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How I Booked First Class to Tokyo for 62,500 Miles and $5.60

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If you follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, then you probably know by now that I’m currently in Tokyo, and I flew here on Japan Airlines in their chic new first class service. The total out of pocket cost for my first class flights—from JFK to San Francisco on American Airlines’ new A321T, and then onward from San Francisco to Tokyo Haneda on a Japan Airlines 777—was 62,500 American Airlines miles and $5.60. That’s 7,746 glorious miles of first class travel for less cash outlay than a beer at most Manhattan bars.

People seem shocked when they hear this, but I did nothing extraordinary here. I simply maximized the value of my miles by knowing how to search for availability and being flexible about my travel dates. I ended up booking two tickets on my itinerary at the saver level, and could have booked up to three more on my flight.

Japan Airlines has pretty amazing availability, you just can’t expect AA.com to show it. If you’re planning to use AAdvantage miles or US Airways Dividend Miles on Japan Airlines, you’ll have to search for flights on your own through JAL (see below for tips) and then call in to book. Note that American offers off-peak economy awards (even on partners) for travel to North Asia between October 1- April 30, so it only costs 25,000 miles each way (down from 32,500 regularly).

AA award chart
AAdvantage award chart, showing off-peak economy awards for 25,000 miles and first class for 62,500.

Searching for JAL Award Availability Using BritishAirways.com
Britishairways.com isn’t the smoothest site, but it pretty accurately pulls in most Oneworld award availability. If BritishAirways.com shows award availability, you can be pretty sure that American Airlines reps will be able to book it, though sometimes there are weird discrepancies. You can avoid this step by simply calling American to get an agent to check availability, but frequently I come across agents who don’t know how to accurately check JAL space, or they search only for Narita (not Haneda) and vice versa. Therefore, I always like find the space myself and then call to book.

Step 1: If you don’t have a British Airways Executive Club account, create one here.

Step 2: Once you’re logged in to the British Airways site, you’ll see a column on the left side of the page to book a flight; select “Book with Avios” and then put in your search criteria. For this one, I selected SFO to TYO (I always use TYO as the airport code for Tokyo because it will pull in both Tokyo-Narita and Tokyo-Haneda airports).

Once logged in, you can also always click Executive Club -> Spending Avios -> Book a reward flight

Book With Avios
Find the BA flight search tool.

Step 3: The booking engine will ask whether you want to add a stopover. Click “no” and continue.

Stopovers No
Select no stopovers.

Step 4: It will then show whether there are award flights available. Make sure to specify the class of service you want, because it won’t show all available classes. In this case, it only shows First/Business/Premium Economy. Luckily there are four available awards in each of those classes of service- not bad if you want to burn some miles to spend New Years in Tokyo!

JAL SFO HND Availability
My search returned several flight options.

Step 5: Click on the class of service to see the cost in Avios. I always like checking because Avios are a lot easier to accrue than AAdvantage or US Airways miles (since British Airways is a transfer partner of all 3 main transferable points programs: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest, whereas AA/US are only transfer partners of SPG). However, for ultra long haul flights, it almost always costs less to use AA miles, especially if you’re connecting within the US, because British Airways charges for every single leg of the journey. If you’re looking for other transfer options, check out Eric Rosen’s post on the Best Mileage Transfer Partners for Awards to Japan.

In my case, JFK-SFO on AA would have cost 37,500 Avios + the 75,000 for SFO-HND and ~$294 in fees vs. just 62,5000 AA miles and $5.60 total for the one-way trip. If you don’t have AA miles, 75,000 Avis and $289 still isn’t a bad deal for a $13,000+ flight, especially since they make so many award seats available and the experience is top-notch, as I’ll write about in my review later this week!

SFO HND Avios
My itinerary would be more expensive with Avios, but still a good price.

Step 6: Once you identify the award availability, call AAdvantage at 1-800-882-8880 and give them the dates and flight numbers. For my JFK-SFO-HND flights, the total was 62,500 and $5.60 out of pocket for each ticket. I booked two weeks prior to departure, so normally I would have also been hit with a $75 late ticketing fee (per ticket), but that was waived because I have elite status. The $25 phone booking fee was also waived due to my elite stays (see more on AA’s fees here).

JFK SFO HND Ticket Price
My total cash cost was $5.60 per ticket!

Step 7: Enjoy the flight! Japan Airlines first class was phenomenal. The suite was large and the service was very attentive. I’ll review the flight in detail later this week, but here are a couple pictures of the journey. The ability to book incredible flights like these at affordable mileage and fee rates is why I remain loyal to American Airlines. A partner first class award using United miles would cost 110,000 miles each way. Delta doesn’t even allow partner first class awards, but to book business class you need 70,000 miles each way (one-way awards start after January 1, 2015).

Japan Airlines first class is a great way to fly to Tokyo- especially on miles!
Japan Airlines first class is a great way to fly to Tokyo- especially on miles!

To Boost American and US Airways Balances

The quickest way to boost your AA balances is via credit card sign-up bonuses. There are some really lucrative offers out there right now from both Citi and Barclaycard:

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard: 50,000 miles after $3,000 spent within the first 3 months. $95 annual fee waived the first year.

CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World MasterCard: 50,000 miles after $3,000 spent within the first 3 months. $95 annual fee waived the first year.

Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard: 50,000 miles after $5,000 spent within the first 3 months, plus Admirals club membership. $450 annual fee

US Airways Premier Word MasterCard: 50,000 Dividend miles after first purchase and payment of the $89 annual fee.

Another option is to transfer Starwood points to your American Airlines account at a 1:1 ratio. You’ll earn a bonus 5,000 miles for evert 20,00 points you transfer. The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express card offers 25,000 points after $3,000 spent within the first 3 months.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.34.52 PM
US Airways and American Airlines are both running buy miles promotions until January 2, 2015.

American Airlines, US Airways, and Starwood are all currently running Buy Miles promotions to help you boost your account balances:

US Airways and American Airlines: Now through January 2, 2015, you can earn up to 45,000 bonus miles when you buy miles or gift miles to someone else. You can purchase up to 80,000 miles, banking you a total of 125,000 Dividend Miles or AAdvantage miles for $2,360— a value of 1.88 cents per mile.

Starwood Preferred Guest: Buy Starpoints now through December 31, 2014, and get up to 25% off the regular price. You’ll receive 10% off 500–9,500 points, 15% off 10,000–14,500 points, 20% off 15,000–19,500 points and 25% off 20,000 points. Buying the maximum number of points would normally cost $700 dollars, but this promotion brings the price down to $525, or 2.625 cents per point.

Bottom line, American Airlines miles are extremely valuable, especially if you’re trying to go to Asia in first class.