Smart Money Podcast: Nerdy Travel Diaries: Scrimping and Splurging in Japan

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Written by Sean Pyles
Senior Writer
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Edited by Laura McMullen
Assistant Assigning Editor
Fact Checked
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Co-written by Sam Kemmis
Senior Writer

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This episode is dedicated to a Travel Nerd’s story about traveling to Tokyo for a vacation that balanced moments of luxury and cost-saving travel hacks.

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Our take

Taking a multi-week vacation using points and miles means you have to either spend a ton of them or travel on a shoestring, right? Or is there a way to extend these trips without breaking the points bank?

Travel Nerd Sam explains how he “scrimped and splurged” during a long trip to Japan so he could stretch his budget but still enjoy luxurious travel experiences. This meant splurging on a few hotel rooms, flights and meals and then switching back to backpacker mode for some cheaper (yet interesting) travel.

He transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to Hyatt points and booked a luxury room in the heart of Tokyo. Then he scrimped by staying at a weird-but-fun pod hotel with a room so small he couldn’t even stand up. He used Alaska miles to book a first-class flight on Japan Airlines in one direction, and he scrimped in the other direction on a regular old economy seat.

So Sam could travel to Japan for several weeks while spending very little and enjoying some truly luxurious treats along the way.

Our tips

  • Scrimp and splurge for longer trips. That luxurious resort shower will feel even better if you’ve been staying at hostels for the week prior.

  • Let the deals decide. Being ultra flexible in your award travel plans lets you jump on availability when it appears.

  • Eat egg salad sandwiches from Japanese 7-Elevens. Seriously. Trust us.

Note that we mention a couple of companies that are NerdWallet partners in this episode, but that doesn’t influence how we talk about them.

More about travel on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Sean Pyles.

In this episode, we are continuing our Travel Diaries series, where we'll hear stories from our travel Nerds about the trips they've taken and the money they've saved along the way.

This episode’s story comes from NerdWallet travel writer, Sam Kemmis, who's here to share the details of his trip to Japan and pass along some advice about how you can use points and miles to splurge for international travel once you're ready to get back out there.

Also, a quick heads up: We mention some companies that are NerdWallet partners in this episode, but that doesn’t influence how we talk about them.

Welcome back to the podcast, Sam.

Sam Kemmis: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

Sean Pyles: Great to have you, of course. And, on another podcast, we talked about how you lived in a weird imported Japanese van. And now we are talking about your trip to Japan. I'm getting the feeling that you are a big fan of Japan.

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, that's right.

Sean Pyles: And why is that?

Sam Kemmis: Well, Japan is just so Japanese, is what I like to say. It just feels so different from the rest of the world. That's why you travel, right? You go somewhere else, because you want to experience something different.

And I feel like Japan does that to an extent that lots of other places don't. Globalization hasn't bled into Japan in the same way that it has in lots of other places.

Sean Pyles: It's very culturally and geographically distinct, basically.

Sam Kemmis: Exactly. I also love walking; that's my favorite thing to do when traveling. And Tokyo, especially, is just one of the great walking cities of the world.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, you could spend a lifetime walking in that city and never see everything.

Sam Kemmis: Totally.

Sean Pyles: Well, I have to admit, I wanted to go to Japan for a long time. I had plans to do so in summer of 2020. And then, I'm sure you understand, that didn't quite happen. And I haven't had a chance to make it back or even plan a trip out there.

So I'm very much looking forward to hearing your tips for navigating Japan and doing so in a way that isn't extremely expensive.

But, before we get into that, I want to talk with you about getting around Japan, because I've heard that it can be kind of difficult to communicate without speaking Japanese. What was your experience with that?

Sam Kemmis: Yeah. I, at one point, tried to learn Japanese and totally failed. But this is the thing: Japanese people on the whole, in my experience, are so friendly and eager to help that it overcomes whatever language barrier is there.

If you're trying to ask an old man at the train station where to go, he'll grab your phone and point on Google Maps and have a big smile on his face.

I mean, not always, but often enough that it really overcomes a lot of that fear you might have of imposing on someone because you don't speak their language.

Sean Pyles: I feel like at this point, kindness and also phone software are both international languages. So if you have both of those at hand, it'll take you pretty far when you're traveling internationally.

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, totally. Also, Google Translate is super cool now. You can just say something into it, and it'll say it in Japanese, and someone will understand you.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, well you can even do that with something that's on a sign. You can take a picture of what's on the sign, and it will translate it to your language. So that's pretty handy.

Well, let's get into some of the travel specifics and see what we can learn from your strategy. And, big picture: What was your thought process around using points and miles to travel to and within Japan?

Sam Kemmis: I was taking a three-week trip, and I wanted to make it a somewhat luxurious trip. I wanted to fly first class or business class, if I could, but I didn't have enough points and miles to take a three-week luxurious trip. So I used this approach that I call scrimping and splurging.

Sean Pyles: OK, scrimping and splurging. Please elaborate on what that means.

Sam Kemmis: I'm going to take another step back, but we're going to get to personal finance eventually, I promise.

Sean Pyles: OK.

Sam Kemmis: I'm a big believer in this psychological idea called the hedonic treadmill. And basically, that's this idea that whatever gives us pleasure, whether it's ice cream or a fancy hotel room, stops giving us that much pleasure the more we experience it. And then we need something even nicer, even sweeter, even better to make us feel that pleasure. So that's the hedonic treadmill.

Sean Pyles: OK. So you're basically never satisfied by what you have after a certain amount of having it.

Sam Kemmis: Yes, exactly. If I were a Buddhist monk, I would be like, "Oh, I'll just be very simple, and I'll be happy with what I have." But I'll admit, I really like luxury travel. I really enjoy a nice hotel room or a nice flight.

So I kind of square that circle by going back and forth between really luxurious experiences and really simple experiences. And I find that that resets my expectations. That gets me off the hedonic treadmill for a second and lets me catch my breath. So that's scrimping and splurging.

Sean Pyles: I imagine that even beyond just the psychological aspect of being able to appreciate the luxurious things that you're enjoying, it makes a lot more sense financially as well to not be spending a lot of money on luxury hotels every single night. It's just a lot more feasible to travel this way.

Sam Kemmis: Yep, totally. And it applies to travel, and it applies to all sorts of parts of your life. Like, if you go out to eat every day, you'll start to notice you're not enjoying the food as much.

Sean Pyles: Well, let's get into the trip. I want to talk about the hotels that you stayed at. Were you scrimping or splurging with your accommodations?

Sam Kemmis: So right when I landed, and this is one of the big questions: Do you splurge right when you land and you're jet-lagged, or do you splurge once you've adjusted?

And I tend to splurge when I'm jet-lagged, because that's when I want to spend as much time in my bed as I can, and I'm not going out as much.

Sean Pyles: You need to be pampered and comforted.

Sam Kemmis: Exactly, so I stayed at this spot called the Andaz Tokyo. I don't know if you're familiar with Andaz? It's actually Hyatt property. It's like their young, bougie, luxury brand.

Sean Pyles: Kind of a millennial-oriented, trendy spot.

Sam Kemmis: Yes, totally. And I used Hyatt points for this that I had transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards® account. So I think it was 20,000 Hyatt points, and that's a 1:1 transfer ratio. And that got me about a value per point of 2.3 cents.

We're getting very nerdy right now, but it's pretty good. I, like, made sure I got a good value on my points.

Sean Pyles: And what really stood out for you about this property that made you say "I have to stay here"?

Sam Kemmis: It was just the Andaz brand; I like staying there. But once I got there, they had this awesome gym that was at the very top of the skyscraper that it was in, and it looked out over the whole city.

And I found that because I was jet-lagged, I was waking up at 4 in the morning, and there was nothing to do, nothing was open. So I was like, "OK, I guess I'll go to the gym." And I would be the only one there, and I had this awesome view of the sun coming up over Tokyo.

So that was a real highlight, but not one that, you know, I anticipated.

Sean Pyles: So it seems like that was a splurge, but also you were using points. So it wasn't really dollars out of your bank account; it was just points being used.

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, totally. And then I also scrimped, but I paid cash for that. I had a hard time in Tokyo, especially finding a really good deal. They're definitely out there, but just for my travel dates or whatever.

So I used cash for my scrimping, but it turned out that because I did that, I got to have a really awesome experience.

Sean Pyles: Oh yeah?

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, so I stayed at a capsule hotel. Have you heard of these?

Sean Pyles: Oh, where you stay in a tiny little pod of a room, essentially?

Sam Kemmis: It's not like a pod. People think it's like “The Matrix” — you're just sealed in like a coffin or whatever.

It's just like a room that's half as tall as a normal room. And someone is living directly above you, and you have just enough room to lay down and watch TV, but you can't stand up.

Sean Pyles: This does sound like “The Matrix” to me.

Sam Kemmis: It does. It doesn't, like, seal closed. They don't just lock you in there for the night. It's just sort of open air on the end. And so you like go out into the hallway. It's basically like a barracks, but the bunk beds are kind of sealed.

Sean Pyles: Do you have your own room, or are there people also staying in pods in the same open space as you? What is that like?

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, it's not totally an open space, but there are these pods stacked on top of each other that everyone's just climbing into.

So they give you little slippers, and you wear the slippers up to your little room. You take the slippers off, and you climb into your little pod, and you sit and watch TV or lay down or whatever.

But then there's that common bathroom and all that sort of stuff.

Sean Pyles: This seems like some extreme scrimping. I'm not sure that I would be able to do something like that, because I wonder about privacy.

And, you know, and we're still in the age of COVID. Do you think that you would feel safe doing something like this nowadays?

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, it was definitely pre-COVID. I know it sounds a little out there now. That would be the last thing you would want to do is just get in one giant room with a bunch of people.

I went into it being like, "Oh, I'm just going to have to get through this." But, weirdly, when I talk to people about my trip, it was so much more of a highlight, and so much more of a thing to talk about than the luxury Andaz was, just because people want to ask. Just like you're doing, they have all sorts of questions about how it works.

Sean Pyles: Going back to your original point about you loving Japan because it's so very Japanese. You can stay in a luxury hotel anywhere, and it's going to have nice accommodations, great comforters, pillows, et cetera. But you're not going to find a capsule hotel everywhere you go.

Sam Kemmis: Exactly. So much of it was so Japanese, because it was full of businessmen who would all just get trashed and then show up at 2 in the morning and then wake up at 6 a.m. to go to their jobs. So, whenever I was there, there was nobody there. I was the only one.

Sean Pyles: You would maybe just hear them come back late at night.

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, exactly.

Sean Pyles: So, I know that Tokyo and Japan just have an enormous amount to see — more than you could ever see in a lifetime, let alone one trip. Was there one main activity or thing that was your draw to Tokyo on this trip?

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, I’m like the worst sightseer in the world. I'm so bad at picking out landmarks to go see. But, in this case, I actually was drawn to some of the bigger Shinto temples in Tokyo.

Sean Pyles: And what are those?

Sam Kemmis: It was an early religion in Japan, and some people still practice it. If you've ever seen — they have like a very distinctive arch that goes into them. There is an emoji for it, which is how you may know of it.

And they have this extremely calm energy to them. They often have manicured Japanese gardens that are associated with them. You do this little thing when you walk in, where you wash your hands in a particular way.

And I don't have any personal connection to Shinto as a religion, but similarly to visiting any temple anywhere in the world, it gives you an insight into how people were or are practicing their religion.

Sean Pyles: It sounds very serene. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've been really wanting to go to Harajuku in Japan, in Tokyo. Have you ever been there?

Sam Kemmis: Oh yeah, I go every time. It’s such a trip.

Sean Pyles: What's it like?

Sam Kemmis: I love it. It's teen pop, ultra plastic anime, weird skirts, weird costumes. All of that stuff is concentrated in this one neighborhood that you can just go. It's half people who are there being Harajuku people and half people who are there taking pictures of those people.

Sean Pyles: Like you, basically.

Sam Kemmis: Exactly. But it manages to maintain its vibe despite all the tourism. It's such a strong vibe, and it's just such a fun vibe. If you're into Pokemon or not, or weird Japanese snacks, it's all happening there.

Sean Pyles: Sounds like my dream. OK, cool.

Well, let's talk about flights for a little bit. Is it fair to assume that you splurged on flights in at least one direction?

Sam Kemmis: I did, and you nailed it how I did it, which was I knew I didn't have enough to go first class both ways, so I had to figure out whether I wanted to go there or back using miles.

I was using Alaska Airlines miles. They have really good partnerships with both Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific, and a bunch of other programs, but those are the ones I was targeting for going to Japan.

The problem was that the availability on both of those airlines only showed up two weeks before the flight.

Sean Pyles: How did you navigate that? Logistically, how do you plan anything when you only have two weeks notice?

Sam Kemmis: I had the advantage of being pretty flexible in what I was doing. But I was able to just say, "OK, I'm going to target these three weeks, and I'm just going to wait until before then and see what pops up. And I'm just going to book whatever works."

Usually, you would, like, book your flight and then go on those dates, but it was more, “I'm going to wait and see what flight happens and then take it.”

So, I ended up finding a JAL, Japan Airlines, flight from Tokyo back to New York in first class, which cost 60,000 Alaska Airlines miles, which is a lot. But those flights are about $6,000 cash.

Sean Pyles: Yeah, no way. Pretty cool. How long did it take you to rack up those points? I'm always curious about that, because you spend it all on one big thing, and then is it taking you two years to get back up to 60,000 points? What's your process?

Sam Kemmis: It totally depends. Alaska Airlines miles are, like, notoriously difficult to get. It's very hard to transfer points to them or anything. So there's not a lot of workarounds.

They do have a really good credit card that offers a sign-up bonus that changes, but it’s usually in that ballpark. So I don't remember exactly how I got those, but I bet it was a sign-up offer.

But then I also took an Emirates business-class flight. It was a mistake-fare flight, where they mispriced it. So I got it for like $1,200 bucks. It was a business-class flight to New Zealand.

And so you get a ton of Alaska miles if you fly Emirates first or business class and attribute it to your Alaska mileage plan account. So I know I got a bunch of miles from that, too.

But, yeah, if you're not traveling that much, not spending that much on credit cards or whatever, it can take a long time to get that many.

Sean Pyles: Let's move on to other budget travel tips that you have for exploring Tokyo. What can you tell us, Sam?

Sam Kemmis: Overall, I recommend a scrimp-and-splurge approach. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere in the world, I believe. But you can't go to them all, and a lot of them cost a lot of money. So I recommend just targeting one or two, hitting those up.

I went to this tempura place in Osaka that was the bajillionth generation that this family had been making tempura in this one spot. It was incredible. I can now say I've had the best tempura that exists on the planet.

So I got to do that. But then the rest of the time, I have all sorts of recommendations for cheap food in Japan. And there's really fun options. They have vending-machine restaurants. Have you heard of these?

Sean Pyles: I know they have a lot of different types of vending machines. You can get almost anything from one, but I haven't heard about a vending-machine restaurant.

Sam Kemmis: Basically, you just pick your food and pay at a vending machine outside the restaurant. And then it gives you a little ticket, and then you hand that inside, and then they give you your food.

Which is super bare bones, but is actually great if you don't speak the language that well, because you can sit outside using your phone on the vending machine to be saying "OK, what is this thing? What is this thing?"

Whereas if you had the waiter there trying to ask you what you wanted, it's actually a little bit more stressful. And then the food is super cheap.

Sean Pyles: So it's basically like an ordering mechanism, as opposed to food just dropping out of this machine?

Sam Kemmis: Yeah, totally. I did go to a conveyor-belt sushi place in Tokyo, where you actually ordered on an iPad that was there. And then it would, like, zoom out on these little magnetic skates. Your sushi would just be like "zoop" right after you ordered it.

Sean Pyles: That's so cool.

Sam Kemmis: It was amazing. It was a great Instagram thing, because you got to do the little video of, “Here's me ordering and then …”

Sean Pyles: And then a Boomerang of it coming toward you?

Sam Kemmis: Yep, totally. You got it.

Sean Pyles: So cool. OK, I'm huge on ramen. And I would love to hear your tips for getting good ramen, but also affordable ramen. Do you want to splurge on that, maybe? What are your thoughts?

Sam Kemmis: I've never splurged too much on ramen. It's definitely like the pizza of Japan. It's everywhere, it's mostly good everywhere, but then also it varies quite a bit from region to region.

So I think in Tokyo — I could be getting this wrong, and I hope someone emails me and tells me how wrong I am about this — I think it's shoyu ramen in Tokyo, whereas they have other styles in different places. So I recommend trying it all.

And it has a similar vibe to the vending machine restaurants in a lot of places, where you're often just in a little booth. There's business men and women all around you. They're all just slurping on their ramen. You just write on a little card, you hand it to someone and then they just hand you your ramen.

I love that, because I'm like an introvert so I could just go in, get my ramen and not have to worry about interacting.

Sean Pyles: Do you have any other general tips about traveling around Japan?

Sam Kemmis: So, the big one that I wish someone had told me the first time I went to Japan is that it's rude to eat on the street in Japan.

I didn't learn this until my fourth trip there, when I was eating something, and a very kind English-speaking person came up to me and said, "Actually we're not really supposed to eat on the street here." I just got something at 7-Eleven.

Sean Pyles: Good to know — whereas Americans we're always snacking everywhere we go.

Sam Kemmis: Yes, exactly, and then you'll see other Americans doing it and you’re like, "How dare they?" Even though you were just doing it.

Sean Pyles: Now that you know, of course.

Sam Kemmis: Exactly.

Sean Pyles: So Sam, do you have any final budget tips for folks who want to travel around Japan?

Sam Kemmis: Yes. My biggest one is a lot of people who are going for a couple weeks try to “see” Japan, and there's just too much to see. And it's very easy to just spend that whole time traveling between cities.

I really highly recommend just sticking with one, or maybe two cities. You could spend three years in Tokyo and barely scratch the surface. So less is more when it comes to Japan.

My final and most important tip is — if you take nothing else away — take this, Sean: You should eat egg salad sandwiches at 7-Eleven.

Sean Pyles: I'm skeptical for some reason. I feel like that's a great way to get sick.

Sam Kemmis: No, they're great. They're cheap. They're like the best egg salad sandwiches you've ever had. They cut off the crusts. They're so good. Listen, no one believes me, but you're going to go, you're going to have the egg salad sandwiches.

Sean Pyles: Well Sam, give us your takeaway tips for travel.

Sam Kemmis: Yeah so in general, I scrimp and splurge. And that means flipping between luxury and budget travel on the same trip, whether you're paying with cash or points and miles — same thing.

And then let the deals decide. If you can be ultra-flexible — especially with award travel, booking with miles — it lets you jump on what's available when it appears, rather than trying to make it appear when you want to travel. And it's kind of fun.

Sean Pyles: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Sam Kemmis: Thanks. And that's all we have for this episode. Do you have any travel or money questions of your own? Turn to the Nerds, and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected].

Also, visit for more info on this episode, and remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you're getting this episode.

Sean Pyles: And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Sam Kemmis: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.