Some places in Japan are just too far for us cheapos to take a loooong bus ride to, and then you have the places that you can’t even reach by bus from Tokyo, such as Okinawa. Besides, overnight buses aren’t for everyone, as they can be uncomfortable. Fortunately, there’s some middle ground between buses (usually the cheapest but most time-consuming option) and the very expensive but fast bullet train: low-cost carriers (LCCs), a boon to many travelers in the recent decade.
Low-cost carriers can get extremely cheap—especially when they have promos! They can get even cheaper than night buses in such cases, even if you factor in the cost of traveling to and from airports. You don’t have to obsessively visit their websites every day just to make sure you didn’t miss out on a deal, so you can usually just sign up for a mailing list of sorts to be informed of their latest sales. Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find discounted flights that are valid during peak travel times or major festivals, but we suppose you can’t always have your cake and eat it too. And if you’re worrying about safety, you don’t really have to. Just because they’re far cheaper than regular airlines doesn’t mean that they’re any less safe.
1. Vanilla Air
Vanilla Air frequently announces promos, so this is one LCC that you’ll want to look out for. Within Japan, they fly from Narita Airport to Sapporo in Hokkaido, Naha in Okinawa, Kagoshima Prefecture’s Amami Oshima, but they also have international flights to Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan’s Taipei and Kaohsiung. While fares vary per season (not to mention, the day and time can also make the difference), simple fares (basic fare that doesn’t include checked-in luggage) generally start at much less than 10,000 yen. For instance, simple fares for Sapporo, Naha, and Amami Oshima, respectively, start within the ranges of 3,990-4,990 yen, 5,990-6,490 yen, and 5,690-6,390 yen. Just to give you an idea of how good a bargain you can get from a promo: this author got to travel to Hokkaido in July 2015 for less than ¥3,000 one-way!
2. Peach Air
The Kansai-based Peach Airways is another one of those LCCs that have promos every so often. From Narita, they fly to Sapporo, Fukuoka, and Osaka. And from Osaka they have a number of flights to places such as Sapporo, Sendai, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, and Naha. They have some international flights to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea as well. As of our last update (February 2017), flights from Tokyo to Sapporo, Fukuoka, and Osaka start at 4,090 yen, 4,790 yen, and 3,490 yen, respectively. Just like with Vanilla Air, you can grab some really great deals during promo periods; for instance, there were once flights from Osaka to Tokyo for 2,790 yen one-way, thanks to an autumn sale.
3. Jetstar Airways
Jetstar doesn’t announce sales as often as Vanilla and Peach do, but this is a pretty reliable LCC nonetheless. Flying to a number of locations (including Osaka, Fukuoka, Matsuyama, Sapporo, and Oita), Jetstar has starting rates that are generally within the same range as the above airlines. To illustrate, as of this writing (September 2017), one-way fares from Narita to Osaka start at 3,990 yen. Fares increase based on the time and day, though, so the first or last flights during weekdays should be the cheapest. Jetstar also covers a decent number of international routes.
4. Spring Airlines Japan
In 2014, Shanghai-based LCC Spring Airlines’ Japanese subsidiary, Spring Airlines Japan, launched its operations. As expected, it flies to selected Chinese cities, but it also flies to Hiroshima, Osaka, Saga, Sapporo, and Takamatsu. As of February 2017, flights from Tokyo to Hiroshima, Osaka, Sapporo, and Saga start at below 4,000 yen one-way. Flights can get dirt-cheap when Spring has promos—every 7th of the month, domestic flights start as low as 737 yen one-way for about a week.
While some consider these airlines to also be inexpensive options, they can be only slightly cheaper than domestic flights offered by regular airlines. Still, flying with these airlines can get much cheaper because of their discount options.
1. Solaseed Air
Solaseed Air (website in Japanese) mostly flies to areas in Kyushu. Its regular fares aren’t all that cheap, but depending on how early you book your flight—80 days before, 60 days before, and so on—you can get significantly discounted fares (10,500-21,000 yen for flights from Tokyo to Kagoshima, for instance).
They also have a Visit Japan fare for tourists, which entitles you to fly from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Miyazaki, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, and Oita for 10,500 yen one-way. You can’t get this ticket online, though, so you’ll have to get it from a Solaseed Air counter or ask a travel agency to make a booking for you. Certain terms and conditions apply to this fare, though; for one, the website says that this ticket is only available on a stand-by basis, and there are additional facility charges (290 yen for adults, 140 yen for children aged 3-11) for passengers taking Haneda Airport.
If you’re living in Japan, either get someone who can read Japanese to help you navigate Solaseed’s website, or check airline booking websites like Skyscanner, as Solaseed’s flights occasionally show up there (usually not the discounted ones, though).
2. Skymark Airlines
From Haneda Airport, Skymark Airlines flies to Sapporo, Kobe, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, and Naha. The general price range would be between 10,000-20,000 yen, but it has a number of fare options, such as discounts for senior citizens, people with disabilities, and passengers from 12-21 years old (though this under 21 discount fare can only be obtained 1 day prior to departure until the date of departure itself). There are also other discounts that depend on how many days in advance you purchase a ticket, and some last-minute deals that you can obtain 3 days or 1 day before departure.
3. Air Do
Flying from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kobe, Okayama, Hiroshima, and various cities in Hokkaido, Air Do’s price range isn’t that different from Solaseed’s or Skymark’s. Like the other two airlines, it offers discounts based on how far in advance you purchase a ticket, as well as last-minute discounts. Air Do also has a promotional fare for foreign visitors: the Welcome to Hokkaido fare—only 8,800 yen per one-way trip (9,600 yen during certain periods). Despite the name, however, the website states that the fare is valid on all Air Do routes. You can’t avail of this promo online, so it’s best to get in touch with a travel agency.
Tourist discounts from regular airlines
Yes, even non-LCCs offer discount options, too. Don’t count on airlines like Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) to slash their fares to be as cheap as the LCCs, but they have discounted domestic flights for tourists, similar to Solaseed Air’s Visit Japan fare. Naturally, you need to show proof of being a tourist visa holder before boarding. You might also be asked to show proof of your flights to and from Japan.
JAL presents two options: the Oneworld Yokoso/Visit Japan fare, and the Welcome to Japan fare, both of which are not sold in Japan and must be booked overseas. Seating is economy class, and rebooking is not allowed. The former can be used to travel to anywhere among 30 destinations in Japan served by JAL for 10,800 yen one-way, on the condition that travel to and from Japan must be made via Oneworld alliance carriers such as American Airlines, Qantas, and Cathay Pacific. The Welcome to Japan deal costs 14,040 yen one-way, but can be used by tourists traveling to and from Japan via any carrier. (Blackout periods apply.)
Meanwhile, ANA has the Experience Japan fare and Visit Japan fare. Both come with free baggage allowance, and cannot be rebooked. Seating is, by default, economy class. Aside from the price difference (10,800 yen for the former and 13,000 yen for the latter), the key differences are that the Visit Japan deal can only be purchased outside Japan, and you must purchase at least two and at most five Visit Japan tickets.
As of our last update, the Experience Japan fare is valid until October 28, 2017. As part of the Experience Japan promo fare, from March 26, 2017, routes within Hokkaido (Sapporo to Wakkanai, Memanbetsu, Nemuro Nakashibetsu, Kushiro, and Hakodate) have a special rate of 5,400 yen one-way.
Take note that the Visit Japan promo fare has blackout dates of March 3-31, 2017; July 1-August 31, 2017; December 1, 2015-January 5, 2018; March 1-31, 2018; and July 1-August 31, 2018.
Note: this article was last updated in February 2017.