How to Plan Your Trip – Hotels first, save time and money

So, you made your decision, and start to plan your trip to Japan. Congrads! Everyone would tell you to book your flight first (or take on one of the flight+hotel plans).  Not me. I’m gonna show you a different way: book hotels first.

Be prepared for the Rush Hour

Why, then? To begin with, peak travel seasons in Japan are not all the same as everybody else. If you are in country during such peak time, you need to make hotel bookings early. In my experience, 4-6 months ahead. Otherwise, you might have to choose between capsule hotels or internet cafes. Or less reputable hotels (cringe; more on that in a later post ).

Here’s a general list for peak seasons in Japan (for the whole Japan Holiday list, see here).
Time period
Holiday in Japan
Remarks
December 31st – January 3rd
New Year
Japanese celebrate New Year like everywhere else. Most big cities and tourist towns had New Year events. While most are of religious nature, all are open to public. Locals and foreigners will flock into big cities for the celebration. Lodgings will be in high demand. Bookings will be full at most hotels in big cities and famous hot spring hotels, around September.
January – February (seasonal)
Lunar New Year
Japanese does not observe Lunar New Year (LNY in short), but Chinese do. Large amount of Chinese tourist from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong would go to Japan on LNY. To find out which day is next year’s Lunar New Year day, check out online resources like Office Holidays (http://www.officeholidays.com/countries/china/2017.php).
April 29th – May 5th
Golden Week
Golden Week is a series of four public holidays by the end of April and May. It is one of the biggest travel season in Japan, as it usually coincide with the Cherry Blossom season. Japanese will make short trips to famous scenic areas with cherry trees. At the same time, foreign travellers would join in the fun. Expect full bookings at hotels near those areas, as well as major cities.
The week around August 15th
Japan’s version of All Saints Day, and not an official holiday. That said, most factories will close down for workers to go home, to pay their respects to ancestors. Office workers would also take their leave to have small vacations.
The week around October 1st
China National Day holiday
This does not related to Japan at all. Yet, the Chinese take their National Day holiday, and a lot of them prefer to take their vacation in Japan. Expect hotels to be full in major cities.
Mainly summer
Festival season
The summer in general are not as crowded as other holidays. But, local and international travellers will flock to local summer festivals for fireworks.
One bird in the hand let you search for the other two in the bush

Now that you know when to book, how do you get the best deal (no matter peak or non-peak)? Aside from relying on deals from booking services, no-penalty cancellation will help a lot.

Most Japanese hotels offer no penalty cancellation, with grace period around one week before check-in. As long as you cancel before the grace period expires, either at no charge, or you will get a full refund. Thus, it would be sensible to booking one hotel as backup, then shop around for the best deal. If a better deals pops up, you can drop the backup in favor of the best bargain.

One thing to note about cancellation. Don’t cancel ryokans (traditional Japanese guesthouses) bookings at the last minute. By tradition, a stay at a ryokan comes with one to two exquisite (and complementary) meals. The ryokan staff will need to source and prepare the food in advance for guests to enjoy. Thus, going no show or cancel on the last minute for these lodgings are considered as rude and wasteful of food and preparation.

Location, location, location
 

Another consideration: location.

Japan cities are well connected inside and out by public transport. You will be riding a lot of trains and subway. Still, travelling between locations still takes time, and it add up quick. Just consider navigating Tokyo’s subway with this map.

To save valuable time from transit, where your hotel is will be crucial. I base my selections on the following principles:

  • Connection to or from airport. The first and the last hotel you use must have easy access to or from the airport of entry. This is particularly important if you fly in and out at odd times, as it will save you lots of time. (I will go deeper on this in a later post.)
That said, airport hotels are the exception. Big airports are not close to their corresponding cities, e.g. Narita (Tokyo), Kansai (Osaka area) or Chobu (Nagoya area). The time you save on transit to and from the airport would be used up by travelling to the places you want to go, every day.
  • Transport hub. It’s good when you can leave your hotel and had many options to travel. These transport hubs could be off the beaten track for most tourists. Kick ass travellers love these districts for their convenience. There would also be lots of reasonably priced hotels at these locations for you to choose.

A few such locations are:

Tokyo

  1. Ikebukuro (JR Yamanote line, plus loads of private railways)
  2. Ueno (JR Tohoku Shinkansen, and Keio express line from Narita airport)
  3. Shimbashi (metro line to the airport, in addition to Yamanote line and Yurikamome line to Odaiba area)

Osaka

  1. Umeda (JR line to Kyoto, plus private railways)
  2. Tenoji (JR Haruka line from Kansai International Airport, plus local JR lines)
  3. Namba (mainly private railways, among them Nankai Electric’s Airport Line to Kansai).
  • Proximity to points of interest. This is also important: hotels that are far away from the points of interest you want to go, sucks. Look for hotels that are close to the destinations (say within 30 minutes of travel). You will find the daily commuting more relaxed, and spend less time going on the road.

I will go into more details about these considerations in a later post. Before I go, a short story:

“A friend’s friend went to Kyoto, and booked a hotel in the western part of the city. Yet, Kyoto’s main attractions are concentrated in the eastern part of the city. That’s where most of the temples, landmarks and museums are. The poor guy had to ride buses every day, to and back from the attractions, for almost two hours. Just because of his choice of hotel.”

Anyway, leave us a comment. How do you choose your hotel locations? Had any last minute booking experiences that turned out good (or not)? Share with us in the comments!

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