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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Willer Bus Pass Comprehensive Guide – The Cheaper Alternative to JR Pass

I traveled to Japan with a very extremely super (I don’t know how to emphasize this) limited budget and so prior to the trip, I wanted to know what my options were in terms of saving transportation costs. Most websites and blogs recommend going by train,so it is almost everyone’s instinct to buy train tickets or the JR Pass not minding whether if this is more efficient or cost-effective. My search for cheaper alternatives led me to several bus companies and this money-saving pass called the Willer Bus Pass.

japan willer bus pass

Comparing Bus and Train Travel in Japan

For this 25-day stay in Japan, I have tested different modes of transportation available – trains, buses and subways. Flying was another option but due to the costs it entailed, I didn’t really consider this. It requires research to determine which of these suits your needs depending on the places you’ll be visiting, season, length of your stay in the country and travel preferences (are you fast-paced or like to explore each city in a relaxed manner?). Once you determine these, you can finally evaluate the costs needed for your trip.

In my case, I planned to move to different cities and what I did was compare the costs of traveling by train or bus. For example, the Tokyo to Kanazawa train tickets sells for about 3,300 JPY while the highway bus fare for this is 14,320 JPY.  This was almost 300% savings, and because it was an overnight trip, I also saved about 3,000-4,000 JPY which is the one-day hostel rate in the country.

I remember talking to a friend who opted to take the train to Osaka from Tokyo which set them back with 15,000 JPY, with the bus, it would have only cost them about 5,000 JPY. The train fare could get even more expensive as you opt for the faster trains and top up with seat reservation fees for some routes.

This is not to say that bus travel is perfect for everyone, believe me it is far from that. If you compare the duration of the trips, bus trips usually take longer time. With the Tokyo to Osaka example, it would take you only three to four hours by shinkansen and 8-10 hours by overnight bus. You are also in a disadvantage if you find long bus trips to be uncomfortable, it also doesn’t help that not all buses come with their own restroom facilities.

shinjuku station
Shinjuku Station

The Willer Bus Pass
Once you have plotted trips your itinerary, it’s now time to decide if you need some discount pass or not. Should you be having three or more bus trips, it might be more reasonable to get the Willer Bus Pass.

This discount pass enables foreign travelers to travel to routes covered by Willer Bus, and mind you, they have wide coverage going as far as Aomori in Hokkaido up north until Hakata in Fukuoka prefecture. This is unlike other passes wherein the effectivity dates are counted successively, you may use this pass anytime within the two-month duration. In my case, I used the pass during the second, third and fourth week of the month and of course, you can choose to use them on consequent days as well. There are blackout dates however, for 2018 it is the April 26 until May 6 (Golden Week).

There are two types of passes for sale, the All-day pass which is straightforward that you can use Monday until Sunday and the MON to THU pass which you can only use during weekdays except Friday, basically during off-peak dates. Prices vary depending on how many days you can use it as well as the pass type.


3 days
5 days
7 days
Mon to Thu Pass
10,000 JPY
12,500 JPY
15,000 JPY
All day Pass
12,500 JPY
15,000 JPY


Given the options above, you can also compare whether the pass is indeed the more economical choice for you rather than the JR Pass. The JR Ordinary Pass for 7 days costs ¥29,110, while the 14-Day is ¥46,390 and the longer version for 21 Days is ¥59,350. (Note: There are also other types of JR passes but I will not go through them in this post.) I find that the regulation wherein you have to use the JR pass on consecutive days to be limiting and so in the end, you might not be actually saving money, and instead, you may actually spend more than needed.

Purchasing the Pass
If you have some uncertainties about this pass, let me run through the actual steps of buying the Bus Pass. Believe me, this is just a piece of cake.

1. Decide which pass best suits your needs. In contrast from my advice earlier, I haven’t really thought this through and I initially wanted to buy the 5-day All day pass, but upon further assessment, the 3-day Japan Mon to Thu Pass would suffice.

In this page, click the ‘Buy’ button on the pass you wish to get.

2. You will be prompted to their Membership Log-in page. Assuming that this is your first time to access the site, you will need to register your details, so click the “Register as a New Member” button.


willer bus pass

3. You will be instructed to input your personal information such as email address for log-in, name, birthday, gender, nationality and birth date.

4. The succeeding page will run you through the details of the Bus Pass such as the types of seats you can reserve (Standard and Relax) and the availability of the buses. In this case, since this is a Mon-Thu pass only, I cannot book any bus trips for Friday to Sunday. Holidays are also blacked-out. 



5. You will now be prompted to the Payment page. You may only page using credit card and unfortunately, no Paypal option unfortunately. 

6. Lastly, you will be asked to review all details and finalize your purchase.

So do you actually receive a physical pass or a ticket of some sort? Nope, this is all online-based and your reservation will also be confirmed with the use of internet. No need to print anything.


Important Things To Note!
* Unused Willer Bus Pass can be fully refunded as long as it is unused within its validity period – as I mentioned, I originally bought the 5-day pass and was able to get the refund successfully through my credit card.
To do so, go to ‘My Page’ and you will see the ‘Bus Pass Management’ information. It will show the detail of your pass and the cost and beside that is the ‘Cancel Purchase’ button. More information here and here.
* Partial refund is not accepted (in the case you were only able to use it for a few days)
* You may only book your bus trips with this pass online.
* Same route cannot be booked on the same day (example two trips for Osaka-Nagoya, however round trips are accepted like Osaka-Nagoya and Nagoya-Osaka)
* You may be able to book as much as three bus trips per day.
* You can cancel your bus booking one day before the departure date, if you try to cancel it on the same date, the status of the booking will not be changed from “unused”


Reserving Your Willer Bus Ride
What I like about the Willer Bus website is that they have a very detailed FAQ that answers almost all my question about the pass and reservation, compared to other bus companies.

These steps may apply to those who bought the bus pass as well as if you’re only interested in getting a single fare. Of course, you need to determine which routes you’ll be taking before you proceed.

1. For pass holders, log-in and go to the ‘Bus Pass Management’ page. In here, you will see all details such as the name of your pass, the validity date and the reserved trips. You can also cancel the pass from this section. (For non-bus pass holders, skip this)

Click the ‘Search the target routes” button. In this example, I will use my first route then which was Tokyo – Kanazawa.


2. Next, you will see a map of Japan and routes available. You can either ‘Search by departure’ or ‘Search by Arrival”, whichever is easier for you. In this case, Kanazawa is in Ishikawa prefecture, so I clicked the “Arrive in Hokushinetsu area.”


3. The result will then show me all the bus routes that will arrive in this area.
Please note that since I am using my bus pass, only routes from ‘Willer Express/Star Express’ will show. If you are interested in using the pass, there will be results from different bus companies as well.

I located my target route which shows ‘Tokyo/Kawasaki/Chiba/Narita Airport > Toyama/Kanazawa/Komatsu/Fukui.’ This means that the bus may stop over to these locations as well, so it’s possible to take the same bus if you are coming from Narita Airport and planning to go to Toyama. Click the ‘Use Bus Pass' button.



4. You can input more search filters such as your departure date and if you want to ride an overnight bus. For this instance, there were three buses that had this route with different schedules. 

Non-pass travelers may have more seat options like the ‘Business Class’, ‘Premium’ or ‘Beaute’ for women-only buses.


5. The following page will ask you to select your pick-up and drop-off point. I chose the Boarding Place at Shinjuku Terminal in Tokyo leaving at 10:35 PM and arriving at Kanazawa station the following day at 06:15 AM.


6. You will then be able to see the bus fare (5,100 JPY) and then click ‘Select.’


7. You need to confirm all details of your reservation afterwards, which includes the reservation date, departure and arrival time. I suggest that you also review the luggage details by clicking the ‘About Luggage’ link.

The next pages will just ask you to double-check these details once again. Your personal information will then be validated such as email address and name.


8. Once this has been done, your booking is now reserved. A receipt of this booking may also be sent to your email.

9. Repeat the process until you have booked for all the days you need.



Review of My Riding Experience
Just a caveat, the Japanese are very timely so you must be in the pick-up place several minutes before the train departs. Even though you may have a seat reservation, it doesn’t guarantee that the bus will wait for you.

On a different note, my overall experience from reservation until and boarding was hassle-free. Included in the receipt is the map of the boarding location which you will definitely need. While boarding, I was never asked to show any identification nor the receipt confirming the bus reservation. The drivers just confirmed my name from their tablets, probably because I was the only foreigner in these trips.Since most of the bus trips had different routes and some may have different drop-off points, they confirmed if I indeed wanted to alight at this certain place.

Even though I chose the ‘Relax’ type of seat for all my trips, there weren’t anything special aside from the reclining option and the eye cover that comes with it. The seat was not that comfortable as I expected. Most seats also had power connectors which certainly came in handy and there was one blanket provided, but I didn’t really use it since the temperature inside was just right. All buses that I have tried (not exclusively Willer Bus) have some announcements and other FYIs which are only in Japanese, I listened to this during my first ride but on my succeeding trips I was able to sleep through it. The whole trip was very peaceful since the drivers follow a strict speed-limit, I am a light sleeper so I usually wake up if the driver suddenly halts or the speed increased but there were no instances like this in my experience.

The lights were dimmed as soon as the announcements were finished so I was able to doze off easily. I cannot comment if the buses made rest stops because I was sleeping through all those three bus trips. I only woke up once the driver announced that we arrived at my destination. I am not sure I if I was just dead tired or this was a testament of how smooth the rides were.

FIRST TRIP Tokyo-Kanazawa 
Departure: Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal 23:45
Arrival: Kanazawa Station West Exit 08:15

The terminal was so easy to find since it was just across Shinjuku Station. I also had no trouble locating the boarding area since Willer buses have their distinctive design. Announcements are only in Japanese but there are also multiple TV screens that display the status of the buses that are waiting for passengers at the terminal’s lounge and which section you’d be able to find them. During boarding, I noticed that my luggage was measured but I couldn’t tell if it was also weighed. 

I didn’t expect it to be a calming ride, I usually have a tough time sleeping on long bus rides in the Philippines and abroad, but this seemed to be an exception. I only woke up when we finally arrived at Kanazawa Station because I could hear other people shuffling through their things. At first, I was quite worried that I would miss my stop since the last stop of this ride was at Fukui, and this is already quite far from Kanazawa!


SECOND TRIP Kyoto-Hiroshima 
Departure: Kyoto Station G2 Platform 22:10
Arrival: Hiroshima Station South Exit 05:25

This pick-off point was the hardest one to trac. The map looked vague and I originally thought that this would be also a terminal similar to that in Shinjuku. After about 20 minutes, I was finally able to find it and lo and behold, it turned out to be a normal bus stop and totally different from what I was expecting. It was a relief that I decided to drop by an hour earlier of my departure time because I would have missed the bus if not.

At this point, my body has probably adjusted already to bus travel because I couldn’t even remember a single thing that happened inside the bus except for the lights turning on again and the driver informing us that we have arrived at Hiroshima Station.

THIRD TRIP Osaka-Nagoya
Departure: WillerBus Terminal Osaka Umeda Sky Building 24:30
Arrival: Sakae Station (in front of the Plaza of Love) 04:50

Similar to my experience in Kyoto, finding the bus stop proved to be difficult so do try to arrive early. Even though the address was just at Umeda Sky Building (this was super easy to locate), finding the exact stop was no easy feat since I couldn’t ask for directions since the mall was already closed and there were barely passerbys in this area. I was able to finally locate it after walking and walking for what seemed like hours (in my head yes, but it couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes).

Willer Bus has their own resting area in the building which has powder rooms, lounge, computers and Wi-fi connection. There is also a Willer employee on standby despite the schedule being so late, so we were informed about the schedule of the bus’s arrival and we were also ushered to the bus once it finally arrived. Just like my earlier trips, it was again a no-stress experience since I slept like a baby during the entire ride. The trip to Nagoya lasted for about five hours so I didn’t get enough that night for sure.

Other FYIs
What if I want to buy a bus ticket without the Bus Pass?
You may also follow the steps above since they follow the same process. Prices may vary however, depending on the seat and date of your departure. You may be able to book a ride a few minutes before the train leaves the terminal.

I already bought a Mon-Thu bus pass, but I want to change it to the non-restricted one?
Unfortunately, there is no option to easily change it. My advice is to just cancel the first pass you bought and then buy the new one.

Do they have luggage space?
Most buses have so I suggest you read the luggage restrictions before reserving the trip. This can be stored in a compartment underneath the bus

VERDICT… Did I save money using this pass?
I have saved about 21,880 JPY (or 219%) if I would have taken the train and have also saved a slight 13% if I decided to buy the tickets normally without the pass. I can say that the pass paid off!

If I would have gone to farther locations, say Hiroshima from Tokyo (7,000~ one way) or Tokyo to Aomori (7,500~ one way) then definitely, I would be able to get more out of it. I would consider buying this pass again should I have the opportunity to come back to Japan (hopefully Spring next year?).

Route
Bus Pass
Willer Bus Fare
Cheapest Train Fare
Tokyo - Kanazawa
-
3,800 JPY
14,120
Kyoto - Hiroshima
-
4,700 JPY
11,410
Osaka - Nagoya
-
3,000 JPY
6,350

10,000 JPY
11,500 JPY
31,880 JPY

I was able to complement this pass with regional JR passes that I purchased before leaving Manila and I can say that I was able to save a lot of money compared to buying bus and train tickets separately or even from buying the ordinary JR pass. I would recommend this pass for those like me who like to travel slow and enjoy various places without worrying about time restrictions.

It is important for tourists to keep their options open and do their research before making any decisions when it comes to transportation. Japan has TONS of discounted options that are only made available to foreigners. Ultimately, which one you choose still depends on your schedule and personal circumstances.

Note: This is not a sponsored post. I just find a lot of value in this pass and thought this ought to be shared to you guys ;)

3 comments :

  1. Thank you very much for this guide and review. Will definitely consider this pass if and when I get to go on a long vacation which will involve long distance trips around Japan. In 2015, my friends and I got the JR Pass and we got the most out of that pass by taking long distance trips daily. It was convenient but very tiring, and I felt that we were always in a hurry. After that trip, I decided to just concentrate on one region (or two or three prefectures) at a time, besides, I don't think I can pull off a 25-day trip like you!!!

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    Replies
    1. Same! When I first knew about the JR Pass I had plans of going to the opposites end of the country like Sapporo and Fukuoka but that sounded really exhausting. I thought your Kansai trip was perfect, you were able to experience each city without the rush (still envious that you got to Mt. Koya)

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    2. Sapporo to Fukuoka would be exhausting indeed! How I wish I could pull off long trips like you. 9 days wasn't enough to cover Kansai...but, on the bright side, I have more reasons to go back!

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