One of the first things you need to do once you decide you are going to Japan is to buy plane tickets! And if money doesn’t grow on trees for you (like me), looking at the ticket prices can be pretty nerve-wracking. Especially when you are traveling as a family. $1500 times 4+ people?? Those numbers can get pretty scary :).
Here are some tips that I have for trying to get the lowest fares (and other booking tips):
1) As soon as you start thinking about going to Japan, start checking prices. Check on several different sites… for example, we diligently watched prices at iace-usa.com, expedia.com, kayak.com, and a few others. That way, you’ll start getting a good idea of what the average ticket price is, who’s usually the cheapest, etc.
2) Decide the dates you want to be in Japan, and decide if those dates are flexible. Then check plane ticket prices for your ideal dates, and also other dates you would consider. Sometimes, a day or two earlier or later can mean a huge difference in ticket price. Usually, flying out/in on a weekday is less than on a weekend. Find out if there are any major Japanese holidays during that time. If you can avoid holidays, your ticket will be cheaper.
3) Call airlines and travel agencies and talk to a real person instead of only searching online. Sometimes you can get a better deal on the phone (but sometimes it’s cheaper online).
4) Be aware that if you book your tickets through a travel agency or at a discounted price, restrictions might be put on your ticket (no refunds, no changes, no early seat reservations, etc). If you don’t want to deal with those hassles, consider paying a bit more and booking directly through the airline company. We bought through a travel agency and was disappointed to find out that we can’t put in seat requests until one month prior to our trip. That makes me nervous!
5) Keep in mind the time change and the time you’ll be traveling when planning your vacation. Japan is 13~14 hours ahead of us, which means you will lose a day or two on the way there (at least from the midwest, where I live), and possibly another day on your way back. So you might be on vacation for 14 days, but in reality that means you only have 11 whole days in Japan. When we booked our tickets this time, I wanted to leave Japan on a Saturday evening, but after I bought our tickets, realized that we would be arriving back to the states on Saturday but leaving Japan on Friday. That was a painful realization! Don’t make my mistake! (I don’t like how Japan uses the 24-hour clock… 23:00? Gets confusing to me).
6) If you are taking young children, I recommend paying for their seat (it’s usually discounted) instead of going the free-lap-child route, especially if your child is not a little baby. On a domestic flight, it might be worth saving the money, but on a long international flight?!? I think you’d be crazy to think your 18-month old can sit on your lap for 17 hours. Flights these days tend to always be full, so you can’t always bank on having an empty seat next to you either.What is your sanity worth? (If you DO have an infant, request a bassinet asap! Many airlines can provide you with one in the bulkhead seats).
7) Take into account taxes and other fees when comparing prices. Some sites include them, some don’t. That makes a huge difference!!
8) Are you willing to travel to a different airport? We found that sometimes, if you are willing to drive 2 hours to the next closest airport, you can save over a thousand dollars (per family)on plane tickets. Likewise, are you willing to fly into several different airports in Japan? For us, the difference between landing in Tokyo Narita or Tokyo Haneda was huge! And those two airports are less than 2 hours apart from each other by train.
9) I don’t know if this is super important to you, but I really wanted to fly ANA or JAL. JAL of course was very expensive, but Continental/ANA was surprisingly affordable. They are known for their good service and child-friendliness. I am sure it depends from flight to flight though. It just seemed to me (from reading many online reviews), that customers were much happier on those two airlines.
10) If traveling with kids, consider their schedule. Will flying red-eye or flying during the day be more ideal? Can your kids handle two layovers or are you willing to pay extra to only have one layover? We are flying during the night, hoping that our kids will sleep for the majority of the flights.
11) Don’t force yourself to go to Japan if you haven’t saved enough money. Japan is awesome but not worth you going into debt or living outside your means. Buying plane tickets is just the tip of the iceberg. Food, lodging, and transportation AFTER you get to Japan is not cheap either! If going to Japan is your dream, save, save, save so you can fully enjoy the trip without too much stress.
Any of you seasoned travelers out there have other tips?
As for our family, we ended up booking online through iace-usa.com. They were a few hundred dollars cheaper than other airlines at the time we booked our tickets. Another well-known travel agency is jtbusa.com. (you can also use IACE and JTB to book Japan Rail Passes, rent a cell phone, etc. More on that later).
One last tip… after you have bought your tickets (and your heart has stopped racing from the excitement), don’t look at airline prices anymore. Just start planning your stay in Japan and make it a trip to remember :).