The Dream Day Guide to Japan Travel (part one): Package deals are your new bestie
Going to Japan *can* be expensive. I've had friends who stayed in fancy hotels, used Uber to get around, and ate only at tourist restaurants. That's not the Dream Day way to travel! We are all about cheap/delicious meals, public transportation, staying in a residential neighborhood, and buying super kawaii souvenirs at the 100 yen stores. And oh yeah, HAVING THE BEST TRIP EVER!
Are you in? Okay, let's get going!
PART ONE: GETTING THERE WITHOUT SELLING ALL OF YOUR WORLDLY POSSESSIONS AND/OR RUINING YOUR CREDIT SCORE.
I have to start this off with this disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Orbitz or any other travel site. They aren't paying me to say this stuff. I mean, I wish I were being paid by Orbitz, so if anyone from Orbitz sees this, hit me up.
My first attempt at booking a trip to Japan left me in a state of shock. Airfare was >$1500 and the list of hotels was overwhelming and expensive. And Tokyo is so large, I couldn't even figure out where I would want to stay or even the things I wanted to see.
And then a friend said the words that would change the way I traveled (no matter the destination) for the rest of time: package deal.
It sounds terrible, right? Those two words conjure up images of all-inclusive resorts, salmonella-filled buffets, and bumpy bus tours. And sure, those are two types of package deals, but actually, the whole idea of a travel package has evolved. We live in the future, okay?!
Almost all of the travel sites offer package vacations, but we are partial to those offered on Orbitz. Usually if you buy the airfare, the hotel is free. Crazy, right? For every trip my husband and I have booked to Japan, we have spent about $1200/person for round trip tickets to Tokyo and 8-10 nights in a hotel. And we could have spent less, but we are really partial to a specific hotel that generally isn't the hottest deal but works best for our needs (more about that hotel in a few paragraphs). Also, Orbitz includes hostels and capsule hotels, which can be great if you're traveling alone or you have a more platonic relationship with your travel companion.
So how does it work?
- Run a search for the dates you want to travel using the "Packages" tab on Orbitz. The site will have you choose a hotel first. The prices you see include airfare! I know that airfare prices are dictated by many factors, like timing, season, special events, astrological signs, and the illuminati, but I have noticed that you get the best price either five months in advance OR 6-7 weeks before your trip.
- The list of hotel options seems endless! I'm a cheapskate, so I tend to sort by price from low to high. However, sometimes (but not always) the cheapest hotels are in weird parts of town that are not very walkable or near anything. You know, the classic "near the airport" or "by the convention center" sort of locations that business travelers prefer. Or they are in the suburbs. Fortunately, you can filter your search by neighborhood (on the left). I recommend filtering for Tokyo (although this is still a pretty huge list), Shibuya, Harajuku, and Ueno, because they are very central. However, the rail system in Tokyo is so amazing, you can stay just about anywhere and get around with ease.
- Read reviews for every hotel that appeals to you. I mean it! Take a look at it on the map to ensure that it is close to a train line. The first time I booked a ticket to Japan, I spent several hours just researching where to stay.
- When you find the right hotel, now it's time to choose the room. Each hotel will have several options and it's important to read carefully. Things to check out:
- Is this more of a bunk in a hostel or is it a private room? For example, my husband and I want to sleep together in a bed, so we opt for a private room. And we can't stay in a capsule hotel because men and women usually have to sleep on separate floors. Also, it's nice to have a secure place to store our bags if we decide to leave the city for a few days, so the private room is extra nice.
- Does this room have its own bathroom? Or is there a communal bathroom (common in Japan)? I'm not embarrassed to tell you that I am a night pee-er. So I need to be close to a bathroom because I don't want to put on slippers and a robe to walk down the hall to pee.
- Is there wifi? In another post, I'll explain the importance of renting a wifi device for your trip. Still, in-hotel wifi is great for watching Netflix when you wake up at 4 AM because your biological clock is angry.
- Is breakfast included in this price? Being able to start the day with coffee, juice, and food can really get you off to a good start. Often the breakfasts tend to be more western in style, but some offer a traditional Japanese meal. Occasionally hotels also include a free evening cocktail!
- Are there any other amenities? It's nice to have a refrigerator to store all of your conbini snacks. You might want to have hair dryer (one less thing to pack). I've stayed in a hotel room in Kyoto that included a washer and dryer!
Room options. Note that the price of your ticket will increase with some options (add-on prices are shown on the right).
- After you have chosen a room, it's time to pick a flight. Some trips will fly into Haneda and out of Narita (and vice versa). That's fine! In fact, either airport is easily accessible by public transportation. Haneda is a bit smaller, which can be nice when you are delirious after a trans-Pacific flight. Narita is a fun departure point because there is basically a shopping mall before security. There are lots of great stores that carry exclusive Narita airport merchandise, like my personal favorite, Traveler's Factory.
- I recommend signing up for an Orbitz account, because you'll accumulate "Orbucks," which you can use like cash to book other hotel rooms. In the past, I've gotten enough Orbucks from booking my Tokyo trip, that I've been able to get a free hotel in Kyoto!
It's important to tell you now that while I book a hotel in Tokyo for the full length of my stay, I usually leave Tokyo for a few days. I like having the room because I have a place to leave my stuff so I can pack light for the shinkansen (bullet train). And often, it's cheaper to book the hotel room for the full trip than to book it for only the days I'm in Tokyo. This might not make sense if you decide to book a hostel, so make sure the hostel will store some of your luggage while you're out adventuring!
Next, I have to tell you about my favorite hotel, Hotel Graphy in Nezu. Why do I love it?
- Location, location! It's in a quiet residential neighborhood (Nezu) that is adjacent to Ueno Park (home of famous pandas and many cherry blossoms). It's also part of the original shitamachi (downtown) Tokyo, untouched by WWII. And most importantly, there are multiple train lines with 5-10 minutes of walking.
- The breakfast is totally awesome! It's very west coast-y (avocados, granola), with a Japanese flair. And there is pour over coffee!
- You get a free cocktail at night.
- It's super quiet.
- There are also hostel-style rooms, free yoga classes, a communal kitchen, and Tokyobikes for rental.
Hotel Graphy can be booked via Orbitz, but please note that they won't let you book a room more than five months out. I know, because I've tried!
Okay, one last thing: I've heard that the package deals from Groupon can be pretty amazing, too. The trips tend to include some meals and tours. But you can opt out of the activities and it's not an issue. The drawback is that you can't choose the hotel. Still, it's worth a look. Depending on your travel dates, this might be a better deal for you!
Stay tuned for the next chapter in The Dream Day Guide to Japan Travel: Getting ready for your trip (it's more than just Pinterest boards)!