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Flying in Style

January 26th, 2015

I recently booked my flight back to the U.S. … for next December. Award miles, you see. Booking award miles last-minute, or even three months in advance (when I usually book when paying) can be a real pain. Turns out that they open up the flights about 11 months in advance, so you kind of have to book early. If you catch them when they open up, though, you tend to have a nice selection, and can get pretty much what you want.

I’ve been flying back and forth between Japan and the U.S. for years. I have no idea how many award miles slipped past me during years I did not fly, but now I am finally up to an amount where I can travel to San Francisco and back twice on miles alone. This is possible if I take Economy the trip over, and Business on the trip back.

That combination is pretty much ideal. The trip to the U.S. is shorter, a bit over 9 hours; the flight back is longer, about 11 hours and a half. Naturally, booking Business for the longer half makes a lot of sense, for various reasons. First, it’s just a longer trip. Making that easier

Second, it’s more arduous. On the trip over, my father picks me up to drive me home when I arrive; on the way back, I face a long train ride home from Narita, lugging two larger suitcases plus a carry-on case and a backpack. What’s more, Business gives you two free checked bags versus the one checked bag for Economy; on my trip from Japan, I have mostly empty bags, so I just put my smaller case inside my larger one.

Third, it fits the strengths and weaknesses of my benefits. I have mileage-based perks, which give me lounge privileges and priority boarding… only if I fly United from an airport which has United facilities. The flight back will be operated by ANA (it usually is), so taking Business with the ANA leg allows me to get the benefits I would miss on Economy.

Taking the Economy flight to the U.S. is also better now that I have found a flight I like: United recently scored a berth at Haneda, leaving from 1:00 a.m. You might think that the Haneda part is the real advantage, as it’s in central Tokyo as opposed to Narita, which is way out in Chiba. Ironically, however, the train rides are about the same for me. Because the Skyliner makes the trip so rapidly, both routes are about equal in terms of transfers and times. No, for me, the real sweet part is leaving at 1:00 a.m. Normally, I leave Narita at 4 p.m. or so on Tuesday, and arrive in SFO very early in the morning. It means that I don’t have time to do anything useful on Tuesday in Japan, and as I am wiped out arriving in California, that whole day is more or less wasted as I struggle to stay awake all day.


Instead, I get to use all the daytime hours on Monday, and late Monday evening, I roll out for the airport. By the time I get to Haneda (which has much nicer facilities than Narita, including lots of power outlets and easy-to-access free WiFi), I am about ready to go to sleep. And on my last trip over to the U.S., I shocked myself: I actually did go to sleep, for about 4 or 5 hours. Unexpectedly, without trying. I’m never able to sleep on airplanes, even with drugs. I couldn’t believe it. But the timing appears just about perfect for exactly that.

Also, there may be something about the lack of air traffic at such times: my late-night flight from Haneda last month not only took off right on time, but also was able to arrive earlier than expected.

As an added bonus, I arrive in the U.S. late afternoon Monday (thank you, International Date Line), with enough time to get tired again, and wake up bright and shiny Tuesday morning, able to use that entire day as well. Sweet!

Another great improvement is the airline amenities. Now, all the flights I take have those in-flight entertainment screens on the back of the seat in front of you. Which is nice, but ironically less relevant, now that they also have the far more significant power outlets for every seat, allowing me to use my laptop throughout the flight. My iPad made even that somewhat irrelevant recently, but having the nice 15“ Retina display for the whole fight is nice. I can rip more than enough media to keep me occupied, not to mention do end-of-semester clean-up work.

I chose a center-aisle seat because the aircraft layout has only three seats in the middle group, meaning you only have a 50% chance of someone climbing out over you, as opposed to the window-side aisle seats, which have a 100% chance two people will have to ask you to leave your seat during the flight. Not to mention that usually the other two seats are occupied by a couple, who lean together and leave their seats together, or you get another solo on the far seat side, so the middle seat, being the least desirable on the plane, is more often empty if the flight is not full.

On the Business side, though, ANA makes the deal far sweeter. Flying business on United is nice (I once got upgraded on the way over to the states), but nowadays, they mostly offer very strange arrangements where half the seats face backwards so you are facing the person in front of you. The seats may recline 180°, but even if they do, the window/interior seat occupants still have to shuffle past you, or step over you if you are reclined.

On ANA, however, they have little partially-enclosed seat-islands, only four per row, meaning each person gets their own aisle access. You definitely are able to lie down flat, and have not just your own armrests, but two tables—one sliding table for your laptop and meals, in front of the 17” LCD monitor, and a largish side table to boot. There’s storage for my backpack so I don’t have to fish things out of the luggage bins, and even a shoe storage space.


Better yet, I was able to get seat 1K—first row! Cool. The nice part of that is not just being right up at the front, but rather that the seat is right next to the bulkhead, so there’s the table and a partial wall separating you from the traffic, and no one walking past your seat in-flight except the flight staff. As far as seat reviews go, I could not get better than this one, which was a highly detailed review for the exact seat on the exact flight I’m taking. Impossible to be more spot-on than that.

The Business seat on ANA cost 10,000 more miles than the United arrangements, but ANA’s Business is actually closer to United’s First seats, so, deal.

Using award miles, you still have to pay for airport fees and travel insurance, but the round trip came out to $72. And, I still have enough miles to do the exact same thing next year as well.

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  1. Troy
    January 26th, 2015 at 17:54 | #1

    For some reason I flew to Japan once back in the 90s on a nearly empty flight so I had the whole row to myself to stretch out on. That’s the best deal, find the flight that’s empty!

    (But I guess now with globalization etc. this is no longer that likely)

    Nice berth coming back, looks better than


    . . . but the first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club!

  2. Luis
    January 26th, 2015 at 18:14 | #2

    Actually, I got a plane with empty rows just a year ago, Dec. 2013, on the flight over to SFO. Couldn’t believe it. I think this should resolve OK:


    I was able to grab a row for myself, as was everyone else. A few times over the past 3-4 years I recall getting that center-aisle seat with the center-center seat open as well. I’ve been pretty lucky that way.

    One way I have not been lucky: in the person-in-front-reclines department. On at least half the flights I have taken over the past several years, the person directly in front of me (1) reclines all the way back (2) immediately after takeoff and sometimes, like it was a month ago, before the seat-belt sign allows (3) before anyone else does, (4) even though I usually see only 20-30% of seats reclining, and (5) keeps the seat reclined the entire flight, sometimes even to keep it there during meals, even when they are gone to the restroom for a long time.

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