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If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know that I’ve spent the last few days hanging out in Seoul. TPG editor Eric flew there over the weekend on Korean Air’s A380 in their latest Prestige Business class cabin, and though I’ve recently become handy at redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for Korean Air awards, I took a different airline and route.
I was traveling from Chicago and had more British Airways Avios than I knew what to do with since I took advantage of the American Express transfer bonuses earlier this year, so I decided to redeem my Avios and fly first class on JAL instead.
The one-way first class ticket from Chicago O’Hare to Tokyo Narita (where I had to connect) required 90,000 Avios, while the short flight between Tokyo and Seoul Incheon in business class cost just 15,000 Avios for a total of 105,000 Avios and $190 in taxes/fees.
Yes, it was a lot of miles (the same redemption on AA would only be 62,500 miles), but I have way more Avios than AA miles, and this ticket would have cost me $4,050 to actually purchase, so I was getting 3.9 cents in value per Avios and I got to try a new First Class product, which is one of my favorite things to do.
The Plane and the Seat: ORD-NRT
The aircraft I took from Chicago O’Hare to Tokyo Narita was a Boeing 777-300 with just eight First Class suites (not the SkySolo sleeper seats, but a slightly older version) configured in two rows of 1 x 2 x 1.
I was in the first row in one of the middle two seats, though I didn’t have a neighbor, which didn’t matter since theres a huge divider and I wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway (though if you are traveling with a companion it does slide down).
The seat itself was like an overstuffed white recliner in a fixed shell, and was really roomy at 26 inches wide and nearly 80 inches long. It consisted of a seat and then a foot stool which became part of the lie-flat bed when the seat was fully reclined.
Surprisingly, there were no pre-departure beverages offered, but once airborne I started with 2003 Dom Perignon (though they ran out of it pretty fast!) and relaxed for the first portion of the flight. They also provided me with a male amenity kit,which included Shiseido skincare products and “Relaxing Wear” pajamas, which were nice, but not nearly nice as the Cathay Pacific First Class Shanghai Tang pajamas.
They weren’t as nice as the Cathay Pacific Shanghai Tangs, but they were still pretty comfortable.
Meal service was excellent, in my opinion. As usual, the airline had both Western and Japanese menus. Lunch began with caviar, a crabmeat salad with grapefruit and a salmon canapé.
Then I selected the miso-flavored seabass with pancetta and Provencale sauce before a dessert of tropical maracuya cake with blueberry sauce.
For the dinner meal, I chose the Japanese menu of fresh sashimi to start and a main course of eel teriyaki with grated yam and Japanese daikon, and udon soup noodles.
The wines they were serving onboard were pretty impressive, and the reds included a Margaux from Bordeaux and a Burgundy from Nuits Saint Georges.
After my lunch, I decided to take a little nap, so I slipped into my “Relaxing Wear” pajamas (the pants were more like capris) and the flight attendant gave my seat turndown service, placing a nice thick tempurpedic mattress pad over the seat and making it up with a pillow and duvet.
I slept really comfortably for three hours – probably the most comfortable sleep I’ve had on a plane – and woke up in time for dinner and to do a little more work using the onboard WiFi, which was fast and worked really well, and was available from an hour into the flight until about 45 minutes before landing.
All in all, I got to Tokyo relaxed and refreshed, so I went through customs and headed to the JAL First lounge to clean up and wait for my next flight.
I was worried about the service, because I’ve read past trip reports that JAL First Class flight attendants sometimes favor Japanese customers, but I did not experience that at all. The purser was extremely welcoming and all of the flight attendants spoke proficient English (better than a recent Lufthansa First Class flight I took!) and took good care of me. I’d have to say that the service was good, but not really over-the-top like Singapore or Cathay Pacific (where flight attendants will often write hand-written notes and bend over backwards to make sure you are comfortable).
I really think JAL excelled in the food department- I really enjoyed both Western and Japanese options and the Tempurpedic mattress was the most comfortable surface I’ve ever slept on on a plane. The actual seat itself looked a bit dated (and it is), but when you are sufficiently plied with nice wine and champagne and have a long comfortable mattress with eyeshades and earplugs- the look of the seat doesn’t really matter! Overall, a solid B experience. (Note: I didn’t experience the lounge at Chicago because I was initially dropped off at the wrong terminal (5) when JAL is actually at Terminal 3 with American and at check-in the agent wanted to see my ongoing ticket out of Seoul so I had to go to the AA lounge to get it printed, which ate into almost all of my pre-flight time.)
JAL First Lounge
First things first, I reserved an appointment for a massage, which was available 90 minutes later and I also got one of the shower rooms which, though small, was clean and bright and exactly the thing I needed to freshen up between flights.
Newly groomed, I headed out into the lounge and logged onto the WiFi to do some more work while I snacked on the various little Japanese nibbles laid out in the food section. For a First Class lounge I thought it was pretty big and the food choices were all decent, but nothing really outstanding. The lounge had plenty of comfortable seats and an overall sleek design– I wish US lounges looked this cool!
I even had a little extra time, so I headed to the lounge’s small spa for a brief foot reflexology massage in the treatment room – it was just what I needed to get the circulation flowing again after the long-haul flight across the Pacific. The only problem is that it was only 10 minutes, which is not nearly enough time!
Before I knew it, my four-hour layover was over and it was time to get on the two-hour flight from Tokyo to Seoul.
Tokyo NRT – Seoul ICN
This flight was aboard a 767 in business class (there’s only business and economy on this aircraft), where the cabin’s 30 seats were configured in a 2 x 2 x 2 layout.
I was in a window seat with no seatmate, so I had plenty of room to sleep since I was pretty exhausted by this point. The seats were just your standard old-school recliners with about 45 inches in pitch and just 19 inches wide, but way better than most US domestic first class seats.
Still, they were comfortable enough, and the flight was short, although they had time to serve another meal that included a few different small dishes including some sushi rolls, baked chestnuts and lotus roots grilled flounder and ice cream.
I was just finishing up as we started our descent into ICN, and the rest of the flight went by in a flash.
Although 105,000 miles was a lot to redeem for a one-way flight, I thought JAL first class (and even the intra-Asian business class) really delivered, and I’d recommend it to others for sure over American First Class, though not over Asiana or Cathay Pacific. However, if you’re thinking of taking an award flight in JAL first, I would suggest waiting until the airline implements its new “First Suites” on 13 of its 777-300ER’s starting with the ones servicing NRT-LHR in 2013 and then expanding to other European and North American routes from there. It looks like it’ll be incredible…I might just have to fly JAL again to try it out myself!