Until a couple of years ago, very few international flights used Haneda airport and very few domestic flights used Narita airport.
As such, travelers had very little choice in which Tokyo airport to use. Domestic passengers were lucky to be able to use the conveniently located Haneda airport, and international passengers were in most cases limited to the not-so-conveniently located Narita airport.
Over the last couple of years, however, a new international terminal allowed Haneda airport to service more international flights. As a result, many airlines either moved their operations from Narita to Haneda or started serving both. Furthermore, several domestic (and international) low cost carriers started operations from Narita airport complicating the situation even further.
In general, Haneda airport is much more convenient in terms of access to the most popular areas in Tokyo. That said, there are certain situations in which you might be better off using Narita airport.
Below, I’ll take a more detailed look at some of the factors that play a role in deciding which Tokyo airport you should choose to fly to.
If You Want to Fly Non-Stop, You Might Not Have a Choice
While both Haneda and Narita offer flights to many destinations within Japan as well as around the world and there is some overlap, there are still many cities that are only served from either of the two airports. As such, if you prefer to fly non-stop between your origin and Tokyo, you might not have a choice.
Naturally, the overlap between the two airports is larger for shorter regional flights than it is for longer inter-continental flights. And so, while you will be able to choose whether you want to fly to Narita or Haneda if you are coming, for example, with Thai Airways from Bangkok, you will have no choice if you are coming with Swiss from Zurich or Aeroflot from Moscow.
And, even though Haneda and Narita are quite far from each other, the distance is nowhere near enough to be able to save you time by adding a connection to your itinerary to arrive at the “right” airport.
In other words, if it’s important for you to get to Tokyo quickly, and there are non-stop flights only to either of the two airports, don’t stress over which one it is.
Most Low-Cost Airlines Operate Out of Narita Airport
For many years, there were no low-cost carriers similar to easyJet, Ryanair, or Spirit in Japan. However, in the recent years, airlines such as Peach, Jetstar Japan, and Spring Japan started operating both domestic and international low-cost flights.
While there is the odd red-eye international low-cost flight out of Haneda airport, all of the domestic (as well as most of the international) low-cost flights use Narita airport. As such, if you are looking to save some money, you might be better off flying from Narita even at the cost of convenience.
That said, when choosing between flying a low-cost airline out of Narita or a full-service airline out of Haneda, make sure to compare not only the cost of the actual ticket, but also to consider the cost of getting to Narita and of any charges the low-costs might add to the base price (luggage, seat selection, etc.).
Also keep in mind that access to Narita airport is very limited late at night and very early in the morning, and so, if you decide to take one of the early 6AM or 7AM low-cost flights, you might have to either factor the price of hotel into your calculations or spend the night in the airport terminal.
Haneda Is Easier and Cheaper to Access from Central Tokyo
Not surprisingly, it is much more convenient to get to Haneda airport from central Tokyo (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shinagawa, etc.) than it is to get to Narita. After all, while the former is actually located in Tokyo, the latter is in Chiba – a prefecture next to Tokyo.
Fun fact to show how far from Tokyo Narita airport actually is: even though Tokyo Disneyland is located in Chiba prefecture, just like Narita, it is still easier to get to from Haneda than from Narita.
With all of the above said, getting to Narita is much cheaper and convenient now than it used to be some years ago. While in the past, you were limited to expensive express trains and buses or cheap but slow local trains, nowadays there is a frequent and comfortable low-cost bus service to Tokyo that costs only about 10 dollars one way.
There Are Plenty of Things to Keep You Busy at Both Airports
Regardless of which airport you choose, there will be plenty to keep you busy during your transit or before your departure.
Airside, both Haneda and Narita offer plenty of stores to (window)shop at, as well as restaurants to have a quick bite at before boarding. Similarly, the shopping and dining options in the two airports’ public areas are plentiful as well.
On top of that, if you enjoy watching aircraft, both airports offer numerous free outdoor observation decks where you can see some runway action as well as catch some fresh air before your flight.
In terms of longer transits and sightseeing during them, Narita airport offers a variety of free tours that you can take advantage of if you have three or more hours to spare. (Keep in mind that these are tours of Narita city and not of Tokyo.)
While there are no such free tours starting at Haneda airport, if you have at least three or four (preferably more) hours to spare, you should be able to catch the train and pay a quick visit to Shinagawa or other parts of Tokyo and do some sightseeing during your layover as well.
Narita Offers a Wider Selection of Airport Lounges
Lastly, both Haneda and Narita are equipped with relatively nice lounges for eligible passengers traveling on international flights. However, arguably, the selection is better at the latter.
Passengers traveling with Star Alliance airlines have access to ANA lounges at both of the airports. At Narita, there’s also a United Club in addition to the ANA Lounge. As for oneworld, understandably, both airports have JAL lounges. In addition to that, at Narita airport, there are also Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and American Airlines lounges. There are no SkyTeam lounges at Haneda airport. At Narita, there is a Delta Sky Club and a KAL (Korean Air) Lounge.
If you are a Priority Pass member but don’t have access to a lounge with the airline you are flying, you are out of luck at Haneda. At Narita, Priority Pass gives access to the KAL Lounge mentioned above, as well as to a couple of contract lounges (T.E.I. and IASS). The latter are not worth visiting, though.
Choosing Between Haneda and Narita: Summary
Overall, if you are planning to explore Tokyo, then all other things equal, flying into Haneda is much more convenient than flying into Narita.
That said, there are still quite a few routes that only operate to Narita, and oftentimes flights to Narita are cheaper than to Haneda. In those cases, you shouldn’t be worried about flying into Narita as the airport – even though far from central Tokyo – is still relatively easily accessible.
Also, keep in mind that although fairly far from each other, transferring between Haneda and Narita is quite easy. As such, you don’t have to stray away from itineraries where you arrive internationally at either airport and have a domestic connection out of the other. Just make sure to leave plenty of time between the two flights.