How I Flew First Class to Japan for $11.20

6 minute read | 10/8/18Oct. 8, 2018

Once you've been to Europe, South America, and Africa a few times each, what's next?

For me, the answer was to take my next vacation Asia - starting with Japan.

But the last thing I wanted to do with my spare time was to practice origami on myself in economy class for 11 hours each way.

Operation: Japan Travel Hack...Begin!

As one of the masters of space and time known as travel hackers, (or the more refined term award travel enthusiast), I know how to work the system to travel for free, and usually in the front of the plane.

Me and my cousin / Japan travel mate

And for this trip, I didn't want to merely enjoy a lie flat seat in business class, I wanted to go all the way and spring for International First Class with Japan Airlines, which is way beyond the domestic first class, or even the experience of international business class.

How I Earn Miles

I get that most people think of frequent flier miles as something you typically earn by purchasing airline tickets. But for me, stepping on a plane is one of the hardest ways to earn miles and not my usual way of working towards free travel.

I much prefer the easy way, which is to sign up for the right credit cards. And thankfully, Citi® is particularly generous when it comes to offering bonus miles to new applicants for its American Airlines credit cards.

The standard offer for the AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® is 50,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within the first three months of opening an account. They also offer this bonus for the business version of the card if you're in the market for one.

Linda was smart and got her bonus miles! Details here

Well, a couple of years ago they were offering 100,000 bonus miles to anyone who signed up for the AAdvantage® Executive World Elite MasterCard®, and I went for it. I would say even a 75,000 bonus miles promotion is not uncommon for this card a few times a year.

So over the years, I've signed up for several of these cards, charged my everyday expenses to them, and always avoid interest by paying each month's statement balance in full (which is key).

Seems simple enough, but using this strategy is exactly what helped me earn far more than the 135,000 miles I needed for a round-trip, first-class flight to Japan on American Airlines (also the same on its partner airlines).

Japan here I come! | Flickr

Redeeming Miles For Incredible Tickets

I was the kind of kid who saved up my allowance for a long while just so I could visit the store and buy a new gadget.

But when it comes to redeeming your frequent flier miles, spending rewards is never as easy as pointing to what you want in the display case (if only).

When it came time for me to book my flight to Japan, I realized that American Airlines was releasing few, if any, award seats in business and first class at their lowest mileage level, called a "Saver Award."

AAdvantage mileage redemption chart

Sure, I could have paid twice as many miles for their "Standard Award," but paying 100% more than I have to usually is a deal-breaker for me.

What separates the true travel hackers of the world from those who just happen to have a lot of miles is their ability to work the system.

In this case, I knew Japan Airlines (JAL) was a partner of American Airlines (AA) and I could redeem my miles for tickets on their flights.

And since I also knew that AA's site never shows JAL award seats, I did what any other travel hacker would do and searched a different airline's website for the fights I needed. This definitely took some time, but was completely worth it.


I used the British Airways (BA) site to see the JAL First Class award seats that I wanted from Los Angeles to Tokyo and then used AA's site to find award seats to Los Angeles from my home in Denver in domestic first-class.

When I was ready, I called AA to book the award seat I had found, rattling off the flight numbers I found on BA's site, rather than relying on their agents to search the system. This tip is pretty useful since I've noticed that their customer service agents aren't typically as motivated to find the award seat I've chosen, which I understand, but still. It's so much better having the flight numbers on hand.

After hanging up the phone, I was happy to realize I was paying just $11.20 in US security fees for my flight (my return trip required an additional departure tax imposed by the Japanese Airport). 

That's right. $11.20 for a FIRST CLASS ticket from the US to Japan!

What JAL First-Class Is Really Like

Qantas First Class lounge at LAX

Think of international first-class as a cross between being a VIP at an exclusive club and being pampered at a fine restaurant.

You start off by walking around the teaming hordes waiting to check in for economy class, bypassing the handful of travelers in the business class line, and going directly to the First Class check-in area where you never have to wait.

Moments later, you are clearing security (with a special line there too), before heading to the First Class lounge.

While business class lounges may feature free crackers, peanuts, and even beer, the Qantas First Class lounge at LAX (which is available to JAL First Class passengers) has a champagne bar and unlimited a la carte table service catered by some Aussie celebrity chef I presume.

The struggle is real

Unfortunately, you can't hang out here forever as you have a flight to catch.

So a few minutes before departure, you waltz on over to your gate, boarding through a separate jetway to the First Class cabin, which only seats eight!

My "JAL Suite"

Your seat is more like a suite, as it has a foot rest with its own seat belt is large enough to accommodate another passenger dining across from you. The TV is huge, and the food is to die for.

Starting with caviar and champagne, the meal seems to have a dozen courses with your choice of either traditional Japanese food or western cuisine.

Just a sampling |  JAL Airlines

Once you are fat, happy, and a bit tipsy, you are given pajamas and slippers to change into while the flight attendants turn your seat into a bed, with a special mattress on top.

When you wake up, several courses of breakfast are served, and a feeling of sadness begins to overcome you as you realize that the plane will eventually land, and you will no longer have a team of flight attendants seeing to your every need.

NBD | JAL Airlines

Fortunately, the pajamas with the JAL logo are yours to keep as a memento of being the king of the sky for just a few short hours of your life.

Why I Don't Feel Bad

I never saw what life was like for the business and economy class passengers in the back of the plane, but I am sure they arrived in Tokyo safely, if not in the state of ecstasy that I did.

My first class alter ego | JAL Airlines

Using credit cards to earn frequent flier miles takes a little bit of skill and patience, and is not for everyone, especially if you carry a balance on your credit card and have trouble with debt.

But when you take the time to learn how these credit card reward programs work, and what you can redeem your rewards for, you too can cross the world while having the experience of a lifetime, just for the price of some fast food. 

Have you flown in first-class? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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