Planning for Japan mega-trip

We've been planning a big 3 month visit to Japan for a while now and even though it's 9 months away, it's time to start shopping for flights. If you want to fly on points you tend to have the best luck if you plan really far in advance or if you're super flexible and travel last-minute.

UPDATE! 6/2016 Trip Reports:

We like to fly together on the same ticket so we're processed together if something goes wrong (e.g., mechanical or weather delay), but looking at our various mileage accounts, we're in the same boat as last time we went to Japan – we don't have enough points in one single account to book two round-trips. This means we'll likely end up doing two one-ways to Japan on one airline and two one-ways back on another. Furthermore, given that buying a one-way ticket to/from Asia with money usually costs as much or more than a round-trip does, we have to successfully book both legs of the trip with miles or it's a complete waste. Most airlines let you book 11 or 12 months out so we're creeping up on the date where we could book both legs of the trip. Our current mileage situation looks like this:
Our current mileage situation
Sapphire and Ink can transfer to United, and Amex can transfer to British Airways and Delta, so we'll have just enough miles for two Business Class tickets if we book now.


Going through my usual process, I price out the flight in cash before I do anything. Direct round-trip Business Class is running right at $5000 per person. ($4300 for a 1-stop on Korean, $3600 for a 2-stop Air Canada flight).

Miles – Star Alliance / United

Ideally we'd love to fly ANA in First – I've always wanted to experience the "Skyseki" meal and service that managed to impress even my most jaded international flyer friends. Booking through it's 110,000 miles per person one way. We flew Business Class on this flight a few months ago and it's is 75,000 miles. We'd be more than happy to do that if we can't scrounge up the extra miles for First. Looking now (June 2015 for a March 2016 departure), there's plenty of availability for 2 people. 

After accounting for all of the transfers from our Chase cards into my husband's account, we're still 17,000 points shy of the 220,000 we'd need for First. Buying 17,000 United Miles costs $505 (i.e., 2.97¢ each). We could also transfer some miles from my United account, but United's fee for that transfer is $285 (1.75¢ each). I looked into potentially using the Award Accelerator option on our flight to Seattle next month and it wasn't much better of a deal (I think we'd save like $35).

There are lots of other ways to get to/from Japan with Star Alliance miles, but since we're planning so far ahead, we're going to aim for our first choice, provided we're finding good availability on the way back with our Amex/BA miles.

For reference, this flight is priced at $13,260 per person, one way (!!) – so my 110,000 miles ended up being worth 12¢ each on this flight! But since I'd never pay that, it's probably more fair to do the math on half the cost of the $4300 Korean Business Class fare I saw, and that's 2.9 cpm. 
United's award ticket change fees are outlined here.

Miles – British Airways / OneWorld

Initially we thought we'd try using our British Airways Travel Together companion certificate for a round-trip ticket via London (24 hours of flight time versus 15 hours direct), but the price for this is 250,000 Avios + $3226 in cash (total for both of us)! BA's criminally-high fuel surcharges make their Travel Together certificate worthless. To wit: that Air Canada 2-stop itinerary I mentioned is $3600 and is still 4 hours shorter than the BA one. I canceled my BA card earlier this year because of it. With their partner Cathay Pacific considering devaluations and cutting off First Class access for partners like BA, Avios are rapidly becoming the new "SkyPesos".

British Airways ghastly surcharges

BA's partner Japan Airlines (JAL) doesn't have these fees, but you can't use the Travel Together certificate on partner airlines. Also, there were no JAL award seats on the JFK to Tokyo route, but there is availability on the leg home -- including seats on their new 787 that I've really been wanting to fly. Their 787 has no First Class, just lie-flat Business "Sky Suite". I poked around their award calendar over the course of two days and it looks like JAL is releasing 2 Business Class seats per flight about 11 months out for 105,00 Avios points + $145 in fees (each). The seats for the March flights have all been bought up, but if I keep my eye on it, I should be able to snag the June flight home when they add the seats to the system.

For reference, this flight is $5,800 per person, one way – 5.2¢ per mile redemption value. BA's change policies are here.
My LOT Poland 787 trip report is here, Aeromexico 787 is here.

JAL Sky Suite

Miles – Delta / SkyTeam

I hate flying internationally on a domestic carrier, but I figured I should price out Delta just to have a reference point. One way was 70,000 miles + $44 per person in Business. They're also partners with Korean Airlines, which would be a nicer way to get there than Delta (trip report).


With all that said, it seems like I have a really good shot at getting those JAL seats for the return flight so I went ahead and booked the ANA First tickets to Japan! We have a departure date and this trip is starting to get real... So many of our plans hinge on dates and now we can start looking for rentals and renters and classes and trips and sumo tickets and and and and... :) Very excited!

One quick note about something that seemed super shady to me on I clicked through the award booking process before I'd actually purchased the 17,000 miles we needed and I thought to myself, "oh hey look! they'll actually sell me the missing miles as part of the checkout process, how convenient!". But then I remembered that every time I'm offered something during checkout it's usually a terrible deal. So I hop into a new browser window to check their price to buy the miles, and sure enough, United was going to happily charge me $100 extra to buy those miles as part of the checkout process.
16,815 miles for $639...
... or 17,000 miles for $543

In mid August we snagged the JAL seats as soon as they came into the system. One quick note about that: I needed to transfer points from my Amex account into my husband's BA account. Luckily since he's a cardholder on my Amex, there's a whole separate screen for doing transfers into other cardholders frequent flier accounts.


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