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I recently took an around-the-world trip from NYC (with a stay at the new Park Hyatt New York) and then on to Tokyo for 62,500 AA miles and $5.60. The best availability I could find for two award seats was to take American’s A321 first class JFK-San Francisco (SFO) and connect at SFO to Tokyo Haneda (HND) on Japan Airlines (JAL) Boeing 777-300ER in a new first-class Sky Suite —which I thought was a simply stellar experience. Read on to see why.
When using American Airlines/US Airways miles to fly to Tokyo non-stop from North America, in my opinion the best option is to fly JAL from one of their gateways: JFK, LAX, SFO, Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Vancouver (YVR). JAL generally has nicer planes than American Airlines—especially in the premium cabins. Be aware, though, that JAL’s Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which flies to Tokyo Narita (NRT) from JFK, BOS, YVR, San Diego (SAN) and Honolulu (HNL), doesn’t offer first class—only business, premium economy, and economy.
I hear JAL’s business class is very good, but for a relatively small mileage premium (62,500 miles vs. 50,000 for business), I figured I’d easily get $500+ more value from the pomp and circumstance (read: fully lie-flat beds, caviar and top-notch Champagne) of first class. I guess I’ve always been a “go big or go home” type of person!
The eight fully lie-flat beds in the first class cabin of JAL’s Boeing 777-300ER have 78.5 inches of pitch/length and are 33 inches wide. At present, American Airlines only flies their old 777s to Tokyo, and while their first class lie-flat seats are relatively huge—78 inches long and 30 inches wide—there are a whopping 16 of them in the cabin. Plus, American’s first-class service is spotty and their food doesn’t even come close to JAL’s. Even American’s brand new 777-300s don’t hold a candle to the JAL first class open “suite”.
The real clincher is JAL’s amazing award availability—I got two award seats on this flight and could easily have booked two more award seats. Be aware that you’ll have to call American Airlines to book, though, because these award seats don’t show up on aa.com; this mild inconvenience is only annoying until you realize that millions of people don’t realize this JAL award availability exists, so it’s good news for those of us who know the secret. You can’t beat a $14,000+ flight for 62,500 AAdvantage miles and $5.60!
To top up your AAdvantage account and boost your American Airlines elite status, consider getting the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard which offers 50,000 miles after a spend of $2,500 within three months, and the $99 annual fee is waived the first year. That bonus alone is enough for a one-way business class JAL flight to Japan, and with a little more spending you’ll have enough for the flight I took in first class.
An Inconvenient Connection and a Tragic Lounge
After deplaning from American’s A321 first class JFK-SFO (the first leg on our voyage to Tokyo), we had to exit security, take the tram to the international terminal at SFO, and enter security again—where I wasn’t deemed eligible for TSA Precheck since I was flying Japan Airlines. Fortunately, our bags were checked all the way through to Haneda at JFK, so we were able to take our time during this inconvenient connection.
I had considered trying to visit the Centurion Lounge at SFO, but it was in a different terminal altogether, which would have required us to re-enter security twice. I had figured that this wouldn’t have been worth the hassle, but as I would soon find out, the Centurion Lounge SFO is infinitely better than JAL’s lounge at SFO.
Once through security we found our way to the lounges and were quickly admitted to JAL’s Sakura Lounge. I asked the woman at the front desk if there was a separate part of the lounge for first class, and though she said no, I don’t think she heard me correctly; once you enter the small, hot lounge, there’s a door that leads to a private area— for first class.
This rectangular room, which is only large enough to hold about 10 people, felt more like a DMV waiting area than a first-class lounge. I suppose it was better than the main lounge, though, which was filled with Japanese businessmen and had no empty seats.
The lounge’s food offerings were meager—just some triangular, pre-wrapped seaweed/salmon sushi and a few soups. Asian carriers are generally hailed as the models of service and quality, but honestly? The Sakura Lounge at SFO was a dump. The only thing I can think to compare it to is the Amtrak Lounge at Penn Station, though that may still have the edge for its spaciousness and chic soda fountain.
Rather than linger, my friend and I helped ourselves to a couple cans of beer and some sad nibbles, then took our time walking to our gate at the end of the terminal, in a crowded area adjacent to Aeromexico’s flight to Mexico City. It wasn’t long before we escaped this hubbub and found ourselves quietly ensconced in the chic first-class cabin of the 777-300— a world of difference from the Sakura Lounge.
I had flown JAL first class once before Chicago-Narita on a 777-300 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but what I remember most is that the flight attendants barely spoke English and they’d only stocked one bottle of Dom Perignon—which was polished off before we even left the ground.
This time around, we were graciously greeted by a purser whose English was a bit halting but whose attention to service was flawless. She sat down with us and explained that because the flight was leaving after midnight, most passengers would opt to have a snack rather than a meal, but that if there was anything we’d like to order at any point, all we’d need to do is let her know and she’d take care of it.
Take-off was delayed by a load of cargo, so the purser suggested that we go ahead and change into the pajamas that they provided. This ended up being a smart move because while we were still on the ground, I drank a couple glasses of Champagne, reclined my seat…and conked out like a baby for eight hours!
I woke up just as we were passing the international date line, and quickly ordered caviar (followed by the purser’s kind offering of seconds – to which I couldn’t say no!), and then some simple noodles. Within minutes of finishing my snack, I passed out again, waking up just in time for breakfast and a beautiful 5 a.m. landing at Haneda.
Seat & Amenities
I thought the at-seat experience of the Sky Suite (again, 73 inches long and 26 inches wide with 73 inches of pitch) was very chic, with wood-grain paneling and lots of table space and storage compartments to help you feel like you have a place for everything. There’s a partition you can open or close, depending on whether or not you want to interact with your neighbor.
The 23-inch monitor/screen is one of the largest in the industry, its on-demand entertainment system is stocked with tons of movies, TV, games and music, and you’re given the use of Bose noise-canceling headphones—which they don’t rush to snatch from you 60 minutes before landing like American does! They also give you a nice amenity kit packed in a plush corduroy toiletry bag (which I will totally be using again) that included some minty toothpaste, a snazzy bronze eye mask, and a few products from a Spanish luxury brand called Loewe.
To make their first class seats into beds, JAL lays down a thick mattress pad/cover (you get a choice of hard or soft) and gives you a big pillow and a truly comfy down comforter. True, I was exhausted when I got on the plane, but still—I slept really well.
When I was awake, I thought the in-flight WiFi was decent—not as fast as WiFi in the U.S., and certainly spotty in some areas, but strong enough to send e-mails and browse the Web. I also thought that the price—$18.80 for the whole flight—was reasonable.
Food & Drink
The sheer array of wines and Champagnes on offer was staggering. The beautiful 2002 Salon Champagne I enjoyed (before essentially passing out) was from a limited-edition production of only 62,000 bottles, one of which would have cost roughly $375 back on the ground. The French Chardonnay, Chanson Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru Champs Gains 2007, would be about $75 a bottle; the Domaine de Chevalier Grand Cru Pessac-Leognan 2007 would cost upwards of $100; and the Kusuda Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011 from New Zealand would go for closer to $150. Most of JAL’s sake options would land in the $50 range, but the sweet-potato Mori Izo “shochu” sake has been known to fetch upwards of $250 at auction.
The light meal option included caviar, a choice of two sandwiches from a selection of three (smoked salmon, smoked ham, and buffalo mozarella and tomato), and a lobster and prosciutto salad. The snack was an assortment of Japanese appetizers—salmon roe with grated radish, salt-pickled squid, and soy-marinated sea urchin. The a la carte options were steamed rice with both salmon and salmon roe in green tea, or an ongiri (grilled rice ball).
The noodles, which I slurped down after my double-helping of caviar, were udon in a bowl of warm miso broth and seaweed. Simple, right? But this was a surprisingly flavorful dish, with some of the best noodles I’ve ever eaten.
I didn’t have any dessert (I was embarking on a multi-country trip, and knew something would have to give), but I could have ordered a cheese assortment, fresh fruit, ice cream or a small array of chocolates.
Early in the morning, I ordered the Western-style breakfast (rather than the Japanese one with sashimi, prawn mousse and simmered kelp), which was flat-out delish. It included a strawberry-and-banana smoothie, fruit and plain yogurt, a warm roll, and for the main dish, poached eggs with hollandaise, smoked salmon and a potato gratin. I loved that they had French-press coffee with a fancy little sand timer to let me know when I could “press” for the best coffee.
We arrived at Haneda at about 5 a.m., which meant immigration was all but empty and our bags were out in no time. We were already in a taxi on our way to the Andaz Tokyo (review to come) by the time the sun rose.
I thought this flight was an incredible value for the miles. The service was great, with lots of attention to detail, and the food was absolutely delicious. While most of the industry fanfare goes to Singapore Airlines’ suites and Cathay Pacific’s over-the-top service, I think JAL first class is a stellar product. Their SFO lounge absolutely needs to be improved, but all things considered, I’ll take a crappy lounge for a stellar in-flight experience any day of the week!
Have you tried JAL’s new first class Sky Suites? Please share your experience with me in the comments below.
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