Tokyo Narita vs. Haneda: Which airport should I fly into?

Sep 16, 2019

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As one of the world’s most populous cities, it makes perfect sense that Tokyo would have two major airports, Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND). However, in many ways Tokyo’s system is unique. Unlike Chicago and Washington DC, which have one major international airport and another smaller, primarily domestic one, both of Tokyo’s airports serve long-haul flights to destinations around the world. While Narita has typically been thought of as the more international of the two, Haneda is gaining ground with dozens of new flights launching to the US next year. Today, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of each, to help you decide which airport to fly into on your next trip to Japan.

Distance to downtown & transportation options

Tokyo is a massive city at over 800 square miles, so it’s hard to pick a true center of the city. There are over 20 wards in Tokyo, each made up of several different districts. For the purpose of this post, we’ll use the iconic Shibuya crossing as our reference point in downtown. Often referred to as the busiest street in the world, you can easily see 2,500 or more people crossing a single intersection if you arrive at the right time of day.

visualspace via getty images
People walking in Shibuya shopping district. (Photo by visualspace via Getty Images)

Here’s how the two airports stack up:

Getting downtown Narita (NRT) Haneda (HND)
Distance (by car) 47 miles 13 miles
Time (by car) 1 hour 30 minutes 40 minutes
Average taxi cost ¥23,000 (~$215) ¥11,000 (~$100)
Public Transit Narita Skyliner Express/Yamanote line (¥2,670/~$25) Tokyo Monorail/Yamanote line (¥690/~$6.50)

 

The maps make it pretty clear just how much farther out of the city the Narita airport complex is:

Driving in from Narita will take at least an hour and a half, though potentially much more if you hit traffic as you start to approach the city. Cabs in Japan are quite expensive as well, and this trip can easily run you $200 USD or more. Public transit is cheaper by comparison, though the journey isn’t all that much shorter, as you’ll have to connect from the airport express line to Tokyo’s sprawling metro system to get to your final destination.

Haneda is much closer by comparison, located on a peninsula just south of the city center. This leads to some spectacular views when you’re arriving/departing, and makes it much easier to get into the city. When I had an overnight layover in Tokyo last year, I flew into Haneda and was able to reach my hotel (InterContinental ANA The Strings Tokyo) after just 20 minutes on the Keikyu-Kuko line. Driving to Shibuya Crossing will take 30-45 minutes depending on traffic, though even a short trip like this might result in a $100+ taxi bill. Public transit will get you there in the same amount of time for less than $7.

Winner: In a vast city like Tokyo, the less you have to travel to get to and from the airport the better. Haneda has long been a favorite of many travelers because of its relative proximity to the city, and I personally go out of my way to chose it over Narita if I’m leaving the airport and not just transiting.

Airlines and flight options

Japan is the only country with two Skytrax five star airlines, with both ANA and Japan Airlines (JAL) accounting for two of the 10 airlines that have earned that distinction. Both operate long and short-haul flights out of both Narita and Haneda, and it’s not uncommon to see itineraries that connect through Tokyo and include a change of airports (make sure to watch out for this when booking awards!).

Let’s start by taking a look at Narita, which offers more long-haul flights especially to the US. ANA flies from Narita to eight US cities in the lower 48 (shown on the blue map below), while JAL flies to seven (shown in red). Both carriers also fly to Hawaii, with ANA even operating its new Flying Honu A380s exclusively between Tokyo Narita and Honolulu (HNL).

Flights are operated by a mix of 777-300ER and 787 aircraft, with both airlines offering an exceptional first class product on their 777s and business class on the 787s.

Related: Welcome to the Square: ANA (777-300ER) in First Class From Washington, DC, to Tokyo

Service from Haneda is more limited, with ANA flying to Chicago (ORD), New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX), and JAL flying to New York JFK and San Francisco (SFO).

What about American carriers? Most of them currently fly to Narita, though that’s set to change next summer. With the US government approving 12 new slots for US airlines to fly to Haneda, American travelers can look forward to a much easier trip to Tokyo starting next summer. There’s a good chance that this service will come at the expense of flights to Narita, with Delta already announcing it will entirely shift service to Haneda from Narita.

Many international airlines also double down and fly to both airports in order to increase connecting traffic with alliance partners and provide more options to travelers. For example, the following carriers all serve both Tokyo Narita and Tokyo Haneda:

  • Emirates
  • Qatar
  • British Airways
  • Air France
  • Singapore
  • Thai

With airlines that only fly to one airport, there’s definitely a slight preference for Narita, which serves about 13 million more passengers per year than Haneda. The following airlines only offer service to Narita:

  • Swiss
  • Turkish
  • KLM
  • Alitalia
  • Finnair
  • SAS

In many cases, even if a given airline doesn’t fly to the airport you want, you can get there on a code-share or alliance partner. For example, Oneworld passengers flying between Japan and Sydney have two options: JAL flies nonstop from Narita, while Qantas flies nonstop from Haneda.

Haneda’s clearest edge comes with domestic flights within Japan. Both JAL and ANA offer more robust networks for domestic flights out of Narita, which is something to consider if you’re traveling to one of Japan’s other islands or somewhere not easily accessibly by bullet train.

Winner: At the moment Narita wins this category, though the gap is certainly closing. As of next year, Haneda will undoubtedly have the upper hand for travel to and from the US, while Narita will still retain its star status for select long-haul international routes.

Airport amenities and perks

You’ll find first and business class lounges for both JAL and ANA at both airports, with minimal difference in design aesthetics and food and beverage offerings. JAL’s first class lounge at Narita is especially well known for the made-to-order sushi station it offers, while first class passengers at Haneda can sample a made-to-order teppanyaki bar.

JAL sushi hours
Photo by Eric Rosen/TPG

For passengers who aren’t traveling in a premium cabin, Narita might have the upper hand. The airport offers a total of five Priority Pass lounges across its two terminals, while Haneda has none. Narita will also be one of only three international locations to get a United Polaris lounge, though that lounge is not likely to open for at least another year or two.

Both airports feature a decent amount of shopping and dining options, and are generally among the more pleasant places to spend a long layover. Narita also has a bit more of an #avgeek appeal, as the size and variety of planes you’ll see makes for some great organic entertainment. Some, like Thai’s Airbus A380, are especially rare finds for US-based travelers.

Winner: Premium-cabin passengers won’t notice a ton of difference between the two airports, but those traveling in economy will be happier traveling through Narita. Between Priority Pass lounges and some great plane spotting, it makes for a more enjoyable layover.

Bottom Line

Narita and Haneda are both excellent airports, though there are some important differences between the two. Haneda is much closer to downtown Tokyo, and is increasingly being used for long-haul flights especially to the US. Narita, on the other hand, is served by more international carriers and has a broader selection of airport lounges to choose from. At the end of the day, award travelers should enjoy the fact that they get to make this choice in the first place. When ANA and JAL double down and fly two 777s between a US city like New York and Tokyo, that means twice as many seats available for award bookings on two of the world’s best airlines.

Featured image by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

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