Category Archives: travel

How I Stayed in Tokyo for Free

She stayed at some REALLY nice hotels for free. Definitely pinning for the trip to Japan I'm planning!

Oh, man, guys. I just got back from a huge trip to Japan, and it was indescribably amazing. As one Belgian tech guru told me one night as some of us were sitting around a fantastic meal:

“I think coming here has changed me.”

I have so much I want to tell you, and I’m going to take several weeks to do just that. Every Friday, we’ll talk a little about saving money while exploring this breathtaking country. We’ll start with accommodations.

How I Stayed in Tokyo for Free

Originally, we were supposed to fly into Osaka, but that involved a long, complicated layover in Tokyo anyways, so I called and lopped off that leg of our flight. My sibling and I spent our first night and last nights in Japan in the capital of Tokyo, and we did it for free.

Westin Tokyo

westin tokyo review

I had built up some SPG points from business travel. I had enough for one free reward stay at the Westin Tokyo, which I was pretty psyched about.

I wasn’t nearly psyched enough. We took a bus from Narita to our digs. When we walked in the entry way, my sibling dropped their jaw and said, “Holy sh!t, Femme.”

The lobby was gorgeous. Dark wood colors lined the walls accented with gold. I’m pretty sure our footsteps echoed off the sky-high ceilings as we walked back to the check-in desk, where we were greeted by the sweetest and most generous host ever. She treated me like royalty even as I stood there in my yoga pants and tee, surely reeking of the 29 hours of straight travel I had just endured.

Not only was she nice, she upgraded our room–which already would have cost hundreds upon hundreds of dollars without points–to a suite. A gorgeous, two-room suite with one and a half baths. I took a rainfall shower that night before we went out to find some food, and soaked in a pink, cherry blossom bath the next morning before we set out on our journey.

view from westin tokyo

That night, we gazed out over the dazzling city with views of Tokyo tower gracing our window. The next morning, we grabbed some breakfast in the club lounge and kind of sort of talked, but mostly just sat there in awe as we took in yet another astonishing view.

The neighborhood, Ebisu, was super nice and just about my speed. There was shopping and dining, and a tasteful amount of nightlife. We walked by ice cream shops and bakeries as we stumbled upon gardens full of vibrant flowers–including one such garden directly behind the hotel.

Staying at the Westin was definitely the right way to start our trip.

Shinjuku

shinjuku mural

Our last two nights in Japan, we stayed in the heart of Shinjuku. We found an Airbnb that would have run us about $200 for both nights if I hadn’t had Airbnb credits that cancelled out all the costs. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, I highly recommend it as a great way to save money when you travel. You can get your own $40 travel credit when you signup here.

I wasn’t as big of a fan of Shinjuku. I’m pretty sure most people would consider that blaspheme. Part of my disenchantment undoubtedly had to do with the fact that I spent a good portion of my time there holed up in the Airbnb as I had caught a cold.

But from the walking around I did do, it was full of high-end shopping, tons of night life and at least one series of hotels where people go to have sex. I get that all that excitement is enticing for a lot of people. I’m just not super into high-end clothing and clubbing.

Also, I may have missed massive parts of the neighborhood and be passing unfair judgement. Because sick.

Where did you stay the rest of the two weeks?

Great question! I was originally going to title this post, “How I Stayed in Japan for 2 Weeks for Under $400,” but I decided against that because it would be a little misleading.

This entire trip was spurred on by the fact that one of my longest friends is a native of Osaka. We went to Japan to visit her and her family. We stayed with her family in Osaka, Wakayama, and Nachi Katsuura. I hadn’t seen my friend in seven years, and her family in 22. They are such wonderful people *trying not to cry right now* and made us feel so welcome in their homes.

But most Americans probably don’t have a family friend waiting for them in Japan ready to open up their home to them, so my situation was unique and fortunate.

The Guest House in Kyoto

kyoto guest house

We were there for a while, though, and people gotta work. So we spent about five days in Kyoto on our own, exploring the ancient city. I was planning on using Airbnb for that, too, but it turns out that if you’re in Japan for cherry blossom season, waiting to book an Airbnb three weeks prior to your arrival in Kyoto is not a great idea. In fact, it’s a crazy expensive one.

After some panicked searching, I found something called a guest house through Hotels.com–where I’m currently only a couple nights away from earning yet another free stay.

Ours, the Yuraku, was Japanese-owned and geared towards Japanese guests. One room with bunk beds ran each of us $385, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t plan on getting that number down further by applying some of the credit card points I earned during our sojourn to that purchase in the next couple weeks.

When a guest house is geared towards Japanese guests, they will ask you to be very quiet. Everything will be super clean and peaceful.

We learned from our host that when the place is geared towards Westerners, it tends to be a bit more rowdy and sociable.

Different strokes.

We enjoyed our stay at the Yuraku. I had booked it because it was available and somewhat affordable, but I would book it again because unbeknownst to me, it was in a great location in a beautiful neighborhood with a ton of amenities–like good food, a famous bathhouse, and coin-op laundry–just steps outside the door.

Get more Japan Pictures!

A lot of people have asked me to post my Japan pictures on Instagram. Just one problem: twenty-four hours ago, I didn’t have an account!

But I got so many requests that I have now set one up so I can share all the beauty I beheld while I was away. I know I shared quite a few images in this post, but I’m going to be sharing more exclusively on that channel throughout the week.

Everyday at 1pm Eastern time, I’ll have a new one up there for you guys, so be sure to give me a follow!

In exciting Twitter news…

Financial literacy twitter chat

Also, want to let you all know that I’ll be co-hosting a Twitter chat on Thursday with my friend Tori from Tomorrow! You can join us at 8p Eastern on April 26, 2018 to discuss financial literacy.

Come whether you have questions on how you can improve your financial literacy or ideas on how others can get improve their money knowledge. It’s the first one ever, so I’d be so psyched to see you using the hashtag #TomorrowTalk!

We’re Going to Coachella!

Today’s author is Liz–a personal finance nerd who loves to talk all things money-related. She firmly believes that it’s not about how much you make, but rather how much you keep, and is always on the lookout for ways to hold on to more of what’s earned. A native of New York state, Liz now happily lives in Chicago but maintains that deep dish is NOT real pizza. You can find more of her money (and life) thoughts on her blog Open Mouths Get Fed.

Holy, wow. She's doing Coachella for under $1,000! These are some insanely good savings tips--for Coachella or any time you travel.

Tickets are $500.

Hotels will be price gouging.

You don’t have a job.

You’re too old for all that.

All thoughts that crossed my mind when I read the Coachella 2018 lineup for the first time. The Weeknd. SZA. Cardi B. Beyoncé. I repeated my earlier thoughts as I perused the event website. I admonished myself that all of my friends were too married and parental to go with me when I posted on Facebook, “Anyone down for Coachella 2018? I’m so sincere.” And I definitely compared my back fat to the cellulite free thighs plastered across last year’s Instagram Coachella hashtags.

It turns out that all I needed to cast aside my reservations were a willing friend who is parental but not spousal, a well funded blow money account, a half-assed commitment to diet and exercise between January and April, and the scant hope that Jay-Z would join his wife onstage.

Besides, if a 43-year-old Bridget Jones can sleep with Patrick Dempsey at a music festival, why can’t I do the same? Armed with my Chase Sapphire Reserve and the confidence of a mediocre white man, I logged onto the Coachella site, waited for my turn in the queue and purchased two tickets for the second weekend of Coachella 2018.

Adulting 101

Some might say that my decision to go to Indio, CA for a three day music festival is immature and irresponsible given the fact that I’m closer to 40 than 30 and have been (f)unemployed since November due to a layoff. Being without a steady, sufficient income for months should mean that cash is to be kept as closely as possible and I cannot afford to spend what could be thousands of dollars on a concert–not when there is a mortgage that needs to be paid and a student loan that’s still in repayment.

However, I can’t get behind that perspective. While some may call it responsible, I see it as accepting a scarcity mindset. I see it as an acceptance of money being a scarce resource of which I would be unlikely to find more.

To that I call bullsh!t.

I have been making money since Dubya’s administration. If by this point in my professional life I can’t figure out how to make a dollar out of fifteen cents then I’m doing something wrong. While going to Coachella is not a necessity, it is definitely an experience that I would highly value. I have learned the best way to be responsible with our finances is to allocate them according to our values, spending less on what we could care less about and more on what we do.

Since I could listen all day to SZA sing about Broken Clocks, have never met a vacation I didn’t want to take, and will take any opportunity to boost my melanin before summer, then I would say going to Coachella is the epitome of fiscal responsibility.

Figuring It Out

With this mindset the statement, “I can’t afford to go to Coachella,” gets flipped to the question, “How can I afford to give myself an experience I will value and remember forever?”

There is  difference between not having wage income and not having money. Prior to being laid off, I’d saved six months of post-tax income in addition to stashing cash into several sinking funds–including a blow money account. True, I could have taken the dollars from that account and transferred it to my savings. But who is to say that my blow money account wasn’t so nicely flush precisely for a time such as this?

Did I mention Cardi B is going to be there?!

The Tickets

A couple of years ago I’d decided on a whim that I wanted to go to Coachella and tickets were upwards of $1000 on Stubhub. That wasn’t my ministry back then.

This time I made the decision to go before any tickets went on sale. The first step in answering the question of how I was going to afford this excursion was ensuring I purchased my tickets at face value. Easy enough. I channeled my inner 16 year old who used to call the radio station every night trying to be caller ten, and got on the Coachella website the minute tickets went on sale and got a spot in the sales queue. Thankfully, all servers were a go and I was able to get tickets for me and my friend the first day of the sale.

A Place To Lay My Head

Even more expensive than the tickets is the lodging for 3-4 nights in a town overrun by thousands of tourists. A quick perusal of AirBnB showed that even with a 4 person occupancy I would still be looking at a bill well over $600.

I did not want to pay that much money so I explored other options. I contacted several hotel chains and pitched article ideas in exchange for discounted room and board during Coachella’s second weekend. I got pretty deep into talks with one hotel chain before it all ended in, “We are totally booked that weekend.”

Luckily AirBnB came to my rescue when a cute ranch resort at $130 per night caught my eye. Sometimes it’s good not to know an area’s geography. I fired off an email to the host inquiring how far his listing is from the venue. He quickly responded that his place was more than an hour away. However, before I could dismiss the location as unfeasible, he informed me that he works at Coachella every year and offered free shuttle service to and from the festival grounds every morning and evening.

I knew it was meant to be when he eliminated the need to rent a car by offering a $100 round trip shuttle to pick us up and drop us off at LAX, which is more than two hours away. And that brings up another cost to afford…

Getting There

I have a good amount of credit card reward points and frequent flyer miles, either of which I could cash in for a free flight from Chicago to L.A. However, I’m hoarding points and miles to cash them in for a first class ticket the next time I fly back to West Africa to be with my family. Since I didn’t want to prematurely use this resource I decided to use another of my sinking funds for the purpose for which it was created. Every month I save for travel expenses.

To mitigate that expense as much as possible I chose to fly as a mystery shopper. Companies like SQM offer travelers a 50% refund on roundtrip ticket purchases for simply staying awake before take off and snacks and evaluating the airline experience from airport to the airplane. This option will bring the already low price of my airfare down to $144.50 once the refund hits my credit card. While I do forego earning miles, it is worth it to me to earn the straight cash.

Adding It Up

I am all set to live it up for three days in the desert. I have my event tickets, flight, and lodging. When all expenses are totaled and rebates factored in I managed to put together a trip that can cost thousands of dollars for the bargain basement price of $937.50. If I don’t buy new clothes for the occasion, take public transportation to and home from Chicago’s airport, and prepare and pack my own meals while in California, I may even be able to keep the total cost right under $1000 for the entire three days.

GOALS!

Final Thoughts

I will not concede that there are better ways I could be spending my money while I am without income. Not spending $1000 on Coachella will not buy me another month of living expenses and could potentially cost me years of regret when I am not long as free to use my money and pick up and go whenever I please.

One of the best things about making the decision to go to Coachella is that it has reinvigorated my creative juices on finding ways to earn money outside of a traditional 9 to 5. I am actively pursuing ways to use my everyday skills and resources to bring in enough to replenish my blow money and vacation sink accounts.

Best of all, I am challenging limits whether they be internally or externally imposed. It is up to me to determine where my funds should stretch. It is only I who can tell myself, “F#*k your cellulite, put on some short shorts, and dance your ass off to your favorite singers.”

Japan Travel Tips + Walking Tour

Are you still waiting to find out who is behind door number two on our Japanese tips tour?

Wait no more! Please welcome my friend Bethany from Wanderlust for Less. She has some amazing tips–many of which never would have occurred to me before I left! Read on for some veteran travel tips.

Definitely using this free walking tour guide when I travel to Japan next summer!

 

Japan is a truly incredible place to visit. My husband, Travis, and I visited friends who lived there 2 years ago, and we were struck by the proud history and majesty of this beautiful culture. One of the things that really struck me about Japan is the low crime rate and the honesty the people showed. Let me give you an example.

Travis and I were recently engaged when we traveled from LA to Tokyo. We had an 18 hour layover in Beijing and took advantage of seeing a tiny bit of the city (fun fact—you can visit China without a visa if you are there less than 72 hours).

As a part of our wedding, we were going to have an ‘International Chocolate Bar’—aka one of those cutesy countertops filled with an assortment of candies that your relatives will blow through like a tornado, stuffing their tiny brown, monogramed ‘candy’ bags.  Except, our wedding was travel themed, so we tried to put a little spin on it by gathering sweets from as many countries as we could muster.

Low Crime Rates

recover lost items japan

Whilst in China, we found these adorable little panda bear chocolates with unique flavors and bought 3 boxes. We also got a little stuffed panda for our niece, and they put it in a big bag that had a panda decoration on the side.

It was perfect.

The plan was simple—we were going to carry that little Panda accented bag with us through the Beijing airport, on the plane ride to Tokyo, next to us on the Narita Express train from the airport to Shinjuku, then aboard the Chuo line toward Nakano to Mitaka station. What could possibly go wrong?

On the transfer from the Narita Express to the Chuo line… we left the bag. On the train.

As soon as we realized what happened, my heart sank.

But there seemed to be a glimmer of hope. My friend, Tori, who had lived in Tokyo about a year, said there was a chance we could track it down. The crime rate in Japan is virtually nonexistent. Missing items on trains are routinely turned in and were able to be tracked down. We just needed to find the right phone numbers, and people who spoke Japanese.

Fast forward several days, many phone calls both in Japanese and English, and jumping around the city, we were in a train station office signing papers and retrieving our lost items. An ancient Japanese man bowed as he scooted the bag across the counter, saying something in Japanese. We returned the bows as we scooted out of the room and went on our way. Tori paused a moment later, only just understanding what he had said in Japanese:

“It is lost no longer.”

Planning Your Trip to Japan

couple in japan

Before you travel to Japan, make sure you download this free wifi app (it can’t be downloaded once you are in Japan!) It allows you to connect to several local WiFis for free once you are there.

When planning what you will see, here are a few great neighborhoods, grouped close to each other:

Asakusa (Senso-ji temple), Kappabashi (this is also known as the kitchen district, so if you want a Japanese knife, buy it here! I got a few good ones from a knife shop to give my brothers as birthday gifts), Ueno Park, and the Yanaka neighborhoods are also fun to walk around because there are a lot of cool old buildings—this area was not destroyed in the war.

Akihabara is a crazy electronics neighborhood – this is where all the “manga” stuff is, (Japanese comics). I will warn you—it’s a weird place, but worth a walk through. If you are into owls – they even have an owl cafe. Weird, weird, weird, but also, awesome.

Roppongi is a great place to go if you are looking for a lot of amazing restaurants, bars, clubs, etc. There are many foreigners here and English is spoken everywhere. Check out Roppongi Hills (there’s an amazing view from the observation floor) and Tokyo Midtown.

Shibuya is one of my favorite neighborhoods. Some must sees in the area: Hachiko statue in the Shibuya station, Shibuya crossing (AKA the busiest crosswalk in the world—go into the Starbucks on the second floor of the bookstore and sit at the counter for an awesome perspective of the crossing!), Yoyogi Park with the Meiji shrine, Takeshita street (outside Harajuku station), Kiddyland, and the Oriental Bazaar—more on those later.

Free Walking Tour Guide

japan train ticket

Speaking of Shibuya, if you are up for a walk, here is a walking tour of Shibuya/Omotesando/Harajuku/Aoyama:

Take the Yamanote line to Harajuku—get out at the Takeshita exit and walk down Takeshita dori. Turn right at the next main road (there’s a stop light), that is Meiji Dori. There are some good shops down Meiji Dori, past Omotesando Dori, like the UT t-shirt shop (lots of fun, cheap t-shirts). It is just past the North Face store. Go down a few blocks, check out the shops, turn around and come back to Omotesando Dori (the street with the Gap on the corner is Omote-sando Dori)

Omotesando Dori is a great street to walk down, there are fun alleyways if you turn in by the Ralph Lauren store. You should check out Omotesando hills on the north side of the street, it has a fancy shopping mall and cool architecture.

In the same area is also a great shop called Oriental Bazaar. It is a red building that looks kind of like a temple. Definitely stock up on your souvenirs here. There are some tax-free options you might have to declare at the airport (if that worries you, it’s really simple—you put the receipt in a little box in the airport and move along). I bought my bridesmaids Japanese robes for a really great price here, as well as some gorgeous pottery. They were a huge hit!

If you go down the side street (kind of an alleyway) right near KiddyLand, closer to the Harajuku side, (it’s called Kat Street – or Kyu-shibuyagawa promenade), then you can walk all the way down to Shibuya and do some shopping. There are some good guy stores down that way, like the Freak Store (yes, really).

While you’re in the Harajuku area, check out Yoyogi park (on the west side of Harajuku station), from the station, walk out to the right and follow the sidewalk to the first right turn you can make. It’s a huge park and has lots of fun stuff going on, including a major tourist attraction: Meiji shrine.

This will take you a half or whole day (at least) to do all of this little tour, depending on how fast you walk. I recommend you check out a map and break it down by area. If you only have a couple of hours a day, do one day at Harajuku station, one day at Omotesando station, one day at Shibuya station. Definitely try to check out Yoyogi park on the weekend!

Japanese Eats

ramen at ichiran in tokyo

So, as we know, food is one of the best things to eat abroad! And yes, ramen and sushi are the most delicious things ever—especially in Japan!

My favorite Ramen place is Ichiran in Shibuya. You can order your ramen from your personal little cubby where the chef delivers your ramen through a curtain. If you leave some broth in the bottom of the bowl, you can order some more noodles and meat to add to it. It is magical and delicious.

Though there are a lot of incredible sushi places around the city, Genki Sushi Co. is a conveyor belt sushi bar. You order your sushi on a little screen in front of you and it is delivered to your seat on a mini train. That was one train we wouldn’t miss!

I, for one, was thoroughly amused.

If you like donuts, I highly recommend Mister Donut. They also have great coffee (with free refills!). Also, there are some vending machines with an assortment of delicious beverages—both hot AND cold—you can get in the train stations or on the street.

What to Do About Disposables

Another quick and important tip: there are no paper towels in the restrooms, so people walk around with little towels. They also don’t have trashcans, but the city is incredibly clean. People carry their garbage around with them until they can throw it away. There are usually bins on the platforms in the train stations.

Happy travels, friends and さよなら—Sayonara!

Favorite Free App: Debx

I have received compensation for the writing of this post. Regardless, all opinions are 100% honest and 100% my own.

I've always been afraid of wracking up credit card debt, but this app pays it off everday for you--and you get to collect travel rewards. Amazing!

When I was younger, I was petrified of debt. There was no degree or travel reward that could convince me taking on credit was a good idea. I had a couple of car notes, but they were small, and I paid them off quickly.

A few  years ago, I had a change of heart. I realized the power of travel rewards, and knew myself well enough to trust that I would pay off each and every purchase as I made it. And I did. It was an exercise in vigilance, though.

I avoided carrying any credit card debt in my name until last year, when health insurance premiums tested the constraints of our income. It’s something I’m working my way out of right now, and had less to do with good money habits or tempting incentives and more to do with medical necessities for our family–which absolutely need to be more affordable in our country. (And yet–shouldn’t disappear. I’d rather carry a bit of medical debt at 0% interest than not be able to get my family services they need and depend on to live.)

Life with Travel Rewards

Travel rewards have been good to me. They’ve allowed me to take my family to Myrtle Beach during peak season while paying virtually nothing for the hotel, score a free hotel room more than once while we were traveling for funerals and other family trips, and cancel out other travel costs like subway fares and bus tickets.

In my latest win, they’re getting me two free tickets to Japan, and a free night in a hotel in Tokyo–which would usually cost north of $500.

But if you want to do this, you absolutely need to pay off each purchase to avoid interest charges and late fees. You must do this at the end of every billing cycle at bare minimum, but I prefer to do it each and every time I make a purchase so it doesn’t add up. This way I’m sure I’m only spending money that I actually have in my bank account.

Paying off every purchase right away can be a chore, though. I was extremely diligent in my payoff strategies, logging onto my credit card account each night after I had a made a purchase. But there is an easier, less stressful way.

Enter Debx

Debx is this nifty new app that pays off your purchases as you make them. It sounds simple, but this simple service provides so many complex benefits, and it does it for free.

Some of the benefits include:

  • You won’t have a massive bill at the end of your billing period as each expense will be paid off as you make it.
  • Because Debx is linked to both your credit accounts and your checking account, it won’t pull money you don’t have. This saves you from automating and potentially incurring overdraft fees. My financial institution charges $35/pop!
  • Because Debx pays off your purchases everyday, your credit utilization ratio will remain low throughout the month. MyFICO cites credit utilization as one of the main factors in determining your credit score.
  • If you’re worried about debt like I was, you can do the math about your purchases as if you were spending from  your checking account. You swipe your credit card, but at the end of the day the money will be coming out of checking. This helps keep your spending responsible and allows you to reap the benefits of rewards points.

Pretty nifty, right?

But, wait. There’s more…

Debx comes with a ton of other benefits, too. For example, because they keep track of all of your credit card balances, you can view them all in one place rather than logging into each individual app for each credit card issuer.

The app also helps you:

  • Access other credit card benefits, like built-in rental car insurance, free checked bags with certain airlines and purchase protection on certain products.
  • Build credit responsibly since you’ll be paying it off as you go and keeping your credit utilization rate low.
  • Keep track of due dates.
  • Know how much you have available to spend based on your scheduled payments.

Pretty soon, they’re also going to have a feature where you can review all of your rewards in one place within the app, too.

Privacy

You know I read the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy before I decided this app was a good idea. Any time you decide to open up an account with a financial app, reviewing these policies is mandatory, in my opinion.

Debx’s policy is pretty good for the consumer. Your information is never sold or shared with third parties, unless they need to share info with that third party to provide you with services. For example, if you have a card with Capital One, they’re going to need to provide Capital One with your login information in order to keep track of and payoff your purchases.

The other time they’ll share information is if you’ve broken the law. If law enforcement asks for your data, they’re legally required to provide it. They’ll also have to share the info if they’re acquired or go through a merger. But both of those situations are standard across every privacy policy I’ve ever read for a financial app.

At some point, they may email you ads from some of their third-party partners. But just like with Credit Sesame–who sends out affiliate emails in order to provide their service for free–you can unsubscribe from emails that aren’t necessary to the functioning of your Debx account.

Customer Service

Getting in touch with customer service with some of these apps can be a major pain, but Debx makes it super easy. You can use their Live Chat service, shoot them an email or even call the founder of the company on his cell. Legit.

Here’s how  you can do all of those things.

It’s free. And they’re giving away money.

Debx is 100% free, so you get all these benefits without paying a cent.

On top of that, they’re currently giving away $5,000!

In celebration of their launch, they’re awarding twelve people who sign up for the wait list with cash to apply towards their credit card debt:

  • GRAND PRIZE. $3,000 to one (1) winner.
  • FIRST PRIZE. $1,000 to one (1) winner.
  • SECOND PRIZE. $100 to ten (10) winners.

Hurry, though, because this sweepstakes is only open through tomorrow!!!

See the world. Build your credit. Be financially responsible.

A good credit score is instrumental in purchasing your first home, getting a car note at an affordable rate, and sometimes even getting an apartment or landing a job. By paying off your balances daily with Debx, you’re keeping your credit utilization low while avoiding any late payments.

This system may allow you to earn enough rewards points to see more of this beautiful world like I have–and to do so while being fiscally responsible.

 

 

Destination Japan: Budget Travel Tips

I had no idea there were so many affordable things to do in Japan! Maybe a budget trip is in the future afterall...

Guys, I don’t know if I’ve been obnoxious as I possibly can be about it yet, but let me try: I’m going to Japan.

Japan.

 Japan.

Japan!

I’m obviously very excited. I’ve wanted to visit for most of my life–ever since my childhood friend moved back there and I moved to Pittsburgh. But getting to Japan has always been cost-prohibitive for me. At somewhere between $1,000-$3,000 per ticket–depending on the year and where I lived–it was really hard for me to come up with that type of money when I had other basic expenses I had yet to meet.

On a note which I promise is related, a couple years ago a family member fell incredibly ill. The kind of ill there’s no coming back from. When we couldn’t afford a ticket to send my mom to visit, her friend stepped in and bought her a ticket with points she had banked.

In that moment, I realized I wanted to start travel hacking. Not for the traditional reasons of seeing the world at whimsy–though, Oh, how I would enjoy that, too–but because should another such occasion arise, I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to be able to grab more than one ticket; I wanted to be able to go myself and have my kids come with me.

The Results

I’ve used travel hacking the years since. We got a free hotel in Myrtle Beach during peak season thanks to points. We saved over $1,000 on Disney tickets thanks to rewards.

But all the while, I was quietly stashing away airline points, even converting hotel points to the airline currency. Just in case.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to draw on these points. I hope everyone I know and love stays incredibly healthy forever and ever.

Because I haven’t had to draw on those points, though, the initial stash has seen one devaluation, and I’m getting to the point where I need to spend some. So in the near future, off to Japan I go.

To be honest, I’ve thought about using some points for this purpose for a while now. But it’s finally at the point where I really need to.

Japan Travel Tips from People Who Have Been There

My first wealth of information is my friend.

My second wealth of information lays with my Japanese instructors, many of whom are actually Japanese. I’m taking lessons for free at the library.

My third wealth of information is the one I’m planning on sharing with you today. It comes from two awesome friends who have been there themselves.

First, let’s check out these great money-saving tips from the fantastic Tanja from Our Next Life:

We spent a lot less in Japan than we expected to because, although you CAN spend a ton there, there’s plenty of reasonably priced things to do, places to stay and things to eat!

Pocket WiFi. Because your phone won’t work in Japan.

We reserved a pocket WiFi online that was mailed to our first hotel, and then we dropped it at the airport when we flew home. It cost a few dollars a day to have unlimited data, even on the tops of mountains in Hokkaido.

You can also buy a SIM card, but we liked the WiFi option better so we could connect all our devices anywhere.

Getting Around Japan

For transportation, use local trains and subways, and you’ll never spend much.

Taxis cost a ton, but the metro in Tokyo costs about a dollar a ride, and is easy to navigate with Google maps. If you’re traveling across the country, the bullet trains (shinkansen) look cool, but cost way more than regular trains, which will get you to the same places more economically.

If you decide you’d rather fly–like we did from Tokyo to Sapporo to go skiing–in-country flights can be expensive with cash, but cheap with miles. Flights on ANA, the largest Japanese airline, cost only 5,000 United miles each way, so for the two of us roundtrip it was 20,000 miles total for tickets that would have cost more than $1,000.

Lodging in Japan

For lodging, we stayed in budget hotels and paid about what you would pay in a big U.S. city. We could have gone cheaper by staying in hostels or capsule hotels, but decided we wanted a tiny bit of private space. (And I do mean tiny – rooms are quite wee!)

Affordable Eats in Japan

All of our favorite food was the cheapest anyway, so you can save big by avoiding the touristy sit-down restaurants and mostly eat street food.

We had amazing ramen everywhere (favorite was in Ramen Street in the underground mall at Tokyo Station), amazing sushi at Tsukiji Market, and assorted street food and casual food that made us super happy, all for under $10 per person per meal.

Of course, you can save even more by eating from the combinis (convenience stores) like 7-11 and Lawson, both of which are way nicer than convenience stores in the U.S. and have really high quality prepared food for a few dollars. We ate many meals of onigiri (rice triangles with filling like salmon or tuna.)

Japanese Entertainment

We really wanted to see Kabuki theater in Japan, but it was both super expensive and an all-day affair to go to Kabuki-Za–the main theater. But we found you could go to a single play or act and sit in the nose bleed seats for under $20 a person. There’s info on the schedule and how to do it online. It was totally worth it.

Most of our favorite things to do were free anyway – walking around Asakusa, Shibuya, Meiji Shrine, Shinjuku, Akihabara, the Imperial Palace grounds, Ginza, the fish market, etc. Just go and soak it all in!

And behind door number two…

Tanja’s tips were perfect and affected how I planned my trip. I was actually planning on getting a SIM card because I didn’t realize how incredibly cheap pocket WiFi would be. And it sounds like it’s going to be a whole lot less stressful getting it set up. Thanks, Tanja!

I know what you’re thinking.

“You said there were two friends!”

Don’t worry. There are.

But I’m going to keep you in suspense. Yes, I’m that evil! Look for another post chock full of Japan travel tips in the next couple weeks!