Tokyo on the Cheap: The basics of keeping your expenses down

Tokyo has a reputation of being an expensive place to visit. It can be, as many major cities in the world can be, that is if you stay at 4 star hotels and eat in the posh restaurants. However I have found it to be far less expensive than any US city I have visited, if you plan the trip well.

This page is designed with travelers from the U.S. and Canada going to Tokyo. However I hope it will also be useful for travelers from other parts of the world and those going to other Japanese cities.

When I started designing this web page I envisioned covering the basics on how to have an inexpensive trip to Tokyo would be much larger. However as I started drafting it out I realized that there are only a few major items to reduce the basic costs of a trip. Hence this page is shorter than I first thought it would be.

How will you travel?

- Airfare to Japan will be a major expense. Checking the usual discount booking sites on the internet can get you lower rates, however I must toss in a personal recommendation. Check the discount sites to get prices, then check the JTB USA site as I have found them to often have better prices than others.

- Students and teachers can get good rates through STA Travel.

- For comfort you may want to take direct flights rather than having to transfer. Some transfer layovers can be quite long and leave you drained when you arrive.

- Be aware when your flight arrives as you may want to avoid late night arrivals in order to be able to catch a train to your hotel. The trains do not run all night, and airport buses do not run to all areas of Tokyo late at night. Also to keep in mind is which airport you are arriving at, this will depend on the airline and flight. Tokyo has two international airports, Haneda in the city itself and Narita some distance away.

How long will you be there?

- Tokyo is a massive city, in spite of my making several trips there with the goal of simply exploring the city I have much still to see. I tend to go for three rather than two weeks at a time on my trips. A longer stay also reduces the per day cost of the trip as the airfare cost is averaged out over more days.

When shall you go?

- Climate determines the type and level of activity you can engage in. The time of year for your trip may be determined by school vacations or specific events you wish to attend. Be aware that the climate in Tokyo ranges from cold, even snowy in winter, to rainy in the early summer followed by hot and humid in mid and late summer, with occasional rain. I prefer mid to late October as having mild weather and few rainy days. Even so there is still plenty you can do throughout the year.

Where shall you stay?

- Having a place to bed down and store your stuff is essential. The main considerations are it be inexpensive, clean, quiet and convenient to transportation. This is not hard to determine.

- I recommend searching out small family run accommodations, which are common in Tokyo. Other considerations include non-smoking buildings, I have a tobacco allergy so I must stay in buildings that are 100% non-smoking and there are several in great neighborhoods. Do be aware that many smaller family run places have curfews as the owners need to sleep. These will usually provide you with a key or passcode to get in after the curfew if you ask.

- Reserve well ahead of your trip, small hotels and inns only have so many rooms.

- What about price? Traditional places charge by the person rather than by the room so keep that in mind while searching. The GO TOKYO website has a database were you can search by a maximum price. I recommend you search for places that are under 7,000 yen, about $70.00, a night per person and then looking at the lowest prices.

- I recommend focusing on price first, then look at the transit lines nearby and the neighborhood itself after you make a list of possible places. By this way I found a inexpensive place, 3,000 yen a night per person, that is not only in an interesting neighborhood, Nishi-Asakusa, but near several subway lines.

- Cheaper places may be the type that have toilets down the hall and showers downstairs. However many do have rooms with their own showers and toilets.

Transit

- I have an entire page on transit Navigating Tokyo: The basics of getting around the city so I'll simply refer you to it for now.

- However I do strongly recommend getting a Suica card to simplify transit, it also gets you the transfer discounts between systems at common stations without having to deal with the complexities of the transfer ticket machines.

Where shall you eat?

- Eat mainly at mom and pop restaurants. The service is at times better than fancier places and never worse. An added bonus is that you are eating actual traditional Japanese food rather than some dish found only in one restaurant. My Navigating Tokyo page has tips on eating at these places.

- Chains can also be good, my favorites are Yayoi for their traditional Japanese breakfast and Yoshinoya, which also has a US branch, for when I'm too hungry and tired to shop for a place for a quick bite.

- Tipping: Don't. Tipping is not part of Japanese culture. In fact it can be seen as insulting in the sense of treating the staff as beggars. If you want to show your appreciation eat everything, unless it is too strange to you, in which case have a traveling companion eat it.

What shall you do?

- Viewing.

- There is little or no charge for just looking at stuff, and there is plenty to look at in Tokyo. For those interested in what is in specific areas my A Few Travelers, A Few Weeks + Tokyo = ? page is a list organized by location of places friends and I have considered going to. Treat this list as a shopping guide; locate a place you plan to visit, check what is nearby, and you may see something you did not know was in that particular location.

- Nightlife.

- Consider going to an izakaya, Japanese pubs, rather than more expensive clubs. After all did you travel all the way to Japan to go to the type of venue that is at home? Izakaya are very homey places that welcome anyone, don't be surprised if another customer buys you a treat, reciprocate and enjoy. Also be aware that the U.S. embassy in Japan has released a warning to avoid bars and clubs in trendy Roppongi area as people have had their drinks spiked and woken up later to find their bank accounts tapped for large amounts or even drained.

- Events and festivals.

- Events are often in public places with no special charges. Festivals are always free and a good way to see a bit of local color, and they usually have stalls with great food.

- Go Tokyo Festivals and Events page. A month by month guide of various events in the Tokyo area.

- Japan Times Festival Listings Devoted mainly to traditional festivals for the current month.

- Museums.

- Rainy Days don't have to reduce your enjoyment, Tokyo is rich with museums from the very large to small specialized venues. Many will accept the Grutt Pass, a fat and inexpensive coupon book that gets you access or a very large discount to over 70 museums in Tokyo. The Grutt Pass is available at any museum that takes them. A good place to visit very early on a trip to Tokyo is the Edo-Tokyo Museum which has the pass for sale at the ticket counter.

- Also if you are a student bring your ID card for discounts at many museums. Your ID card should have a date on it. If you are booking your flight through STA Travel they can get you a ISIC card (international student identity card) which will have an expiration date on it showing you are a current student.

- NOTE: If you plan to go to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka Tokyo buy your tickets before you fly to Japan. In Japan they are commonly sold out a month, or longer, ahead of time. If you are in the U.S. you can order your tickets through JTB USA. They have a web page for the Ghibi Museum tickets. JTB Canada also has a page.

A few helpful Resources

Official Tokyo Travel Guide GO TOKYO. The official touriam site for Tokyo. It is worth taking the time to check it out well in advance to planning your trip.

Tokyo Cheapo. Designed and run by cheapos who live in Tokyo. They post regular informative articles and also have an amusing but highly informative podcast.

Navigating Tokyo. My own guide on how to find your way around, more than just transportation, I include tips on many day to day necessities.

Thanks go to:
Kathrine Callahan, Erica Friedman and Jim Nelson for suggestions and feedback.

 Page Created October 27, 2013 | Updated September 4, 2016

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