Cleared for Takeoff: Using points and miles for a birthday trip to Japan

Aug 17, 2021

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Cleared for Takeoff is a weekly series showing readers like you the best ways to book adventures using points and miles. If you’d like tips on booking your own trip using miles, please email us with your preferred itinerary and current mileage balance.

From ski resorts to metropolises, there’s so much to see and do in Japan. I’ve visited the country many times and look forward to visiting again when Japan reopens its borders to Americans. But for today’s Cleared for Takeoff story, I’ll look into TPG reader Jeff Reese’s request for help planning a trip to Japan next summer for his wife’s birthday:

My wife and I would love to be able to use our 300k points from Chase UR to fly ANA to Japan next year. Her birthday is June 25 and it’s the big 4-0. Since the flight that distance would be the biggest cost, we thought the points would be best spent there. I know it’s tough to get two award seats on ANA in business or first. 

We would love to travel the country via train to see as much as possible during a two-week stay. 

We would love to fly out of Tampa but as flights are limited from here we would be willing to do a “transfer” to a better location. I have some Delta companion passes for my Platinum AMEX that I could even use for this. 

In Japan, we would love to see Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Okinawa, Hiroshima, and Mount Fuji. Perhaps Yokohama, Sapporo, Nagasaki, or Kamakura. We haven’t finalized the list so open to suggestions. 

Jeff and his wife have a stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, American Airlines miles and Marriott Bonvoy points. So, follow along as I share how I’d plan Jeff’s trip to Japan using points and miles.

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In This Post

Current points stash

Jeff and his wife currently have the following points and miles balances they can use for their trip to Japan next summer:

  • 351,682 Chase Ultimate Rewards points
  • 152,296 American Airlines miles (51,367 in Jeff’s account, 100,929 in his wife’s account)
  • 146,047 Marriott Bonvoy points

Jeff noted that he has the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card and could use its domestic main cabin round-trip companion certificate for positioning flights. Plus, Jeff stated they are willing to spend on their Chase credit cards and American Airlines credit cards, or open a new Marriott Bonvoy credit card if they need to earn more rewards.

Related: How I helped a points and miles beginner book a trip to Japan

Round-trip airfare to Tokyo, Japan

ANA first class seat and meal
ANA first class is one of the best first class cabins in the sky. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Since Jeff wants to fly ANA business class or ANA first class and has Chase Ultimate Rewards points, he’ll likely want to transfer points to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Round-trip ANA-operated awards booked through Virgin Atlantic are priced as follows:

  • Western U.S. to Japan in business class: 90,000 points
  • Eastern U.S. to Japan: 95,000 points
  • Western U.S. to Japan in first class: 110,000 points
  • Eastern U.S. to Japan in first class: 120,000 points

And you’ll only need to pay modest taxes and fees on your award. TPG’s Andrew Kunesh recently priced out the taxes and fees on a round-trip first-class ANA award from Los Angeles to Tokyo to be $195.

However, stopovers and connecting flights cost extra points when you book through Virgin Atlantic. So, Jeff and his wife will need to book positioning flights before their ANA flight to Japan and after their ANA flight from Japan. Luckily, one-way trips are permitted at half the cost of a round-trip when redeeming Virgin Atlantic points. So, if availability permits, Jeff and his wife could redeem for business class one way and first class the other way.

How to book ANA awards with Virgin Atlantic points

You can’t book or search for ANA awards on Virgin Atlantic’s website. So you’ll need to use your favorite website for searching Star Alliance award availability to find award space.

I recommend searching for award availability through United’s MileagePlus program. But, as Jeff noted in his request, two premium cabin saver awards can be difficult to snag. I’d book one first-class award and one business-class award on the same flight if I were in Jeff’s shoes. Then, I could set an ExpertFlyer alert for first-class award space on that flight.

But, based on Jeff’s request, I assume he wants to book two awards in the same cabin and same flight from the start. So, I went to United’s website to search award availability for two passengers on nonstop ANA flights from several U.S. airports.

Searching ANA award availability on United
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

After searching for a while, I found two business class saver awards from Seattle to Tokyo Hanada on June 23. Note the operating carrier is “All Nippon Airways” — United-operated flights are not bookable with Virgin points.

Searching ANA award availability on United
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

I also found two business class saver awards about two weeks later from Tokyo Hanada to Seattle on July 7.

Searching ANA award availability on United
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Once you find award availability that you want to book, check out Virgin Atlantic’s contact us page to get in touch with Flying Club and confirm this availability. After all, it’s best to confirm award availability before transferring or buying points. You can ask ANA to hold the award space if you don’t yet have enough points to book your award.

Related: How to book a $20,000 ANA first-class ticket for just $34

How to earn enough Virgin points for this award

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a transfer partner of several major transferrable currencies, including:

  • American Express Membership Rewards: 1:1 transfer ratio, transfers usually occur instantaneously
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: 1:1 transfer ratio, transfers usually occur instantaneously
  • Citi ThankYou Rewards: 1:1 transfer ratio, transfers usually occur instantaneously
  • Marriott Bonvoy: 3:1 transfer ratio, transfers usually occur within 48 hours

Additionally, Virgin Atlantic often runs buy points promotions. Or, if you have time before you want to redeem for an award, you could sign-up for a new card, meet the minimum spending requirements to earn the bonus and then use the sign-up bonus to book your award. Here are a few cards (and their current welcome bonuses) to consider:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 100,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new card in your first six months of card membership. Plus, earn 10x points on eligible purchases on your new card at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S. (on up to $25,000 in combined purchases) during your first six months of card membership.
  • American Express® Gold Card: Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases on your new card in your first six months of card membership.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
  • Citi Premier® Card: Earn 80,000 ThankYou bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.
  • Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Earn 150,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points and a bonus free night award (redemption level worth up to 85,000 Marriott points) after you use your new card to make $5,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership. Resort fees may apply. Offer expires 11/3/2021.

Alternatively, you can book this ANA business class award with other partners. For example, you could also get a good deal when booking through Etihad Guest, Air Canada Aeroplan and Avianca LifeMiles.

Related: When and how to book Delta awards with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

Booking positioning flights for this award

Of course, Jeff will also need to book positioning flights from Tampa to Seattle and back. Since he and his wife have a large stash of American Airlines miles, I recommend he book a one-stop American Airlines award. I’m currently seeing round-trip awards from 15,000 miles plus $11.20 per person in main cabin economy and 35,000 miles plus $11.20 per person in first class.

Searching American Airlines award availability
(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

Related: No major airport near you? Here’s how expert travelers still get amazing flight deals

Transport within Japan

High speed train in Japan
A Japan Rail Pass can help Jeff and his wife save money on intra-Japan transportation. (Photo by tackune / Shutterstock.com)

Jeff mentioned that he and his wife plan to travel around Japan by train. So, they should consider buying 14-day Japan Rail Passes. Although they’ll need to pay around $430 each, this pass will let them travel throughout Japan via train for 14 consecutive days. This pass includes trains to many parts of Japan, including some high-speed options. But I recommend they check out the map of eligible routes before buying the pass to ensure it will work well for their trip.

Even if they decide to buy Japan Rail Passes, they’ll still need to book flights to Okinawa. Luckily, American Airlines miles and United Airlines miles can provide excellent value on flights within Japan. For example, Jeff could redeem 7,500 American Airlines miles per person to fly one way in economy on Japan Airlines from Tokyo to Okinawa.

Booking JAL award through American AAdvantage
(Screenshot courtesy of aa.com)

Or, Jeff could redeem 8,800 United Airlines miles per person to fly one way in economy on ANA from Tokyo to Okinawa.

Booking ANA award through United MileagePlus
(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Related: 9 tips for train travel in Japan

Hotels in Japan you can book with points

Jeff and his wife have Marriott Bonvoy points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points for hotel stays. Since World of Hyatt is the most valuable Ultimate Rewards hotel transfer partner, I’ll focus on Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt hotels in the cities they plan to visit: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Okinawa, Hiroshima and Mount Fuji.

Although Marriott Bonvoy offers a fifth night free on award stays, Jeff and his wife plan to visit at least six destinations in Japan during their two-week trip. So, I expect they’d only be able to use the fifth-night free benefit at most once (likely in Tokyo).

Five nights in Tokyo

Jeff doesn’t say how long he wants to spend in each city. But, let’s assume he wants to stay in Tokyo, Japan, on June 24 to 29 at a Marriott hotel to get a fifth night free when using points. He could potentially even use his train pass to visit Mount Fuji, Yokohama and Kamakura as day trips from Tokyo.

Marriott award map for Tokyo
(Screenshot courtesy of marriott.com)

Given his current Marriott Bonvoy balance of 146,047 points, I recommend he considers the following Marriott hotels:

  • Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo: Category 5 hotel, currently bookable for 140,000 points for a five-night stay June 24 to 29
  • Aloft Tokyo Ginza: Category 5 hotel, currently bookable for 160,000 points for a five-night stay June 24 to 29
  • Moxy Tokyo Kinshicho: Category 5 hotel, currently bookable for 160,000 points for a five-night stay June 24 to 29

Each of these hotels is in a different part of the city. So, he’ll need to trade-off between location, points cost and amenities when selecting a hotel.

Related: Second cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to Tokyo

Two nights in Okinawa

After visiting Tokyo, I’ll assume Jeff wants to fly to Okinawa for a two-night stay. There are several Marriott Bonvoy properties in Okinawa, but only the Category 7 Sheraton Okinawa Sunmarina Resort has award availability for June 29 through July 1, 2022.

Marriott award map for Okinawa
(Screenshot courtesy of marriott.com)

Since he’ll likely use most of his Marriott points in Tokyo, I recommend he considers one of the following two Hyatt properties in Okinawa:

  • Hyatt Regency Naha Okinawa: Category 4, currently bookable for 30,000 points for a two-night stay June 29 to July 1
  • Hyatt Regency Seragaki Island Okinawa: Category 4, currently bookable for 30,000 points for a two-night stay June 29 to July 1
Hyatt award map for Okinawa
(Screenshot courtesy of hyatt.com)

Two nights in Kyoto

After staying in Okinawa, Jeff and his wife can fly non-stop to Osaka on JAL or ANA and then take a train to Kyoto for a two-night stay from July 1 to July 3. He could redeem 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night to stay at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto or 30,000 Hyatt points per night at the Park Hyatt Kyoto or Sowaka.

Hyatt award map for Kyoto
(Screenshot courtesy of hyatt.com)

Or, he could redeem Marriott Bonvoy points at a variety of Marriott Bonvoy properties. However, the lowest-category Marriott Bonvoy property in Kyoto is the Category 5 Moxy Kyoto Nijo.

Marriott award map for Kyoto
(Screenshot courtesy of marriott.com)

If I were in Jeff’s shoes, I’d be hesitant to redeem so many points for a stay in Kyoto. Instead, I’d likely book a property outside these brands through an online travel agency rewards program, such as Hotels.com Rewards.

Two nights in Hiroshima

After a stay in Kyoto, Jeff and his wife can take a train to Hiroshima for a two-night stay from July 3 to 5. There aren’t any World of Hyatt properties in Hiroshima, and the only Marriott Bonvoy property is the Category 5 Sheraton Grand Hiroshima Hotel.

Marriott award map for Hiroshima
(Screenshot courtesy of marriott.com)

A two-night stay from July 3 to 5 at this hotel by Hiroshima station costs 70,000 points or $770. So, if Jeff decided to redeem Marriott points for this stay, he’d get a redemption value of about 1.1 cents per point.

Two nights in Osaka

Finally, I recommend Jeff and his wife take a train from Hiroshima to Osaka on July 5. They can spend two nights in Osaka before traveling back to Tokyo on July 7th for their evening flight from Tokyo Hanada.

There’s only one World of Hyatt property in Osaka: the Category 2 Hyatt Regency Osaka. This property is a steal at 8,000 points per night for a standard room, but the location isn’t ideal for a two-night stay if Jeff and his wife want to explore the city.

Hyatt award map for Osaka
(Screenshot courtesy of hyatt.com)

So, I’d instead recommend one of the many Marriott Bonvoy hotels in the city. For example, the Category 4 Moxy Osaka Honmachi is well-located and bookable for 60,000 points for a two-night stay on July 5 through 7. Or, the Category 4 Fairfield by Marriott Osaka Namba is also well-located and bookable for just 36,000 points for this two-night stay, thanks to Marriott’s PointSavers promotion.

Marriott low-category award map for Osaka
(Screenshot courtesy of marriott.com)

How to earn enough World of Hyatt points for these awards

As I mentioned earlier, I expect Jeff will earn World of Hyatt points by transferring points from Chase Ultimate Rewards. After all, you can transfer Chase points to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio. And frankly, transferring Chase points to Hyatt is the quickest and easiest way to top off your World of Hyatt balance.

However, since Jeff doesn’t plan to travel to Japan until next summer, he and his wife could each open a World of Hyatt Credit Card. After all, this card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 30,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in your first three months from account opening. Plus, you can earn up to 30,000 more bonus points by earning 2x points in the first six months from account opening on purchases that typically earn 1x points (up to $15,000 spent).

Related: New ‘60,000 point’ World of Hyatt card offer has a major catch

How to earn enough Marriott Bonvoy points for these awards

Jeff already has a stash of Marriott Bonvoy points to use on his trip to Japan. But, his current Marriott balance isn’t large enough to cover all of his hotel nights. He could transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott — but typically, transferring Ultimate Rewards points to World of Hyatt will provide better value. Alternatively, if he had any American Express Membership Rewards points, he could also transfer them to Marriott Bonvoy.

It’s possible to earn Marriott Bonvoy points through various other means. For example, you can earn small amounts of Marriott points through Marriott dining rewards. But, if you’re looking to boost your Marriott balance substantially, you’ll likely need to buy Marriott points or sign-up for a new Marriott Bonvoy credit card. If you want to add a new Marriott card to your wallet, here are some of the best cards to consider and their current bonuses:

  • Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Earn 150,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points and a bonus free night award (redemption level worth up to 85,000 Marriott points) after you use your new card to make $5,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership. Resort fees may apply. Offer expires 11/3/2021.
  • Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card: Earn 125,000 bonus points + 1 free night (valued up to 50,000 points) after you spend $5,000 in the first three months from account opening (total of up to 175,000 bonus points).
  • Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card: Earn 125,000 Marriott bonus points & two bonus free night awards (each worth up to 50,000 points) after you use your new card to make $5,000 in eligible purchases within the first three months of card membership. Certain hotels have resort fees. Offer ends 11/3/21.
  • Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

Of course, if you sign-up for a new credit card, you won’t get the bonus until after you’ve reached specific minimum spending requirements. So, although Jeff and his wife could sign-up for Marriott cards now and have enough time to earn a bonus, signing up for a new card isn’t a feasible approach if you are looking to book your stay now.

Related: Here’s why you need both a personal and business Marriott Bonvoy credit card

Bottom line

If I were tasked with planning Jeff and his wife’s trip to Japan, I’d redeem their points and miles as follows:

  • 180,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to Virgin Atlantic to book ANA business class round-trip from Seattle to Tokyo for two
  • 70,000 American Airlines miles for two American Airlines first-class round-trips from Tampa to Seattle
  • 30,000 American Airlines miles for four JAL economy flights within Japan
  • 140,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for five nights at the Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo
  • 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points transferred to World of Hyatt points for two nights at a Hyatt Regency in Okinawa
  • 70,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for two nights at the Sheraton Grand Hiroshima Hotel
  • 36,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for two nights at the Fairfield by Marriott Osaka Namba

Currently, Jeff and his wife don’t have enough Marriott Bonvoy points for the stays in Hiroshima and Osaka. So, they’d need to earn more Marriott Bonvoy points or consider booking a stay using cash. And, as I mentioned above, I’d bypass award options and book a cash rate in Kyoto.

However, award availability changes quickly. So the ANA business class availability I found may no longer be available when Jeff tries to book. And Jeff and his wife may decide they want to visit different cities while in Japan. If you want to plan a similar trip for yourself, I recommend figuring out your award flights first — especially if you want to fly in a premium cabin.

Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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