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Have Points, Will Travel: How We Booked an $8,000 Ticket to Tokyo for Less Than the Cost of a Sandwich

March 29, 2019
7 min read
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Tokyo is a bustling metropolis with no shortage of things to things to do and places to see — and capture on Instagram. But as one of the most expensive destinations in Asia, a trip there doesn't come cheap. The good news is that there are plenty ways to "do" Tokyo on points.

In this month's episode of “Have Points, Will Travel,” travel influencer and videographer Ian Agrimis uses points to fly from Tokyo to Los Angeles in first class on Japan Airlines (JAL). The one-way ticket cost him just 70,000 Alaska miles, transferred from Marriott Bonvoy, and about $53, which is significantly less than what he paid for his Wagyu sandwich.


Here’s a step-by-step look at how he booked his ticket, and how you can do the same.

1. Earn Alaska Miles

For flights between the US and Japan, your best options for booking JAL first class using miles are either through Alaska Airlines, American Airlines or JAL itself. Out of the three, Alaska Airlines and JAL are typically preferred as they charge the least amount of miles and allow bookings to be made online (as opposed to having to call). Since Alaska charges lower taxes and fees than JAL, that's the program Ian decided to book through. Plus, if Ian wanted to, he could've maximized Alaska Airlines’ award routing rules to add a free stopover to his trip.

Aside from being one of the most valuable airline currencies around, Alaska Mileage Plan miles (along with JAL Mileage Bank miles) are also among the hardest to get. Alaska Airlines isn’t a transfer partner of any major credit card programs, so the only transfer option is from hotel programs. Among those, the only worthwhile hotel transfer is from Marriott Bonvoy. These points transfer to Alaska Mileage Plan at a ratio of three Marriott points to one Mileage Plan mile. Plus, you get a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points transferred, dropping the ratio to 2.4:1 when transferring in increments of 60,000 points (up to 240,000 points per day).

You can quickly earn a large chunk of Marriott Bonvoy points by picking up a card like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card. New card holders can earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn up to $200 in statement credits for eligible purchases made on your new card at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership.

Another easy way to earn Mileage Plan miles is by signing up for an Alaska Airlines cobranded credit card. The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is currently offering 40,000 bonus miles, and a companion fare from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) for any Alaska Airlines flight after you make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account (Note that the companion fare (from $121) is also an annual benefit rewarded each year on your account anniversary.)

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If you're still short miles and aren't prepared to go on a mileage run, you can earn Mileage Plan miles on everyday purchases like dining out through the Mileage Plan Dining program and shopping online through Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Shopping. Alternatively, you can pay cash to buy miles. It's not uncommon for Alaska to runs bonuses of up to 50% on these purchases. With a 50% bonus, your effective purchase price is 1.97 cents apiece, which isn't bad for high-value redemptions like this one.

2. Search for Award Availability

Searching for JAL award availability through Alaska Airlines is a breeze. Unlike some of JAL's other partner airlines, such as American Airlines, you can search for and book awards through Alaska's website.

On the homepage, type in your origin and destination, dates, number of passengers and hit “Search.” Tokyo has two main international airports. There's Tokyo-Narita (NRT), which is located 35 miles outside of the city, and there's Tokyo-Haneda (HND), which is more centrally located to the heart Tokyo. The website lets you search flights to both airports at once by selecting "Tokyo, Japan (All Airports)."

The website's default search results page automatically gives you a week’s worth of results for your route, though you'll need to click each one to see details of the available flights.

Alternatively, you can find more award availability by leveraging the calendar view option available through a radio button at the top left of the search results. From the this view, you can filter the calendar to only show economy, business or first class availability.

If you still can't find availability for dates that work for you, you can get an ExpertFlyer subscription and set alerts to be notified when award space opens up.

3. Transfer Your Points

If you're using the Marriott Bonvoy shortcut discussed earlier to boost your mileage balance, you're going to need to transfer your points. As previously mentioned, these points transfer at a 3:1 ratio, or 2.4:1 when transferring in increments of 60,000 points.

Based on TPG's tests, Marriott Bonvoy points take four days to transfer to Alaska Airlines. However, it's certainly possible for the transfers to take longer (or shorter) than that. Award availability can change during that time, and unfortunately there's no way to hold awards with Alaska Mileage Plan, so there is some risk involved with transferring points. Fortunately, there are many other sweet spots with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, so even if availability disappears and you end up with thousands of points stuck in the program, you should still be able to get good use of them.

4. Book Your Flight

Once the miles are in your account and you've reconfirmed award availability for the flight you want, it's time to add it to your cart...

...and book your flight! You’ll want to use a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve to pay for the taxes and fees on your ticket so that you’re covered by the the cards’ excellent travel protections in case any goes wrong.

Congratulations. You've booked yourself a $8,000 first-class ticket to Tokyo for less than the price of a sandwich.

Check back next month for a new episode of “Have Points, Will Travel,” where Ian books a first-class ticket to Seoul with an even smaller cash outlay than this ticket.

Updated on 11/3/21.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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