Flight report: Japan Airlines business class, Los Angeles to Osaka (JL69)

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When I was planning my summer trip to Asia, I knew that I wanted to try long-haul business class, and that I definitely wanted to fly on an Asian airline. I feel that flying on a foreign airline gets me ready for my destination on the way in and a last taste of the country on my way out.

I ended up booking myself on Japan Airlines flights JL69 and JL60 between Los Angeles and Kansai International Airport (serving the Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe region). As I mentioned in a previous post, this cost me 100,000 American AAdvantage miles plus $48.50 in taxes and fees.

My flight reports are going to focus on the things that matter to me the most: food, entertainment, and cabin comfort. As a low-budget gourmand, a high-end meal in-flight is one of the main reasons why I would choose to fly business or first class over economy. The selection of films on demand is important because I don’t subscribe to Netflix and don’t go to the movies that often–flying lets me catch up on pop culture. Cabin comfort is a third consideration because sitting around for hours can be incredibly uncomfortable. I will consider service, but it isn’t a main consideration for me. I’m used to rude and inconsiderate treatment in coach on domestic USA flights, so any glimpse of humanity from a flight attendant is already a huge step up.

Departure airport and lounge

Japan Airlines business class passengers have access to the Oneworld lounge in LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal. The lounge is right after security and is upstairs, overlooking the shopping area. There’s a wide selection of hot and cold food and beverage and plenty of seating.

Boarding was called on time, at the far end of the terminal. JL 61 to Tokyo Narita was departing from the next gate over.

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There are separate lines for economy and business class. A Tumi amenity kit was waiting on each seat. The kit was green on the westbound and black on the eastbound.

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Seat and cabin comfort

The Boeing 787s used on these flights have Japan Airlines’ Shell Flat Neo seats in business class. The name is misleading because the seat does not go fully flat–they’re actually angled towards the ground, which creates some potential for sliding downwards. In any case, I managed to get plenty of sleep on them. Since I’m used to coach, I did not mind that the seats were not angled away from each other. This would be great for people who are traveling with others.

My main issue with the cabin was that it was way too hot. I did not see the point of having blankets, because I could barely use it. This must be a cultural difference, since all the Japanese people in the cabin had blankets and even borrowed cardigans (an unusual business class amenity).

Continue reading “Flight report: Japan Airlines business class, Los Angeles to Osaka (JL69)”

The fancy-frugal way to get to and around Japan

JR local train in Kyoto station.
JR local train in Kyoto station.

I’ve wanted to visit Japan for years. As an Asian American kid in the late 90s and early 00s, Japan was the epitome of Asian cool. I watched a ton of anime, listened to J-pop, and did every school project I could on Japan. I even took Japanese at the community college for a semester, which came in handy on this trip.

Japan has a reputation for being an incredibly expensive travel destination. This year, though, the exchange rate has been very competitive for Americans, with 100 yen being a bit over 80 cents USD. And since I had just enough American AAdvantage miles to take me to Japan, I figured that this was the right time to go.

The problem

Food, accomodations, and the like might be cheaper in Japan for dollar-earners now, but getting there is just as expensive as ever. I could only go during the summer, when airfare costs are sky high. I knew from internet research that domestic flights and bullet train tickets in Japan are also very expensive. How could I save money on transportation?

The parameters

  • I wanted to spend as little cash as possible in getting to Japan and back.
  • My dates were flexible.
  • I was okay limiting myself to one region of the country. (Given my proclivity for travel, this trip to Japan was not going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m sure I’ll be back some other time!)
  • If possible, I’d like to travel in comfort.

Budget

  • I had enough American AAdvantage miles to get to and from Japan in business class.
  • I also had enough Air Canada Aeroplan miles to get around Japan and Asia in business class.
  • I wanted to spend less than $500 on airfare for the entire trip (preferably much, much less).

The solution
Continue reading “The fancy-frugal way to get to and around Japan”

When paying more money is the most frugal option

My Hello Kitty-branded ICOCA card. This IC card works as a public transportation card and as electronic money in stores across Japan.
My Hello Kitty-branded ICOCA card. This IC card works as a public transportation card and as electronic money in stores across Japan.

I am back from my epic Asia trip, with the jet lag, farmer’s tan, and ample waistline to prove it. Most of the trip went according to plan, but there were some dramatic changes right at the beginning.

Just after landing in Japan, I learned that a typhoon was threatening the next two flights on my itinerary. The hostel I had booked in Okinawa even emailed saying that they would waive their change fees for the night that I had booked. This was not good news.

Should I call right then to rebook myself away from the path of the typhoon, or should I wait until the typhoon actually hit so that the airlines could accomodate me for free?

I ended up spending about an hour that night on Skype with a call center in Canada and paying change fees and new taxes on one of my airline award tickets. That, I believe, was the more frugal choice, though I could have avoided paying a dime!

My logic was this: do I really want to spend the first few days of my vacation worrying about whether or not I could make the next two flights? Not particularly. I was there to enjoy myself, and enjoy myself I would. Furthermore, if I decided to wait it out, I might have had to stay in the Osaka area on my own dime as the airlines sorted things out. That would definitely have cost me more money than I had planned to spend. In the end, the cost of the change fees was a drop in the bucket compared to the psychological cost of stressing out over this and the potential financial cost of waiting to get on the next flight out.

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My epic Asia trip, and why I think business class is worth it (this time)

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Over the next few weeks I will be embarking on an epic trip around Asia. It’s epic for a number of reasons:

  • It involves 13 segments (flights) in a bit over three weeks.
  • 8 of those segments (including the longhaul ones) are in business class.
  • The business class segment I’m looking foward to the most is on one of EVA Air’s over-the-top Hello Kitty planes.
  • I only spent $277.67 on airfare in total. Most of this was on taxes and fees for miles bookings; the rest was on short flights on low-cost carriers.

Why this trip?

A few months ago I figured that July would be a good time, both personally and professionally, for a long-ish break. I had a bunch of miles to spend through various airlines and credit card programs (details to follow in later posts) and figured that I should go to Singapore, where I could stay with a friend.

Though I started with just one destination in mind, I eventually ended up with this massive, complex itinerary:

  • Los Angeles to Kansai in Japan Airlines business class
  • Osaka (Itami) to Naha in All Nippon Airways economy class
  • Naha to Taipei (Taoyuan) in EVA Air business class, connecting to Hong Kong in EVA Air business class
  • Hong Kong to Singapore in Singapore Airlines business class
  • Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on Tigerair
  • Kuala Lumpur to Penang on AirAsia
  • Penang to Singapore on Jetstar Asia
  • Singapore to Taipei (Taoyuan) in Singapore Airlines business class
  • Taipei (Songshan) to Shanghai (Hongqiao) in EVA Air Hello Kitty business class
  • Shanghai (Pudong) to Fukuoka in Air China business class
  • Fukuoka to Osaka (Itami) in All Nippon Airways economy class, operated by Air Ibex
  • Kansai to Los Angeles in Japan Airlines business class

Most of the complexity comes from maximizing award ticket routing rules. For example, the Naha, Taipei, Shanghai, and Fukuoka stops are all less than 24 hours, which were free to add to the itinerary using Air Canada’s Aeroplan miles. The Hong Kong stop was supposed to be one of these <24 hour stops, but I was able to extend it by another day because my original routing through Seoul was canceled due to MERS paranoia.

Business class? But YJ, you’re a grad student! How? Why?

Why would I pay the premium for business class instead of saving the miles for another trip? There were a lot of considerations:

From an economic perspective, it made more sense to fly in business this time around.

  • There’s no point in hoarding points. The airlines decide how much a mile is worth, and they can change the value at whim. A flight from the US to Japan might be 30,000 miles today and 150,000 tomorrow. If you have 50,000 now, you might as well spend it now.
  • A business class ticket generally costs up to twice as many miles as an economy ticket. Sometimes, the premium is even less. For example, one-way business class between the US and Japan is 50,000 American Airlines miles right now, versus 32,500 for economy. The cost in cash for a business class ticket, though, is quite a few times higher than for economy. So if you have the points to afford a business class ticket, then you’d get a better deal by redeeming for business class, in terms of cents per mile.
  • In many cases, the fees and taxes that you’d pay for a business class award ticket are exactly the same as for an economy ticket. Same amount of cash, several times the value.

Flying business also makes sense from a personal perspective.

  • I don’t know when my next big trip will be, and I don’t know what I could get with my miles by the time the next trip opportunity comes along. The graduate school lifestyle is an incredibly unstable one, and it’s hard to plan more than one school term in advance.
  • Having read so much about flying internationally in premium cabins, I figured I should try it out at least once, especially if I don’t have to pay cash for the experience.
  • In some odd ways, this is the more frugal choice. I value food experiences highly, and I expect that the food on all of the business class flights will be excellent, save the short hop on Air China. I will also save on food by being able to eat in the lounges while waiting for my flights. No need to pay for overpriced airport food or stuff convenience store snacks in the carryon!

In the posts to come, I will go into the details of getting the miles, selecting the destinations, and booking the trip. I’ll also review all of the flights and airline lounges and share some tips for saving money and maximizing value while overseas.

Introducing the Itinerant Egghead

Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne.
Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. Photo by YJ.

Hello, thrifty world travelers! I’m YJ and I’m an itinerant egghead: itinerant because I have an insatiable passion for travel, egghead because I’m a doctoral student trying to make a dent in the bubble of knowledge.

The Itinerant Egghead is a blog about how I make travel a big part of my life without breaking the bank. Wandering the globe is important to me, but so are career building, staying out of debt, and saving for other life goals.

Figuring out how to do all of that with limited time and resources is a matter of managing priorities. I’ll be sharing tips and strategies for making ends meet on a tight graduate student stipend/salary, as well as stories and pictures from my adventures across the US and around the world.

My general philosophy about travel and personal finance is that it’s all about your priorities and the best value option, given those priorities. I choose to spend more on certain parts of my life (e.g. travel) and less on others (e.g. transportation around the city when I’m at home). When I travel, I make similar priority judgments: high quality local cuisine and a well-located place to sleep are high priorities, while souvenir shopping and going to typical tourist attractions are lower priorities.

I’m all about making occasional travel a sustainable lifestyle choice that fits with your life circumstances today. Not everyone can afford to or wants to be a perpetual nomad, hopping from country to country and hostel to hostel. Likewise, not everyone can afford to or wants to live the luxury travel life, sipping champagne and showering in first class. For me, right now, the ideal is somewhere in the middle.

Some topics I plan to cover soon include:

  • General personal finance
    • How to manage your priorities and start saving
    • How to save money and drink better coffee
  • Travel
    • How to use the money you save on coffee to fly to Asia in business class
    • How to find good value in hotels, hostels, sharing economy room rentals, and couchsurfing
  • Grad student finances
    • How to find (and fund!) travel opportunities as a student
    • How to deal with insufficient summer funding

If you have some more suggestions, please let me know in the comments!