Nick previously published a similar post: Fly around Japan for 4.5K each way with British Airways Avios [Sweet-spot spotlight]. But then the BA devaluation happened (see: BA devaluation not so bad after all). Now, it costs 6,000 Avios each way to fly around Japan. Don’t worry though: all is not lost!
Thanks to my research for the 40K to Far Away Challenge, I found a better option for those with United miles or Chase points (which transfer one to one to United). And, thanks to United’s Excursionist Perks, this is arguably a far better option.
With United miles, you can fly throughout most of Japan for just 5,000 miles each way. Better yet, if you’re willing to think outside of the box a bit, it’s possible to get far more value thanks to Excursionist Awards.
Sweet spot spotlight:
- The short story: United charges only 5,000 miles (and no fees except within 21 days) for most ANA flights within Japan. Only a few flights price higher at 8,000 miles.
- Miles required: 5,000 United MileagePlus miles in economy class
- Award availability: Amazing. Every single flight I checked had tons of availability.
- How to find awards: Search united.com
- How to book awards: Book online at united.com
- Advanced: Book a free Excursionist Award in another region.
Using United miles (or Chase points transferred to United) is a great way to hop around Japan. While Japanese trains are a worthwhile experience and they can be relatively affordable if you plan well, it’s hard to beat the value of paying just 5,000 miles with no fees. And award availability is spectacular. I had no trouble finding economy award availability on every date and every city pair I checked. That’s amazing. For example, here’s United’s award calendar for flights between Tokyo and Osaka. The solid blue line indicates that economy awards are available. I don’t know what’s happening on October 11th (the one day without award availability), but the rest of the calendar is consistent with what I found from poking around. The awards are always there. The lack of dotted lines means that no business class awards are available:
Excursionist Perk (advanced)
If you have the opportunity to fly a single leg within Japan using miles, it can easily pay for itself for you to include another segment within Japan at a far later date, even if you don’t ever plan to fly the second leg. Why would I suggest paying 10K miles instead of 5K? The United Excursionist Perk is why.
What is the Excursionist Perk? When you book an award trip using United miles, and your travel begins and ends in the same region, you can get a free one-way within a single region of the world that isn’t your region of origin. For complete details, see: Leveraging the United Excursionist Perk to save miles.
So, back to Japan…
Throw-away final leg
United’s intra-Japan awards are so cheap, it can easily pay for itself for you to add a throw-away future leg. For example, suppose you go to Japan and take a train from Tokyo to Osaka (or, anywhere in Japan really). Then, at the end of your trip, you pay 5,000 United miles to fly back to Tokyo. If you add another intra-Japan leg to the same award but scheduled for the far future, you can also add a free segment within any other region in the world.
For example, maybe you live in Florida and want to visit Alaska. Great. Instead of paying 17.5K United miles for that flight, you can pay just 5,000 miles for the intra-japan throw-away leg and get the flight to Alaska for free. If you were to book the flight to Alaska by itself, it would cost you 17,500 miles (assuming saver award availability):
But, instead you can book a multi-city award as shown below. You must fly the first leg. This example shows Osaka (ITM) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT). The next leg is the flight to Fairbanks Alaska from Miami. The final leg is booked almost to the end of schedule in May 2020. This leg happens to be Tokyo (HND) to Osaka (ITM), but it really can be any 5K route within Japan.
If you were to book the first two legs separately, you’d pay a total of 5K + 17.5K = 22.5K miles. With the approach here, you’d pay only 10K miles.
Caution! Airlines don’t like it when people use tricks like this to get flights for less money or miles. If you regularly throw away segments as described above, there is always the chance of retaliation. For example, they could close your United MileagePlus account and you would lose all remaining miles in your account.
Round trip trick
Another option is to plan a round trip itinerary where the first and last legs are entirely within Japan, but then use the free Excursionist leg outside of Japan. For example, via Google Flights I see that you can sometimes fly from Fukuoka (FUK) to Busan South Korea for only $45, or to Seoul for $48.
Either way, the flight will get you to the North Asia zone which is made up of South Korea, China, Mongolia, and Taiwan. So, you can then fly for free one-way across these countries. Let’s say you choose to fly to Taiwan. When done with your trip, you could then fly back to Japan super cheaply. For example, I found a flight from Taipei to Osaka for only $63. Finally, you would add in the return leg from Osaka to Tokyo.
If you booked each leg separately, you would pay a total of 25K miles: 5K for the initial flight to Fukuoka, and 15K for the flight from Busan to Taipei, and 5K for the flight from Osaka to Tokyo. But by booking the excursionist perk, you would pay only 10K miles for this trip.
Here’s a map to help you visualize it:
Of course it’s possible to devise much more elaborate trips than the ones presented above. Hopefully these will help get you started. To help you come up with more exciting plans, checkout my United Excursionist Perk Maps.