How we booked Japan for $388 [$13,600 Value] and you can, too!

Want to see the Golden Pavillion? The sign up bonus on a certain credit card (hint: it’s gold) is enough for a roundtrip ticket to Japan!! Keep reading!

Ryan and I just returned from an unforgettable week in Japan!  We visited temples, spotted a Geisha heading to work, walked through the bamboo forest, ate our weight in sushi, hung out with monkeys, drank some good sake, hung out with some friendly deer, ate Kobe beef, and drove through the streets of Tokyo dressed like Daisy Duck and Batman in a go cart.

Japan can be very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be!  Our flights and hotel stays totaled less than $400!!  We weren’t exactly roughing it, either.  This trip is a great example of the value that you can get out of miles and points.

In this post, I’ll show the breakdown of our flights and hotels and how many miles/points we redeemed for each.  I’ll explain how we booked the flights and how you can earn the points needed for similar flights.  It’s easier (and quicker) than you would think.

In the next few posts, I’ll go into more details about our hotel stays.  Then I’ll post more flight and hotel options for award travel to Japan.  I’ll also post lots of photos and more details about all of the things we did with the money we saved!

Business class flights and a week at Ritz-Carlton properties in Japan for $388

Our Japan flights and hotels cost us only $388 out of pocket.  PS- I can’t decide if cost or costed is correct, because neither of them sound right.  Someone please correct me if this is wrong.   

Anyway, the total value of our flights and hotels is over $13,600!!

We flew into Tokyo on an American Airlines flight, and we flew home from Tokyo on a Japan Airlines flight.

Fun fact: We did not use American Airlines AAdvantage or Japan Airlines Mileage Bank to book either of these flights.  Instead, we used American Express Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points.  Neither of these transfer directly to AA nor do they transfer to JAL.  Instead, we transferred those points to airline programs that can be used to book American Airlines and/or Japan Airlines flights.  Indirect partners.

Japan on mies and points

I’ll discuss how I booked each of these in more detail, which points are needed, and how you can earn them (within a few months) with very little effort.  Here is a quick overview:

Flights

DFW to Tokyo in business class on an American Airlines flight
  • Miles redeemed: 100,000 Amex Membership Rewards (50,000 Amex Membership Rewards per person)
  • Taxes/Fees: $68 (~$34 each)
  • Total Value:$7000 (~$3500 per person)
Tokyo to DFW in economy on a Japan Airlines flight
  • Miles redeemed: 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points (30,000 Ultimate Rewards points per person)
  • Taxes/Fees: $320 (~$160 in taxes and fees per ticket).  This would be significantly lower if the flight was operated by American Airlines.
  • Total Value:$1200 (~$600 per person)

Hotels: Japanese Ritz-Carlton sampler

We did a Ritz-Carlton crawl.  Not because we’re bougie, but because we had lots of points and these properties were a good value!  We stayed at 3 different Ritz-Carlton hotels.

  • Points redeemed: 120,000 pre-merger SPG points (360,000 Marriott Rewards points)
  • Taxes/Fees: nothing
  • Total Value:~$5400
Ritz Carlton Tokyo Marriott Rewards points or SPG points

$1,000 20,000 Starpoints view from our room at the Ritz Carlton Tokyo

How we booked our Japan flights (and you can, too)

DFW to Tokyo flight details

We splurged on business class and it was worth every point to be able to sleep in a lie-flat and wake up in Japan with no jet lag!  The food was pretty good, too!

Miles redeemed: 50,000 Amex Membership Rewards per person (100,000 total)

How we earned the points: We already had lots of Amex points.  Some from everyday spending, some from sign up bonuses.

I received a targeted offer for 50,000 Amex points when I signed up for the Premier Rewards Gold Card.  The annual fee was also waived.  That card is no longer available, but a new version is available! It has been changed to the American Express Gold Card.

How you can earn the points: The sign up bonus for the new version of the American Express Gold Card is 50,000 American Express Membership Rewards points for a limited time.

How we booked:
  1. I found 2 MilesAAver business class seats* to Tokyo on an American Airlines flight for dates that work for us.
  2. I transferred Amex Membership Rewards to Etihad, an American Airlines partner.
  3. Then I redeemed the Etihad Guest miles for the American Airlines flights.  Click here for instructions.

*Only American Airlines Milesaaver seats are available to partners.  If you search AA.com and only find AAnytime tickets, those seats will not be available to book with partners such as British Airways or Etihad.  Click here for more info about award seat inventory. 

Why did I use Etihad to book?

Get it? Because Les Miles (miss you, Les)

  1. Neither American Express Membership Rewards nor Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to American Airlines, but even if they did, we would have wanted to use Etihad…
  2. Booking the American Airlines flight with Etihad requires 10,000 less miles than AAdvantage requires

I explained this in more detail in this post, but I did not have enough AAdvantage miles to book this flight.  So I had to find an indirect partner with the points that I did have, American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards.  Chase’s options for AA flights weren’t ideal for this particular award ticket, but American Express had a great transfer partner, Etihad!

Etihad is not in an alliance, but Etihad and American Airlines have a non alliance partnership.  This means that you can use Etihad miles to book American Airlines flights.

A few things to note about Etihad Guest (their frequent flyer program):

  • You can transfer Amex MR points to Etihad at a 1:1 ratio.  Chase Ultimate Rewards points do not transfer to Etihad (but there are other Ultimate Rewards partners that you can use for Japan).
  • Etihad does not collect fuel surcharges on American Airlines flights.
  • If you do not live in a city with nonstop flights, no problem.  A connecting flight will not add to your redemption cost!
  • Etihad miles do not transfer to AA.  Instead, you can use the Etihad miles to book the AA flight.
Etihad’s chart for redemptions on flights operated by American Airlines

Flights are priced each way; roundtrip is double the amounts shown:

Etihad award chart for American Airlines

Japan is in the Asia 1 region.  Etihad’s off peak dates for US-Asia 1 are October 1-April 30.

  • Economy off peak is 25,000 one way (50,000 roundtrip)
  • Economy peak is 32,500 one way
  • Business is 50,000 one way (to compare, US to Tokyo with AAdvantage requires 60,000 miles one way in business class)

(“P” refers to flights that have suites, but this isn’t even an option on American Airlines)

Total for 2 tickets: 100,000 Amex Membership Rewards points and ~$68 (50,000 American Express points transferred to Etihad plus ~$34 in taxes and fees per ticket)

Total Value: $7,000 (~$3,500 per person)*

*$3500 is a very conservative estimate. If you price a one way business class ticket to Japan from DFW, it’s about $4,500.  I’ve discussed this before but 2 one way international tickets can cost significantly more than if you book roundtrip.  So to calculate the value, I searched for the roundtrip cost and divided it by 2.  The roundtrip cost was about $7500-$8500 depending on dates, so that makes a one way ~$3750-$4,250.  

All that green in the bamboo forest reminds me of all the cash we saved!

Return flight from Tokyo to DFW

Japan Airlines and American Airlines both operate nonstop flights from Tokyo to DFW, and I really wanted a nonstop flight if possible.  American Airlines and Japan Airlines are both in the Oneworld alliance.  As a result, I can use Oneworld partners to book flights operated by either of these.

JAL NRT to DFW with British Airways Avios

Miles redeemed: 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points per person

How we earned the points: We had lots of Chase Ultimate Rewards points from spending and shopping portal bonuses.

How you can earn the points: Open a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and earn the sign up bonus of 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

How we booked:
  1. I wasn’t able to find any return flights in business class, but there were economy options on AA and JAL that were bookable with partner airlines such as British Airways.
  2. A one-way nonstop Tokyo-DFW economy seat on either airline requires 30,000 British Airways Avios per person, and I was good with that amount, so I decided to use British Airways to book.  To do so, I needed to transfer some points to my BA account.
  3. I transferred 60,000 Ultimate Rewards to British Airways
  4. Then I redeemed the British Airways Avios for the Japan Airlines flights.    Click here for instructions.

Why did I use British Airways to book?

  1. Neither American Express Membership Rewards nor Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to Japan Airlines
  2. Of the Amex MR and Chase UR partners that can be used to book JAL, British Airways, was the lowest redemption cost.

I could also use Etihad miles (transferred from Amex) to book the AA flight, but not the JAL flight.  Etihad is not in the Oneworld alliance and does not have a partnership with JAL.

A few things to note about British Airways:

  • British Airways has a distance-based pricing model for award tickets.  You can read more about that here. You can find their award charts here.
  • BA isn’t good for long haul premium cabin award seats, but economy is a different story, especially if the flight is nonstop.
  • Adding a connecting flight will require more Avios because British Airways requires you to redeem for the distance of each segment, not the total distance of all segments.
  • Fuel surcharges may be added, but they aren’t a deal breaker on this particular route (NRT-DFW).
Fuel surcharges

I recently wrote a post about British Airways Avios and fuel surcharges (even on partner-operated  flights) for transatlantic routes.  The worst.  Other routes such as US-Japan may or may not have fuel surcharges.  It depends on the airline that is operating the flight.

Using BA to book JAL flights has fuel surcharges.  But they are very reasonable.  None of this $400+ nonsense like you see on transatlantic routes.  Our total taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges were ~$160 per person.

British Airways fuel surcharges Japan Airlines

Fuel surcharges are avoidable on flights between the US and Japan

Using British Airways Avios to book NRT to DFW on an American Airlines flight means no fuel surcharges!

The only fees are the mandatory government taxes and fees that would be applied to an award ticket from NRT no matter what airline program you use to book.  It’s only about $40.

fuel surcharges on British Airways award tickets

Why would I choose the Japan Airlines flight (that had fuel surcharges) when seats were available on an American Airlines flight (with no surcharges)?

Mainly because I just wanted to try something new.  I wanted to book the flight operated by Japan Airlines because they have a great reputation and we had never flown on JAL metal.  It was definitely a more pleasant economy experience than long-haul economy flights we’ve had on American Airlines.  No regrets.

Total: 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points and ~$320 (30,000 Ultimate Rewards points transferred to British Airways plus ~$160 in taxes and fees per ticket)

Total Value: $1,200 (~$600 per person)*

*Using some random dates, average roundtrip Japan Airlines tickets between DFW and NRT are about $1500, so I’ll value this one way at about $750.  Subtracting the fuel surcharge leaves the value at about $600.  This puts the value at right around 2 cents per point.

Mari car Tokyo

This should be on everyone’s bucket list.  Spend your money on amazing tours, not plane tickets!

Grand totals for our flights to Japan:

Outbound Total: 100,000 Amex Membership Rewards points and ~$68 (50,000 American Express points transferred to Etihad plus ~$34 in taxes and fees per ticket)

Outbound Total Value: $1,200 (~$600 per person)

Return Total: 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points and ~$320 (30,000 Ultimate Rewards points transferred to British Airways plus ~$160 in taxes and fees per ticket)

Return Total Value: $7,000 (~$3,500 per person)

Total Redeemed: 160,000 points

Total Value: $8,200

Amex points for flights to Japan

 Japanese Ritz-Carlton sampler

We stayed at Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, Ritz-Carlton Osaka, and Ritz-Carlton Tokyo.   We didn’t plan this on purpose, but these properties just happened to be available and they were a good value for our dates.  All three of these stays were amazing, but I’ll give more details in a separate post!

The redemption cost for each of these 3 properties is 60,000 points per night.  Since I had lots of Starpoints (pre-merger), I think of that as 20,000 SPG points rather than 60,000 Marriott points.

  • Total points redeemed: 120,000 pre-merger SPG points (360,000 Marriott Rewards points)
  • Taxes/Fees: nothing
  • Total Value:~$5400
  • How to earn the points: The way we earned our points is no longer an option*.  We had lots of pre-merger SPG points because we used the SPG Amex for all non-category bonus spending.  Those points were multiplied by 3 in August when SPG and Marriott’s programs were combined.

*The earn rate on the SPG Amex has devalued, so I no longer suggest using that card for everyday spending.   The current sign up bonus is only enough for 1 night at a category 7 property (you’d have some leftover points, but still…).  

I’m not ruling out SPG and Marriott, but I think if the goal is luxury properties, there may be better options.  There are plenty of ways to get nice hotels on points in Japan.  If I was starting from scratch, I’d probably look into Hyatt rather than Marriott/SPG.  I’ll save that plus the discussion about hotel credit cards for a separate post about Japan hotels.

Final thoughts

Japan was amazing.  You should should try it.  You can earn a roundtrip flight to Japan with just one credit card sign up bonus!

Click here to learn how the (limited time) increased sign up bonus on the Amex Gold Card can get you a roundtrip flight to Japan!

American Express Gold Card

In the past, the typical sign up bonus on the American Express Gold Card has been 25,000 Membership Rewards points.  The bonus has doubled to 50,000 points for a limited time.  The offer ends on January 9, 2019.

  • Bonus: 25,000 50,000 Membership Rewards points with the link above!  Limited time: Also, 20% back as a statement credit at U.S. Restaurants with The American Express® Gold Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership, up to $100 back.
  • Minimum spend for bonus: $2,000 in 3 months
  • Annual Fee: $250
  • Bonus Categories: 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines, 4 points per dollar at US restaurants and grocery stores.  This card used to earn extra points per dollar at gas stations, but that is no longer the case.  If you already have the card, 2x points per dollar at gas stations until 10/4/2019.
  • Notable benefits: $100 annual airline incidental credit, $120 annual dining credit.  If you’re able to take advantage of these, the annual fee is effectively $30.  
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