Flying to Japan – Useful Tips

ANA
ANA planes in Haneda Airport

Since Japan is a collection of islands, most foreign visitors end up flying to the large airports to start their journey.  Over time, I have used quite a few different airlines to visit Japan.  Here is what I’ve learned from the past flights to and from Japan from the U.S.

Airports in Tokyo. Which should I use?

If I have a choice between flying to Narita airport (成田空港)  or  Haneda airport (羽田空港), I like to choose to fly to Haneda airport for its convenience. Narita is actually located in Chiba prefecture (Tokyo’s North Eastern neighbor) and it takes about 1 hour to get into the center of Tokyo. I usually take the JR Narita Express from Narita International terminal to JR Tokyo station, which is the fastest way to get there, and it costs around 3000 yen.

From Haneda , you can hop onto the Monorail to JR Hamamatsucho station (浜松町駅).  It costs 410 yen and takes less than 18 minutes.  Hamamatsucho is a station on Yamanote line which is a circular JR line covering a wide area of Tokyo.  Most major Tokyo area stations are on Yamanote line, and it is convenient to have easy access to the line.  Also, a majority of domestic flights within Tokyo leaves from Haneda.  If you are lucky, you may be able to catch the connecting flights to your final destination.

The cons of using Haneda airport is that there are not as many international flights coming into Haneda. I always have to book early to be able to fly to Haneda.  However, if you can find one going into Haneda with a reasonable price, I highly recommend making the purchase.

Which airline should I choose to fly to Japan?

I have used may be 10 different airlines to travel to Japan usually to catch the best airfare deals. However, if I have my choice, I will use Asian-based airlines, such as All Nippon Airways, Japan Airline, Singapore Air, Thai Air and Korean Air. I have not used the airlines based in China for a long time, so I can’t comment on them.  Disclaimer: I always fly from the West coast of the U.S., either San Francisco or Los Angeles. However, one time, I flew from Vancouver, Canada.

For most of the Asian-based airlines, the flight attendants usually provide high-quality service. In Asian countries, being a flight attendant on international flights is highly prestigious. Quite a few attendants are college educated. Since they need to speak at least one foreign language fluently, college education is desirable.  I remember reading an airline magazine article on Thai air in 2007. All men and women flight attendants profiled on the magazine seemed to have degrees from prestigious universities in their countries.

I could be biased, but I also think the food is better with Asian-based airlines.  Of course, economy class in-flight food can’t be great, but I had some surprisingly decent choices on some Asian-based airlines

On my most recent trips to Japan, I used with All Nippon Airways from the U.S to Haneda Airport.  I had used All Nippon Airways on domestic Japan flights many times in the past, but it was my first time flying international with ANA.  I thought the flight attendants were very attentive, and I appreciated little things such as finding a bathroom being cleaned in the mid-flight while the cabin was darkened.  I was politely directed to use another bathroom while that one bathroom was being cleaned.

In addition to the good flight experience, All Nippon Airways customer service in the U.S. recently provided me with an excellent service experience. Because of the good service on the air and on the ground, I became a big fan of ANA.

When you fly from the U.S. to Japan, you usually lose one day. For example, if I start my 10 hour Trans-Pacific flight on October 3rd in the afternoon, I end up arriving in Japan in the evening of October 4th due to the time difference from crossing the International Date Line. Since I have crossed the International Date Line many times, and I should have a good understanding of how it works.

However, when I booked a trip to Japan last year,  I somehow mistakenly thought that my flight, originating on October 3rd arrived on the same date in Japan, and I made an ANA connecting  domestic flight reservation for October 3rd. Ouch!  Of course, it was also a non-refundable ticket with a change of schedule fee. I went for the maximum discount on the fare.  I did not realize my mistake for over one week.  Then on day, I was looking at my itinerary, I realized my mistake and I almost had a heart attack! I had scheduled a domenstic flight on October 3rd, and I would not even be in Japan on the 3rd yet. With a heavy heart, I made a call to ANA customer service, and explained my mistake. I politely asked them to change the flight schedule to the next day (October 4th), and told them that it misunderstanding on my part. I was ready to pay whatever the fee or penalty that the airline could charge.

My polite ANA service agent, who had a Japanese name, said she had to speak with her supervisor. I said “Of course” since it was 100% my fault.  After some period of listing to elevator music, the service rep came back on line, and told me that the change was already made and I should have a new itinerary in my email inbox.  I was informed that there was no charge to make this change for me. I was just ecstatic to hear her say that!

I thanked her many times, and asked her if I could take a customer service survey or write to her supervisor about her superb service. She said there was no survey, but I pried out her supervisor’s email address from her. I wrote a note of appreciation and commendation to her supervisor on the same day and sent it to ANA. I received a polite note of “thank you for being a good customer” in return.

Also, when I book tickets through the 3rd party websites such as Priceline or Expedia, most airlines give me a hard time when I call them for service or questions. They often treat me as if I am a lower class customer because I did not book with them directly. When I called ANA for help with 3rd party reserved booking, they gave me the exact same service as if I had booked directly through them.  One time, they even went to the connecting airline’s site (another Star Alliance member to which ANA belongs) and reviewed my entire trip to make sure I was all prepared. They consistently go above and beyond to make sure I have a good experience with them.

I think ANA is a real gem among the Trans-Pacific airlines. I found a review of ANA on Airline Quality review site, and the staff service category is given coveted 5 out of 5 stars by the reviewers. I could not agree more.

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