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 may think.
Business class flights and a week at Ritz-Carlton properties in Japan for $388
Our grand total for our flights to Japan plus our hotel stays was only $388 out of pocket. 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 miles 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 Amex and Chase points to airline programs that can be used to book American Airlines and/or Japan Airlines flights. Indirect partners.
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 between the US and Japan
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). Not terrible, but 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 boujee, 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
How we booked our Japan flights (and you can, too)
DFW to Tokyo flight details
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 welcome bonuses.
I received a targeted offer for 50,000 Amex Membership Rewards points when I opened 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 to earn American Express Membership Rewards points
The quickest way to earn lots of Amex points is to earn a welcome bonus by opening an American Express Membership Rewards earning card. The current highest offer is on the business Platinum Card which is 75,000 American Express Membership Rewards points. If you do not qualify for business cards, the personal Platinum Card has a welcome bonus of 60,000 American Express points. Platinum Cards have steep annual fees, but the welcome bonus plus the benefits could easily be worth it.
The American Express Gold Card has an annual fee that is more reasonable, and the current welcome offer is 60,000, which may be the highest I’ve ever seen on this card. Also, the Gold Card is one of my favorites for everyday spending. It earns 4 points per dollar at restaurants, 4 points per dollar on up to $25,000 annually at US supermarkets, and 3 points per dollar on qualifying travel expenses.
The Platinum Card from American Express
Current offer: Earn 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months. Those points can be transferred to several different airline and hotel programs.
If you’re a frequent flyer, this card has one of the highest earn rates on flight purchases. Earn 5 points per dollar on flights booked directly through airlines or through amextravel.com. Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. Terms apply. Click here to learn more.
The annual fee is $550, but there are lots of benefits and credits that may help offset that fee. The current welcome offer of 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points also helps offset that annual fee. Additional benefits and details: Receive up to $200 of reimbursement on airline incidentals per calendar year (click here for more info), receive $200 total in Uber credits annually, receive $100 reimbursement for TSA precheck or Global Entry enrollment, and 100$ total in statement credit for purchases at Saks Fifth avenue annually.
The Platinum Card from American Express will grant you access to their amazing Centurion lounges (where available). You’ll also get lounge access to airport lounges around the world with a Priority Pass membership.
Business Platinum Card from American Express
Current Offer: 75,000 American Express Membership Rewards points. The minimum spending requirement is $15,000 in the first 3 months.
The annual fee is $595, but the benefits may be worth it, especially if you make large business purchase or if you spend a lot on flights. Terms apply. Learn how to apply here.
The earn rate is 5 points per dollar on flights and prepaid hotels at amextravel.com, 1 point per dollar on everything else) but there is one exception. Purchases over $5,000 earn 1.5 points per dollar (you can earn up to 1 million additional points each year). So if you make large business purchases that may not qualify for bonus categories on other business cards, this may be a good card for you. Also, you will receive the $200 airline incidental reimbursement per calendar year, $100 reimbursement for TSA precheck or Global Entry enrollment, and airport lounge access benefits that the personal version of this card has. Note that the Uber credits and Saks credits are not available on the Business Platinum Card. You can also enroll to receive $100 semi-annually for Dell purchases in the US (that’s $200 per year).
American Express Gold Card
Current Offer: 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points. The minimum spending requirement is $4,000 in the first 6 months.
The American Express Gold Card earns 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines, 4 points per dollar at restaurants and, 4 points per dollar at US supermarkets on up to $25,000 in purchases annually. For restaurants and grocery store spend, this is one of the highest earn rates available. Terms apply. Click here for more information
The annual fee of $250 is a little steep, but this card comes with an annual benefit of $100 in airline incidentals (this works the same as the $200 credit on the Amex Platinum Card). Also, you can receive up to $120 annually in dining credit. The earn rate of 3 points per dollar on flights is as good or better than most of our other favorite travel cards, but the categories that really stand out here are 4 points per dollar at restaurants and US supermarkets.
If you are a beginner, I suggest starting with Chase cards before applying for American Express cards. This is due to the Chase 5/24 rule. There are several Chase cards that are great for Japan flights and hotels.
How we booked our flights to Japan with American Express points
- I found 2 MilesAAver business class seats* to Tokyo on an American Airlines flight for dates that work for us.
- I transferred Amex Membership Rewards to Etihad, an American Airlines partner.
- 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?
- 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…
- 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. 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:
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.
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 British Airways and other Oneworld partner programs to book flights operated by either of these.
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 to earn transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points
Open a transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards earning card. There are 3:
Currently, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card has a welcome bonus of 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. If you qualify for business cards (and have a lot of business expenses), the bonus on the Chase Ink Business Preferred is currently 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points! These are 5/24 cards, which means you want to open them before opening cards from American Express and other banks. Click here to learn about the Chase 5/24 rule.
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Current offer: Earn 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months.
Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for anyone, but especially beginners. The welcome bonus is worth at least $1000 in travel, the annual fee is reasonable, and the rewards (Chase Ultimate Rewards) are easy to earn and redeem.
Earn 2 points per dollar on travel and dining, and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. The annual fee is $95, but the welcome offer alone is worth a lot more than that. You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to 10 different airline frequent flyer programs or 3 different hotel loyalty programs. You can also redeem the points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards redemption portal.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Current offer: Earn 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in 3 months.
This premium card comes with a Priority Pass membership which gives you access to Priority lounges worldwide. The bonus categories on the Chase Sapphire Reserve (3 points per dollar on travel and at restaurants) are a little better than our other favorite premium travel card, the Amex Platinum Card.
The annual fee is $550, but, you receive a travel credit of $300 each year. You cannot have this card if you already have the Chase Sapphire Preferred. But if you’re trying to decide which one to open, it really depends on how much you travel and how much you value the premium benefits.
Chase Ink Business Preferred
Current offer: Earn 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $15,000 in 3 months.
If you own a business, I highly recommend Chase Ink Business Preferred. 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points are worth at least $1,250, and the annual fee is very reasonable at $95.
The earn rate makes it easy to accumulate Chase Ultimate Rewards points on business and travel expenses. You’ll earn 3 points per dollar on the first $150,000 spent each year in combined purchases on travel, shipping purchases, internet, cable and phone services, and on advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines. After you hit $150,000 on these categories, the rate is 1 point per dollar. All other categories are 1 point per dollar.
How we booked Tokyo to DFW flights with Chase Ultimate Rewards points
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.
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 transferred 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points to my BA account.
Then I redeemed the British Airways Avios for the Japan Airlines flights. Click here for instructions.
Why did I use British Airways to book?
- Neither American Express Membership Rewards nor Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to Japan Airlines
- 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 usually a good deal 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).
I recently wrote a post about British Airways Avios and fuel surcharges (even on partner-operated flights) for transatlantic routes. The worst. But the good news is that 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.
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.
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.
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: $7,000 (~$3,500 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: $1,200 (~$600 per person)
Total Redeemed: 160,000 points
Total Value: $8,200
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, and you can read more about our hotel stays here: Our Free Ritz-Carlton Stays In Japan.
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 welcome 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.
Japan was amazing. You should should try it. You can earn a roundtrip flight to Japan with just one credit card welcome bonus!
The welcome bonus of 80,000 Ultimate Rewards points on the Chase Sapphire Preferred is potentially enough for a roundtrip economy ticket to Japan if you use the right transfer partners.
You can find a list of our top travel credit cards on the current offers page.
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