NOTE: The Skyliner service has been updated since this was written. Please read How to tackle Narita Airport’s New Train Service.
In this post I will describe the two competing train services that operate between Narita Airport and the heart of Tokyo – East Japan Railway’s Narita Express and Keisei Railway’s Skyliner – as well as their counterpart services.
As I have mentioned indirectly in previous posts, choosing your method of transportation really depends on your budget and your destination. I hope I will provide enough information here so that you can make an informed decision yourself.
I will start with East Japan Railway’s Narita Express. This service operates from Narita Airport to major stations in Tokyo, including: Tokyo Station, Shinagawa, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Services also run frequently to Yokohama and further into Kanagawa prefecture. A few trains run north to Omiya in Saitama and to Hachioji and Takao in western Tokyo.
Pros: The Narita Express is a smoke-free, all reserved train. You have the option of choosing between standard class and the green car (first class). There are also first class compartment for parties of up to four people. The train stops at all of the major train stations in Tokyo, where transfers to other railway lines are possible, including Tokyo and Shinagawa which both offer access to the shinkansen (bullet train) lines. The Narita Express is also the only reserved train that runs from Narita Airport to Yokohama. Holders of the Japan Rail Pass or JR East Rail Pass may make seat reservations for the Narita Express at no additional charge. Seat reservations in English are accepted on the JR East website; it is possible to reserve your seat on your return journey to Narita Airport up to one month in advance. Combo tickets called “Suica & N’Ex” are sold to foreigners, offering a one-way discounted trip on the Narita Express plus unlimited usage of JR lines within the Tokyo area until reaching your final destination. Trains reach Tokyo Station in about one hour.
Cons: The Narita Express is the most expensive train service operating from Narita Airport, with standard class seats each way to/from Tokyo going for 3000 yen; green car seats go for about 4500 yen. At Tokyo Station, the Narita Express arrives on underground platforms, which means you will have to ascend four floors to street level by way of escalators or elevators.
Alternative: The JR East alternative to the Narita Express is regular rapid service, which leaves only once per hour on average (Keisei’s commuter trains depart more frequently). The fare for the Rapid is 1280 yen but the trip to Tokyo Station takes about 90 minutes. As the train is a commuter service, it can get crowded on the way to Tokyo. On the other hand, the train provides connections to other destinations in and near Tokyo – for example, Funabashi provides a transfer to the Tobu Noda Line for Saitama, Kinshicho provides a transfer to the Sobu Line Local to Akihabara, and most rapid trains from Narita Airport provide a one-seat ride all the way out to historic Kamakura (2 1/2 hours).
Keisei Railway’s airport service is called the Skyliner. This service operates from Narita Airport over Keisei’s entire main line, terminating at Ueno Station in Tokyo with a stop at Nippori. Most trains also call at Funabashi.
Pros: The Skyliner is cheaper than the Narita Express, with a one-way ride costing 1920 yen between the airport and Nippori/Ueno. All seats are reserved. A connection is provided at Nippori station for the JR Yamanote Line, which loops Tokyo. The ride into the Tokyo area is faster than the Narita Express, with services taking about 50 minutes to make the entire journey. Combo tickets are sold to foreigners which include a one-way trip on the Skyliner and a one or two day unlimited ride pass for the Tokyo Metro subway. In late 2010, Skyliners will transfer to the Narita Rapid Railway and offer a 36 minute travel time between the Airport and Nippori station.
Cons: Many have said that the transfers at Nippori station between the Skyliner and the Yamanote Line are different, especially if carrying luggage – although new platforms are being built at Nippori which will provide for an easier transfer. The terminating station for the Skyliner at Ueno is a long walk away from the main Ueno station, where the JR lines and a couple of subway lines are available. Two of the cars on the train still permit smoking.
Alternative: Regular Keisei commuter trains, most classified as “Limited Express”, run every 20 minutes from Narita Airport to Ueno. Trains take 80-90 minutes, but at a low cost of only 1000 yen to Nippori/Ueno, this is the cheapest service out of Narita Airport. There are more stops, and the train might get crowded as you proceed on the journey – more so than on the JR line. On my second trip to Japan, I noticed one train depart where nearly all of the seats were taken by the budget-conscious passengers. An excellent transfer station is at Aoto – simply wait a few moments across the platform at Aoto, and trains that run through to the Asakusa line will take you to historic Asakusa, Nihombashi and Ginza.
Last caveats: Again the decisions are totally yours, and you might have to choose one specific service based on your needs. On my first trip to Japan, I stayed at the Tokyo Station hotel, so I took the Narita Express. On the second trip I went to a hotel near Ueno station, so I used the Skyliner. In general, if you want convenience, use the Narita Express since it stops at major stations. If you are on a budget, consider the Skyliner – even consider the regular Keisei commuter train, bearing the transfer to the Yamanote Line if your travel plan calls for it. A pricing comparison: A journey on the Narita Express from the airport to Shinjuku takes 85 minutes and costs 3300 yen at the normal fare. By comparison, a trip on two trains – the Keisei Limited Express to Nippori, then the JR Yamanote Line to Shinjuku – takes nearly the same amount of time, but costs only 1190 yen.
I should point out that both the Narita Express and Skyliner provide ample storage space for luggage, and provide recorded announcements in English. Both are scheduled to upgrade their train equipment with a fresh look: The Narita Express starting this fall, and the Skyliner by the time the new rapid railway opens in 2010.