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How I Turned an Economy Award Ticket to Tokyo into a Business Class Suite

Travelers know it all too well: You're never really done planning a trip. Whether it's dinner reservations, trains, or digging into those tiny logistical details that can make or break a trip, there's always something more to do in the lead-up to a vacation. But even for the big, important, and expensive aspects of a trip – like flights – I'm rarely done booking and re-booking until I head to the airport that day.

The way I constantly massage my flight itineraries in the months, days, and even hours before flying causes raised eyebrows from my friends and family over the years, but I swear by it. That's because, in the end, some of my favorite flights ever were not the ones I initially booked.

My travel-booking pattern goes something like this: I book a cheap economy flight using points and miles to get the trip in motion. Then, over time, I keep looking and booking better and better flights until I get the one I actually want in the end – ideally, flying in a lie-flat, business class seat. That's how I turned what was initially a grueling, 12-hour flight in economy to Tokyo last month into a seat in the world's best business class cabin.

Booking flexible, one-way fights using points and miles – sometimes eating some modest change or cancellation fees in order to do so – makes it possible.


Why I Rebook (& Rebook) Flights

Last year, I wrote about my most drastic example of my rebooking pattern, but let's recap.

I rebooked my flights to Croatia four times, eventually landing myself and my wife lie-flat seats in the fantastic United Polaris business class cabin thanks to some last-minute award space – not the Air France economy seats we initially booked.

It wasn't the first time, or the last time, that I moved things around until I found the best possible way to fly somewhere within my (typically tight) budget. But the latest example might be my greatest. It was simple, cost-effective, and landed me on the best flight of my life flying to Tokyo.

Last March, I leaned on our favorite workaround for booking Delta flights, using 35,000 Virgin Atlantic points per person to book two the two nonstop Delta flights to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) for my wife and myself. Sadly, you won't find that low rates anymore after Virgin recently hiked award rates on most Delta routes.

We booked flights home the same way, for the same amount.

Minneapolis to Tokyo Virgin Atlantic FLying Club
An example of roundtrip Delta flights from Minneapolis to Tokyo before Virgin's devaluation earlier this year. The price for a one-way was 35,000.

We were happy to take these nonstop economy flights to Tokyo. But at the same time, I was watching closely for some business class award availability – which was nonexistent at the time we began planning our trip – to see if we could upgrade our situation, especially into a lie-flat seat for that long flight to Tokyo.

Throughout the year, I kept getting Thrifty Traveler Premium award alerts for Japan, but none perfectly matched what we were looking for. There was Japan Airlines business class availability that came up, but we didn't have the right points to book. Other times, United Polaris or All Nippon Airways (ANA) business class seats opened up, but we were short points to get two of those seats.

I probably checked for alternatives about twice a month leading up to our January 2024 departure. And I noticed a clear pattern: If you're trying to book ANA business class, the award availability to actually book those seats typically starts to open up two or three weeks before departure. You'll get down to the wire, but it can be done.

After noticing that clear pattern, I was feeling confident enough to make a bet. About a month before our trip, I booked a pair of cheap, flexible positioning flights from Minneapolis to Chicago – just in case we were able to secure these last-minute business class for ourselves.

And then it happened: About nine days before our trip, I found the award space for two seats flying ANA's fancy “The Room” business class from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND).

united asia devaluation 

These flights were bookable for 47,5000 points per person through ANA's partner airline, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. So I quickly transferred 95,000 American Express points to Virgin – enough to book two seats – called a helpful Virgin representative, and boom: Instead of flying economy, we were going to Japan in one of the best business class seats in the world.

But what about that Delta economy flight to Tokyo? I could have had that same phone agent cancel our one-way tickets first for a $50 award cancellation fee, get my 70,000 Virgin points back, and transfer just 25,000 more Amex points to book ANA business class instead. But I had to act fast before someone else beat me to it, so I simply had my Virgin agent cancel our Delta flight to Tokyo after booking our new ANA flight, banking those 70,000 Virgin points for a future trip.

Plus, we still were able to take our nonstop Delta flight home from Tokyo without changing anything with that itinerary – we booked two one-ways separately.

Here's the moral of the story: Booking flights with points and miles gives you far more flexibility to get a better deal later on down the line – or snag a better seat. Sure, you can cancel many cash flights for a voucher … but then you've got $1,000 or more in airline credits to use – and a year (or less) to do so before they expire.

Plus, using points allowed me to book an amazing experience that I couldn't otherwise afford: Flying ANA's The Room business class was far and away the best flight of my life. And it was all possible because I originally booked flexible award tickets and my persistence in searching for better options.


The Keys to Rebooking Award Flights

There's no one-size-fits-all method to doing this. A lot will depend on your departure airport, your desired destination, the transferrable points you have, and much more.

But if you rebook your flights to spend fewer points on your next trip or fly in a business class (or even first class) seat, there are a few things you need to make sure to do.


Always Book One-Way Flights with Your Miles

This is the most crucial part of this equation. When it comes to award flights, booking one-way is going to be your best bet if you need to rebook down the line. While there are a few exceptions – like the roundtrip savings when booking through ANA Mileage Club or Emirates and discounted Delta SkyMiles flash sales – booking one-ways won't cost you more miles. It might cost you more in taxes and fees, but that could be worth it.

That's because booking one-way flights gives you the flexibility to act if a better option for just one leg of your journey comes up, like with my flights to Japan. It's much, much easier to simply cancel a one-way flight you no longer need than to have an airline agent rework your roundtrip reservation – if that's even an option.


Consider Your Positioning Flight Options

Getting a great deal on business class flights is often restricted to departures from major airports: Think New York City (JFK), Newark (EWR), Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD), Chicago-O'Hare (ORD), or Los Angeles (LAX). So if you're hoping to rebook your flights to score a lie-flat seat, you may need to also book another, separate flight just to get there.

They're called positioning flights, and they're a staple when it comes to getting a great deal using points.

For my recent trip to Japan, I knew I was angling for ANA business class … but this Japanese airline doesn't fly from my home airport of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP). It does, however, fly to and from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD). So I booked my wife and myself two, one-way tickets to O'hare ahead of time while the prices were still low – just in case I managed to find that last-minute award availability for ANA's The Room. Worse comes to worse, I could have canceled those flights and gotten a voucher to put towards a future trip.

In the past, I've leveraged airline credits, Delta companion certificates, and other methods to take the sting out of those last-minute positioning flights. I've also used programs like British Airways Avios to book American Airlines flights for as little as 8,250 points each way, or Virgin Atlantic to book Delta flights for as little as 7,500 each way to do the same.

American flight from Minneapolis (MSP) to Chicago (ORD) booked via British Airways 

If you can avoid flying by snagging a one-way rental car or a train to position for your flight, that's even better!


Monitor Airfare & Award Availability Like a Hawk

As a flight deal analyst for Thrifty Traveler Premium, I spend hours every day searching for cheap flights and award availability. There's no doubt that gives me a leg up when it comes to finding good deals – it's the best perk of my job!

But even if you have just a few minutes a month to do some award searches around your upcoming trip, it could put you in a position to rebook your flights effectively.

Here's what I do: I find a few ideal routes (like I did for ANA's The Room) and just build in a single search a week for the day of my existing reservation or the day or two around it. If you want to expand that to a few routes and few searches, go right ahead! But take stock of the points and miles you have and then search around that.

If you don't have time for that, I don't blame you! That's where we come in: Thrifty Traveler Premium sends you award availability alerts to use your points and miles daily. When you get an alert, see if it lines up with your desired travel days, transfer some points, and get to rebooking!

ANA Biz class 

I also use Premium alerts for inspiration. If you didn't already know that you could book ANA's The Room Business Class using Virgin Atlantic points, the experts at Thrifty Traveler Premium did! In the most recent deals we sent to members, we outlined this practice in detail, including giving you the exact phone number to call to make sure you can get these seats booked.

While you may not book this exact deal, you'll have the tools you need to do this on your own in the future.


Be Willing to Eat Some Change or Cancellation Fees

This practice of rebooking isn't always free. To secure my ANA flights, I had to eat a $50 cancellation fee from Virgin Atlantic for dumping my initial Delta economy flights, but I was more than willing to do that for the opportunity to book ANA business class seats that typically cost thousands of dollars. Plus, they just deducted that $50 from the taxes and fees that were coming back my way anyway.

It all depends on the airline program, though. While some don't charge any change and cancellation fees for award tickets, others like Avianca LifeMiles hit you with a $200 fee to alter or cancel your flights at all. Ouch.

Booking your award tickets through airline programs that charge low (or no) fees to change or cancel a reservation is key. Here are a few that stand out as solid options:

  • Air France/KLM Flying Blue: Most award tickets can be changed or canceled for a flat 50 euro fee
  • Alaska Airlines: Any award ticket booked using Alaska Mileage Plan miles can be changed or canceled for free to get your miles back.
  • American Airlines: American has completely eliminated its $150 redeposit fees for all award tickets, and canceling online is easy. Just beware that if you book a partner award ticket, you may have to call the airline to cancel and get your miles back.
  • British Airways: Flights booked with British Airways Avios can be changed or canceled for a $55 fee
  • Delta: Only main cabin award tickets can be canceled without fee – you'll get your miles and taxes and fees back automatically. For Delta's basic economy awards, you'll forfeit 9,900 SkyMiles when canceling a domestic award trip (or to Mexico, Canada, Central America, or the Caribbean) and a whopping 19,900 SkyMiles for major international journeys.
  • Iberia: Flights booked with Iberia Avios can be changed or canceled for just a 25 euro fee.
  • United: United allows you to change a mileage redemption without paying a fee, and it will waive redeposit fees for all award travel so long as you cancel more than 30 days before departure.
  • Virgin Atlantic: Flying Club award tickets can be canceled for a $50 fee – and if you paid less than that in taxes and fees when booking the original ticket, you'll simply forfeit that amount.


Have Enough Points for Both Bookings to Be Safe

For some points and miles programs, canceling your reservation leads to an immediate redeposit of your points into your account. That way, you can rebook your new flight using those existing points.

But beware: Not all programs (and not the best ones) work like this. In some cases, it can take hours or even days to get your miles back after canceling an award ticket, throwing your plans into the blender.

That's why it's wise to ensure you have all the points you need to rebook before pulling the trigger. While I could have put those 70,000 Virgin points I had already used to book Delta economy flights toward my new ANA business class reservation, I didn't want to risk the award space disappearing while I waited for those points to make it back into my account. Because I use points and miles for almost all flights I book these days, I know I'll be able to put those stranded points to use for a future trip no problem.

Thrifty Tip: Call a customer service representative and keep them on the line until your points are back in your account. They may even be able to hold your new flights so you can use those points to rebook.


Bottom Line

There's no rule that says once you book your flights, you're stuck with them. In fact, that's one of the best reasons to book your flights with points and miles.

Unless you're already flying lie-flat business class or scored the best deal you possibly could for your points, don't let that be the end of the story. By booking flexible one-way award tickets, travelers can set themselves up to continue upgrading their travels until they get exactly what they want.

That's why I never stop rebooking my flights.


11 Responses

    • When using ANA Mileage Club miles, that’s correct. But you can book one-way ANA flights using miles from Air Canada Aeroplan, United MileagePlus, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, and many more.

  • Didn’t realize how muuuuch efforts it take to be in the front. I am so relaxed in the back and never sweating for a few month just for one flight. Besides, a trip really starts in earnest when you arrive. But thanks for paying the extras for the front rows.

  • Hi Gunnar
    I red your fascinating story for your flight to Tokyo. I thought that when flying ANA First Class Suites, the availability is only one person per flight, however, you were able to secure a seat for your wife as well; is this because your departure airport was Chicago ORD?
    Thank you in advance…..
    PS. My wife and I are planning a trip From San Francisco (we live in :Los Angeles) to Tokyo for next July, but read here at THRIFTY TRAVELERS PREMIUM, that only one seat per flight would be available, what can I do to secure two seats (if available)?

    • Hi Dario, search for business class (not first). It’s much easier to find 2 seats in business class. More than 1 seat in ANA First is very hard to come by.

  • What was the difference in taxes for the business class seats vs. your economy seats? I assume you had to also pay that amount along with the difference in miles?

    • Hi Lauren. The taxes and fees on ANA Biz Class are pretty steep (~$250 per person). The taxes and fees on the economy awards are the usual $5.60 departing the U.S. and about $44 on the return from Japan. This obviously varies from route to route and airline to airline, but taxes and fees are almost always cheaper on economy awards. It’s an upcharge I expect when I do this.

  • Thank you for your informative post! Love your strategy and will def try to game our long haul flights going fwd. We have recently moved away from the states and learning about ANA miles has been an eye-opener. Super grateful that you mentioned one-way flights can be booked using partner airlines, too!

  • Clickbait title. Why didn’t you go one step further and say “How I turned no award booking into a business class ticket” haha

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