The opportunity to go on this flight basically came out of nowhere and landed right in my lap. I was building a new house and was supposed to move into it in November 2016. Mr and Mrs Moto wanted me to go with them to visit Tokyo in November, but I had a new house to move into! I couldn’t do that… or so I thought.
As I learned the hard way, home construction never goes according to schedule. So when the completion date of my new home got pushed back to late December, I was all the sudden free to go to Tokyo. (I had stockpiled vacation days in order to move, but now I could just use my regular Christmas break to move.)
Then American Express, whose 100,000 points sign up bonus offer I’d been ignoring for a few months, came back and offered me a 150,000 points sign up bonus for their Business Platinum card. Coincidentally, American Express Membership Rewards points transfers to All Nippon Airways (ANA) on a 1:1 ratio and 150,000 miles is exactly what I needed for round trip in first class!
I then looked at ANA’s website and voila! There was availability on their new ORD-HND flight! Thanks to these super convenient set of circumstances, I was able to book my round trip flight to Tokyo for 150,000 miles and $86.81 in taxes and fees. It was meant to be, right?
ANA is actually Japan’s flagship airline and just 1 out of 9 airlines worldwide that has a Skytrax 5-star rating. So yeah, to say that I was excited about this flight is an understatement!
How I Booked the Flight
As I mentioned above, I signed up for the American Express Business Platinum card and got the 150,000 Membership Rewards points sign up bonus. These points can be transferred to ANA Mileage Club at a 1:1 ratio, so I got 150,000 ANA miles to book my flight. At 75,000 miles each way for first class, ANA’s mileage redemption for flights on ANA aircrafts is really solid. The one major downside is that you can only book award tickets as a round trip. I saw that The Points Guy booked a flight one way in first class and one way in economy class to get away with using less points… but since I had enough miles for round trip in first class, I went ahead and splurged.
You can also fly round trip to Japan and back in business class for 75,000 miles… which is INSANE. Delta charges 80,000 miles minimum for ONE WAY in business class. Had that been an option, I would’ve taken business class and taken someone else with me instead of flying in first… but alas, there wasn’t a single business class award seat available for the week we wanted to go.
ANA flies between Tokyo Narita or Tokyo Haneda to NYC, Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, San Francisco, LA, and San Jose. In the case of NYC and Chicago, there’s a flight to both Narita and Haneda.
One major downside of transferring to ANA is that it takes approximately 3 days for the transferred miles to post. So you need to search for available award seats on ANA’s website, make the transfer, then cross your fingers that those award seats don’t disappear. ANA does not allow holds on award seats whatsoever. I called ANA and checked.
So after I authorized the transfer of points from Amex to ANA, I waited 3 agonizing days for the miles to post. I was originally planning on flying round trip between Chicago and Tokyo Haneda, but by the time my miles posted, the return leg from Haneda to Chicago was gone! Grrr. Luckily, there was still a seat available in first class from Narita to DC. This made arranging my positioning flights between my home in Columbus to Chicago and then back from DC to Columbus a bit of a chore, but it wasn’t too terrible.
Of note, if you transfer your points but aren’t able to book your flights, you have 3 years to use those miles. ANA miles expire 3 years after you earned them… regardless of activity. So be really careful not to let those miles expire!
Getting to Chicago
So while I live in Columbus, I happened to be in Cleveland for Thanksgiving right before this trip. To get myself to Chicago O’Hare, I booked a 1-way flight on American Airlines from CLE to ORD for ~$100. Even as a lowly AA Gold status member, I got upgraded to first class for this 1 hour flight.
The Ground Experience at ORD
As my positioning flight was on AA (oneworld) and my next flight was on ANA (Star Alliance) on completely separate tickets, I would’ve been completely hosed had my AA flight gotten delayed/cancelled. So I scheduled a 4.5 hrs layover in Chicago. I figured that way, if things were looking really bad, I could drive myself from Cleveland to Chicago and still make my ANA flight.
My AA flight from CLE landed early, actually… which gave me 5 hrs to spend in ORD. Unfortunately for me, the ANA check-in counter doesn’t open until 3 hrs prior to departure. I ended up doing some work on my laptop near the check-in area using the airport’s free wifi.
ANA’s check-in counter is at the far end of United’s Terminal 1, next to Lufthansa’s counter.
Once I successfully checked in for my flight, I headed to the security line designated for first class passengers… on the complete opposite end of the terminal. Although the line was non-existent at the premium passenger security line, it may have been just as quick to go through the regular security line that’s closer to the check-in counter. ANA does not participate in TSA Precheck, but I imagine I would’ve qualified had I booked this flight through United.
I had the bad luck of going through Chicago the week before United’s new Polaris Lounge debuted. The Polaris Lounge took the spot formerly occupied by United’s Global First Lounge… so I was sent to the regular United Club (aka business class lounge) instead of the first class lounge. #firstworldproblems
As it turns out though, the United Club near gate B6 appears to be nicely renovated and spacious! Being more used to mediocre Delta and AA lounges, this lounge was a pleasant surprise to me.
The United Club has free beers and wines, but also offers premium drinks for a fee… that is, unless, you’re flying first class on United or ANA. As a first class passenger, I was entitled to basically whatever premium drink they had at the bar. So I helped myself to a mini bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne. Because why not?
As I enjoyed the champagne and did some work on my laptop, a friendly staffer came by and offered a free mini-slice of Giordano’s deep dish pizza. I knew I had a lot of good food coming my way on the flight, but couldn’t say no to Giordano’s!
Before I knew it, it was time to board my flight. It’s a good thing I was looking at the clock, because I didn’t hear any announcements for my flight in the lounge.
Boarding the Flight
ANA flies their fleet of Boeing 777-300ER between Tokyo and their various destinations within the U.S. I had calculated that there was a 1:8 chance that my flight will be on ANA’s special BB8 livery Star Wars jet, but my flight was operated by ANA’s standard 777.
ANA’s 777-300ER has 8 first class seats spread out in a 1-2-1 distribution across 2 rows. Until the day of the flight, I was the only person assigned a seat in first class. I was thinking about how crazy it would be to have an entire first class cabin to myself… but alas, another passenger ended up in first class with me. Not a big deal however, as there are 2 flight attendants assigned to the first class cabin. We had the magical 1:1 passenger:flight attendant ratio! It goes without saying, the service was incredible.
Upon boarding the aircraft, I was greeted by the lead flight attendant Ms. Sakamoto. I had blurted out at the check-in counter about how excited I was to be flying ANA first class for the first time… and that had apparently been communicated to the flight crew. Ms. Sakamoto assured me that the flight attendants will do everything to make my flight as special as possible.
I had originally assigned myself seat 1K, but moved myself over to seat 1A when I checked in. For whatever reason, ANA blocks off seat 1A until 24 hours prior to departure. There’s just something special about being in seat 1A… or so I think at least.
Waiting for me at my seat was ANA’s famous hard-cover amenity kit. It used to be made by Rimowa, but is now made by Samsonite. It looks really nice and will definitely come in handy as a carrying case for toiletries, glasses, power cables, etc. for future travels.
The amenity kit contained an eye mask, ear plugs, tooth brush, face wash, and 2 different types of face lotion.
There was also a Sony noise cancelling headphone for me to use during the flight.
ANA’s first class “square” seats features light wood-colored walls that encloses the seat and gives it a bit of an office cubicle look. The walls have a lot of storage compartments where you can store things like your smartphone and eye glasses. I imagine a lot of personal belongings have been left behind in these planes though…
A lot of travel bloggers complain that ANA’s first class squares are too private/isolated, and this is true if you are traveling with someone else. But as a solo traveler, this seating arrangement is great. This is probably as close to flying in a private jet as I will ever come in my life. The walls block off all of the windows except for one, which did bug me during take-off and landing. The additional storage compartments did come in handy during the flight.
Before takeoff, I made my way to the lavatory to get changed into ANA’s pajama set, which consisted of a top, a bottom, and a cardigan. The top and bottom are for you to keep, but not the cardigan. They were quite comfortable, and the ability to layer the pajama helped to keep me comfortable and not too hot or cold.
The pre-departure beverage of champagne was offered, which I graciously accepted.
The flight attendants also came around with a basket full of extra amenity items such as eye mask, tooth brush, and comb. I took one of each to write this review. The ANA “original aroma” is a scent card that you activate and put on your pillow when you go to bed. It gives off this awesome floral-minty scent. Whether you like the scent or not is rather subjective, but I personally loved it enough to grab a few more on my way off the plane. The “leg refreshing sheet” as it turned out was a salonpas patch, which is like an icy hot patch to sooth your aching muscles. (so you don’t necessarily have to put it on your legs… you could put it on your back or arms or where ever.)
The In-Flight Experience
We departed from O’Hare right on time, and as soon as we reached cruising altitude, the drink menu was distributed. I had been studying ANA’s first class drink menu online prior to the flight, and was especially excited about the Krug champagne and the Suntory Hibiki 21 years whisky. We’re talking about champagne that costs $200/bottle and whisky that costs $500/bottle! If that doesn’t excite you, you are reading the wrong blog! 😉 Of note, ANA publishes their food and drink menu in all classes of service on their website ahead of time. You can search based on when you’re flying and between which airport pairs you’re flying. Very handy.
I requested a glass of Krug to start with, and it did not disappoint. If I were to actually pay cash on the ground for a bottle of $200 champagne, it will be Krug. No question. It’s that good.
The dinner menu was also distributed, and I had the option of going with the western or Japanese cuisine. As we were flying out of Chicago, I figured the western catering would be better and ordered accordingly. The menu binder has menus for both flights TO and FROM Japan, so you need to make sure you’re looking at the correct section of the menu.
The meal service started with an amuse trio of roasted duck, shrimp, and tomato with cheese to go with the champagne.
They then set the table for the actual meal. A selection of bread was offered, and I picked the pretzel bread. I was also offered the choice between still and sparking water… so I got the sparking water. A new can of Perrier was opened every time they refilled my water glass.
Next came the appetizer, which for me was the scallops and lobster with caviar… which was served on top of crab meat. With a refill of Krug. On an airplane. Mind = blown.
For the salad, I ordered it with the Japanese yuzu citron dressing… obviously because I’m on a Japanese airliner!
The main dish followed, and I had selected the fillet of beef with truffle sauce. I also switched over from the Krug to the Louis Jadot Burgundy wine for the steak.
After the steak, the flight attendants offered me a cheese plate to help me finish my red wine. I figured why not, but was caught off guard by how large the cheese plate was! I’m typically a clean plater, but I couldn’t finish all the cheese. It was amazing, however!
Finally, I finished off my meal with a cappuccino mousse cake and a cup of Illy cappuccino. Both were excellent.
At this point, the offer was made to turn my seat into a bed. I politely declined however, as I still needed to drink some whisky! The flight attendants suggested that they’ll make me a bed at the empty seat (1D) across the aisle from me, and that I can move back and forth between the 2 seats as I see fit. The bottle of Suntory Hibiki 21 years old was also brought out, and I was given a rather generous pour. This bottle won blended whisky of the year at the World Whiskies Award in 2016 and goes for around $500/bottle!
As I sipped on the amazing whisky and watched a movie (Your Name., which is apparently the highest grossing Japanese animation movie of all time), one of the flight attendants came over and let me know that there’s some aurora borealis visible over the horizon out of the starboard windows. So I sauntered on over to the other side of the first class cabin and got to watch the northern lights out of the aircraft with a glass of one of the world’s best whiskies in my hand. Seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this! I tried to take a few photos of the aurora, but my iPhone couldn’t quite capture it in the dark.
About 4 or 5 hours into the flight, I decided to make my way to seat 1D to take a quick nap. I didn’t want to sleep through too much of my first class experience, but did have a busy schedule ahead of me in Japan and needed to get some rest.
I purposefully only slept for about 2 hours, but the bed was definitely comfortable. I could have slept for much, much longer had I wanted to. I awoke to find a new bottle of water and a dendrobium orchid sitting on my tray table. A very nice touch.
The mid-flight snack was actually one of my big highlights from my previous trip in Japan Airline’s first class, so I tried ordering the Ippudo miso ramen. Unfortunately, ramen doesn’t translate very well into an in-flight meal. On hindsight I should have ordered the chicken curry rice.
In keeping with the theme of flying a Japanese airliner to Japan, I ordered another glass of Hibiki whisky and watched Shin Godzilla.
About 90 minutes prior to arrival, the pre-arrival meal was served. This time, I went with the Japanese cuisine which included simmered mackerel, simmered squid with veggies, rice, and natto. I grew up in Japan, so I found these enjoyable. However, for a casual westerner, this meal may be completely inedible. Especially the natto!
When I ordered another glass of Hibiki whisky after the meal, the flight attendants insisted on giving me some additional appetizers (fish cakes) and a fruit plate. I happily obliged.
And the last bit of food/drink that I had on this awesome flight was a cup of Illy caffe latte
Upon touching down right on time at Tokyo Haneda, I was the first person off the plane. Having a Japanese passport, I zoomed through immigrations and was on my way for my adventures in Tokyo.
Overall this was an amazing, at times even magical, flight. The seat is awesome, the drinks are mind-blowing, and the food selection is top-notch. The fact that I was able to book it all on points made it even sweeter. I would not hesitate to recommend ANA first class to anyone with the cash or points balance to book it.
With that said, how does ANA’s first class compare to their chief competitor, JAL’s first class? I’ll save that for a future post. 🙂