Most of the time I like doing things independently -- planning my trip on my own and setting my own pace. But if I were plunged into some place as foreign as Japan, where after many hours on a plane I'd already be disoriented (not to mention unable to speak much Japanese), I would rethink my travel strategy. There's merit to the idea of paying extra for a little insider knowledge, guidance, and cultural translation. There seems to be no shortage of fare sales and tour packages -- with varying degrees of hand-holding available -- and we've rounded up the latest here.
Asian Affair Holidays (tel. 800/742-3133; www.asianaffairholidays.com) is running a "Japan Holiday" special to Tokyo for five nights from $959, based on departures from Los Angeles on Singapore Airlines. The deal is available for travel through March 31, 2007, offering an extreme amount of flexibility, and includes round-trip airport to hotel transfers, five nights at the Tokyo Hilton. You can also upgrade and customize the vacation, extending it if you like.
For those who can travel at the last minute, Go Today (tel. 800/227-3235; www.go-today.com) has a slightly better deal. Its five-night "Tokyo Special" priced from $939 for double occupancy at a tourist class hotel, based on flights from Los Angeles. You must book by May 30 for travel through June 5. Airfare, hotel accommodations, hotel taxes and surcharges and airline fuel surcharges are included. Other departures are available for a surcharge.
Gate 1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) is offering three different trips to Japan. Tokyo is advertised for "7 Day Tokyo Vacation" and is priced from $1,069 for Thursday travel departures through December 2006. Note: the June 15 and July 20 departures are already sold out. The price includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles to Tokyo (other departures available for additional fee), airline fuel surcharges, and five nights' accommodations in a choice of hotels. You're on your own, but you can add on sightseeing tours and extend the trip through Gate 1 if you want.
The "7 Day Kyoto Vacation" is priced from $1,289 for Wednesday travel departures through December 2006. The price is more inclusive than the Tokyo trip, and covers round-trip airfare from Los Angeles, airline fuel surcharges, five nights at first-class New Mikayo Hotel or the deluxe Westin Mikayo Hotel, and breakfast daily.
For both Gate 1 deals the lowest price quoted is the cash discount.
If the idea of an independent tour makes you panic, and you're happy to pay for guidance and fine accommodations, General Tours (tel. 800/221-2216; www.generaltours.com) is offering an escorted "Japan Sampler" from $2,599 including airfare, for a nine-day, seven-night excursion. Daily breakfast is included, along with the services of a professional tour manager to escort you around, private sightseeing tours of Tokyo and Kyoto, and spend time driving up Mt. Fuji, touring Nara, an ancient capital, and other attractions.
The company's "It's Time to Go! Japan" is a hosted trip priced from $1,799 including airfare for eight days and includes the services of a General Tours host and professional local guides in each city (Tokyo, Kyoto) and a 24-hour toll free number that gives you access to a network of tour assistance in case of emergency.
If you have flexibility in your schedule and your agenda, Jalpak International (tel. 888/352-5725; www.jalpak.com) is offering its "Flex Japan Package", priced from $996 for seven days/five nights. The package includes round-trip airfare from the United States (choose between Los Angeles-San Francisco-Las Vegas as one price grouping and New York-Chicago as the other), five nights' accommodations including tax and service charges, and round-trip airport transfers. You can choose from a number of different hotels and travel through March 31, 2007; seasonal surcharges apply though, so read carefully. To some degree, you can customize the trip and stay two nights in Kyoto and three in Tokyo, or spend time in Osaka, for example.
For something unique, the company also runs a "Hokkaido Bicycle Tour" that starts July 5-13 and is priced at $2,501 for Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco; New York, $2,572; Chicago, $2,598; and Honolulu $2,403. The trip takes you to Japan's northernmost island, home to a large national park and accommodations for seven nights and most meals are included.
Finally, The Japan National Tourist Office (www.jnto.go.jp/eng) can give you an overview but it also provides links to tours and packages once you've arrived in the country. If you're traveling from North America, though, first visit the tourism office's North American site (www.japantravelinfo.com) for more specific information and useful articles such as "The Key to Convenient Sightseeing in Japan." You can also find statistical information; about 6.7 million overseas visitors came to Japan in 2005, an overwhelming number of them from Asia, followed by North America and Europe. The numbers are rising too: January 2006 saw a 26.4 percent increase in Asian visitors from the same month last year and March 2006, 567,000 people visited, an increase of 1.7 percent over March 2005.
Under the section marked "special online fares" you can find news items, such as Japan Airlines recently started running flights twice daily between Chicago O'Hare and Tokyo's Narita International Airport. And All Nippon Airways (tel. 800/2FLY-ANA; www.fly-ana.com), Japan's largest domestic carrier, is running a "super saver" special on routes between the United States and Japan, such as New York-Tokyo ($828), Los Angeles-Tokyo ($668) and several others. You must book by June 5 and travel May 25-June 8.
American Airlines (tel. 800/222-2377; www.aa.com) is offering a "Summer Fare Sale to Tokyo and Osaka". Purchase your tickets by May 31 and travel July 1-31, 2006; return travel must be completed by October 31. You can also earn up to 1,000 AAdvantage bonus miles and pay no online fees if you book your flight online. Round-trip airfare from west coast cities such as Las Vegas, San Jose, San Diego to Tokyo are priced at $631; Chicago to Osaka $781; Boston to Osaka, $821.
Through the tourism site, you can also find information about the "Footprints of the Geisha Tour" priced from $1,227 for travel through October 18, 2006. It includes round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Osaka, and then transfers from Osaka airport to Kyoto hotel. You will stay for five nights in Kyoto (you can choose from two hotels), and daily breakfast and a half-day sightseeing tour are included. Other tours include a Maiko night tour with a tempura diner, a half-day culture tour that includes a tea ceremony and tour of the Gion district, the setting of the book (and recent film adaptation) Memoirs of a Geisha. Travel Bound runs the tour (tel. 800/808-9541; www.booktravelbound.com), which is escorted by bilingual guides.
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