There are some incredible and luxurious first class options out there, from the 50-square-foot suites on Singapore Airlines to the Apartments on Etihad’s Airbus A380 to the incomparable new Emirates First Class suites. Add in the expensive champagne, caviar service, and top-notch service that are customary in first class, and it’s no wonder travelers go gaga over them.
And then there’s Japan Airlines, whose First Class lacks the flash or opulence that has put other airlines front and center. Sure, Japan Airlines has some diehard fans, but it doesn’t get near the amount of accolades and awards as other airlines. And that allows it to float under-the-radar as one of the best ways to fly, period.
It has everything you want from First Class: Out-of-this-world food and drinks, outstanding service, amazing amenities and a comfortable place to sit, work, and sleep. It’s understated … and criminally underrated.
Take a look at this recent flight from Tokyo-Narita (NRT) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) and you’ll see why.
Booking JAL First
Having the best first class seats in the world doesn’t mean a thing if it’s impossible to book them. Luckily, that’s not the case with Japan Airlines’ First Class.
That doesn’t mean it’s simple or easy to find award availability when booking with miles. You’ll still likely need to be patient and flexible to find the flights that work. But in our experience, Japan Airlines is far more generous with releasing first class awards than many other sought-after airlines. And that makes it much easier to book a seat – or even two!
Generally, looking 10-plus months out from departure is a great place to start. Most airlines start selling flights roughly 11 months in advance, and JAL award flights are no different.
But the sweet spot is much closer to departure. There are almost always JAL first class awards available between Tokyo and the U.S in the final two or three weeks before that flight actually departs. In fact, JAL seems to add awards exactly 14 days in advance, give or take a few hours.
That means some patience – and risk – can pay off huge to fly Japan Airlines. If you’re flexible on which U.S. city you route through, it can be fairly easy to book these awards.
So how should you book a flight that typically costs at least $10,000? American AAdvantage miles.
American and Japan Airlines are partners, which mean you can use American miles to book this flight. A one-way in first class between the U.S. and Tokyo will cost 80,000 AAdvantage miles. While there are cheaper ways to book, including using 70,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles, this is still too tempting to pass up. The advantages when booking with American miles (like free changes) and the reasonably easy ways to earn them make it a fairly easy choice.
Not Flashy But Comfortable
If there’s one knock against Japan Airlines First Class, it’s the seat. And it’s not that it’s not good. Or even not great. It just doesn’t pack the same “wow factor” of some other first class seats out there.
In comparison to the likes of Emirates or Singapore, it’s fairly simple. But it works.
The Japan Airlines First Class cabin has just eight seats, making it feel fairly cozy. These seats are laid out in a 1-2-1 fashion, so every flyer has direct aisle access. There’s a thin wall separating the start of the business class cabin on these Boeing 777s.
And when I say the seat works, I mean it. Each seat measures in at 33 inches wide, giving you tons of room to stretch out. That’s true for legroom, too – you’ll have 79 inches, meaning you’ll likely have to stretch out to even reach the large ottoman in front.
The seat itself is made from a rich, soft brown leather. Add in some easy recline functions, and it’s one of the most comfortable spots to relax you’ll find in the sky.
On the window or in the center aisle, each seat has wood-grain counters running around the perimeter. That’s where you’ll find everything from safety literature to a dining menu in a leather portfolio to your seat controls to an absolutely astounding amount of storage.
I’m not joking about the storage. It starts with a small compartment at the front of each suite, which is where you’ll also find a USB port and a universal power socket. Closer to the seat, there’s a small tray – a perfect spot to leave your phone during the flight.
Even farther back, there are two more compartments. There’s a small cubby that houses a wired touchscreen in-flight entertainment remote. And then there’s an absolutely massive compartment, at least a foot deep, where you can store headphones, an amenity kit, pajamas, a laptop, and more. There’s also an older in-flight entertainment remote here as well.
These seats are typically at least 10 years old, and showing their age in some spots with scuffs along the leather and plastic. And while the woodgrain with brown leather works great, something about the color scheme in Japan Airlines First Class is a tad off. Maybe it’s the bright red carpet?
But again, that’s a trivial complaint. These seats do the trick and then some. While there aren’t closing doors, the white plastic shell provides plenty of privacy. They make it impossible to see your neighbors unless you lean far, far forward.
Finally, let’s talk bedtime. It doesn’t get much better than Japan Airlines First Class. It starts with the comfortable seat itself, which provides a great base for a sound snooze across the Pacific Ocean. But JAL ups the ante with a choice between soft and firm mattress toppers. And they’re not kidding about soft: I slept like a baby for four hours.
Unbeatable Food and Drink
If the older seats hold Japan Airlines First Class back from competing with other airlines, the dining and drinks help them pull back to even. It truly does not get much better.
After one of the best meals of my life in JAL business class earlier this year, my expectations for Japan Airlines First Class were unreasonably high. Could the drinks and dining truly be better – let alone 20,000 AAdvantage miles better?
Yes. And then some.
Japan Airlines First Class sets the tone right away after takeoff with a bottle of champagne you won’t find anywhere else.
That’s a bottle of Salon 2006 champagne. And you better enjoy it, because it typically sells for $600 a bottle. Just one glass is easily worth more than the taxes and fees you pay on your ticket. It’s the most expensive champagne you’ll find in the sky, and it’s not particularly close.
More importantly, it’s delicious. And if you want some, don’t wait to ask for a glass – JAL typically only has one bottle on-hand for each flight.
After subbing in slightly less expensive champagnes, Japan Airlines has restocked its stores of this hard-to-find champagne to begin pouring it again on flights between Japan and the U.S or Europe. You’re most likely to find it on flights departing Tokyo, although the airline says it’s available through 2019 on some flights departing New York City (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), San Francisco (SFO), London-Heathrow (LHR), and Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG).
When the Salon inevitably ran dry, there was still Cristal. Not bad for a backup, right?
And if you’re a fan of Japanese whisky, you’re in for a treat. Each flight has a special bottle on board – Hibiki Blender’s Choice, in my case.
Don’t worry, I saved room for food. And you should too. Much like back in business class, Japan Airlines First Class gives you a choice for your departure meal between a Japanese meal and a Western meal. Japan Airlines lets you scope out your meal choices in advance online.
I went for the Japanese meal, a seven-course journey served individually. It took everything from my outstanding meal in business class – the flavors, the presentation, the depth, the quantity, and the quality – and elevated it.
Just look at this spread of Japanese delicacies to start the meal. The blowfish with green onions and daikon on the bottom left was outstanding, as was the steamed freshwater eel at the 2 o’clock position. Somehow, the hint of yuzu managed to shine through in the chawanmushi (an egg custard) with caviar in the second dish from the left.
The journey continues with owan, a clear soup of prawn dumpling and turnip. Next up is otsukuri, with two dishes: A mixture of salmon roe with crab, and another with lightly seared bonito, ginger, and sea urchin. Both were unbelievably fresh and flavorful. The sea urchin is nearly on par with some of the best you’ll find in Tokyo, which says a lot.
If you’ve still got room, the main course is the main event. There are thin cuts of melt-in-your-mouth wagyu beef with mushroom, a fresh and perfectly cooked bowl of rice, some miso soup, and a small platter of pickles. Divine.
And then there’s dessert. And go figure, there’s more than one. Simmered red beans are a Japanese delicacy, though certainly not for everyone. The glass of custard with fig, caramel sauce, and rum jelly could have been a gallon jug and I still would have eaten every bite. And a special truffle chocolate was every bit as earthy and delicious as you might expect.
After your food coma, it’s time to eat again. Japan Airlines makes it easy, as there isn’t a second set meal. Rather, you can order anything you’d like from an expansive a la carte menu.
First Class Service and Extra Touches
At the end of the day, what separates an outstanding first class flight from a merely great one are the little details. Flight attendants who go above and beyond. Thoughtful extras and touches. Good bedding.
Japan Airlines has all that in spades. These refined details take an average seat and dining that’s far above average to make Japan Airlines First Class among the world’s best.
As you might expect in Japan, it starts with exemplary service. The two flight attendants and purser working the first class cabin on this flight were impeccable.
Some flight attendants from Japanese airlines can be impersonal, focusing more on the task at hand than the interaction. But these flight attendants were outstanding, providing service a league above anything else I’ve experienced. They were all engaging and warm while remaining professional and attentive.
Sugiyama, the flight attendant working my aisle, was bright and energetic as she welcomed me on board, ecstatic to hear it was my first time in Japan Airlines first class, and enthralled with a brief story about our trip around the world.
She volunteered to fold my clothes and store them after changing for bed, and beckoned me over to a window in the galley after waking up to show me a faint trace of the Northern Lights.
When we began our descent, all three stopped by my seat with a bow, chocolates, and a request: One picture? How could I say no?
This is what first class is all about. But Japan Airlines goes even farther.
Every first class passenger gets their choice of a “gift” – a box of Shiseido skincare products for men, and another box of products from Cle de Peau (even higher-end Shiseido) for women, with three face masks and some other products.
And that’s in addition to the standard amenity kit, which is stocked with plenty of other goodies. JAL also has a pair of Bose QuietComfort 25 noise-canceling headphones at the ready.
And pajamas, of course. JAL gives every first class flyer a set of JAL-branded pajamas that are incredibly soft and comfortable, yet still fairly light.
And then there are even smaller details where JAL knocks it out of the park. It’s one of a handful of airlines that give first class passengers free Wi-Fi for the entire flight. And in my case, the internet was speedy.
Even the leather portfolio with drink and dining menus screams elegance.
Once you get past the seat, it’s truly hard to find any fault with Japan Airlines First Class.
If you’re looking for the newest seats with bells and whistles, JAL doesn’t have it.
But if you’re looking for everything else that sets first class apart from business class, JAL has it in spades. Few airlines do it better.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.