Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tokyo in spring?


So it's looking like my brother has settled on Tokyo Sakura Festival as the site for his big 4-0 celebration. While the whole country goes nuts celebrating the arrival of the cherry blossoms, it's definitely on my bucket list to brave the crowds and do that in Japan once in my life. The big challenge on this is that he can't commit to specific dates until February at the earliest. This makes finding award seats challenging. I'm thinking my only real hope is snagging some of the award inventory that airlines sometimes release at the very last minute (like less than 5 days from departure). But if you're going on a 3 week trip, that means you'll depart without a return ticket and you'll have to get up every day of your vacation and poke around award inventory and hope you can find yourself a seat home. Not exactly a relaxing proposition. Also, flights to and from Asia tend to be priced such that one way tickets are often more expensive than round-trips, so if you have to buy a one-way ticket home, you saved literally nothing by using miles to get there.

I've started looking at our options for getting there. From NYC it's a 15 hour flight to Japan. We did it once in United's lie-flat BusinessFirst cabin and yeah, 15 hours is a loooooong flight even when you have a bed. I'll probably revise this page half a dozen times as the trip approaches so I can keep a quick record of what I've looked at so far. I've gotten senile enough that if I don't do this I just end up repeating everything I've already done!

Due to our upgrades not clearing a couple of months ago, we actually have 60,000 more United miles than we would have otherwise, so those failed upgrades are looking like a blessing in disguise right about now. So we've got a bunch of United and British Airways (BA) points, a BA Travel Together certificate, and a bunch of transferrable points in Amex and Chase to top off our accounts if we're a bit short. So we're good-to-go for searching on Star Alliance and OneWorld. We don't have many Delta points to begin with, and SkyTeam awards are generally such a pain to redeem that we don't usually check them unless it's a last resort. (Though I am intrigued by the option of transferring Chase points to Korean Air directly and flying on their A380...)

Paying Cash

Like I mentioned back in my tutorial, I started by using Kayak.com to see what it would cost to pay for this flight. For a few test days in April, Aeroflot had seats for $3800, but I'm not flying Aeroflot so Finnair was the next cheapest – $4000 for a 1-stop trip. It has an 8-hour layover in Helsinki, but the leg to Tokyo is in a 787 (that they're leasing from LOT Polish?), so that could be cute.

Air China, Etihad, and Air Canada both have flights for under $5,000. Honestly our pain point for long haul international is somewhere in the $3 - $4k range so I'm not even going to look at anything above $5k. So now that I know the cash price, I can start seeing what I can get with my points.

British Airways / OneWorld

Searching BA's website it looks like using our Travel Together certificate isn't possible. There's basically no BA award seats at any time in the next 6 months. (Since the ticket requires you to be on a BA plane, I wasn't really looking forward to getting there the long-way-round via London anyway). However, it looks like there's actually a fair amount of Business Class award availability on Japan Airline's 787 – 280,000 point and $1156 for the two of us round-trip.
UPDATE: with the just announced Amex-to-British Airways points bonus, that 280,000 point trip will only cost me 200,000 Amex points! Now let's hope he can pick a date before the bonus period ends on 31 Jan 2015!


In the back of my mind i seemed to recall plane nerds being shocked that JAL had put a previous-gen seats into their brand-new 787s so I googled it and it's true - JAL put 1990's business class seats into a 2012 plane. Welp, at least it has Toto Washlet toilets onboard, right?

Most airlines stopped doing "angled lie flat" 5+ years ago

Probably my favorite airplane amenity since onboard espresso machines!

Looking further, I found this press release saying that they were retrofitting their 787's with their new SkySuite product and the JFK - NRT plane would be upgraded in January 2015. Even better!

This looks a lot nicer :)
So while all of this looks perfect, we have to hope that there's still availability once we know when the big fiesta is actually taking place.

Star Alliance

If I'm shelling out a heap of miles (and spending a bunch of my time) to look for award seats, I do my damnedest to avoid flying on a US-based airline. So while I might use the United website to search, I'm only going to fly United if there's literally no other option. (TIP: remember to ALWAYS look at the "Operated By" field to see which plane you'll actually be on! It could be a codeshare flight!) To quote my best friend who's originally from Tokyo, "I'd rather fly ANA in Economy that United in Business". Given how tall I am, I'm not 100% in agreement there, but I completely agree with the sentiment. I might make an exception if it put me on United's 787 between SFO and Osaka, though.

United/ANA is showing quite a bit of "now" availability in business (though it *is* early December right now, not exactly a peak travel time...) and a bit of spotty availability on some random dates in April – including a couple of elusive ANA First seats (for 110,000 miles per person, per segment). A friend of mine who has flown more than 4 million miles almost entirely in premium cabins said this this was hands-down the best flight he's ever taken. I can't even imagine the effort required for them to deliver a traditional dozen+ course kaiseki meal on an airplane. But that'd definitely be cool to experience.



UPDATE Feb '15: We have our tickets! Click here for all the details. 

Out of the box ideas

I'll keep checking back in here as the date progresses, but here's a couple of other things I might need to try if I can't find availability. 
  • Fly from Boston, Philly, DC
  • Fly into Osaka
  • Fly AeroMexico's 787 MEX-NRT? 220,000 Amex points for both of us RT. They usually have wide-open saver business class availability but just did a spot check and availability is spotty
  • Delta is showing partner availability JFK > ICN > NRT on Korean A380 for 70k + $34 in Business
  • Oddly delta won't show routings *back* to the US via ICN, which would be my preference. hm. only domestics in 767s landing on the west coast and then Crappy Domestic First to JFK. 90,000 miles plus $50. 

Notes

So irritating that airlines keep blocking online point trackers! So here's our counts from early December. Boy I'd sure love a BA 30% Amex transfer bonus to happen early next year!

ME:

  • 98k United
  • 13k BA
  • 151k Amex
  • 84k Chase personal
  • 75k Chase work
HUSBAND:
  • 121k United
  • 141k BA
  • 75k Amex
  • 44k Chase
For my own reference, buying BA points costs $575 for 20k (they only allow 27k to be purchased per year). 20k miles on United is $752. 




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