We’re all motivated by different travel goals, but for many of us the ability to experience the luxury of First Class travel at an affordable price carries with it an undeniable appeal.
Nothing makes me more grateful for Miles & Points than sitting in an opulent private suite at 37,000 feet in the air while sipping on a fancy drink or two, so in that spirit, every time I have the good fortune of trying out a new First Class product, I’ll follow up with a detailed post on how to book the same thing for yourself.
First Class seats are often the most difficult to book because of how coveted they are, so my hope is that these in-depth guides will help walk you through the process of figuring out why routes to fly, which miles to book with, how to find availability, and finally making the booking itself.
You can read the previous edition on Lufthansa First Class if that product interests you as well. But for now, let’s have a look at what we can expect from Japan Airlines...
What can I say? JAL’s First Class suite is extremely comfortable, the service is marked by the greatest attention being paid to the tiniest of details, but what will truly blow you away is the onboard food and drink. It’s by far the best food I’ve ever had on a plane, and if you manage to snag a seat in this First Class cabin, you’re in for a truly transformative gastronomic experience – especially if you have an affinity for Japanese food.
Furthermore, if you’re departing from Tokyo, you’ll get to enjoy the comforts of JAL’s flagship First Class Lounge at both Haneda and Narita airports. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of other First Class lounges around the world, its signature made-to-order sushi bar is certainly not to be missed.
As always, when planning an ambitious booking, you need to first figure out your desired route and make sure that First Class is offered on that route. JAL only offers First Class on their Boeing 777 aircraft on long-haul routes, and as of the time of writing, the 777 is being used on the following routes:
Flights to/from Tokyo Narita
Flights to/from Tokyo Haneda
JAL also maintains a list of First Class routes on its website, which looks to be quite up-to-date.
For North American travellers, the most useful routes will likely be those between Japan and the US, and in this regard it’s unfortunate that JAL has recently swapped out the Boeing 777 for the 787 on their routes to Dallas and Boston, thus reducing the amount of total seats available on their Japan–US routes over any given period.
Nonetheless, the remaining four routes still provide you with plenty of options, and you’ll want to look closely at New York JFK given that it has two flights a day to/from Tokyo, compared to only one for Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Travellers based in Canada will have the easiest time booking Japan Airlines First Class using Alaska Mileage Plan, both because it charges favourable prices and offers an easy way for Canadians to earn miles.
A First Class redemption between North America and Japan, Korea, or India costs 70,000 miles one-way, while travelling to anywhere else in Asia will cost you 75,000 miles one-way. You can have a stopover in Tokyo for up to 364 days as well.
Note that since JAL doesn’t offer First Class on their intra-Asia routes (Jakarta was the last Asian destination to feature First Class, which was discontinued in 2017), the onward flight to your final destination in Asia will be in business class, which is excellent nonetheless.
Also note that Alaska’s partner agreement with Japan Airlines does not allow for redemptions to/from Europe or Australia and New Zealand, so unfortunately you won’t be able to take advantage of JAL’s route network in those parts of the world.
Earning Alaska miles in Canada is made easy by the presence of the MBNA Alaska Airlines MasterCard, which gives a “churnable” signup bonus of 25,000 miles upon spending $1,000 in the first three months, and also earns you 1 Alaska mile per dollar spent on your purchases.
Furthermore, remember that until August 2018, you can transfer Starpoints to Alaska Mileage Plan at a 1:1 ratio and earn an extra 5,000 points when transferring in chunks of 20,000 Starpoints, as well as leverage the outstanding value of Marriott Travel Packages to trade in 270,000 Marriott Rewards points for 120,000 Alaska miles plus a 7-night hotel stay.
After August, the ability to transfer points from the new Marriott loyalty program to Alaska Mileage Plan will remain, and you’ll still enjoy the 25% bonus for every 60,000 points transferred. The Flight & Hotel Packages option will stick around as well, but it remains to be seen how good of a value the new chart will offer.
For Alaska redemptions, keep in mind that you’re limited to using a single airline partner (JAL in this case) in conjunction with Alaska-operated flights. This is good news for those whose journeys originate in a city that’s served by Alaska (such as Vancouver, Victoria, and Calgary in Canada), but not so great otherwise. If you’re based in Toronto or Montreal, for example, you’d be best served booking a JAL flight directly out of Chicago or New York, and then booking a cheap positioning flight to fill the gap – I like using Aeroplan Market Fares for this purpose.
Another option for redeeming miles on JAL First Class is via American AAdvantage, which requires 85,000 miles for one-way travel between Canada and Japan or Korea, and 112,500 miles to anywhere else in Asia (80,000 miles and 110,000 miles respectively if you originate in the contiguous United States).
As you can see, the number of miles required for JAL First Class is significantly higher with AAdvantage compared to Alaska, although the 10,000-mile premium may be worth it for an award to Japan and Korea if you’re based in a city not served by Alaska Airlines and can take care of your positioning needs by tacking on an American flight to your AAdvantage award.
The other benefit of AAdvantage is that it allows you to fly between Europe and Asia on JAL’s London or Paris routes, if that’s what your travel needs dictate.
Nevertheless, AAdvantage miles are trickier to earn for Canadians; with no co-branded credit card, the only remaining options are the SPG and Marriott transfers, plus the ability to transfer RBC Avion points at an unfavourable ratio of 10:7.
Getting the miles in your account is the straightforward part; the search for availability is where the fun really begins. The good news is that you can quite easily search for award availability on JAL using Alaska’s search engine. Simply select “Use Miles” and enter your desired city pair to see what comes up.
Unlike Lufthansa, which only releases First Class award space at most 15 days before departure, JAL is pretty good about releasing seats very far out as possible. In fact, if you’re booking 9 or more months in advance, you have pretty good odds of finding something that works for you, providing that you’re flexible in terms of your exact departure date and the airport to or from which you’d like to fly.
However, the airline typically only releases two First Class seats per flight during the initial phase, so if you're travelling with a larger party, it may be necessary to split up the team over multiple flights.
It’s more tricky to snag JAL First Class seats – especially if it’s more than one seat you’re after – once you’re within the 4-6 month range from the date of departure. However, the good news is that JAL also releases plenty of last-minute availability, depending on how good or bad the flight has been selling in revenue terms.
So if you’re okay with leaving things up in the air until the last minute, you can often find some wide-open award space – sometimes even for more than two passengers!
If you’re redeeming Alaska miles for First Class travel on JAL, the great news is that the booking process is typically very easy, because it can be completed online on the Alaska website.
Simply select your desired flight and click through to the checkout process to complete the booking. Fuel surcharges are non-existent on these flights, so you just have to pay any airport taxes and partner booking fees that apply.
If you’re planning to have a stopover in Tokyo and continue onwards to other parts of Asia in business class, it’s probably easiest to search each segment individually and locate the space first, before punching it all into the multi-search tool to complete the booking.
A quick word about the change and cancellation policies. Historically, Alaska Mileage Plan has had one of the most generous policies in the industry, allowing you to make unlimited changes for free up until 60 days before departure. After the 60-day mark, it was US$125 to change or cancel.
However, in a recent investor call they announced their intention to abolish this policy at some point in the future and begin charging US$125 for every change (unless you hold MVP Gold status or above with Alaska), which is a real shame to hear. Going forward, it’ll therefore be ideal to secure your First Class seat – either very far in advance, or last-minute – and avoid modifying the itinerary unless you really have to.
On the whole, I found JAL First Class to be one of the easier First Class products to book. The Alaska–JAL partnership has really opened up this possibility for Canadians, award space is decent as long as you’re flexible and plan well in advance (or feel comfortable leaving things to the last minute), and the booking process on the Alaska website is easy and hassle-free.
All things considered, it’s by all means quite a straightforward process if you’d like to get a taste of Japan Airlines First Class – and I mean that quite literally – for yourself.