I got a $20,000 first-class flight from New York to Japan for just $257 by using credit card points. Here's exactly how I did it

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  • This winter, my wife and I used credit-card points to fly first class to Japan on All Nippon Airways, or ANA, a Japanese carrier.
  • In-air suites, comfortable chairs that turned into lie-flat beds, top-shelf champagne and whiskey, and unbelievable Japanese food were just a few of the highlights.
  • Using cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card andPlatinum Card® from American Express, it cost us surprisingly few points, plus about $250 in taxes and fees.

I love to travel, and I love to do it using points or frequent-flyer miles — probably a given, since I’m Business Insider’s senior travel and credit card reporter.

One thing I — and presumably everyone else on the planet — don’t like: Spending 10 to 20 hours in a cramped economy seat on an airplane.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m willing to do it without a second thought if it means getting to travel somewhere like Asia, Africa, Australia, southern South America, or parts of Europe. I fly coach on most of my trips, because it’s absolutely worth it in order to see somewhere new or different, or to take advantage of work opportunities. But there’s no questioning that it’s rough, and that it might take some time to recover from the journey.

The ideal way to travel is in business class — where you can enjoy better food and service, but more importantly, room to stretch out — or first class — where meals, amenities, and service are a full experience to go alongside plenty of personal space and privacy.

One card I used for my first-class flight was the Platinum Card® from American Express. Learn more about it The Points Guy »

The problem: Those premium cabins are expensive. Long-haul business class flights can cost thousands of dollars, while first class can eclipse $20,000. With economy flights to anywhere in the world usually staying below $2,000, and often available for less than half of that, it can be hard to justify the expense of a premium cabin unless your workplace is paying, or you have a tremendous amount of disposable income.

Using credit-card points and frequent-flyer miles, though, makes premium cabin flights suddenly affordable for anyone.

The easiest way to use points and miles for a vacation: plan destinations and dates around flights, not the other way around

You can book through your credit card’s travel website, although this usually takes a huge amount of points. A better option is to transfer your points to an airline’s frequent flyer program, basically turning them into miles. Because of the way frequent flyer programs work, you can usually get a lot more value from a lot fewer miles than credit card points.

That’s how my wife and I recently snagged two round-trip, first-class tickets to Japan, part of a larger Asian trip connecting to South Korea and Thailand.

Using miles to book premium cabin tickets can be tricky, but it’s certainly doable with a bit of planning, effort, and flexibility. If you’re looking for specific dates or, preferably, a specific time period with a couple of days of flexibility on either end, your best chance is to start searching as far in advance as possible, and be ready to book tickets as soon as they open up. ExpertFlyer can be helpful for this, but isn’t mandatory.

The first class seat can be lowered into a lie-flat bed.David Slotnick/Business Insider

The more ideal situation, if you have a relatively flexible schedule and aren’t traveling for a specific event, such as a wedding, is to build up a stock of points and miles, and plan trips around flight availability that you can book with the points you have on-hand.

That’s what we did in this case. All Nippon Airways, or ANA, a Japanese airline, opened up a ton of first and business class availability between the US and Asia all at once for the coming year. I found out about it thanks to a Twitter alert, and booked a round-trip from New York to Tokyo with a two-week stay. Then, we planned the trip from there.

The American Express® Gold Card is one of my go-to cards for travel points. Learn more at The Points Guy »

As you build up a stock of credit card points and frequent flyer miles, an excellent way to find out when an airline opens up a ton of award space — and how to book it with whatever points or miles you have — is to sign up for the Straight to the Points Award Alerts e-mail newsletter.

This helpful newsletter is sent out periodically as airlines open up large blocks of award space — so anywhere from one to five times a month, on average — and lists all of the different points and miles you can use to book the flights. When you get an alert, take a look at the ways you can book the flight, and see if the dates and destinations work for a vacation, and enjoy your ride on some of the world’s best first and business class offerings.

How I booked Japan

Last spring, before Straight to the Points launched its newsletter, I saw either a blog post or a Twitter tip — I can’t quite remember — sharing that there were a ton of first and business class availability on ANA between US cities and Tokyo.

My wife and I had been to Japan for our honeymoon the year before, and wanted to explore somewhere new, but we had been vaguely talking about taking a vacation somewhere in Asia early the following year. We didn’t have any firm thoughts or plans yet, but we decided to book the round trip into Tokyo and figure out the rest from there. We chose flights that gave us a two-week stay. At 14 hours in one direction and 11 in the other, it seemed like a fantastic time to splurge on first class.

Sometimes, it costs fewer points to book a ticket using miles from an airline’s partner than from the airline itself. That’s the case with ANA, at least for flights between the US and Asia.

ANA is part of the Star Alliance network, meaning it partners with airlines like United and Air Canada. However, it also has non-alliance based partnerships, including with independent airline Virgin Atlantic.

The first class flight to Japan featured delicious food and $300 bottles of champagne.David Slotnick/Business Insider

You can only book round-trip tickets if you use Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles on partner airlines, but Virgin’s partner award chart is incredibly generous, meaning you don’t need too many miles to book.

Flights between the Western US and Japan in business class are just 90,000 miles round-trip, while first class is only 110,000 miles round-trip — from the Eastern US, it’s 95,000 miles and 120,000 miles, respectively. There are also taxes and fees which top out at around $250.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a transfer partner of the three major transferable credit card rewards programs: AmEx Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards.

One of the cards I’ve used with Chase Ultimate Rewards is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which is currently offering its highest-ever signup bonus.

When I found out about the availability, I used United’s website to search for ANA flights — unfortunately, Virgin’s website doesn’t have access to ANA’s flights, meaning you need to find availability somewhere else, then call Virgin to book. I simply entered “NYC” as my departure city and “TYO,” for Tokyo, as my destination, clicked “Book with miles” and “Calendar shop,” selected two adults, first class, and the month I wanted to look at. Then, I played around with results until I found dates that showed ANA flights bookable with miles.

When we decided to book the flights, I called Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club reservations number, and waited on hold for about 20 minutes. When I got through, I told the call agent exactly which flights I wanted, confirmed they were available, and asked her to hold the reservation, which Virgin allows for 24 hours. Then, I logged into my Chase account, and transferred the necessary points to Virgin, called back, and confirmed the reservation.

I also could have used my AmEx points — AmEx occasionally runs transfer bonuses to Virgin, but wasn’t at the time — but since my wife and I had an abundance of Chase points at the time, it seemed more practical to use those.

I got my Chase points using cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Learn more from The Points Guy »

In the end, each of our round-trip first class tickets cost 120,000 points, transferred to Virgin Atlantic, and $256.71 in taxes and fees. The advertised cash price for each ticket was $20,787. That means we got an excellent $0.0585 worth of value for each point used — way more than the $0.015 we could have gotten if we used points to book travel through Chase.

With more leg room than you could ever need, first class is the ultimate way to fly.David Slotnick/Business Insider

We earned the points through a combination of optimizing the rewards we earn on spending by using the right card, and by opening new cards to earn sign-up or welcome bonuses. I try to keep a healthy stock of points on hand for opportunities like this, which I’ve found to be one of the best ways to use them.

If you’re hoping to book a similar trip, take a look at the below cards. I’ve had each of them at some point — or currently have them — and their new membership bonuses have helped me take some incredible trips.

Click on the cards below to visit Business Insider’s partner The Points Guy to learn more about them:

  • Platinum Card® from American Express

  • American Express® Gold Card

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (currently offering its highest-ever sign-up bonus!)

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve

  • Chase Freedom Unlimited

  • Citi Premier Rewards

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Business Insider may receive a commission from The Points Guy Affiliate Network, but our reporting and recommendations are always independent and objective.

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