Last December, our family went on a self-drive 17-day holiday to Hokkaido. We went around almost the whole of Hokkaido and our total expenditure for 2 adult and 2 kids was less than SGD8000. This includes ALL expenditures (airfares, 16 nights of accommodation, transport, food, admission to attractions etc etc.) Many of my friends were asking me how we kept the cost for such a long trip so low since Japan was supposed to be a notoriously expensive country to visit. While it did help that Japanese Yen plunged at that time (which was an important reason why the trip was so cheap), I thought I would write a post to share some money-saving tips for anyone planning a free and easy self-drive holiday to Hokkaido.
1. Saving on Car Rental
[disclaim]Update: Tabirai now has an English website for Japan car rental. Their rates are very attractive and much less confusing than Tocoo. Hence I recommend checking out Tabirai instead of Tocoo if you do not know Japanese.[/disclaim]
I usually encourage readers to use Tocoo for car rental in Japan if you do not know Japanese. However, they may not be the cheapest option. Ever since they introduced their own insurance (if you book through them, you need to buy their insurance which costs 100 – 800 yen PER DAY depending on the rental company on top of the car rental price which is a hefty sum for long trips), I stopped booking through them.
Instead, I surf the individual car rental company’s websites to compare prices. If you can read Japanese (or using a translator), head to their Japanese websites.
Car rental companies often run campaigns that are only advertised on their Japanese websites.
For example, I once found the price on Mazda’s Japanese website to be way cheaper than what was quoted in the English website (50000 Yen vs 80000 Yen). However, I couldn’t book through their Japanese website using an English name, so I booked through the English website but under the comments, I requested for the price on the Japanese website. They emailed me to confirm that my rental would be the cheaper price as quoted by the Japanese website.
Also, signing up for membership on their website may give you further discounts.
Sign ups are usually FREE.
If you are able to speak a little Japanese, you will have even more options from smaller companies. You can do a search on Rakuten instead of Tocoo and you’ll be surprised how much cheaper it can be. But bear in mind that the smaller companies usually do not have English-speaking staff so I would not advise you to rent through them if you do not know Japanese at all. In the event of an accident, you need to be able to communicate with the staff over the phone. Bigger companies such as Toyota offer English helplines and would be a better (though more expensive) option for non-Japanese speaking travelers.
All car companies will also ask you if you wish pay for additional insurance to cover the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW).
Opt out of CDW if your travel insurance already covers it.
When I buy my travel insurance, I make sure my travel insurance covers CDW, hence there is no need to purchase the extra insurance from car rental companies.
2. Ditch the car and subway in Sapporo city centre. Walk.
Parking in Sapporo city centre (Sapporo station / Odori / Susukino area) is crazy expensive and so are subway tickets. The whole area from Sapporo station to Susukino is entirely walkable and well-connected by an underground walkway so you can easily walk all the way between Sapporo and Susukino stations rain or shine or snow. (The distance between Sapporo and Susukino is about 2km, but you won’t really feel it because there are shops along the walkway to keep you entertained and many cafes you can sit down and rest at if you get tired.) It also runs beneath Odori Park from Odori station to Sapporo TV Tower.
If you are staying in Susukino, on top of being able to walk North to Sapporo station, you can also walk South to Nakajima Koen. Nakajima Koen is one of the sites for the Hokkaido Shrine Festival in June and a beautiful park to visit in Autumn.
3. Start / End your trip in Sapporo
If you are not using the car in Sapporo, starting / ending the trip in Sapporo will save you a few days of car rental. For e.g. if you are ending your trip in Sapporo, you can pick up the rental car at the airport and return it at Sapporo and explore Sapporo without the car for the last few days (similarly if you start your trip in Sapporo, you can pick up your rental car only when you are leaving Sapporo and return it at the airport outlet at the end of your trip). Almost all car rental companies have offices at both Sapporo city centre and New Chitose Airport and some of them do not charge a drop-off fee for returning the car to a different office within Sapporo / Chitose (or charge a nominal fee to do so). This not only saves you the rental fee for the few days in Sapporo, you also save on expensive parking in Sapporo which is at least 1000 yen per day even if you just leave your car at the hotel.
4. Rent an ETC card if you are planning to use the tollway.
Having an ETC card can save you plenty of money on the tollway. For e.g. from Sapporo to Asahikawa, the toll fee is 3000+ yen, but with ETC card it can cost you as low as only 1000+ yen depending on what time you are travelling. Some car rental companies can rent you an ETC card for a nominal fee (e.g. Nissan rents out ETC card for just 300 yen). You can also rent one from Tocoo if you are booking through them.
If you are using the tollway A LOT, you may want to consider getting the Hokkaido Expressway Pass (HEP). However, you must be renting from one of the Handling shops listed on their website to be able to get one.
Read more about HEP and ETC here: Hokkaido Expressway Pass vs ETC Card + Hokkaido Toll Fees
5. Saving on Petrol
At most manned petrol kiosks, the price for petrol when you pay using credit card versus cash is different. It is cheaper to pay in cash.
6. Saving on Toll Fee
If you are not using HEP, you can save money by avoiding toll ways. Some GPS models allow you to choose your route. Look for an option that says something along the line of ‘5 ルート’ (meaning 5 routes) and choose ‘有料回避’ (avoid tollways) and compare the distances between the tollway and non-toll way.
Read more here: How to use Japanese GPS and set it to avoid toll ways.
Note that the estimated timing for tollway is usually quite accurate but not very accurate for non-toll ways. I often find myself taking close to the GPS estimated timing for toll ways but much shorter than the GPS estimated timing on non-toll ways. The GPS estimated timing is based on driving around 100km/h on tollways and 50km/h on non-tollways, but in reality you will be driving much faster than 50 on non-tollways. Hence, looking at the distance will give you a better idea of whether or not it is worth it to take the toll way.
In summary, the following popular tourist routes are the ones I would opt for non-toll (or partial toll) ways:
1) Between Noboribetsu and Lake Toya
The GPS would recommend taking the toll way, but using the Orofure Pass gets you between the two places in a shorter distance. But do note that Orofure Pass is closed from 5pm to 9am during winter months and during bad weather.
2) From Sapporo to Furano
The GPS would recommend taking the toll way all the way up to Takikawa, but I will exit earlier at Mikasa and drive through Mikasa to Furano. The timing is about the same as exiting at Takikawa, but the toll fee is less.
3) From Sapporo to Lake Toya
The GPS will recommend that you take the tollway to Lake Toya. However, you can take the Nakayama Pass and avoid the tollway totally. You may even get there faster if the weather is good because the distance via Nakayama Pass is much shorter.
4) From Obihiro to Kushiro
Getting between Obihiro and Kushiro, the non-tollway is a weee bit shorter than the GPS recommended route using the Doutou expressway partially. However, the traffic along this stretch of road can get quite heavy so you may spend quite a lot of time on the road if you choose to avoid the tollway here.
Of course, saving on transport alone is not enough. Air tickets and accommodation also contribute to a large part of a vacation expenditure. Here are my money-saving tips on these areas:
7. Saving on Air tickets
When it comes to flying to Hokkaido, there are currently no direct commercial flights from Singapore to Hokkaido (some travel companies charter direct flights, but they are usually for their tour package customers). Explore your options to try to get the best fare deal.
Book air tickets from Singapore all the way to Hokkaido with ANA or JAL with a transit in Tokyo. In June 2014, ANA was having a promotion and we flew there for about SGD800 per adult. Do note that although this option allows you to do your check in all the way to Hokkaido from Singapore airport, you are still required to collect your luggage upon arrival at Tokyo and drop it off at the domestic transfer counter. The greatest advantage of this option is that you need not fly in and out of the same city in Hokkaido since ANA and JAL have numerous flights from Haneda / Narita to various cities of Hokkaido.
Try airlines that transit in a different country. E.g. Cathay Pacific flies from Singapore to Chitose with a stop in Hong Kong, Thai Airways with a stop in Bangkok, Korean Air with a stop in Seoul. This method of flying is actually the most hassle free, because your luggage will be checked in all the way through to Chitose. In this recent trip, we flew by Thai Airways for slightly more than SGD700 per adult with one of their credit card promotions.
(Update) Scoot Airlines started flying from Singapore to Chitose with a transit in Taipei. Read more about it here: Scoot Airlines Flies SIN to CTS – Is it a good deal?
Book seperate tickets from Singapore to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Hokkaido. For e.g. I once booked a ticket from Singapore to Tokyo on Delta airlines during their promotion for around SGD600 per adult and bought budget airlines tickets on Jetstar and Air Asia for flight between Tokyo and Chitose for about SGD100 per way. This option requires careful planning, bearing in mind that Tokyo has 2 airports: Narita and Haneda. You do not want to be arriving into Narita and having to fly out of Haneda for the domestic leg (or vice versa). You should also look for flights with ample time for you to do the transfer. Clearing the customs in Japan takes super long with all the photo-taking and finger-printing and you may need to transfer between different terminals at the airport with all your luggage and then check in again for your domestic flight. It is the most tedious option, so I would only choose this option if it saves me a significant amount of money. The greatest advantage of this method is that it allows you to stopover at Tokyo for a few days either on the way there or back at no additional cost since you decide when you want to take the domestic flights.
Option #4 (new)
In March 2016, Hokkaido Shinkansen started operations connecting Tokyo to Hakodate. This ride is covered by the Japan Rail Pass and MAY be a viable money-saving option if you are planning a rail travel that includes Hakodate.
8. Save on City hotels, splurge on the ryokans at onsen towns
One of the best part of a Hokkaido vacation is staying in a ryokan with onsen. There are numerous onsen towns around Hokkaido, but to stay in them throughout an entire vacation would burn a big hole in your pocket. So when I plan a trip, I try to have a mix of city hotels as well as onsen stays. When booking city hotels, I will try to book the cheapest option available. I never spend more than SGD100 per room per night on a city hotel anywhere in Hokkaido. City hotels are very cheap in Hokkaido, very much unlike Tokyo. For e.g. so far, the prices of my hotel rooms in Sapporo range from SGD50 – 80+ per night. This way, I can spend more on the onsen hotels with half-board while still keeping the total cost of the vacation within reasonable budget.
(Note: Accommodation prices rocket during festival periods and peak travel seasons in July – Aug, Golden Week and end of year around Christmas – New Year. So if your travel coincides with any major festival or is during their peak season, you would have to expect to pay A LOT more for accommodation.)
Within Sapporo, I find that hotels in the Susukino area are generally cheaper than those in the Odori or Sapporo station area. If there is no real need for you to be near Sapporo station, try the hotels around Susukino instead.
9. For city hotels, choose option without breakfast if it’s cheaper
I seldom eat breakfast in the hotels in the city areas even if they are provided free of charge. Part of free and easy travel in Hokkaido is going around the try all the wonderful food available, so skip the hotel breakfast. This applies especially at cities with morning markets such as Sapporo, Hakodate and Kushiro since the morning markets will be on your itinerary anyway and there are plenty of fabulous food at the markets.
For onsen hotels, though, I usually have the hotel breakfasts because there are usually not many eateries available at onsen towns (unless you do not mind a bun from a convenience store – which actually can be quite delicious).
Hope this post has been helpful to you! Enjoy your free and easy self-drive holiday to Hokkaido! Always remember.. Drive safe! Safety comes first, do not try to save money at the expense of driving dangerously.
Posts of my Self-Drive trips to Hokkaido:
Hokkaido in Winter (March 2010)
10-days Eastern Hokkaido Self-Drive to visit Snow Festivals
Hokkaido in Autumn (October 2013)
Part 1: Flight, Hotel Mercure Sapporo, Toyota Rent-A-Car Sapporo
Part 2: Itinerary (with telephone numbers and GPS Map Codes)
Hokkaido in Summer (June 2014)
Part 1: Chitose, Lake Toya, Hakodate, Niseko, Otaru
Part 2: Sapporo
Part 3: Furano, Biei, Tomamu, Obihiro, New Chitose Airport
Hokkaido in Winter with kids (December 2014)
Part 1: Sapporo
Part 2: Asahikawa, Akan National Park
Part 3: Kushiro, Obihiro, Tomamu
Part 4: Niseko, Noboribetsu, Lake Toya, Rusutsu
Part 5: Otaru, New Chitose Airport
Other Travel Tips relating to Hokkaido Travel:
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