The Best Ways to Travel to Japan With Points and Miles

Aug 18, 2019

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Japan is a must-see for every traveler, with its famous cherry blossoms that dazzle tourists every spring, snow-capped mountains and ancient temples dotting the hillsides. That’s to say nothing of the food — which has gained popularity across the world — and a service industry that perfectly embodies the cultural importance placed on respect and politeness. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to get there using your hard-earned points and miles, so today we’ll take you through the best options for doing so.

In This Post

While the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo makes up less than 10% of Japan’s 100+ million population, it still serves as the primary international gateway for visiting Japan. Today we’ll be focusing on flights into the city’s two main airports: Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and Tokyo-Haneda (HND). As with most major cities that have multiple airports, one (NRT) is larger, further away from the city center and generally more geared to long-haul international travel. Haneda, while it’s opening up more of its limited slots for long-haul flights, is generally considered more of a short-haul/regional airport. It’s also located in the middle of the city, one of the reasons that savvy travelers will go out of their way to choose it over Narita.

If you’re traveling to another city in Japan, you have plenty of options to get there from Tokyo. Japan has one of the world’s most efficient high-speed rail systems, and Japan’s two flag carriers (ANA and JAL) both have large domestic route networks out of Tokyo. If you’re heading to Osaka (KIX), you could even fly nonstop from Los Angeles (LAX) on a JAL 787.

Airlines That Fly to Japan

(Photo by Ryan Patterson)
There’s no shortage of carriers offering service from the US to Japan. (Photo by Ryan Patterson)

Given how Tokyo is a global hub of finance and culture, an overwhelming number of airlines fly there. To make this list as useful as possible, I’m only including the practical options for US-based travelers. For example, you won’t see any European carriers here, as most loyalty programs prohibit you from flying east to get from the US to Asia. I’ve also broken the list up by alliance, with Star Alliance coming first. Note that in addition to the routes listed below, you can expect to see a lot more direct service from the US to Tokyo-Haneda beginning next year. The Department of Transportation recently gave American, Delta, Hawaiian and United tentative approval to commence or expand service to HND in 2020 — and United has already announced new schedules as a result.

Star Alliance

  • United flies to Tokyo-Narita from the following hubs: Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Denver (DEN), Houston (IAH), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Washington-Dulles (IAD) and Newark (EWR). It also flies to Tokyo-Haneda from San Francisco. However, starting March 28, 2020, it will launch flights to HND from Newark and Los Angeles, while existing service from ORD and IAD will be shifted to serve HND instead of NRT.
  • ANA flies to Tokyo-Narita from the following cities: Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Houston (IAH), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Washington-Dulles (IAD), New York-JFK, Seattle (SEA) and San Jose (SJC). It also flies to Tokyo-Haneda from Los Angeles, Chicago-O’Hare and New York-JFK.
  • Air Canada flies to Tokyo-Narita from Montreal (YUL) and Vancouver (YVR); it also offers service to Tokyo-Haneda from Toronto (YYZ).
  • Asiana flies from Seoul (ICN) to both Narita and Haneda. Its US gateways include Los Angeles, Chicago-O’Hare and New York-JFK.
  • Singapore flies nonstop from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Narita.

Oneworld

  • American Airlines flies to Tokyo-Narita from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Los Angeles (LAX), and to Tokyo-Haneda from Los Angeles.
  • JAL flies to Tokyo-Narita from the following cities: Seattle (SEA), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), New York-JFK, Boston (BOS) and San Diego (SAN). It also flies to Tokyo-Haneda from San Francisco and New York-JFK.
  • Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong (HKG) to both Narita and Haneda. The carrier’s US gateways include New York-JFK, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Washington-Dulles.

SkyTeam

  • Delta currently flies to Tokyo-Narita from Atlanta (ATL), Portland (PDX), Honolulu (HNL), Seattle (SEA) and Detroit (DTW). It also flies to Tokyo Haneda from Los Angeles (LAX) and Minneapolis (MSP). However, once it finalizes new flights with the DOT, the five NRT flights would shift to HND as of March 2020, officially marking the end of Tokyo-Narita as a Delta Hub.
  • Korean Air flies from Seoul (ICN) to both Narita and Haneda. US gateways include Atlanta, New York-JFK, Chicago-O’Hare, Washington-Dulles and Los Angeles.

A number of other Asian airlines from all three alliances also fly to Tokyo but aren’t valid routing options from the US. Most loyalty programs, in some way or another, nudge you to take the most direct routing possible. This might mean prohibiting you from transiting a third region like China on a trip from the US to Japan or restricting the maximum permitted mileage you can travel on a given award ticket.

Best Mileage Options

With ANA and JAL dominating much of the passenger traffic between the US and Japan, it makes sense to think about your best mileage options less in terms of which individual airline is the gold standard and more in terms of which program you should book with, once you’ve settled on a given routing.

Star Alliance

Whether you have Chase Ultimate Rewards points or American Express Membership Rewards points to burn, Star Alliance has a number of different programs you can utilize to help you get to Japan. Before we dive into the details, let’s start with an overview of the pricing options. If you see a range, that’s either because the price fluctuates from low to high season (ANA) or an airline has different award pricing for flights on its own metal vs. partner flights.

Program Transfer partners Round-trip mileage costs
ANA Mileage Club Amex, Marriott
  • Economy: 40,000-55,000 miles
  • Business: 75,000-90,000 miles
  • First: 150,000-165,000 miles
Avianca LifeMiles Amex, Capital One, Citi, Marriott
  • Economy: 70,000 miles
  • Business: 150,000 miles
  • First: 180,000 miles
Aeroplan Amex, Capital One, Marriott
  • Economy: 75,000 miles
  • Business: 150,000 miles
  • First: 210,000 miles
United MileagePlus Chase, Marriott
  • Economy: 70,000 miles
  • Business: 140,000-160,000 miles
  • First: 220,000 miles

Now, before you start running the numbers on which points you want to transfer, the best value redemption for flights to Japan (and one of the single best sweet spots in all of award travel) isn’t actually on this list. Virgin Atlantic isn’t a member of a major alliance, but it has individual partnerships with a number of airlines, including ANA. You can earn Virgin Atlantic miles by transferring from almost every major transferable points currency — Chase, Amex, Citi and Marriott all partner with the carrier.

Here is the round-trip award chart for flights on ANA booked through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club:

In many cases, these prices are lower than what most other carriers charge for a one-way award. 110,000 miles round-trip in one of the world’s best first class products is an absolute steal, and business class for 90,000 miles isn’t half bad either. Note that prices are marginally higher for flights from the East Coast and central US than from the West Coast, but the small difference shouldn’t be enough to sway you. Just note that you have to book this ticket as a round-trip, but if you can find ANA award space in both directions, you should start and end your search with Virgin Atlantic.

In fact, you’ll want to do your best to fly ANA no matter how you book; it generally offers a better product than its North American Star Alliance partners (United and Air Canada). In fact, ANA’s Mileage Club program is the next best option for booking Star Alliance awards to Japan. However, just like booking through Virgin Atlantic, you can only book a round-trip, and prices will vary depending on two factors: 1) whether it’s low or high season, and 2) whether you fly on ANA or a partner airline. You also may have to contend with some nasty fuel surcharges that can easily increase your out-of-pocket costs.

For those based on the West Coast, an interesting option to consider is Singapore’s fifth-freedom route from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT). This route is operated by a 777-300ER, so you won’t get to enjoy Singapore’s world-renowned Suites class, but the food and service in first class are still among the best in the world. North American fliers don’t get many chances to try out this top airline, so if you’re heading from LA to Tokyo, you should do your best to take advantage of this. Just note that Singapore generally only releases premium class award space to members of its KrisFlyer loyalty program, but since it partners with all of the major transferable currencies, there’s no shortage of ways to boost your account balance — and if the flight isn’t available initially, you can always waitlist for it.

Last but not least is the elephant in the room: United MileagePlus. While this might be the most familiar program on the list to US based travelers, its value proposition has decreased ever since the carrier announced that it would remove award charts and switch to dynamic award pricing for flights beginning on November 15, 2019. Star Alliance partner flights will continue to use a fixed value award chart (for now, at least), but for flights on United metal — including the carrier’s new, sleek Polaris business class — it’s anyone’s guess how much an award will cost on any given day.

Oneworld

If Star Alliance carriers give you access to the world’s best sweet spot by booking through Virgin Atlantic, then Oneworld has the second best sweet spot courtesy of Alaska Airlines. Like Virgin Atlantic, Alaska isn’t a member of an alliance but instead forms individual partnerships with airlines. Two of these, Cathay Pacific and JAL, make a great choice for trips to Japan.

JAL has a much smaller US route network than Cathay, but it offers the obvious benefit of direct flights to Japan.

JAL first class for only 70,000 miles each way is an absolute steal, as the carrier is known for its world-class catering and service and its investment in top notch champagne (JAL currently serves Louis Roderer Cristal 2009 in first class, which retails for about ~$270 a bottle).

If you’re not in a rush, you might want to consider flying Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong (HKG) instead. Not only does Cathay fly to more US destinations (and even multiple daily flights to some major airports like LAX and JFK), but Alaska lets you work in a free stopover in Hong Kong en route to Tokyo, giving you two cities for the price of one. If you’re flying in business class, you’ll save 10,000 miles each way booking with Cathay Pacific, and you can also book a premium economy award for the same amount as a regular JAL economy award.

If you can snag first class seats on either one of these carriers, you’re in for a treat.

JAL or Cathay Pacific first class? With Alaska Mileage Plan, the choice is yours
JAL or Cathay Pacific first class? With Alaska Mileage Plan, the choice is yours.

Unfortunately, Alaska miles are relatively hard to earn, so you’ll want to either sign up for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card or consider buying miles during a promotion — like the current one offering up to a 50% bonus.

If you’re looking to book through a Oneworld loyalty program instead, you’ll want/need to focus on nonstop flights from the US to Japan on either JAL or American Airlines. Here are some of the Oneworld programs that can get you to Japan.

Airline Transfer partners Round-trip award costs
American Airlines Marriott
  • Economy: 70,000 miles
  • Business: 120,000 miles
  • First: 160,000 miles
Cathay Pacific Amex, Capital One, Citi, Marriott
  • Economy: 80,000 miles
  • Business: 150,000 miles
  • First: 240,000 miles
JAL Marriott
  • Economy: 50,000 miles
  • Business: 100,000 miles
  • First: 140,000 miles

The American Airlines award chart isn’t nearly as valuable as it used to be after a significant devaluation a few years back, but booking flights to “Asia 1” (Japan and Korea) continues to be a consistently excellent value. You’ll pay the same number of miles whether you fly on American or JAL, though if you can you should absolutely opt for JAL for a better experience in nearly every dimension.

While Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program charges slightly more than AAdvantage in economy and business class (and a whole lot more in first), this option might be attractive to many people because of how easy it is to earn Asia Miles. Cathay Pacific partners with every major transferable points currency except for Chase, so no matter which credit cards make up the core of your points earning strategy, you should have an easy way to get these miles. Just beware of the sometimes frustrating award booking engine.

SkyTeam

Since two of the major SkyTeam loyalty programs — Delta SkyMiles and Air France/KLM Flying Blue — both switched from a set award chart to the dreaded “variable pricing” model, it’s impossible to speak in general terms about how best to redeem points with these programs. On any given day, the price could fluctuate by 5x or more, so it’s up to you to search and see what you can find before you transfer miles to these programs.

That being said, Delta still uses relatively fixed prices on partner awards, though you’ll want to pay attention to taxes and fees. For example, you’ll typically need 37,500 miles for a one-way economy award ticket on partners from LAX to either Tokyo airport, but Korean-operated flights through Seoul (ICN) will incur less than one-third of the taxes of China Eastern flights through Shanghai (PVG).

Note that Delta operated nonstop from LAX to Tokyo-Haneda, though you’ll pay a premium on this date (and the prices could fluctuate significantly).

Instead of booking through Delta, though, be sure to check Flying Blue, as you may find Delta-operated flights at lower prices.

However, here again you may be able to leverage Virgin Atlantic as a non-alliance partner to save some serious miles when booking Delta flights. Here’s an example of a one-way, business-class award from Detroit (DTW) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT).

That exact same flight is available through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club for just 60,000 miles, half the number you’d need through SkyMiles:

Even better? This flight is operated by the carrier’s flagship A350-900, giving you the chance to experience Delta One Suites at a solid discount off what SkyMiles would charge. Just be aware that Virgin Atlantic charges by segment, so adding a domestic connecting flight in business class will add 22,500 miles to your award.

Bottom line: Definitely compare the prices across these programs to minimize the number of miles you’d need to use for the award ticket.

Earning Points

Fortunately, most of the above currencies are relatively easy to earn with transferable points. For example, American Express Membership Rewards points transfer to Aeroplan, ANA, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Avianca LifeMiles, Delta SkyMiles, Flying Blue and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. You could consider getting The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is offering a targeted welcome bonus of up to 100,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first three months via the CardMatch Tool. (Offer subject to change at anytime.)

If you’d rather accrue Chase Ultimate Rewards points, these can be transferred to United MileagePlus, Flying Blue and Virgin Atlantic. The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. Though its annual fee is $450, you get up to $300 worth of travel credits each calendar year and enjoy a wealth of additional perks.

The newest entrant to the realm of transferable points is Capital One. With the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, you also earn 2x miles per dollar on every purchase and can transfer them to over a dozen partners, including Aeroplan, Avianca and Flying Blue. It currently carries a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months from account opening, and the card’s $95 annual fee is waived the first year.

Real-Life Example

The above strategies aren’t just theoretical. TPG‘s very own Samantha Rosen took these tips to heart during a recent trip to Japan. She was able to find award availability on Japan Airlines in first class for only 70,000 Alaska Airlines MileagePlan miles (plus $18.10 in taxes and fees) for a one-way flight between New York-JFK and Tokyo-Narita (NRT). Definitely not a bad deal when you figure this flight costs about $13,000 in cash… one-way. Ask her about it, and she’ll tell you it was one of the most incredible experiences of her life.

What’s more, she was able to find award availability via Air Canada’s Aeroplan to get back to New York. She transferred 75,000 American Express Membership Rewards points directly to Aeroplan to book a business-class flight on Air Canada with a quick layover in Montreal (YUL). It only cost her about $132 in taxes and fees, and she was very impressed with the airline’s business-class experience. If you’re going to fly across the world for 13 hours, you might as well do it in style, all for less than $200… right?

Bottom Line

Despite the relatively limited routing options from the US to Tokyo, you have plenty of choices to make in deciding which loyalty program to book through. Once you find the award space you want, you should do your best to leverage sweet spot redemptions (such as Virgin Atlantic for ANA bookings or Alaska for Cathay Pacific/JAL bookings), but as long as you have miles with a major Star Alliance or Oneworld loyalty program or with a transferable point currency, you shouldn’t have a problem getting yourself to Tokyo.

Featured photo by idmanjoe / Getty Images.

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