How To: Do Tokyo on a Budget

It’s no secret that Tokyo is a particularly expensive city. The fourth most expensive in the world to be exact. Tell someone that you’re planning to visit Tokyo (or Japan in general) and the first thing they’ll warn you of is that prices are extortionate. However, I was recently in a rather tricky situation in which I was forced to be on a strict budget. Basically, my card had been swallowed by the ATM in my student dormitory, again. This is something which will most likely happen to you if you move to China from the UK. The ATMs here eject your cash first and only produce your card upon prompting (whereas in England both are ejected automatically). If you don’t manually eject it, wave goodbye to your card. Luckily, people come to empty the machine every few days and you can retrieve your card from them. Not so luckily, I was departing for Tokyo the next morning, so I had no choice but to go with the cash I had on me and take my chances, then pick my card up when I returned to Shanghai.

Now, those of you who may know me are probably well-aware that my travels don’t always go smoothly. During my last two trips (to Hong Kong and Seoul), one involved me ending up in hospital after cracking my head open and needing stitches, and the other one culminated in a missed flight (sorry dad, I’ve learnt my lesson ok.) Safe to say, without my bank card in either of these situations, I would’ve been screwed. So it probably wasn’t the best risk to take to travel sans a safety net, but I had spent too much on my flight and thought probability wise, things can’t get much worse than they already have been. I had about £200 on me to see me through five nights, including accommodation, so how did I manage? The article will be split into two parts, with us firstly looking at accommodation and transport.

the basics

Currency: Japanese Yen
Language: Japanese
Time Zone: UTC +9
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

ACCOMODATION

Pick a time of year that’s low-season. I visited in late May, after the rush of Golden Week and before the summer holidays. This mean I missed the height of cherry blossom season, but beggars can’t be choosers. Consequently, my overall experience (and especially my hostel) was more affordable – in Tokyo terms. I paid around £13 a night for a basic six bed dormitory in Hotel Graphy Nezu which turned out to be one of the best hostels that I’ve ever stayed in. The facilities were luxurious for a hostel. It had two common rooms, a cafe, terrace, living room with books & a large screen TV, a beautiful kitchen, clean rooms, powerful showers and A BATH

Living in a student dorm, long gone are the days when I could take a bath on a whim, and so I spent every evening in the bath trying to make the most of it. It was like a budget version of an Onsen. They also have fancy hair and body wash which most hostels scrimp on (if they provide it at all.) So while it was more expensive than I’m accustomed to paying for a hostel, I had no qualms about coughing up the cash. It’s admittedly out of the way of the centre, but only a 5-min walk from a metro station and in an area that deserves to be explored in its own right (next to Ueno Park with the National Museum, shrines and other galleries.) After paying for this, I worked out that I had around ¥3,000/£20 I could spend a day.

Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
TRANSPORT & GETTING AROUND

Transport is notoriously expensive in Japan. First and foremost, never take taxis. Even the metro is expensive, so you can imagine the taxi prices. Also, from Tokyo Narita International Airport, rather than taking the sky train into the city, I just took the cheapest option which was the Keisei line. This cost around ¥1,000. **Disclaimer** the £200 I had for my budget in Tokyo does NOT include the flights. The round trip from Shanghai was ridiculously expensive, I paid £420 for mine. I’d been looking at flights since last autumn and waiting to pounce on a cheaper option, but one never came. 

The only way to get it cheaper would be to go on the flights that arrive/leave at ridiculous times in the morning, but then you’d still have to pay to taxi from the airport to Tokyo which would cost you what you’ve saved anyway. I suspect they do it on purpose because either the Chinese government don’t want people going to Japan, or the Japanese government want to make it inaccessible. A girl that I’d met had paid LESS for her round trip from LONDON (she went via Hong Kong). So if you have the choice, don’t fly from China.

Schoolgirls on the metro in Tokyo

During my stay in Tokyo, I walked to my destinations as much as possible. If you’re on a tighter schedule this might not be as possible, but as I had four full days (not inc. Friday evening or Wednesday morning), I essentially dedicated each day to exploring a 1-3 neighbourhoods on foot. On the handy Lonely Planet Guide Travel App that I swear by, they split Tokyo into 11 districts:

1) Shibuya & Shimo-Kitazawa
2) Ginza & Tsukiji
3) Harajuku & Aoyama
4) Ueno, Yanesen & Komagome
5) Marunouchi & Nihombashi
6) Ebisu, Meouro & Around
7) Asakusa & Sumida River
8) Shinjuku & NW Tokyo
9) West Tokyo
10) Akihabara, Kagurazaka & Korakuen
11) Odaiba & Tokyo Bay
12) Roppongi, Akasaka & Around
 Obviously walking may not be physically possible for everyone, but if you can do so, then I would definitely recommend it. I’ve stumbled on many interesting and beautiful sights through walking most places. Then, at the end of the day, I’d usually buy a single ticket on the metro back to my hostel (single tickets are about ¥200-¥300.)

On my last full day in Tokyo, I thought I’d treat myself and buy a 24-hour metro pass and use it as much as possible. It wasn’t until after purchasing it that I realized a lot of the central essential stations were actually on the Toei Line rather than the Tokyo Metro Line. In London, if you buy a (admittedly expensive) day pass for the underground, it is all inclusive, even for the DLR. Can’t Tokyo just make it more simple and have them all under one ticket? Anyway, this could also be a frugal option, but unless you plan to use the metro more than twice a day, then I don’t think it’s worth it. Also, bear in mind that the metro closes around 11pm. If you want to go out at night and are on a budget, then your best bet is to stay out until public transport opens again at 5am.

In Part Two and Three we’ll be looking at cheap things to do and places to eat. In the meantime you can start planning your trip by checking out flights here, Hotel Graphy’s website here, or more hostel options here.

Happy Planning!

Under the Radar: Laos


Laos is often used as a stopover between Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of the travellers that I met whilst there confessed that they were merely there for visa purposes for one of the adjoining countries and didn’t particularly have much admiration for it. Contrary to popular opinion, we loved Laos! I thought it was an amazing country in its own right, and definitely deserving more than stop over status. However, it is enchanting in more subtle ways and doesn’t have the WOW factor that other Asian countries might have so it’s easy to see why it goes under appreciated.

THE BASICS

Currency: Lao Kip
Language: Lao
Time Zone: UTC +7
Visa: Purchase on arrival (for U.K. passport holders)

For Debauchery..

VANG VIENG

As a seasoned backpackers haunt, Vang Vieng is arguably the place in Laos that needs the least advertisement. We met several travellers who headed straight for Vang Vieng and neglected anything else that Laos could offer. This is because it is party central. While it is definitely not as wild as it used to be, it is still a hedonistic escape. It became infamous when in 2011, there was a record number of 27 tourists who died mostly due to drowning or colliding with rocks. This was caused by the phenomenon of tubing: an activity where you float down the river in a rubber tube and are pulled in to various bars by ropes. The combination of excessive drugs, alcohol and tubing was often fatal. With my complete lack of coordination, I found it hard enough to go tubing sober, let alone wasted. The currents are deceivingly strong, there are rocks everywhere and there is no one to supervise you or intervene if anything goes wrong. After the chaos, many of the bars on the river were shut down, but there are still a few that live on, albeit more chill. With conditions improved, it remains a huge tourist pasttime, especially as the river is coupled with the beautiful scenery of the karst formations.

Games in a bar on the tubing course

TUBING TOP TIPS
1) Don’t take any valuables with you. There’s nowhere to put them and people always ended up losing cameras or other precious things.
2) Make sure you are aware of the time. Going around the whole course takes at least a couple of hours and you need to return the tubes back by a certain time to get your deposit back. Tubing in the dark also isn’t fun (not to mention, dangerous), which we discovered after we spending too long at the bar!
3) Try to stick together as much as possible! Tie your tubes together or something. Make sure no-one is left to find their way back alone.
4) Take clothes in a waterproof bag. It is disrespectful to wear swimwear with nothing else in public and annoys locals for cultural and religious reasons.

Other than tubing, Vang Vieng offers many options for outdoors activities. You can go caving, swim in the lagoons or ride in a hot air balloon (we never got to do this, but apparently it’s among one of the cheapest places to do it, so I wish we had). If you are going simply for the party side of things, there is a main ‘strip’ type thing in town which contains the main bars. They rotate happy hours, so you can if you like whisky then you can drink for free. If you hate whisky, try a whisky & pineapple and you’ll be surprised by how much it tastes like juice! We spent around five days here, but you could make the most of it within three.

It’s super cheap, but be wary of being ripped off when you’re drunk. One night I was buying a sandwich and gave the vendor a large bill and he didn’t give me my change. He probably thought I was a typical drunk western girl who wouldn’t notice (which to be fair, usually I am), and when I demanded it, he ended up coming at me with a chair. Luckily the situation was diffused quickly, but safe to say, I didn’t get my change.

The Blue Lagoon

For a UNESCO world heritage town..

LUANG PRABANG

We never made it to Luang Prabang as we were on a tight schedule, but I feel that I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t include it here. The city has the status of a UNESCO world heritage site (there are two in total in Laos, the other is Vat Phou, a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in the south). It looks stunning. It is home to the Royal Palace museum and gorgeous waterfalls, with temples at every turn. It seems the perfect place to retreat and detox after losing sense of time in Vang Vieng.

Another place that I really wanted to visit in Laos is the Plain of Jars, an ancient historical site containing mysterious giant stone jars of unknown origin in Phonsavan. This is why I’d advice anyone to spend at least a week in Laos rather than the few days that it is usually allotted! It has so much to offer, I will definitely be making a trip back here when I get the chance.

For History & Culture..

VIENTIANE

Pha That Luang

Vientiane is the capital city, but one of the more sparse capitals that I’ve visited. It is a very calm, tranquil city, yet still full of temples, night markets and some cute bars. It’s great if you’re getting fed up of overwhelming cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok. People sometimes complain that there isn’t a lot to do, but there is. There’s not a huge checklist of tourist attractions to run through, but it provides access to Laotian culture and history. COPE Visitor Centre should be number one on your list. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide most of the artificial limbs, wheelchairs and walking aids in Laos.


It’s free to enter the exhibit which will teach you about the issues in Laos surrounding undetonated ordnance. Between 1964-1973, more than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos. This is more than was dropped in Europe during WWII and has earned Laos the titled of the most bombed country per capita in history. 30% of them have yet to explode, and civilians are still dying or becoming seriously injured from encountering them.

The Lao National Museum is located in Vientiane and Pha That Luang is one of the best temples to go to see. If you can handle a trip to the outskirts of the city then the Buddha Park is fascinating. The sculpture park was established in 1958 and contains over 200 statues from Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Tuk tuks are extremely cheap, so just barter for a good price with one who will take you there, wait for you while you look around and then take you back. You can see pretty much everything here in 2-3 days.

Rosie enjoying the Tuk Tuk
Buddha Park

**SOMETHING TO BE AWARE OF IF GOING ON TO VIETNAM**

If you are a UK passport holder, then you are allowed into the country for up to 14 days without pre-purchasing a visa. We were wrongly advised by our hostel and told that we needed one, and subsequently wasted a lot of money. Don’t make the same mistake!

Happy Planning!