I don’t usually talk about planning award travel ten months off, but I happened to notice today that there are tons of dates in January, 2010 available where All Nippon Airways is offering two first class award seats, Chicago – Tokyo.
I didn’t check the reverse, or other gateways (New York-JFK, Los Angeles, San Francisco… sadly ANA is pulling first class from Washington-Dulles in July, and first class award seats departing Japan have been harder to secure in the recent past) but if you’re having difficulty getting back my suggestion is to search first class awards on Asiana — Seoul – JFK, Seoul – Chicago, and the ubiquitously available Seoul – Los Angeles (this is certainly the most available transpacific flight in first class for an award, offering seats nearly every day of the year except for the batch of dates that Asiana treats as a blackout or requires additional points for redemption by members of its own program).
Now, you may not actually want to spend time in Japan in January! But Chicago – Tokyo is a wonderful transpacific flight, and from there you can connect of course to just about anywhere in Asia.
Ten months forward of course there are risks to your itinerary of several iterations of schedule changes, and so any time you book particularly far in advance you do need to check on your itinerary as it develops. But it’s worth booking far out to secure one of the best premium cabins that there is currently in the sky.
I’d also expect award seats to open up nicely as schedules roll forward, that February and March 2010 might be equally good for ANA first class redemptions. Once April hits things have tended to tighten up in the past because it becomes higher season for travel to Japan.
Sure, ANA has been running their ‘new’ first class for several years. It’s not a ‘suite’ on an A380, and their onboard entertainment is limited to say the least. But their seat in incredibly spacious and functional, and in my humble opinion they offer the best meal service of any airline. They have a nice caviar (and Krug..) service and their snack menu for between-meals easily outdoes what almost any carrier offers for main meals.
And Asiana’s new first class is not too shabby, either. You currently risk having your aircraft swapped for the one remaining old-style 747 without suites or video on demand, but the risk is low.
And once in Asia availability onward in first class tends to be fairly good, such as Asiana to Shanghai, Thai Airways between Bangkok and Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong (Tokyo has been harder of late), and if you’re looking for a single seat only then Singapore Airlines and most desitnations for which they offer three-cabin regional service. (Business class availability to most destinations is of course ubiquitous, but I try to avoid it as much as possible!)
Now, for those members of United’s Mileage Plus program just because a seat is available doesn’t mean that you can book it. United does block award inventory being offered by its partners, preventing members from redeeming for seats. They have a budget allocated for each quarter to each partner and they may start out a quarter blocking heavily to prevent running up against their budget, in which case if they overshoot and are way under budget they’ll relax the constraints at the end of a quarter. Or they may find themselves running up against their budget towards the end of a quarter and imposing severe limits on redemption, the classic case being when they won’t let members redeem a single seat between say Frankfurt and Berlin on Lufthansa when Lufthansa is making award seats available on every flight.
I haven’t called up United to see whether what level of blocking is currently in place on their various Asian partners. If you can’t find seats now, try again in early April.
But if you’re redeeming say US Airways miles or Air Canada Aeroplan points then this might be a wonderful time to book that January, 2010 Asia trip, securing All Nippon Airways first class.
Or if you have American Express points, a transfer to Air Canada happens in real-time. Aeroplan requires just 120,000 miles for first class awards from North America to Asia. They allow two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw. And they even permit crossing both the Atlantic and the Pacific (subject to maximum permitted mileage for a city pair) without bumping up the mileage required. So if you can’t find ANA for the return flight, and don’t fancy Asiana, you may be able to come back on Swiss or Lufthansa or even Singapore’s Frankfurt-JFK flight.