically the one that looks the least legitimate is the most official.
I purchased my pass from jrailpass.com but a lot of other tourists purchase from jrpass.com.
The actual official website is japanrailpass.net – which I avoided, because I assumed “.net” was sketchy.
If you purchase your JR Pass from the first two .com websites, you cannot pre-purchase Shinkansen tickets. This means you have to take the JR Pass to a ticket machine and go through the window options to purchase the ticket. Now, don’t get me wrong – the machines are in English and fairly easy to figure out, so it’s not bad!
It’s no different than if you didn’t have the JR Pass and just needed to purchase Shinkansen tickets and pay with your card!
If you purchased your JR Pass through the .net site, you can book reserved Shinkansen seats ahead of time. That is a win, in my book… but! You can always pre-book Shinkansen tickets even without the JR Pass, so really.. a neutral win.
You can use it on certain local lines, but those lines may not be the fastest or most convenient
When I traveled to Kyoto from Osaka, there was a non-JR direct line that started closer to my Osaka hotel and ended just steps away from my Kyoto hotel.
The JR line would have required me to take a train to a different station (at a cost), then catch the JR train to Kyoto, then transfer to a different train to get closer to my Kyoto hotel.
Going direct saved me like 45 minutes, so I did. It was worth it.
You may think you’ll take local JR lines all the time, but they won’t always be the best option.
Using your Suica is easier
My Suica card literally changed my trip to Japan. It sounds dramatic to say it was life-changing, but it was. Everything but Shinakansen can use a Suica in the major cities, so it was easy to just tap and go at the ticket gates. I certainly wasn’t going to lose my phone – but I could lose my JR Pass.
With the price hike, it is going to be hard to break-even with the JR Pass. For me, even if the JR Pass saved me $50 during a trip, I would rather forgo the JR Pass and just use my Suica and buy Shinkansen tickets as needed. The Suica was easy and the JR Pass introduced a lot of headache that I didn’t expect.