Flight and Hotel
This was by far the most agonizing portion of the trip planning thus far. Even at four months out, I wanted to try to lock myself in before prices got out of control (and before I spent the money on something frivolous). Even now that it’s all bought and paid for, it still makes me squeamish just thinking about it.
The flight is what ultimately confirmed my dates. Whereas when flying domestically, the weekdays are significantly less expensive, it didn’t seem to matter much at all for the international flight to Tokyo. I also checked February and other months versus April just to see how much the prices fluctuated and they really didn’t. Still, the prices seemed reasonable enough that I just didn’t want to risk it any further, so now it was just a matter of which airline and when.
Initially I wanted to fly nonstop from NYC (about a 14 hour flight, which I’ve heard goes via the North Pole) but because of the limited number of flights, it would mean landing the day after takeoff at 10:30 pm or so local time. I had already conceded I would lose 2 days in travel, but I just didn’t feel comfortable landing that late as not only would I have to contend with being a stranger in a strange land, I’d be doing it in the dark. Worse yet was my cheapest option which was with China Eastern Airlines: while it would land me in Tokyo earlier in the day, it involved an overnight stayover in Shanghai, making me lose an extra day of Tokyo time.
And then there were the airlines. Granted the few legacy US airlines that are left fly to Tokyo, most of my options here were with China Eastern Airlines (CEA?), Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airlines (ANA). Not being familiar with any of them, naturally, I did some research and decided that while all three will suffer from language barriers, the service on the Japanese airlines is impeccable whereas the Chinese one leaves a lot to be desired. CEA and JAL were the only ones that kept coming up on my potential itineraries and so I believe I would have been happy with JAL, but it turns out they have a codeshare with American and there was no flight I could purchase that wouldn’t involve American. Not to suggest I have any ill feelings towards American; truth is I don’t even remember the last time I used them.
Either way, I would have been left with my next-day arrival quandry, so I began to explore even further and learned that if I left from LAX, I could arrive as early as 3 pm the next day. As a bonus, by choosing United, I would have the opportunity to fly on the brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Sold!
So now it became only a matter of dates/cost. To find the best deal, I ended up finding and using FareGeek.com which has a fairly unique option of searching based on flexible dates. By putting in my desired dates, it would also present me with a grid showing me the best fares for a combination involving departing/arriving the inputted days as well as the preceding day and the following day. And that’s how I decided on April 8 – 21.
Then it was time to find a hotel. Now I had been looking at hotels all along, even before solidifying flight plans and for a while I thought I would be staying in the neighborhood of Shinjuku (for those that do not know, as I certainly did not, Tokyo is comprised of several neighborhoods, or -ku (yes, that means the proper name is Shinjuku-ku) — a concept not unfamiliar to me living in New York City. But before I get into all this and where I ended up, allow me to explain my usual method of finding hotels when I travel:
I usually start by going to TravelAxe.com. They used to be a full-blown client application for the PC but have since successfully transitioned completely to a web app. The concept is simple enough, just enter in a destination city and search. Results can be sorted and you can even put in a specific address/geocode and it will (hopefully) allow you to sort by closest hotels. A grid would then show you the lowest total price across several online consolidators like Hotels.com and Orbitz.com and the like. I would then generally check with the hotel directly to see if the price was equal or better and if so, I would book through the hotel directly. Otherwise I’d book through TravelAxe’s recommendations. Unfortunately in the recent past, I’ve become disenchanted with it because if occupancy isn’t available for all nights, the consolidators fall back and show you the price for one night as opposed to the total cost, giving a misleadingly low number.
Another site I’ve used in the past with some success is Octopus Travel but it appears they are no longer in service.
Fortunately I found a very welcome change in Kayak.com. Not only does it have all the same filters as TravelAxe but it offers much more, including filtering results by quality (star-rating), price, etc. You can even view all of the hotels on a map for comparison. It even integrates consumer reviews from TripAdvisor and another site (Expedia I think) so you can see how others feel about the hotel right away.
Regardless of how I would narrow my hotel selections, the next step is always to
check read the reviews on TripAdvisor.com. In my experience, the reviews on TripAdvisor are often unnecessarily harsh (I’m just not that picky) so I automatically add a star to the overall rating. Regardless, reviews are important and I have been turned off to many a hotel because of them. The reviews are also especially helpful at times because people tend to relate their experience as a whole relating to the hotel stay (e.g., best way to get there from the airport, proximity to train stations, etc.). It also taught me that Google translate is terrible at translating Japanese.
So after weighing cost, location and reviews, I ended up going with the APA Tokyo-Shiomi-Ekimae where the worst thing I could find was the room comes with right-wing propaganda (in Japanese, so I can’t read it anyway). Aside from that, everything sounds great. It’s very close to the Shiomi train station which is on the same line as Maihama (where Tokyo Disney is), so I’m just 15 minutes away from the theme parks which is nearly half my trip anyway. There are some downsides to its location as well (more on that later), but thanks to Kayak and Priceline’s Agoda.com, I ended up getting the hotel for just $52/night (conversely, staying on site at TDR at one of the non-Disney hotels is at least 3x that). In all fairness though, I am traveling alone, so it would be more expensive for a couple as hotels in Tokyo are sold based on single occupancy due to space being a premium. Still, $52/night. The only other drawback was that Agoda required payment in full of time of booking (not the drawback) and this particular booking was completely non-refundable because of the rate (drawback).
Total cost: $742.43 for hotel (13 nights), $1,223.20 for round-trip airfare between NYC area and Narita International.