You can easily earn a free flight to Japan in less than a year, but you’ll have to get the right credit card. Find out which card you need and which frequent flyer program can get you there the fastest.
For most airlines, award flights cost the same from either the East or West Coast to Tokyo, Japan’s main international hub. There were a few frequent flyer programs, though, that charged notable less if you flew from the West Coast.
From Los Angeles, for example, you’ll be able to get an award flight to Japan with just the sign-up bonus from the Chase Sapphire card. That means you’ll be ready to book in just three months. From the East Coast, however, you’ll have to save for a bit longer. With the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card, you’ll have enough for a flight in eleven months.
Before we get into all of the credit card options, let’s take a look at the best frequent flyer programs to use.
The Best Frequent Flyer Programs
Below are the frequent flyer programs offering the cheapest redemptions between the U.S. and Japan. British Airways Executive Club and Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer charge different amounts based on the coast you’re flying from. In both cases, West Coast routes are notably cheaper. In fact, I would not use KrisFlyer if you’re flying from the East Coast.
|Miles||Estimated Taxes and Fees|
|ANA Mileage Club||50,000||$50|
|JAL Mileage Bank||50,000||$90|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||50,000||$50|
|British Airways Executive Club||50,000 (West Coast)|
70,000 (East Coast)
|Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer||55,250 (West Coast)|
110,000 (East Coast)
Keep in mind that these frequent flyer programs allow you to book flights with their partner airlines. You might end up getting the best routing and pricing by using a partner. For example, Alaska Airlines doesn’t even fly to Japan, but its partners Delta, American and Korean Air do. Delta is the only one of those carriers that offers nonstop flights, but they cost 80,000 Mileage Plan miles. American, on the other hand, charges only 50,000 miles. Award seats on Korean Air go for 70,000.
Since the flight to Japan is a long one, I’d look for a nonstop flight. Below is a list of the airlines offering nonstop flights available through each program.
|Frequent Flyer Program||Member Airlines With Nonstop Service to Japan|
|ANA Mileage Club||ANA; United; Singapore (West Coast)|
|JAL Mileage Bank||JAL; American (West Coast)|
|Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan||Delta (80,000 miles); American (West Coast)|
|United MileagePlus||United; ANA; Singapore (West Coast)|
|British Airways Executive Club||JAL; American (West Coast)|
|Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer||Singapore (West Coast)|
One final note: no award flight is completely free. Every frequent flyer program charges some amount in taxes and fees. These can vary quite a bit depending on the program and the airline. For example, British Airways charges huge fees for long-haul routes for its own flights. But if you book with certain partners, such as JAL and American, you’ll pay significantly less.
Keep an eye out for these charges when you’re booking. If they show up, try to find a flight on a different airline through the same frequent flyer program. ANA Mileage Club, for example, will charges about $400 to fly to Japan on Asiana Airlines and about $600 on Air China. However, if you book a flight on ANA, United, Air Canada Airlines, Singapore or Hawaiian Airlines, you’ll pay about $50.
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|Sign-Up Bonus||Months to Earn Flight||Annual Fee|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred||50,000 points||3 (West Coast)|
15 (East Coast)
|$95, first year waived|
|Starwood Preferred Guest Amex Card||25,000 points||11||$95, first year waived|
|Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card||25,000 points||17||$195, first year waived|
|Alaska Airlines Visa Signature||30,000 miles||13||$75|
|British Airways Visa Signature||50,000 miles||3 (West Coast)|
15 (East Coast)
To come up with the number of months it will take to earn the award flight, I assumed that cardholders would make $1,500 worth of purchases a month, and that each dollar earned one point or mile.
While most co-branded airline cards, like the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature and the British Airways Visa Signature, earn only one mile per dollar on all purchases except those made with the carrier itself, most general rewards cards, like Chase Sapphire and the Amex Premier Rewards Gold card, offer bonus points for a variety of purchases. That means you’ll probably earn the flight even faster with those cards, which is one reason why I ranked them higher than the co-branded airline cards.
Another reason to go with the Sapphire, SPG and Amex Rewards Gold cards instead of the airline cards is their flexibility. All three cards belong to awards programs that allow you to transfer your points to variety of frequent flyer programs. With the co-branded airline cards, you’re stuck with one carrier.
|Card:||Chase Sapphire Preferred|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||50,000 Ultimate Rewards points|
|Annual Fee:||$95, first year waived|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||2x travel and restaurants|
|Airline Transfer Partners:||British Airways, United, Singapore Airlines, Air France KLM, Korean Air, Southwest and Virgin Atlantic|
The Chase Sapphire is the best all-around card. It offers double points at restaurants and for travel, including gas. For getting to Japan, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to British Airways, United and Singapore. If you’re on the West Coast, you’ll have enough for a ticket through British Airways Executive club with just the sign-up bonus. For not much more than that, you could fly in style with one of the most luxurious carriers in the world, Singapore Airlines.
|Card:||Starwood Preferred Guest Amex Card|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||25,000 points|
|Annual Fee:||$95, first year waived|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||Up to 5x at Starwood properties|
|Airline Transfer Partners:||Over 30, including ANA, JAL, British Airways, Alaska Airlines and Singapore Airlines|
The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card is by far the most flexible rewards card available. You can transfer starpoints to over 30 frequent flyer programs, including ANA, JAL, British Airways, Alaska Airlines and Singapore Airlines. United is also a transfer partner, but one MileagePlus mile costs two starpoints.
SPG is great because it offers a 5,000-point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred to an airline. You’ll be earning points that much faster.
|Card:||Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||25,000 Membership Rewards points|
|Annual Fee:||$195, first year waived|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||3x airfare; 2x restaurants, gas and groceries|
|Airline Transfer Partners:||Air France KLM, Aeromexico, Air Canada, Alitalia, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, EL AL, Emirates, Etihad, Hawaiian Airlines, Iberia, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic|
The second most flexible rewards program is American Express Membership Rewards. You can transfer MR points to 17 frequent flyer programs, including ANA, British Airways and Singapore Airlines. The American Express Premier Rewards Gold card also has the best bonus earning categories, offering triple points for airfare and double points for restaurants, gas and groceries.
The biggest drawbacks of this card are its bigger annual fee, which is at least $100 more than the other cards on this list, and its relatively small sign-up bonus. You’ll get half the points compared to the Sapphire Preferred card.
Co-branded airline cards, like the Alaska Airlines and British Airways Visa Signature cards, are tied to one carrier. You cannot transfer the miles to other programs, which significantly limits their usefulness. They do typically come with some useful carrier-specific perks, such as free checked bags and priority seating, but I’d only consider getting a co-branded airline card if I often flew with the carrier or if I was planning to cancel the card after getting the award flight.
|Card:||Alaska Airlines Visa Signature|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||30,000 miles|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||3x with Alaska Airlines|
The best benefit of the Alaska Airlines Visa is its annual companion fare. With the companion pass, you can bring a family member or friend with you on a domestic Alaska Airlines flight for just $99 plus taxes and fees. That benefit can easily be worth hundreds of dollars.
|Card:||British Airways Visa Signature|
|Sign-Up Bonus:||50,000 Avios|
|Bonus Earning Categories:||3x with British Airways|
The British Airways Visa also comes with a companion ticket after spending $30,000 in a year. Unfortunately it has to be used on a British Airways flight and you’re responsible for the taxes and fees. With British Airways, that will run you over $600 for a long-haul flight.
The card does come with a nice sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios, which is enough to buy a round-trip economy flight between the West Coast and Japan.
Which Card Is Right For You?
If I lived on the West Coast, getting the Chase Sapphire card would be a no-brainer. It’s a great rewards card by any measure, and with its generous sign-up bonus you’ll be flying nonstop to Japan on either JAL or American within three months. Personally, I’d probably save up the extra 5,250 miles and go nonstop on Singapore, which is guaranteed to have exceptional service, even in economy.
If you already have the Sapphire card, I’d consider getting the British Airways Visa Signature, earning the sign-up bonus, which is enough for a flight to Japan, and then cancelling the card.
From the East Coast the decision is a bit more difficult. No matter how you do it, it’s going to take longer. At the maximum, it’ll take 11 months with the SPG card to earn a flight through ANA Mileage Club, JAL Mileage Bank or Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
Sapphire is a solid choice from the East Coast, too. It’ll take a maximum of 15 months to earn an award flight through either United or British Airways, but that does not take into consideration the card’s better earning potential. You’ll get double miles for restaurants and travel, which will probably cut at least a month off of the wait.