Welcome to the Square: ANA (777-300ER) in First Class From Washington, DC, to Tokyo
On my way back to Shanghai after an early Thanksgiving visit with my family, I finally got the chance to cross an item off my award travel bucket list: ANA first class. I'd started my trip with a flight in JAL first class so I'd have the chance to compare the two Japanese airlines head-to-head only two weeks apart. I booked these flights about a year in advance, so I had plenty of time to get excited, and ANA did not disappoint.
If you're looking to fly ANA first class, you should absolutely begin your search with Virgin Atlantic. The Flying Club round-trip award chart for first-class travel on ANA is cheaper than what many partner airlines charge for a one-way ticket.
I couldn't find round-trip availability on the dates I needed to fly, so I transferred 105,000 Amex Membership Rewards points (worth $1,995, based on TPG's valuations) to Aeroplan and paid about $200 in taxes to book a ticket from Washington, DC, (IAD) to Tokyo (NRT) in first class, and then on to Shanghai (PVG) in economy.
The cash price for this ticket was over $16,000, giving me a redemption value of about 15 cents per point, nearly eight times TPG's valuation of Membership Rewards points. I've written before though about how I don't put too much weight into that number — it's hard to take a valuation seriously when cash prices are so extreme. On the day I was set to fly, the opposite flight (Shanghai to DC via Tokyo) only cost $8,000, but that didn't mean that redemption would have been 50% worse.
If I had to book this ticket again, I would use Avianca LifeMiles instead. Amex recently added them as a 1:1 transfer partner, and a one-way first-class award between the US and northern Asia only costs 90,000 miles (and well under $200 in taxes). I can't think of a good reason not to save 15,000 Membership Rewards points to use on a rainy day.
I arrived at Washington Dulles (IAD) at around 8am for my 10:55am flight. Growing up, I used to love the curved wing shape of the main terminal, but now all I see is the random and disorganized layout, with ANA sandwiched between Frontier and SAS, with SkyTeam member Air France right around the corner.
Despite what the sign said, ANA was operating a single check-in counter for first-class, business-class, and Star Alliance Gold passengers. There was only one person in front of me, so I was quickly issued my boarding passes all the way to Shanghai.
I was handed an invitation to the Turkish Airlines lounge. As a Star Alliance first-class passenger, I could also access the Lufthansa Senator lounge, but the check-in agent told me that they didn't have any hot food in the morning and that I could board my flight directly from the Turkish lounge, so off I went.
The Turkish Airlines lounge was near Gate B43, and was also a member of Priority Pass.
Contributor Jennifer Wood took a sneak peek at the lounge when it first opened a few years ago, but it looked like the food options had been significantly scaled back since then. I saw hot option, period, since "options" might be a little generous. On the bright side, I have the utmost respect for anyone who can mass produce eggs and make them taste good, not just tolerable, and these were delicious.
The lounge had a number of other fruit and veggie options out for breakfast.
And, of course, the centerpiece of this display was a soaring Turkish 777.
The lounge felt rather small when I first walked in. There were maybe 30 seats, but the mirrored walls really lit up the room with the morning sun and made it feel nice and cozy.
So many lounges forget to put outlets in convenient places, so I was thrilled to discover that each of the window seats had three or four. I settled in and had a perfect view as our plane landed from Tokyo and pulled in to the gate on a rainy morning.
It was only as I was getting ready to board that I noticed the back hallway leading to the other half of the lounge.
This area had couches, a few daybeds in the back by the waterfall wall and a beautiful bar (that was unattended, given that it was still barely 10:30am).
Cabin and Seat
Boarding began at 10:25am, and I rushed down the jetway to be the first on board. I always love how ANA can board a 777 faster than American Airlines can board a 737, and, sure enough, we pushed back on time at 10:55am on the dot. While my flight, NH1, was set to depart from Gate B41, first-class passengers actually boarded through an entirely separate gate, B43.
Our flight was operated by a 12-year-old Boeing 777-300ER with registration number JA734A that was delivered to ANA in 2006 and has been flying for the airline ever since.
The ANA first-class cabin consisted of eight seats spread across two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration. While this layout was relatively standard aboard a 777, the seats themselves were a unique design, for better or for worse.
Each seat was 33 inches wide and offered 76 inches of pitch. While not the largest seat in the industry, it offered more than enough room.
I was also a huge fan of the light wood and dark blue color scheme, which looked equally elegant and relaxing in the morning light and as the cabin dimmed into night.
I can't go any further without talking about the negatives of the seat. Too much privacy is a bad thing, whether you're sitting in the middle pair or along the window. If you're traveling with a companion in ANA first class, you won't be able to see each other the entire flight unless you bend your necks forward in ways they weren't meant to bend.
The window seats weren't much better, as it took some serious work to see out the window.
ANA actually summed it up hilariously well with its inflight seat guide: Welcome to the square.
Now, if you work in a corner office, what are the three things you can reasonably expect to have? Decent views, somewhere to put your laptop, and good Wi-Fi. ANA struck out on all three of those.
The seat had plenty of pop-out storage compartments built into the wall, but they were all awkwardly sized. I put my wallet in one and my phone in another, but there was nowhere large enough to store a laptop or headphones.
This is also where the power outlet and USB port were, as well as the inflight entertainment controller and the seat-adjustment controls.
Each seat had a small storage compartment under the ottoman, though it was very well disguised and I only noticed it when the one in the seat across from me popped open. it's possible that this is where ANA intended for passengers to store laptops, but this area was inaccessible when the seat was in bed mode, hardly an ideal situation if you wanted to fall asleep watching something on your computer.
Passengers in window seats had it slightly better, as they could store things on the long surface running along the length of the fuselage. Just be careful during turbulence, or the person sitting behind you might end up with a shiny new laptop!
Ironically enough, when I went to check out the business-class cabin during the flight, the first thing that jumped out at me was a massive table that I could have really used.
Since our flight only had four out of eight seats occupied, while I was finishing lunch, the flight attendant proactively made my bed up in the seat across the aisle. The mattress pad was very comfortable, though it could have been a few inches wider to cover the entire seat (and if my tiny 5-foot, 7-inch frame is saying that, I can imagine it being a bigger concern for larger passengers).
I've heard people complain that ANA keeps the cabin swelteringly hot during flights, which makes sleeping difficult, but that wasn't a problem on this particular flight. One thing I will note is that the boxy seat, while incredibly private, got a little tight around the elbows when I was sleeping. At least once, I woke up and stretched out and ended up hitting my arm on the wall.
Service on ANA didn't stop when we went to sleep, and I woke up to find that the slippers I'd left in my seat across the aisle were carefully positioned next to my bed and the sweater I'd left strewn on my seat had been folded.
Each seat featured 23-inch-wide touchscreen LCD TV, although the content selection left a lot to be desired. There were a number of newly released movies, but ANA really skimped on the TV selection, which is usually where I go first.
The tray table swung out from under the TV on an arm, and really only had two positions: stowed, and not stowed. This meant that I pretty much had to use the remote on the side of my seat to select content.
Waiting at my seat on boarding were pajamas, slippers, a cardigan, headphones and an amenity kit. The pajamas at my seat were a large (about two sizes too big for me) but the FA was happy to swap them out for a medium, which fit just fine.
Normally, I use my Bose QC35s in flight, but my two-pronged adapter wouldn't fit into the port in the seat. The Sony headphones that ANA loaded use an identical-looking plug, and they somehow fit fine. Go figure. The headphones were fine for watching TV but didn't have much of a noise-canceling function.
The amenity kit came in a sleek Samsonite miniature suitcase and included all the usual goodies, such as an eye mask, earplugs and a toothbrush.
There was also a skincare set provided by The Ginza, a high-end Japanese cosmetic brand.
During boarding, the flight attendant came by with a tray of additional amenities including a "leg refresher sheet."
The bathroom was also well-stocked with extra mouthwash, toothbrushes and face cleaners.
The bathroom itself was pretty standard, although the FAs did a good job keeping it absolutely spotless during the flight.
It also featured a changing platform so you wouldn't have to stand on the floor while you got into your pajamas.
And, of course, the bidet toilet.
I changed into my pajamas shortly after takeoff, and the flight attendant not only opened the door to the bathroom for me, but when I finished, she was waiting outside to hang my clothes in the little closet on the outside of the seat.
First-class passengers were given a code for 100 Mb of free Wi-Fi, with a one-device limit. The Wi-Fi service was provided by Onair and left a lot to be desired. I was able to send emails and follow some of the news with Capital One's big announcement, but I had to wait until we landed in Tokyo to break out the popcorn and listen to TPG's first podcast episode. I wasn't aware of the one-device limit at first, and so I asked a flight attendant whether it was possible to connect on my phone and my computer. She apologized profusely that I couldn't and brought me another free Wi-Fi voucher to use on my phone.
Food And Beverage
The flight attendants did a great job staying out of my way during boarding while I was taking pictures, but not long after settling in they came by with a tray of Champagne and orange juice. While ANA serves Krug in the air, they don't open the good stuff on the ground to avoid paying taxes. I completely understand the logic behind this, but it feels a little cheap from an airline charging $16,000 for a ticket.
The purser came by personally to welcome me on board, inform me of our flight time of 13 hours and 25 minutes, and to warn that they expected a bit of turbulence on our way out.
Sure enough, we had a bumpy climb out of DC, so it took about 20 minutes before the seat-belt sign was turned off. Within seconds, a flight attendant was at my seat with a menu and wine list for the flight, asking if she could get me a drink while I decided what I wanted to eat.
Shortly after she returned with an amuse-bouche of salmon mousse, a crabmeat tartlet, a skewer of sundried tomato, cheeses and apricots. The skewer itself was a sprig of thyme, which was both creative and delicious.
After my JAL flight a few weeks before, my new strategy is to start with a Western appetizer, preferably something with caviar, before switching over to the Japanese menu. The Western appetizers on this flight included scallop and lobster with caviar and fruit sauce. I asked the FA if ANA served a separate caviar course or just this dish, and she apologized profusely that this was all they had. I decided to go ahead and order it, and, with a huge smile on her face, she presented me with the appetizer and an entire tin of Calvisius caviar.
The tin was still taped shut, and I had a little trouble opening it. When I asked for help, I got a bowing apology from not one, not two, but three different flight attendants. How's that for service?
Happy with my caviar snack and fully aware of the multicourse extravaganza that lay ahead of me, I mostly just picked at the scallop-and-lobster appetizer.
The first dish on the Japanese menu consisted of simmered abalone and marinated mushrooms, thinly sliced salmon-head cartilage, marinated prawn, smoked salmon stuffed with cheese, grilled arabesque greenling, grilled vegetables rolled with beef, simmered chestnut, and a deep-fried gingko nut. And this was just the appetizer.
I have to say that, as an American, it takes a bit of an adventurous spirit to try the Japanese menu. I didn't love every single dish I was served (and didn't touch the salmon cartilage), but the combination of ingredients and flavors absolutely blew my mind. This meal, start to finish, was one of the best I'd had in my life in the air or on the ground.
Next up was the clear soup with crabmeat and tofu, and a refill of Krug. I will say that both ANA and JAL served my soup without a spoon, and I had to ask a surprised flight attendant to get one. The purser on this flight explained to me that the Japanese normally don't use a spoon for their soup, so I was happy to slurp away.
This was followed by the sashimi course, which consisted of poached lobster, seared tuna and poached squid and salmon roe. Again, this meal was so fresh and delicious that just saying "restaurant quality" would be an insult!
At this point the flight attendant surprised me by bringing out a small bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee, which she oh-so-subtly left at my seat for the rest of the meal. My birthday is coming up in a few months, and now I know exactly what I want ;)
Then it was time for the main course, another culinary adventure: steamed rice, simmered yellowtail and daikon radish, deep-fried soft-shell crab, grilled eggplant with ponzu sauce, Japanese pickles and miso soup.
Not counting the appetizer, I reckoned I got 10 distinct dishes in this meal service. And yet it still felt so much lighter than if I'd eaten one single steak. The Japanese style of multiple small plates was great, and the ANA service made it even better. Service wasn't lightning fast, but I felt it was appropriately paced. When you're eating this much, having to wait a few minutes between courses can actually be a good thing, and even still I never waited more than three or four minutes.
At this point, I begged for mercy and took a quick lap around the plane. One interesting thing I noticed was that ANA's economy section was laid out in a 2-4-3 configuration instead of the industry standard 3-4-3. Then it was back to the Western menu for dessert: piña colada cake and a glass of Suntory 21-year-old whiskey.
I tried the Suntory 17-year on my JAL flight and honestly couldn't taste a difference, but I know that the 21-year retails for about $300 and was incredibly smooth.
I slept for four or five hours before waking up and deciding to stuff my face again. I had an iced coffee, which was served with cream and sugar syrup, and udon noodles with shrimp tempura. Udon I find consistently tastes good at altitude, and this was no exception. It was served with a small shaker of chile flakes, which really added a nice kick and helped wake me up.
The flight attendants were proactive with refilling my coffee.
ANA didn't offer a proper breakfast service before landing (neither did JAL, surprising on a 13-hour flight) but instead has an extensive snack menu you can order off of at any point during the flight. While I was still stuffed, I figured I should have one more meal before landing, you know, in the name of science. I started with the garden salad with tomato dressing, which was fresh and delicious, and the cheese added a great flavor to it.
Then I had the "Angus beef cheese hamburger" which I was expecting to be more like a cheeseburger, except the cheese was served cold and very much not melted. The burger tasted pretty nice and moist for plane food, but if there was a low point of my meals, it was definitely this.
As we started our descent, about half an hour out of Tokyo, the flight attendant came by with a glass of green tea and a delicious Japanese sweet (not like I needed any more food at this point) and thanked me profusely for flying ANA. There might have been a bow or two.
Throughout the flight, I had two flight attendants looking after me, and I can't say enough good things about them. One of them was the chief purser, and it was clear that her English was much better than her colleague's. Her service was quick and professional, always with an incredible smile on her face. The other FA was equally motivated, although there was a clear language barrier. In some ways I think this led to better service, as she had to work twice as hard to make sure she got my meal order correct. The combination of these two felt authentic, professional, and overall a real A+. For every interaction that didn't involve serving me food, they knelt at my seat and addressed me by name. Service is what sets first class apart from business class, and these two women alone were enough to make me want to fly ANA again.
ANA's boxy seat is an odd design for sure, and while it's better for solo travelers, the minor complaints I had about my window views and storage (or lack thereof) weren't enough to put a damper on one of the best flights I've ever taken. When you combine the attentive and professional service with a meal I still dream about and one of the best award-booking sweet spots in the entire points-and-miles world, I'll be looking to fly ANA again as soon as possible.