Best flyer mile program for frequent travel to Japan?
March 28, 2010 11:12 PM   Subscribe

What is the best frequent-flyer mile program for someone who travels from the US to Japan at least once per year, and makes several trips within the US per year?

I am likely going to be flying to Japan every summer, and I will also be flying to locations within the United States two or three times per year. It seems that being a member of a frequent-flyer program would make financial sense for me.

But which one? They all seem similar. If I use the American Airlines mileage program, I can use the miles on their affiliates, such as Japan Airlines. On the other hand, another major Japanese airline is affiliated with Delta (or United, I forget which.)

Are there any MeFites who travel from the US to Japan regularly? Which mileage programs have you found advantageous?

I'll be flying out of San Francisco or Sacramento most of the time, if that makes any difference.
posted by twblalock to Travel & Transportation around Japan (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you don't get a satisfactory answer, you may want to talk your question over to

I think (read: don't know for certain) that most mileage programs pay off in roughly similar amounts. Given that your once-a-year japan flight is going to exceed all of your in-country travel put together, you may want to just take a look at your best option for flying to japan (whether this is cheapest, most luxurious, or prettiest company colors, you'll have to decide) and see if they have any mileage partners or if they have good prices within the US.

Most of the time, you're going to be paying for your trip with dollars, so you should be concerned about the best deal on that front first.
posted by Suciu at 11:45 PM on March 28, 2010

Delta seems to be consistently the cheapest to fly from San Francisco to Tokyo, by about $200 round trip.

But I have no experience with their miles program.
posted by twblalock at 11:57 PM on March 28, 2010

1. How many miles do you earn for each flight with the different alliances (the two major ones are star alliance and oneworld)
2. How many points do you need to get where you want to go? Just recently for across the pacific it was about 75k with star alliance, 150k with oneworld.
posted by defcom1 at 3:28 AM on March 29, 2010

I'd also consider which airline primarily flies out of San Francisco (if that's going to be the base for your US travel). I think United services west coast cities more so than Delta, which is based in Atlanta, for example. A lot of US airlines also "code share" with other US airlines, so you may be able to earn United miles on Continental or vice versa. Check out some of the air alliances like Sky Team and Star Alliance to see what would work best for you (as mentioned by defcom1 above).
posted by echo0720 at 5:25 AM on March 29, 2010

SFO is a United hub. I'm P2 on United and they just added Continental to the Star Alliance which means qualifying miles on them as well as future domestic upgrade reciprocity.

To be honest with you, I don't necessarily think you're gonna be racking up crazy miles for elite status, but mileage rewards can be pretty appealing. Only 300k for a business class RTW!
posted by mckenney at 6:27 AM on March 29, 2010

As mentioned above - you really just want to pick one of the major airline point-sharing groups (star alliance, skyteam, or oneworld).
I'll also add that pretty much every major airline has a branded credit card, that they'll typically bribe you tens of thousands of points to sign up for.
posted by kickingtheground at 7:20 AM on March 29, 2010

If you'll be flying out of SFO most of the time, United/Star Alliance seems like the obvious choice.

I live in Denver, which is another United hub, but flew American on my most recent trip to Japan. Connecting through LAX is typically no big deal, as I've flow in and out of there a lot. However, on the day I was returning to the States, flights out of Narita were being cancelled left and right on account of a typhoon - mine included. I ended up getting routed through DFW on a flight that left 8 hours late, followed by a 4 hour layover, and capped off by a 2 hour flight back the way I came. By the time all was said and done, I had been awake for 28 hours straight and wanted to die.

Afterwards, I realized that, had I simply flown United, the domestic leg of the trip would have been a piece of cake, as I would have had my pick of flights between SFO and DEN, both being United hubs and all. It could have very well shaved 7 hours off the trip. Lesson learned: if your home airport is a major hub, stick with the home team.
posted by jal0021 at 9:52 AM on March 29, 2010

If you're only going to Japan once a year and 2-3 domestic trips it will take time to get to get enough award miles for a free trip (domestic) and then a lot longer time for a free trip across the Pacific. But you should still sign up for any and all award programs you can but try and stick with one airline. After you fly enough miles or segments, you'll get promoted into a higher tier of their program where you get a bonus multiplier for every flight. (i.e. if you get 1 mile for each mile flown in the standard program, you'll get 1.25 miles as a gold level or whatever). If you want to really rake in the miles, you buy full fare first or business class tickets. When I was flying for business my company paid for business class on international flights. I stopped flying for work and I still have enough miles left for a few more free domestic flights.

What your current planned flights will probably get you is upgrades pretty quickly on your domestic trips and with a higher tier in the program, you get access to better seats in coach. And you're treated slightly better than the people w/o membership.

Although AA does have nonstops from SFO to Narita and it does partner with JAL, jal0021 is right, they have a lot more flights landing in DFW or ORD than in SFO or LAX. So if there's a problem on the Japan-US leg you might have to fly into DFW or ORD and then backtrack back to the West Coast. AA was the airline I flew for years and where I have all my points, but their service is so lacking I'm hesitant to every fly on them again.

AA's international service is better than its domestic worse than Greyhound service. But it is still inferior to JAL or any non-US airline. I'll never forget my last flight through Tokyo. I flew into Tokyo on JAL and it was great (the flight attendants have different costumes for the meal service parts of the flight) and the service was outstanding. On the AA leg from Tokyo to Chicago, I remember sitting on the plane as the flight is boarding when a shrill AA flight attendant starts yelling at an older Japanese woman to sit down (the woman was trying to put her stuff in that overhead bin that is overhead) in English rather than doing the right thing and helping the woman with her bag or getting a Japanese speaking attendant to help. Contrast that with my experience on JAL when I got in trouble with a flight attendant. As an American used to flipping on my phone the second the wheels touch ground, I turned on my phone and it was beeping due to a bunch of SMS that came in while I was on the flight. The flight attendant came to me and said respectfully that I needed to keep my phone off until I as inside the terminal. Not only could he do her job without yelling at her customers, she also spoke the customer's language. (AA will sometimes have Japanese speaking crew members but they're usually all up front with the business or first class people). My point is: American sucks and if you have a choice and the cost isn't that much more, pick JAL or some other Japanese airline.

You may wish to have one frequent flyer strategy for international flights and another for domestic (hopefully they can be linked as affiliates but unless you start flying a lot more it won't make too much of a difference)
posted by birdherder at 11:55 AM on March 29, 2010

San Francisco to Narita is 5,124 miles one-way. So if you are taking one trip (in coach) to Japan, by itself and a few domestic trips, you are NOT going to be accruing enough elite qualifying miles (EQM, using United terminology) to gain status. (The lowest non-sponsored tier is 25,000 EQM for United 2P.) Although if those domestic trips are to the East Coast, or you manage to do more than one round-trip to Japan in a calendar year, you might get close. Status is a VERY good thing -- on United, you get access to "Economy Plus" which has more legroom, plus priority on the waitlist, lower fees, and more redeemable mile bonuses.

(With some limited exceptions, note that miles earned from credit card sign-up bonuses or purchases do not count as EQM.)

I think the most common complaints about United's program concerns Starnet blocking, in which United "blocks" awards from its Star Alliance members. So for instance, even if ANA has a business class award seat available for Star Alliance members, United might not let their frequent flier participants redeem miles for that seat, because it would cost United too much money. This is the reason why some people suggest that people who fly on United sign up and credit miles to Air Canada (which is also a Star Alliance member).

Likewise, I am aware of complaints about the lack of domestic awards inventory on Delta -- that some people say that any redemption on Delta can be difficult.

YMMV. :)

If you concentrate all your travel on one airline and take advantage of credit card signup offers and spend, it sounds like you can accrue enough mileage to get to some decent redemption options, though. However, it is really easy to beanplate all of the options, and this can be not worth the time if you don't have or maintain enough flight activity.

Flyertalk is a great resource if you are trying to find out more.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 12:11 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the info, it is very helpful.

My main goal here is to be able to use my miles for upgrades to a higher class on my trips to Japan. 11 or 12 hours in coach sucks. It should be much more pleasant in business class.

I plan to fly to Japan using either ANA or JAL, because as I have heard here and elsewhere, the customer service is better than on US-based airlines. As far as I can tell, this means I have these options:

JAL, which is partnered with American Airlines (although they have hinted at changing alliances earlier this year)

ANA, which is partnered with United.

ANA seems to have the following advantages:
1) They aren't bankrupt, like JAL is. (If JAL liquidates or is purchased, what would happen to my miles?)
2) They will give me credit for miles I fly on other Star Alliance airlines, which includes three US-based airlines: United, US Airways, and Continental.
3) They have a US-based credit card which I can use to get flyer miles.

I don't think ANA practices Starnet blocking. Since my primary use of miles will be upgrades on ANA flights to Japan, it seems like it makes the most sense to keep my miles with ANA. Whenever I fly within the US, I can use one of their partner airlines and get credit for miles.

Am I missing something? Are there good reasons to reconsider JAL, or another airline?

(I think I'll cross-post this at Flyertalk. But which forum would be the best? The Japan forum?)
posted by twblalock at 6:23 PM on March 29, 2010

ANA seems like a great option, and I see you posted in the ANA forum on Flyertalk. :)

To close the loop (and this might not be obvious to a Flyertalk newbie), there is a "Coupon Connection" on Flyertalk where members can trade miles. You could, for instance, trade 25k United miles for 25k AA miles. There are fancier trades, but cash transactions are verboten.

Also, for anyone else reading the thread, you can use United miles to sponsor upgrades on Star Alliance partners like ANA. (Or vice versa.) So there are lots of options.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:14 AM on March 30, 2010

Judging by where you're located and your travel patterns, going with United/ANA (Star Alliance) would seem to be the obvious choice. I prefer ANA for my once or twice-yearly transpac flights to the East Coast, but keep in mind that they only credit you 70% of miles flown for anything other than full-fare economy; United credits you 100%.
posted by armage at 10:44 PM on April 6, 2010

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