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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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
American Express Membership Rewards
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.
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.
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.
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.
British Airways is the only Chase Ultimate Rewards partner that offers premium economy awards.
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.
First Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
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.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.