Following on from my previous musings on the nine best airlines for a points-funded European trip in business class, many of you have asked for a similar post for booking luxurious travel on the way to Asia.
What are the best airlines to get you across the Pacific? Which points currencies should you be focusing on? What are the availability patterns like, and how far in advance should you book?
In this post, which shall serve as your comprehensive guide for booking business class to Asia, we’ll look at the 10 top-choice airlines for booking transpacific flights in a lie-flat seat with a reasonable number of points and minimal out-of-pocket expense.
1. Air Canada
Conventional wisdom for redeeming Aeroplan miles dictates that you should avoid Air Canada long-haul flights at all costs, in order to avoid paying $500+ in carrier-imposed surcharges. But thanks to the various jurisdictions in Asia that have fuel surcharge regulations, this rule can be relaxed a little when flying transpacific.
In particular, booking Air Canada flights from Toronto or Vancouver to destinations such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul will incur little to no fuel surcharges, so if you’d like to use your miles to try out Air Canada’s “Signature Class” premium product on their Boeing 777 and 787, flying to Asia is your best opportunity to do so, with the business class trip costing you 75,000 Aeroplan miles one-way.
Note that these government-imposed fuel surcharge regulations typically do not apply if you’re merely connecting through the country, so you do need to be treating these places as the destination of your ticket instead of merely a layover point in order to benefit from the drastically reduced surcharges.
This means that using Air Canada for the transpacific sector might not be the best idea if you’re booking a larger trip to, say, somewhere in South East Asia. Instead, it’s probably best suited to a “simpler” round-trip ternary to one of the above-mentioned cities.
In terms of availability, Air Canada tends to release a fair amount of premium seats for award travel, and they’re pretty easy to snag if you’re searching sufficiently far in advance.
Click here for my review of Air Canada business class on the Boeing 787. I was mostly impressed by the Signature Class experience, with a fashionable seat design and strong onboard catering, although there were a few notable shortcomings, such as the tiny space for your feet when the seat is in lie-flat position.
2. Air China
Air China used to be one of the “good guys” among Star Alliance airlines, levying $0 in fuel surcharges on Aeroplan redemptions. Unfortunately that changed earlier this year, with the Chinese flag carrier starting to tack on a surcharge of $295 per direction when you redeem miles with them.
Since the airline never enjoyed the most stellar of reputations to begin with, that negative development pushed it way down the pecking order in terms of airlines you’d want to fly with on your way to Asia.
On balance, I’d probably pick every other airline on this list ahead of Air China if given the choice, and I’d only choose Air China if it were one of the only options availability-wise, or if I needed the convenience of a direct flight to Beijing (which, for me, alas, is a somewhat common occurrence).
Air China serves Vancouver and Montreal out of their hub in Beijing, with the Friday service to Montreal also continuing on to Havana, Cuba as a fifth freedom flight. In the US, Air China serves Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, New York JFK, Newark, and Washington DC, so make sure to check those gateway cities if the Canadian ones aren’t playing nice. Availability is generally quite easy to find, ostensibly because the space on other airlines tends to get snapped up first.
Click here for my review of Air China business class on the Boeing 787. The seats are nothing to write home about, the food is pretty average, and the service is excellent if you’re a Mandarin speaker but virtually non-existent otherwise. But hey, if none of the other options on this list are available, then it’s still better than flying in economy!
ANA has one of the best business class products that you can book with your Aeroplan miles, and should be one of the first places you look if you want to treat yourself to a world-class flight experience on your way to Asia.
The airline does impose a moderate amount of fuel surcharges, but since Japan’s aviation authority has imposed regulations on those pesky fees, you can generally secure a round-trip flight for about $300 out-of-pocket, which is a very good deal for the onboard product that you’re getting. (Again, these regulations only apply if Japan is the destination, not if you’re treating it as a connection point.)
ANA’s sole Canadian destination is Vancouver, while it also serves Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston, New York JFK, Chicago, and Washington DC.
In addition, one “wildcard” routing for residents of eastern Canadian cities could be to fly down to Mexico City first, and then hop onboard ANA’s Mexico City–Tokyo Narita daily service. Chilaquiles and chirashizushi in one trip – what’s not to love?
In terms of availability, I’ve found ANA to be somewhat unpredictable. Generally speaking they do release award seats quite reliably at the beginning of schedule, but sometimes they’ll also release surprise batches of last-minute availability across all their North American destinations, as I had recently observed earlier this summer.
If you want to book ANA business class, I’d recommend searching far in advance, looking at flying out of different airports if need be, and be open to booking something else and then potentially changing to ANA later on.
Click here for my review on ANA business class on the Boeing 777 (although this was a short-haul flight), with the Boeing 787 serving many North American gateways as well. ANA’s business class seat design is cozy and private, while the top-notch Japanese food and highly attentive service will no doubt be the highlights.
4. Asiana Airlines
If you’re looking to fly to Korea in comfort and style, you’ll definitely count Asiana Airlines business class among your options for crossing the Pacific. The Incheon-based airline doesn’t fly to Canada, but does serve a good handful of US destinations, such as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York JFK, and Chicago (although this route is ending in October 2019).
Similar to Air China and ANA, Asiana does ordinarily impose a moderate amount of fuel surcharges (about $150 per direction), but South Korea’s government-imposed regulations mean that these fees will be minimal if Seoul is your destination.
Award availability on Asiana tends to be quite favourable, and I’ve often seen two or even more seats available on the Seattle and Los Angeles routes. The Chicago and New York JFK routes are certainly more popular among East Coast travellers, and therefore a little tougher to find space on, and the impending phasing-out of the Chicago route doesn’t bode well for availability patterns either.
I haven’t personally flown on Asiana business class, but by most accounts, the products onboard both the Airbus A380 and Airbus A350 aircraft seem perfectly serviceable but not necessarily outstanding in any way. I’d pick ANA, Cathay, EVA, and JAL over Asiana any day of the week, but if those options aren’t available, then the bibimbap dinner course onboard Asiana Airlines should be something of a treat as well.
5. Cathay Pacific
Moving away from Aeroplan for a moment and into the domain of Alaska Mileage Plan and British Airways Avios, Cathay Pacific business class can be a very comfortable way to fly to Asia, especially if you’re looking to travel onwards to further points in South East Asia or beyond.
The most favourable points redemption method would be to spend 50,000 Alaska miles for a one-way trip in business class with minimal fuel surcharges, and you can have a free stopover in Hong Kong as well. This is an excellent redemption, with the only possible drawback being that it’s “only” an additional 20,000 miles to fly Cathay Pacific First Class… and therefore many travellers are tempted to book that instead.
Redeeming Avios can also make sense in some scenarios, particularly if you’re travelling from the West Coast. For example, Vancouver–Hong Kong in business class costs 92,750 Avios one-way, which is only 71,350 Amex MR points or RBC Avion points if we were to take advantage of one of the regular 30% conversion bonuses from either program. Considering that Alaska miles are relatively tougher to earn, using Avios instead can definitely make sense in the right circumstances.
Keep in mind that the Alaska search engine doesn’t show Cathay Pacific flights, so either way, you’ll need to use the British Airways Avios website to search for space, before calling Alaska to make the booking if you choose to use that program.
Cathay Pacific serves two points in Canada – Vancouver and Toronto – as well as eight in the US: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, New York JFK, Boston, and Washington DC, using a mixture of Boeing 777s and Airbus A350s.
With such a wealth of gateway airports to choose from, you should be able to find some award availability that meets your needs, even if Cathay isn’t the most generous airline in terms of releasing business class space. I’ve found it to be particularly difficult to locate space on the Toronto route, so routing via the US East Coast may be a necessary backup option.
Cathay Pacific business class is another product that I haven’t flown yet, but I’d definitely like to try it out sometime soon. Some reviewers have pointed out that Cathay Pacific business class is slightly overhyped by the airline’s glowing reputation, but overall, the reverse herringbone seating and professional onboard service definitely make it one of the more enjoyable ways to fly to Asia.
6. EVA Air
In its North American marketing campaigns, EVA Air’s tagline gets straight to the point: The Best Link to Cross the Pacific. And I’d be inclined to say that they’re absolutely right.
And even better, you won’t have to work very hard at all to get yourself on EVA Air’s “Royal Laurel Class”, which is arguably the best business class product within all of Star Alliance.
After all, a one-way business class trip from North America to Taipei costs 75,000 Aeroplan miles, with fuel surcharges a complete non-entity – and this isn’t like the other airlines where you’re relying on local regulations, but rather EVA Air simply doesn’t levy any surcharges in the first place, so you can continue onwards to anywhere else in Asia for $0 in surcharges as well.
Moreover, EVA Air’s North American route network is very comprehensive, giving you a multitude of gateway airports to work with even if the most convenient option isn’t available. Vancouver and Toronto are the two Canadian cities served, while Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and New York JFK make up their US destinations.
They operate the Boeing 777 with reverse herringbone seats to most of these destinations, although their gorgeous new Boeing 787 will be starting service to Vancouver in February 2020.
(One more thing about EVA Air that I love: I find that their flights are perfectly timed for a long-haul transpacific journey. For example, the westbound Toronto–Taipei flight leaves Toronto at 1am in the morning and lands at 5am in Taipei, so you go to sleep soon after boarding and wake up energized for the day in Asia. On the return, you leave Taipei and arrive in Toronto in the evenings, allowing you to maximize your time on the ground in Asia before flying home and going straight to sleep.)
How’s award availability? All things considered, it’s pretty good – EVA Air reliably opens up award seats at the beginning of the schedule, which can be snapped up rather quickly given how popular these seats are among points-savvy travellers.
However, EVA also has a good habit of opening up a few unsold seats into the award inventory at around T-4 days before departure, meaning you can secure a last-minute seat onboard EVA Air business class even if you didn’t manage to snag one from the outset.
Click here for my review of EVA Air business class on the 777, and you can also check out a mini-review from a subsequent flight in the opposite direction. With an ever-changing gourmet dining menu (including a wide range of pre-selected meals!), Rimowa amenity kits on departure from Taipei, an unparalleled champagne selection, and First Class service in business class (think, crew members kneeling at your seat), EVA Air business class is the real winner among this list, and I find myself endlessly looking forward to the next time I’m lucky enough to fly with them.
7. Hainan Airlines
Widely regarded as the best mainland Chinese carrier, Hainan Airlines is a somewhat underrated option for redeeming miles to Asia in business class.
A one-way journey with Hainan costs 50,000 Alaska miles, which is an excellent price point for transpacific business class. The downside here is that Hainan does impose fuel surcharges on Alaska redemptions to the tune of about US$150 per direction, so it’s a more considerable outlay than some of the other airlines presented here. Nevertheless, if choosing Hainan makes sense for the trip you’re trying to take, then I’d still consider the surcharges worth paying.
Hainan’s route network is a somewhat fractured one, with the airline operating out of quite a number of hub airports in China. As a result, their North American routes are a rather eclectic bunch, with services such as:
Los Angeles–Changsha, Los Angeles–Chengdu, Los Angeles–Chongqing, Los Angeles–Xi’an
New York JFK–Chengdu, New York JFK–Chongqing
While some of these routes might seem a little out of left field, they also open the door to some creative routing possibilities. For example, if you’re struggling to find award space from Vancouver to Hong Kong, one alternative option could be to book the Vancouver–Shenzhen service on Hainan Airlines and then cross the border by land (a Chinese visa would be necessary, of course).
Furthermore, keep in mind that Alaska’s partnership with Hainan has one of the loosest sets of routing rules among all their partners, so you can book some truly roundabout routings, with stopovers virtually anywhere in Hainan and Alaska’s combined route networks, if you really wanted to.
Hainan uses Boeing 787 aircraft on the majority of these routes, but these planes are currently fitted with a mix of newer reverse herringbone seats and older forward-facing seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. You’ll want to look up the seat map using a service like ExpertFlyer to verify which type of business class seat you’re getting.
The airline is incredibly generous with business class award space, and I’ve found two seats on my first-choice dates and routes almost every time I’ve searched for Hainan awards. The downside to redeeming Alaska miles on Hainan, though, might be that Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines are definitely a step up in terms of the onboard experience, so it may feel like a “waste” to book Hainan when those two leading airlines are within your reach as well.
I haven’t flown Hainan yet, but it’s one of the premium products I must try very soon (I had originally booked it for my recent trip to Asia, before changing plans at the last minute). The onboard food and service may not match the impeccably high standards of airlines from elsewhere in Asia, but it’ll definitely be a top-notch showing from a mainland Chinese carrier, especially if you get one of the new Dreamliners with reverse herringbone seats.
8. Japan Airlines
If EVA Air were the Best Link to Cross the Pacific, then I’d rank Japan Airlines as a very close second in business class, at least among the airlines that I’ve tried so far.
Like Cathay Pacific, JAL is an airline where it might make sense to use either Alaska Mileage Plan or British Airways Avios to book, with the needle likely moving in the former’s favour in most situations. You’ll pay 60,000 or 65,000 Alaska miles (and no fuel surcharges) for a one-way business class flight on JAL business class, depending on whether your destination is classified as “Asia” (Japan, Korea, or India) or “Southeast Asia” (everywhere else). Don’t ask me how that classification makes any sense at all.
With Alaska, you can also build in a free stopover in Tokyo on your way to any other destination; alternatively, you even could position an open-jaw between Tokyo and Osaka and then continue your journey from there.
On the Avios side, the more economical journeys will be from the West Coast to Japan, such as paying 77,250 Avios one-way for business class between Vancouver and Tokyo. If you leverage the 30% transfer bonuses from Amex MR and RBC Avion, that gets reduced to only 59,500 points from either currency – that’s starting to look more favourable than Alaska’s price point!
In addition to Vancouver as their sole Canadian destination, JAL also serves eight cities in the US out of their twin Tokyo hubs: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Chicago, New York JFK, and Boston. On top of that, they operate a route between Los Angeles and Osaka as well.
Therefore, you have no shortage of backup options if the most convenience choice isn’t available, and I’ve always found JAL to be relatively generous with business class space – as long as you have a small degree of flexibility in terms of dates and gateway airports, award seats should be readily available no matter how far out you’re looking.
On North American flights, you’re most likely to encounter JAL’s flagship business class product: the Apex Suite, which JAL has branded as the “Sky Suite”. The window seats on these Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft are some of the most private business class seats in the sky, although as a byproduct they can also feel a little cramped as well.
Click here for my review of Japan Airlines business class on the Boeing 787 (although this was a short-haul flight). You can also look forward to another review from my most recent long-haul flight with JAL, which was among the best business class flights I’ve ever taken.
With the industry-leading Sky Suite hard product, a delectable Japanese onboard meal, and an overwhelming snack menu to boot, the Japan Airlines business class experience is one you’ll likely never forget.
9. Singapore Airlines
Singapore Airlines needs no introduction – even people who don’t concern themselves with airlines and travel every waking moment are likely to know that it’s one of the best airlines of the world.
Nevertheless, don’t hold your breath if you want to redeem miles with Singapore Airlines on a transpacific flight, because as a policy, the airline doesn’t release long-haul award space to its partners, instead reserving those seats for members of its own KrisFlyer loyalty program.
There have been a few exceptions over the years, but these tend to arise very rarely. For example, in late 2018, there was a period of time when a relatively generous amount of business class award space was released to Aeroplan members on the Singapore–Los Angeles route. If you see something like this, you should consider booking it as soon as possible, because it’s very much a “once in a blue moon” kinda thing.
If you really want to fly Singapore Airlines business class to Asia, you can look into earning KrisFlyer miles, whether that’s through transferring your HSBC Rewards points or dabbling with US credit cards. But given the relative difficulty compared to the other options on this list, I won’t spend too much time talking about the routes and availability here.
Instead, I’ll just note that while direct long-haul flights may not be feasible, you can still have a very good time with Singapore Airlines on a regional Asia-Pacific flight, for example by booking one of the other Star Alliance airlines to Japan, Korea, or China, and then combining that with Singapore Airlines business class on your way to a destination in South East Asia.
United Airlines operates a significant number of routes to Asia, and doesn’t levy any fuel surcharges on Aeroplan bookings, so it can be a very natural option for transpacific travel if you can find award space that suits your needs.
In recent years, the airline has introduced a new business class concept known as Polaris, and while they still have plenty of work to do before the new business cases seats are available on all their aircraft, the good news is that most of the aircraft with new Polaris seats have been assigned on the flagship Asian routes like Newark–Hong Kong or San Francisco–Hong Kong.
The difficulty with United is that they’re pretty stingy with award availability in business class. In the past year of searching for availability, I’ve only seen isolated pockets of award space with very little discernible pattern, although I have noticed that the San Francisco–Shanghai and San Francisco–Seoul routes tend to have a little more space than others (including some dates with up to four seats!)
Even with the new Polaris seats, I wouldn’t be in much of a hurry to fly with United to Asia, since I’d prefer to fly with the majority of the Asian airlines I’ve outlined above. But in putting together itineraries for my Points Consulting clients, I’ve encountered multiple scenarios in which some unexpected availability on United turned out to be the most practical option, so don’t completely write it off either!
For many travellers, a comfortable seat and a good night’s rest are of paramount importance on a 12- to 15-hour flight across the Pacific. Between the 10 airlines I’ve outlined here and each of their numerous North American gateways, you’re almost certain to find a way to redeem your miles for a stylish lie-flat seat on your next trip to Asia. Seven of the airlines can be booked with Aeroplan miles, two with either Alaska miles or Avios, and one with Alaska miles only.
And if, somehow, you fail to find suitable award space on all 10 options, remember that you can always do it “the long way around” and fly to Asia via Europe as well!