Buying a Japan Rail Pass at the Last Minute

Pre-trip Panic?

It’s the night before my trip to Japan, my flight leaves Madison at 9 and connects to Tokyo via Chicago. I look over my documents, my bags, all is in order. I check my Japan Rail Pass, the one I purchased before the tsunami/earthquake in March 2011, and I see something worriesome. Expires 90 days from purchase date. What?!? Back when I canceled my Japan trip in March and got some very impressive treatment from ANA airlines, the usual easy cancellations from, and though slow, a reimbursement from United for my flight from there to Korea, I also checked up on the Japan Rail Pass. My Bangkok travel agent assured me, it is good for one year or you can reimburse all of it but 10% of the purchase price. Cool. I’m going in the fall, I’ll just keep it.

As a phone call and emails to Bangkok revealed, it is good for SIX months (if I even believe them now) and in order for it to be good past the 90 days from purchase, you must return to the issuing agency and exchange it for a more current date. Holy hell, and it’s nearly midnight on a Sunday and now I am screwed. The trains are not cheap in Japan and my week of business there requires many rides which would easily surpass the roughly $320-360 (depends on yen exchange rate which is currently in the “Ouch” category vs. USD) price tag on a Japanese rail pass. The trouble with buying a Japan Rail pass at the last minute is that you cannot get one once you are in Japan. You must be a tourist or temporary visitor, AND you must purchase it OUTSIDE Japan.


What to do if this happens to you or if you have a last minute trip? If you are flying a Japanese airline, you may be in luck. Airlines such as JAL and ANA can sell them at their check-in counters. I called the JAL number, noting on this chart of rail pass vendors that Chicago’s O’Hare was on it, to confirm that they do issue them. The operator told me “maybe.” Not very reassuring. “It depends on the people at the counter. It takes time to issue them and they might be too busy.” Plus, isn’t JAL located in Terminal 5, the international terminal? Yes, but there’s good news: as of March 2011, JAL, which partners with One World Alliance member American Airlines, now flies ONE flight out of Terminal 3 amid all the other AA flights. Chicago to Narita (Tokyo)!

I get to the gate and ask. The man checks his watch and says, yes, it is possible. But Terminal 5 is far, I say more like a hopeful question than a statement. Yes, but we have a counter here in Terminal 3 now that this flight leaves from here. The trouble is getting through security, but I can call ahead to tell the counter you are coming.

And off I go doing the OJ Simpson thing – er, running through the airport, not the other thing. They are there waiting for me. One woman takes my passport and runs upstairs to photocopy it while the other does the remarkably painstaking process of filling in the pass. I flip them my credit card and rush through security. (Not too bad in my experience in Chicago O’Hare, though I am sure others have very different stories.) Back at the gate 20 minutes before boarding time even after stopping to buy a sandwich and drink.

So hats off to JAL for saving my wallet a bit. Now we’ll have to see if that refund policy still stands when I get back to Bangkok in February.

**If you have more than 24 hours, there are also authorized travel agents capable of acquiring them. I have had them FedExed to me a couple days before a trip from the JTB office in Chicago with a credit card purchase over the phone. I did try them this time early Monday morning by phone, but there really isn’t a Can someone at the office run over to the airport? Option. And I was told that they need to contact a West coast office for the transaction (?) and couldn’t do that until 10 or 10:30 a.m.

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

11 thoughts on “Buying a Japan Rail Pass at the Last Minute

  • I am not surprised that they accommodated you. Japan seems to be going to great lengths to try and revive tourism after the tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

    • I’ve noticed that in the press, especially that 10,000 free trips for bloggers press release. But when I called the rail pass people they seemed to indicate that JAL doesn’t do the airport rail pass sales as much as they used to and that it depended on the people at the desk. No sign of cutting back at O’Hare though. And in-flight service with Japanese airlines (JAL, ANA) has always impressed me even before the hard times. Now’s a good time to visit.

  • Wow, that was some good luck. I loved using my Japan Rail Pass in 2010 – I felt like a god being able to travel on as many bullet trains as I wanted (well of course apart from the Nozomi services :))

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  • Bill Gale

    Thank you for the very helpful tip! I was not understanding that an “online” purchase was through basically travel agents with a FedEx delivery. Although in the Chicago area you can buy from JCB in Schaumburg (Mon-Fri) I learned all of this Saturday for a Sunday flight. ‘

    Thanks to you tip I called ANA (who I was flying on) and they annotated my account so that at checkin I can purchase the pass at O’Hare. ANA is in Terminal 1. They also said to be there early as possilbe (counter opens 2:25) to leave time to issue the pass.

    Thanks again you made everything impossible possible!

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