Booked: First Class to Japow, with a Side of Thai

Greetings from Tokyo! 

I’ve arrived back in a city that has been at the top of my travel list for years, and it feels great to be back. I’m off on my first big trip of 2023, which will bring me to places old and new.

It’s been a busy week getting here and preparing for the adventures ahead, and finally realizing one of my aviation dreams with over 14 hours of bliss. Here’s a breakdown of the trip at hand, and how it all came together.

The Trip

The impetus for this trip was a long-awaited ski holiday planned with some friends who live in Calgary. As with many people, Japan has been at the top of my list both as a ski destination and as a place I want to visit as often as possible, and it didn’t take much convincing for my friends to join in for the ride.

I booked my flights speculatively all the way back in May, long before Japan had announced its reopening to tourism. To be honest, I’d booked many speculative trips to Japan over the past couple of years for something to look forward to, and this trip was no different. 

Luckily, the gamble paid off this time, and I managed to score some aspirational flights in both directions, but more on those later.

I’ll begin my trip with two nights in Tokyo, adjusting to the jet lag and exploring Minato City on foot. From there, I’ll head to Osaka for a couple of nights on a Shinkansen bullet train, where I’ll meet up with friends who happen to be there and get to know a city I’ve yet to visit.

From there, I head back to Tokyo to meet with my friends who are flying in from Calgary via Vancouver. This is their first time flying in business class, and we managed to get them on the 55,000-point Aeroplan sweet spot with ANA 787 business class on the long-haul flight.

ANA 787 business class

We’ll spend a few nights in Tokyo as they adjust to the jet lag. We don’t have too many concrete plans yet, aside from eating our way across the city, meeting up with other friends who happen to be in Japan, and maybe checking out some go-karts.

From there, we’re off to Hokkaido for the main purpose of the trip, when we’ll spend six nights together in Niseko, getting as much time in on the mountains as possible. Much to our delight, it has been snowing a lot this month, and the forecast calls for a healthy dose of Japow throughout our entire stay.

Niseko

I’m leaving a few days before my friends, as I have to get to Bangkok for another aspirational flight. As it turns out, I have some friends who will be in the city during my stay, so I’ll get to visit with many people throughout the trip.

After another bucket-list flight, I have three more nights in Tokyo before making my way back to North America in style. My wife Ashley is meeting me in Montreal, and we’ll revisit our former home city for the better part of a week before heading back to Vancouver Island. 

I’m looking forward to many parts of this trip. Tokyo has long been a city that fascinates me, and it works out that I’ll be spending more time than I had planned to here on this trip. My brother is moving to Kobe in the summer, and with the prospect of returning to Japan to visit as often as possible, I’ll get my fix of Tokyo when I’m travelling solo.

Whenever possible, I’ll be ducking into one of the many onsens that are scattered throughout Japan. Aside from Miles & Points, I’m also a bathing enthusiast, and I’ll never say no to the opportunity to relax.

Every person I’ve come across at the airport, in hotels, or in general has been very excited to hear that we’re heading to Niseko. A friend of mine who lived in Japan for years mentioned that we’re going to have an outstanding time, and I can only imagine how great it will be. 

It goes without saying that Japan is full of delights to experience: food, culture, nature, food, toilets, bullet trains, food… While this will be my third trip to the country, it’s by far my longest yet, although it’s certainly not my last.

Lastly, I’m also keen to travel with friends. We’ve talked about this trip ever since we worked on a wildfire crew together in Alberta seven years ago, so it’s great to see it finally being realized.

I can’t wait to hear about their first business class experience, although I think they might be spoiled for life by flying with such a great airline. 

The Flights

I spend more time than I’d like to admit searching for flights. Whether it’s for myself, friends, family, or Points Consulting clients, I’m often searching for award flights across many different channels.

In some cases, however, it pays off, as I come across “unicorn” flights that are difficult to come by. 

The Outbound

For my outbound flights, I flew from my home on Vancouver Island to Toronto via Vancouver for a quick visit with my in-laws. I booked in premium economy and waitlisted for an eUpgrade to Air Canada Signature Class, which luckily came through.

From there, I made a positioning flight to New York, flying into LaGuardia and out of JFK. I managed to score a seat on ANA “The Suite” First Class from New York (JFK) to Tokyo Haneda (HND), a product that has been at the top of my list ever since it debuted. 

ANA “The Suite” First Class

Oddly enough, although I’d only ever flown with ANA in economy prior to this, it has long been my favourite airline. There’s no doubt that there’s a wide gap between economy and First Class, and I’m happy to report that it fully lived up to, and even exceeded, my expectations.

For intra-Japan flights, I booked using Avios. We’ll fly from Tokyo Haneda (HND) to Sapporo (CTS) with Japan Airlines, which we booked for 12,500 Avios in business class. We’ll all be travelling with ski/snowboard gear and checked bags, which were included in the business class fare.

After making my way back to Tokyo, I’ll fly from Tokyo Narita (NRT) to Bangkok (BKK) on Thai Airways 777 business class. Unfortunately, there isn’t a First Class cabin on this particular flight, but I leveraged Aeroplan’s stopover policy and still got a good deal on my flights.

Thai Airways 777 busines class

In total, I forfeited 130,000 Aeroplan points for the flights from Toronto to Bangkok via New York and Tokyo, plus around $100 (CAD) in taxes and fees, as well as 19,000 Aeroplan points for my flights to Toronto. Each leg of the flights to and from Sapporo cost 12,500 Avios, with around $8 (CAD) in taxes and fees.

The Inbound

Fortunately, I was also able to find First Class award space for the majority of my return flights. To get from Bangkok (BKK) to Tokyo Narita (NRT), I’ll be aboard Thai Airways First Class, which is one of the few remaining routes on which it’s offered.

Unfortunately, it appears that the spa has yet to reopen at the airport, and all signs are pointing to it being forever a thing of the past. I’ll just have to make up for it with a few glasses of Dom Perignon onboard the flight.

Thai Airways First Class

After a stopover in Tokyo, I’ll head from Tokyo Haneda (HND) to Chicago (ORD), once again on ANA “The Suite” First Class. When I originally booked the flight, I was set to fly in their older First Class product, and I would have been perfectly happy with it.

I received an ExpertFlyer notification that there was an aircraft change on my flight, and much to my delight, ANA had upgraded the aircraft to feature its newest cabin. Surely, there can be worse surprises to get, and I hope to make my way through the few remaining parts of the Japanese menus that I wasn’t able to polish off on my way to Japan.

I have a quick layover in Chicago before heading to Montreal in Air Canada business class. 

After our visit, I have us booked in premium economy back to Vancouver, and then onward to Victoria to reunite with our dog and settle back into reality. 

For the Bangkok to Montreal flights via Tokyo and Chicago, I again parted ways again with around 130,000 Aeroplan points and around $100 (CAD) in taxes and fees, and another 19,000 points for the premium economy flight back to British Columbia.

 

Considering the astronomical cost of even one flight in First Class, the cents per point value of both bookings is well above the 10 cents per point (CAD) mark, and I feel lucky to have had all of the flights line up.

Flying premium economy within North America is my go-to move, since it’s usually much cheaper than paying for an Economy (Latitude) ticket and I’m first in line on the eUpgrade waitlist. While it’s not always possible to find flights at around the 20,000-point mark, I’d argue that it represents excellent value, especially since you’re likely to wind up in Signature Class (as long as your eUpgrade clears).

The Hotels

After Ricky’s luxury hotel tour of Japan from Fall 2022, I was looking forward to experiencing some of the country’s hotels for myself. While my list of hotels won’t be quite as diverse as his, I still have some properties that I’m very much looking forward to.

For Marriott Bonvoy properties, I have the following stays booked:

Prior to my trip, I enrolled in a Hilton Honors status challenge, where I was given Hilton Honors Gold status for 90 days. After eight nights, I’ll receive Gold status until March 2025, and after 12 nights, I’ll be bumped up to Diamond status until March 2025.

I’m using this trip as a way to diversify my hotel strategy, which is one of my goals for 2023. My friends and I are booked at Hilton Niseko Village for our ski trip, which also has a very attractive outdoor onsen. 

Hilton Niseko Village

While the cost of our stay wasn’t cheap, pricing out at around $400 (CAD) per night, splitting it three ways lowers the price to within reason, with breakfast included for two as part of my newfound Gold benefits. I’ll also be getting a total of 28 Hilton Honors points per US dollar spent, due to a combination of the Winter 2023 promotion and my status.

Prior to my flight to Bangkok, I also have a night booked at the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport, so as to not rush on the morning of my flight the next day. I’ll have fulfilled the Gold challenge by the end of this trip, and for the remaining four nights, I plan on taking advantage of a Stay Vancouver, Visit Richmond, or Edmonton’s Best Hotels deal to get me to Diamond.

Prior to my flights back to Canada, I have a two-night stay at the Shangri-La Tokyo, which will be my first time experiencing the brand. From what I’ve read online, the hotel exudes all sorts of luxury, and I’m excited to see what it’s all about. 

Shangri-La Tokyo

I managed to extend my Shangri-La Jade status, which was a leftover from an American Express Platinum Card benefit of years prior, through an email offer in Fall 2022. By buying a cup of tea at the Shangri-La Sydney on my last trip to Australia, I’ll enjoy Jade status through to the end of 2023. 

Admittedly, I’ve been very Marriott-centric during my Miles & Points tenure thus far, so I’m keen to diversify and try out new brands this year.

Conclusion

My first trip of 2023 will bring me to three different parts of Japan, as well as a few days in Bangkok to spice things up. It’s great to be back on this side of the Pacific visiting countries that are fascinating in many ways.

I haven’t been snowboarding in a few years, so I’ll likely be a bit rusty on the slopes to begin with. However, with the forecast calling for powder, at least I’ll have a solid cushion for any spills.

With a great combination of aspirational flights, hotels, and experiences, I hope that this trip will be a harbinger of more fulfilling adventures to come in 2023 and beyond.