Today I’ll be breaking down the Japan Airlines Mileage Bank program for you all. As you may know, Japan Airlines (JAL or JL for short) is one of the top-notch Japanese airlines along with ANA. With hubs out of Tokyo and Osaka, JAL is one of the best ways to fly trans-pacific and throughout Asia. JAL is part of the OneWorld alliance and routes globally with American Airlines, British Airways, Finnair, Qantas, Qatar, etc. They also have an excellent frequent flyer program called Mileage Bank (JMB) which is under-appreciated and that’s what we’ll dive into today. There’s a ton of value to be found, even if you’re based elsewhere and just crediting flights to JAL. Let’s dig in!
How Do I Earn Miles?
The “regular” way to earn JAL miles is by flying. They have different charts depending on fare class flown, both for them and their partners. Here’s the chart for earnings on international JAL flights:
And this page has the charts for all their partners.
These are the partners you’d expect, with a few interesting additions – Air France, and China Eastern from SkyTeam, Alaska, and also Emirates. Most of them earn normally, except Emirates has many fares excluded between Dubai and Japan.
Overall the earnings are comparable to JAL earnings – 150% for first, 125% and less for business, 100% for premium economy/full fare economy, and 70/50/30 drops as you get lower in the fare chart. There are often great airfare deals from the West Coast to Singapore/SE Asia for $300-500, but those are almost always N fares that only earn 30%. The mileage earnings are generally reciprocal i.e. if you credit a JAL flight to American Airlines, you earn pretty much the same thing for the same fare classes.
Note that you can earn 25% – 130% bonus miles for flying on JAL, American, British Airways, or Iberia depending on your status with JAL. This page describes the mileage benefits, but going into the details would be a whole post in itself.
You can earn miles by staying at hotels. You can generally credit Marriott/Hyatt/Hilton hotels to JAL, but the earning rates aren’t great. At most you can earn 2x miles per dollar, whereas Marriott elites are earning 15x per dollar. The availability is also odd i.e. I couldn’t find anything in San Francisco, and I did see some hotels in San Jose, but the earning rates by hotel never loaded. This’ll be a recurring theme as the JAL website is slow and tricky to navigate for US based visitors, with limited award search.
There is a JAL Mastercard called the JAL USA Card. It offers a sign-up bonus of 5-10K miles after you take an international flight on JAL after opening the card. You can also get 10% extra miles when you fly on JAL with the card. You earn 1 mile / $2 spend with the basic card ($20 fee), and you can earn $1 mile / $1 spend by upgrading to the $70 fee version of the card. Overall it’s not that great due to the limited sign-up bonus.
The best way to transfer miles to JMB is with the Starwood Credit Cards. Both the Personal and Business SPG Amex will let you transfer points to JMB miles at a 1:1 ratio, and remember that transferring 20K points will give you a 5K mile bonus, so 20K SPG points = 25K JAL Mileage Bank miles.
Note that SPG transfers take at least two days and usually around one week to transfer. JAL requires you to book at least four days before the flight, so you should plan accordingly.
JALFC lets you group your miles with family members. “Family” means these people:
You can have up to 9 people in your family. It costs 1K miles to join JALFC, but you earn 1K miles for taking a JAL international flight after joining, so it evens out. If you don’t have 1K miles, you can join anyways and they’ll deduct it when you do have them. They assess a 1K mile fee every five years as a “renewal”. There are also several family bonus options. Currently, you can earn 300 bonus miles per sector flown on eligible fares (F, A, J, C, D, X, I, W, E*, Y, B, H, K, M, L, V, S), and you can earn 3K bonus miles when you return to Japan on an eligible fare. This program is a good way to pool and rack up miles for redemptions later.
How Do I Use Miles?
This is the fun part! How to actually use JAL miles. Note that JAL miles expire 3 years after they are earned.
Inter-Japan flights range from 5K-10K miles one-way, and double for roundtrip. The chart is here. Personally I use the trains more often in Japan due to the great system, and I’d rather save the miles for a bigger international flight.
Unlike ANA, the other big Japanese carrier, JAL does allow one-way awards at half the price of round trips, which is amazing. You can also book open jaw awards.
JAL does impose fuel surcharges, but they are very reasonable – the highest are about $70. Compare this to the hundreds or even thousands of dollars charged by Aeroplan, British Airways, and Lufthansa. You can see the latest fuel surcharges here.
And here are how the regions are defined:
JAL also has a “limited day of the week” discount where you can get cheaper redemptions if you fly on certain days of the week. Here is the chart:
These are some fantastic deals! 110K miles for a round-trip first class between NA – Japan is amazing. Consider that Alaska charges 60K miles for one-way business on JAL and 70K miles for one-way first. United charges 75K miles for a one-way Saver business award on Star Alliance partners like ANA, and here you could get JAL business round-trip for 80K miles. This alone is a huge reason to credit to Mileage Bank or accrue here.
Finally, for redeeming on partners, JAL uses a distance based chart, reproduced below:
You can use their official calculator to compute the length of your itinerary. The JAL program allows one open jaw, eight segments, and seven stopovers, so you can book pretty much anything that has availability. The problem is that the open jaw “sector” counts towards your distance. So for example, if you fly LAX-NRT and then SYD-LAX, JAL will compute the distance as LAX-NRT-SYD-LAX (~18K miles), even though you don’t fly NRT-SYD. Otherwise the LAX-NRT//SYD-LAX routing would be ~13K miles and in a different row in the chart.
The best way to maximize this is to look for flights near the boundaries. Here’s an example:
This routing is 19,849 miles, so you could fly the whole thing in First Class for 155K miles or in Business Class for 100K miles. Conversely, with American Airlines, you’d be paying 110K miles for a one-way LAX-SYD in First class, so there’s a lot more value here.
The hard part is finding space for all the segments you want. JALs search engine is not good for US-based users, so use British Airways, Qantas, or Alaska’s search engine to find space.
This page describes the cost to upgrade to the next class of travel depending on where you’re going from. From North America to Japan (and vice versa), it costs 20K miles to upgrade to Premium Economy, 30K miles to upgrade to business, and 45K miles to upgrade to first class. However, JAL currently has this promo where you can request an airport upgrade (on the same day of the flight) and save 5-6K miles per class. So you won’t know in advance if it clears, but this is useful for business travel when you’re booking last minute anyways.
What Not to Do
You can use JAL miles for shopping vouchers, the online shopping portal, and to get coupon vouchers to redeem for travel later. None of these are a good value. In particular, you can convert 10K JAL miles into a 12K Yen coupon voucher for JAL Group tickets/tours/hotels/packages. But 12K Yen is ~$120, so it’s like getting 1.2% cash back which is not a good redemption rate when you have credit cards readily giving 2% cashback.
JAL Mileage Bank is an amazing program with great partners and a fantastically flexible award chart. The difficulty is in earning JAL miles, since you pretty much either have to fly or use SPG points. For this community, SPG is definitely the best way to rack up JL miles. The service on JAL is fantastic and they have high quality partners, all-in-all leading to some great redemptions.