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TPG contributor Jason Steele writes today about how to maximize your award redemptions to get to one of our favorite Asian countries- Japan. 

Japan is a popular tourist destination, and award travel there can be a great use of frequent flier miles. Flights to Japan from North America travel much farther than most flights to Europe, yet the mileage needed for an award can be comparable in many instances.

I wanted to take a look at awards to Japan because (like Israel) it’s another destination that shows up in different zones on different airline’s award charts. Japan is typically included along with neighboring countries like China in an award chart zone called “North Asia” (or something similar), but that’s not always the case. For example, the American Airlines partner award chart includes Japan (along with just Korea and Mongolia) in the “Asia 1″ zone. Furthermore, trans-Pacific flights are so long that distance-based programs such as British Airways, LAN, and ANA are at a disadvantage.

Flights to Tokyo are a great use of frequent flier miles.

Flights to Tokyo are a great use of frequent flier miles.

Choosing the best airline transfer partners for award travel to Japan

As usual, award travel enthusiasts interested in visiting Japan would be wise to collect points in the three flexible point transfer programs: Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and the Starwood hotels Preferred Guest Program. However, the challenge remains choosing the best transfer partner to spend the fewest points while minimizing those dreaded fuel surcharges.

An important consideration when choosing a transfer partner for a trip to Japan is connecting to flights beyond Tokyo. The Star Alliance includes ANA airlines of Japan, and OneWorld includes Japan Airlines (JAL), while Skyteam is currently without a Japanese carrier. This means that those traveling on most Skyteam awards are limited to intercontinental flights to Tokyo and a few other major cities, or having to change planes in China or Korea to reach some cities. Also, by avoiding programs with distance based awards, you can make a stop in Tokyo and then visit other parts of Japan (or Northern Asia) at no additional cost.

When booking an award flight, keep in mind that economy class flights from North America to Japan tend to cost $1,500 to $2,500 and business class flights normally sell for $5,000 – $8,000, while first class tickets generally start around $8,000 and can go well into the $10,000 – $20,000 range.

SPG Starpoints, Up For Grabs!

Best Starwood transfer partners

In economy class, the lowest mileage within Star Alliance is on ANA flights from Seattle and Vancouver, which start at just 40,000 miles round-trip during off-peak times, and max out at only 60,000 miles. From the rest of the country, ANA operated flights are 45-65,000 miles depending on the season. Even their partner awards  are a good deal at 55,000 miles (from the Northwestern United States)  to 60,000 miles for the rest of the country (except Florida).

Awards on flights operated by Singapore Airlines are only 55,000 miles from the West Coast, although you’ll have to go out of your way a bit to transit through Singapore unless you’re on one of their Los Angeles flights that serves Tokyo-Narita. Flights from East Coast cities are still a good deal at 65,000 miles, but again, the flight times can be long.

Air Canada’s Aeroplan can also  be a good deal at 75,000 miles round trip, especially if you avoid fuel surcharges by flying on United, Singapore or EVA Air. You may even be able to route yourself from the East Coast via Europe on carriers such as Scandinavian, Swiss, Turkish, and LOT (which has very low fuel surcharges).

At 65,000 miles round trip, Air Canada awards can be a good deal, but only if you avoid fuel surcharges.

At 65,000 miles round-trip, Air Canada awards can be a good deal, but only if you avoid fuel surcharges.

In the OneWorld Alliance, American offers off-peak awards for 50,000 miles between October 1st and April 30th, and 60,000 miles the rest of the year. US Airways awards are also 60,000 miles.  You can also use Alaska Airlines miles for American flights at the same rate.  British Airways also offers awards on American with no fuel surcharges. Using Alaska miles for flights on Cathay Pacific is only 60,000 miles round trip, without fuel surcharges.

The miles required depends on the distance, with only 50,000 miles needed from Los Angeles, or 60,000 from Chicago and Dallas. Connecting flights will cost more points, and flights on other partners such as JAL will incur fuel surcharges of $600 – $700.

LAN’s distance based chart and the 1:1.5 conversion rate require about 47,000 Starpoints for flights to Japan from destinations in the Western United States.

JAL offers flights to Tokyo-Narita from Boston, Chicago, New York-JFK, Los Angeles, San Diego and Vancouver that are 60-70,000 miles depending on the distance, but again you’ll have to pay fuel surcharges in the $600 – $700 range.

In the Skyteam Alliance, you can book awards on Delta for 70,000 Skymiles (or 80,000 Flying Blue miles) with no fuel surcharges. Also, Hawaiian offers coach super-saver awards for 60,000 miles.

Premium Economy
This turns out not to be such a good option for flights to Japan, as Flying Blue charges 80,000 miles (plus fuel surcharges), and British Airways is even more exorbitant when transiting through Europe. Alaskan Airlines awards on Cathay Pacific are your best bet at 70,000 miles round-trip with no fuel surcharges.

Business class
As is often the case, business class provides most award travelers exceptional value, offering tickets that normally cost several times the price of economy class for just 50-100% more miles.

In the Star Alliance, ANA offers business class awards for between 90,000 and 110,000 miles between most US cities depending on the time of year, but just 70,000 – 90,000 to those departing from Seattle and Vancouver.

In Skyteam, Alitalia is the best choice at just 90,000 miles, but they will add a fuel surcharge. To avoid those charges, you’ll have to book on Delta using 140,000 Skymiles or Alaska miles.

American is the best bet for OneWorld at only 100,000 miles, followed by the US Airways coveted “North Asia” award for 110,000 miles that allows routing via Europe with a stopover. Both American and US Airways do not include fuel surcharges.

First Class
In Star Alliance, ANA offers partner award flights for 120,000 miles from the extreme Northwest or 140,000 miles from most North American destinations, but with fuel surcharges typically in the $600 -$800 range. Air Canada is 210,000 miles with no fuel surcharges on select carriers.

In OneWorld, you can’t do better than US Airways at 120,000 miles without fuel surcharges, especially if you route through Europe with a stopover.

In Skyteam, your best (and perhaps only) option for first class award flights to Japan is on Korean Airlines, yet most Starwood transfer partners in Skyteam don’t offer first class awards. The remaining options from China Southern and China Eastern price out at well over 200,000 miles.

Membership Rewards

American Express Membership Rewards

Economy class
The best options in Star Alliance are pretty much the same as those for Starwood transfer partners (Aeroplan, Singapore and ANA). Hawaiian offers coach super-saver awards for 60,000 miles.

All of the Membership Rewards transfer partners in OneWorld have distance-based award charts, with British Airways and Iberia offering identically priced awards, and Asia Miles being similar,  but in most cases slightly higher.

In Skyteam, the best choices are similar to those in Starwood, with awards on Delta for 70,000 Skymiles (or 80,000 Flying Blue miles) with no fuel surcharges.

Premium Economy
With fewer transfer partners, there aren’t many good premium economy options here. Look for BA and Iberia to charge 50% more than economy, and Asia Miles to charge 72,000 miles for round-trip flights for one-way distances between 5,000 and 7,500 miles, which includes most of the United States.

Business Class
In Star Alliance, ANA is still the best option, starting at just 90,000 – 110,000 miles with fuel surcharges. You’ll have to use 150,000 miles for Air Canada awards on select carriers to avoid those charges.

In OneWorld, your only options remain with the distance-based charts of BA, Iberia, and Asia Miles, which offer business class awards for double the mileage of economy.

In Skyteam, Alitalia is the best choice at just 90,000 miles, but they will add fuel surcharges. The only way to avoid those charges is to spend 140,000 Delta Skymiles.

Your best options are still with ANA at 120,000 – 140,000 miles plus fuel surcharges. BA and Iberia awards are a close second at 150,000 miles, and only then on non-stop flights from the West Coast on JAL. To avoid fuel surcharges you’ll have to move up to 210,000 miles by booking an Air Canada award on select partners.

Fuel surcharges are generally in the $600 -$800 range, round trip.

Fuel surcharges are generally in the $600 -$800 range, round trip.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

In economy, your choices are Korean Airlines using  70,000 miles off peak or 105,000 miles during peak times, and 70,000 for partner awards. Awards are 55,000 or 65,000 miles on flights operated by Singapore Airlines, depending on your departure point. Both have fuel surcharges in the $600-700 range. United is 70,000 miles for all awards, but with no fuel surcharges.

Premium economy
British Airways is the only Chase Ultimate Rewards partner that offers premium economy awards.

Business class
The lowest mileage option is a British Airways award starting at 100,000 miles plus fuel surcharges. Korean offers awards at 125,000 miles off-peak and 185,000 miles during peak times, while it’s partner awards are 120,000 miles plus fuel surcharges.

United is your only option with no fuel surcharges, and it charges 130,000 miles for flights operated by United, or 150,000 miles for flights operated by its partners.

Korean charges 160,000 miles off-peak and 240,000 miles otherwise. British Airways starts at 150,000 miles for partner flights, and both impose fuel surcharges. United charges 160,000 miles for the flights it operates, and 220,000 miles for partner award flights.

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  • Lanky

    Just booked JAL BOS-NRT nonstop for my wife and I next spring. 100k AAdvantage miles per roundtrip business class ticket plus $80 in booking and phone reservation fees. No problem getting the days we wanted; nonstop from our home airport is great!

    No first class on the JAL 787, but this flight is a very nice option for east coasters. The miles came from the 100k Citicard bonus, one for me and one for my wife.

    Hotels will be Park Hyatt Tokyo and Hyatt Regency Kyoto, 4 nights courtesy of Chase Hyatt card signup bonuses. The rest of the nights from UR points transferred to Hyatt.

  • Allen

    Bottom line? US air, 120K round trip 1st class.

  • Christian

    Which of the foreign airline award tickets will connect you from a secondary city that they don’t service? Otherwise, additional mileage is needed to get to the gateway city.

  • Rommel Ramos

    Booked business class flight last month with ANA on Asiana Metal. 90k r/t and about $150 on fuel surcharges. Went through ICN as Japan fuel surcharges are off the chain! ALSO LAX-NRT vice versa there are RARELY any open seats so keep that in mind. With a new Asiana A380 being used on ICN-LAX, Business class seats really opened up…

  • Jason Steele

    Any Star or Oneworld carriers should include connecting flights on ANA and JAL respectively, unless they are distance based awards.

  • Guava @ FT

    JAL offers Business class roundtrip from West Coast at 80K using their Single Partner award chart (up to 12K roundtrip), which allows you to fly AA and therefore, no fuel surcharge. Alternatively, you can get First Class at 115K, provided you fly AA then there is no fuel surcharge. If AA ever starts flying Seattle – Tokyo like UA does, then you can cut down the cost of Business class return trip to merely 65K. The caveat is that JAL miles are not easily obtainable short of transfer from SPG and they do expire after 3 years if you don’t use them.

    Link to JAL’s single partner award chart here :

  • Guava @ FT

    And if you don’t mind paying fuel surcharges, ANA can get you from West Coast (SFO, LAX, SEA) to Tokyo at merely 70K miles in Business Class provided the date of the travel is classified as *Low Season* while First Class starts at only 110K ANA miles, link to ANA’s own award chart :
    Upside is ANA First and Business class will be light years ahead of any U.S. carriers and the lower mileage requirement. ANA miles are also easily obtainable via AMEX MR. But the downside is the hefty fuel surcharges.

  • Jason

    I always use the off peak AA awards out of SAN to NRT, 45K RT in economy with the AA Platinum card, amazing deal! From there I use Avios to travel Japan domestic to home in OKA. Can’t beat it, 45K AA, 15K BA.

  • Stvr

    British Airways also offers awards on American with no fuel surcharges. THIS HAS NOT BEEN MY EXPERIENCE

  • Diotallevi

    Most of my international travel is to Japan, and I really enjoyed reading this article. ANA Business from the East Coast of the US to NRT is under 14,000 miles, so the range would be 75K to 95K, not 90K to 100K, if I’m not mistaken. I just booked two award tickets on ANA business from JFK to NRT at 85,000 each, their mid-season award level.

    I’ve never done this, but in a TPG article he mentioned you can purchase Membership Rewards points at 2.5 cents each if you are transferring immediately to a partner. If that is the case, you could purchase and transfer 85,000 MR Points to ANA for a total of $2,125 plus taxes and fuel surcharges for a ticket that normally runs between 6 and 8 grand. Not a bad deal. I’m just waiting for the day Amex gives a bonus for transferring ANA miles.

  • Lydia

    To redeem ANA’s partner airline ticket, we have to call ANA customer service? Can’t redeem online?

  • M L

    I agree as well. Previously tried and there was the fuel surcharges even after searching for open seats on

    Can anyone elaborate with some details how to avoid fuel surcharges with Avios on AA metal? Thanks.

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  • tooearly

    Can you comment on Hawaii to Tokyo routes? Which airline does that the best/lowest miles?

  • mahon112

    Just booked First Class LAX-NRT and NRT-JFK in December for 125k AA miles plus $40 in fees. Found the award space using the KVS tool. The new JAL Sky Suite looks pretty dope. Anyone flown either of these routes?

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