During a recent trip to LA I met Kevin, a successful entrepreneur and tech geek. We instantly hit it off and ended up talking for hours about business and travel. Kevin is part of a small community of “travel hackers” — people that hack rewards programs for travel and fun. Think AMEX points, AA frequent flyer miles, Chase Rewards, etc.
He gave us a few tips on how to optimize our company’s spending for optimal point gain. After a few tweaks we’re now gaining 100k to 180k points per month. This was done without increasing our spending, but rather routing those expenses through cards that are better utilized for rewards in areas we mainly spend in instead, which are mainly advertising, shipping, and web services.
Kevin showed us some of the insane trips he’s been able to take all using points he has acquired by taking advantage of their rewards systems. We asked him to write a guest post on one of his recent excursions. For more info on the travel hacking world, I recommend reading The Points Guy, Travel is Free, and Kevin’s travel hacking news aggregator Pointsss as places to start.
Enter Kevin Khandjian
This spring my wife Sarah and I went to Japan. This was our first big deal trip to take advantage of my hobby of earning airline miles and it was a blast. We spent 4 nights in Tokyo, then took a bullet train to Kyoto for 2 nights. We paid for the dope flights and hotels mostly with points and everything was really cool, so here is a review of what we did and how we did it.
Also, I’m going to talk about the toilets because they were so far advanced that it feels like the rest of the world is basically stuck in medieval times now.
Since we paid for most of this trip on points and miles it seems like a good place to start this is with a breakdown of how much it cost us:
* technically 60k points + a free RC Tier 1-4 night certificate
So how much would this have cost if we paid full price? The flights alone would have been $38,000 (wtf right) but obv we wouldn’t have paid that. Coach would have cost $1750 and premium economy would have been ~$3750, so where do you put the value?
Here’s a calculation of a base substitution — coach flights and more realistic hotel spend, and a premium substitution, for premium economy and nicer hotel substitutions.
After accounting for the cash cost of $405.90 these redemptions would save you, depending on how hard you normally ball, between $2344.10 and $40,429.10.
As for the points, they came from a combination of credit card signup bonus offers, flights and clever spending.
Most of the ~50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points came from one Chase credit card signup bonus – the Ink+ business credit card. Some of them came from that card’s 5x bonus points at office supply stores.
The American Airlines AAdvantage miles came from a couple of Citi signup bonuses and a few strategic flights during AA bonus mileage promotions. Up until 6 months ago I lived in Orlando, FL and flew out to Los Angeles pretty often for business. Combined with a few vacations I ended up earning decent miles and also hitting AA Platinum status, which doubled my miles earning and made me eligible for some other bonuses.
The Ritz / Marriott points came from the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Visa. Last year it had a 140,000 point signup bonus offer, which is really good. It’s not available anymore but it could come back around again. When I called in to cancel the Ritz card last year they offered me a free night if I kept it open and hit a spending threshold in the next couple of months.
Once we got to LAX we looked around for the American Airlines first class check-in area. I heard it was pretty cool and since I’m banned from PreCheck for the next 3 years, which is a story on its own, it seemed like a way to avoid a body massage and speed through security.
When Sarah saw the Japan Airlines desk nearby we abandoned those plans and checked in there instead. This was a good idea anyway because we needed to buy JR Passes before leaving because you can’t get them in Japan no matter how hard you try. The guy checking us in told us about the fish market in Tokyo and we totally forgot about the passes while we were dreaming of tuna. 
Qantas First Class Lounge
You are granted access to the Qantas lounge if you
- are flying out of LAX on an international flight,
- on a One World Alliance partner (like Japan Airlines),
- in first class.
We showed up early so we could check it out and grab brunch. We ordered this outrageous meal and of course it’s totally on the house. I got a pretty standard but amazing American breakfast and Sarah got something fancy with tons of wild fruit and goat cheese.
Lounges are nice because they’re usually a quiet escape from the gate’s usual a mix of screaming, crying, wailing and gate agents struggling to pronounce the names of the people missing their flight over a PA. But a lounge with a killer menu where everything’s comped is even nicer.
Bottom line – if you fly out of LAX and have access to the Qantas lounge definitely swing by.
The Flight There
- JL61 LAX-NRT
- Boeing 777-300ER First Class
We kept an eye on the time and headed down when boarding was supposed to begin. I guess we walked up a little late because we seemed to be the last people in first class to walk on. When we got to the end of the jet bridge the JAL flight attendants checked us in and took us to our seats, which were dope.
Look at this seat. It’s a suite. There aren’t doors or anything but it’s the most private airline seat I’ve ever sat in. The seat itself is a huge comfy leather chair that transforms into a bed.
We got middle seats so we could put down the privacy barrier in the middle and talk .
Service & Food
This was our first time in international first class, so the service kind of blew our minds. The flight attendants (FAs) were super helpful and friendly and offered us OJ and champagne before takeoff. We both opted for orange juice and then some champagne once we got into the air.
We were offered a Japanese meal and a western meal – Sarah went with Japanese and I got the western. Sarah’s meal was like a million course sushi party of colors and flavors and fishes I’d never heard of.
She loved everything but the sea urchin (which she can’t stand) and the uncooked shrimp. Mine was equally fancy, way too fancy for me, but the steak was great. The steak on the way there was the best one I’d ever had on a plane. The one on the way back was one of the best I’d ever had anywhere.
On the way back I realized what the seatbelt on the ottoman was for and had a dinner date with Sarah.
As soon as we sat down I started playing with the IFE and had a brilliant idea – I would try to watch a movie that I probably knew most of the lines to, but in Japanese, and by the time we landed I would basically be fluent.
But like 12 parsecs into Star Wars in Japanese I realized this was futile so I watched the informational cartoon about how to not act like a barbarian when in Japan. It goes over stuff like how to use your inside voice everywhere and how taxis are super expensive. This is the first trip I’ve taken in years where we didn’t take a single Uber.
On the way back I watched the first Hunger Games again and got so hype. The screen is 23″ and it looks really good, but definitely a little bit dated.
The weird PDA you use to control it is like an Android with only like 25% of the RAM it needs and it gets pretty warm, but you’ll get the hang of it. There are probably 200 movies in this thing, mostly US stuff but a bunch of Japanese content too.
Look at all this free stuff.
This is all the stuff Japan Airlines thought we might want on our trip. The Lowe amenity kit alone is packed but, real talk, we didn’t use any of this stuff with one exception: Sarah used the eye cover thing on the way back and it helped her get like 4-5 hours of sleep.
We were each given two different kits but they were filled with the same thing:
- a high quality dental kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash)
- lip balm
- a moisture mask
- ear plugs
- a fold up combo comb
- lip balm and a revitalizing towel
On both flights the FAs handed out some items to everyone in our cabin at the end – Sarah was also given the Clé de Peau pack of 3 masks and I was given a fancy Shiseido skincare kit.
Beyond that we were each given JAL slippers and pajamas. I got large but I’m thinking I should have got medium. There are some awesome Bose noise canceling headphones, but not to keep, they have a weird connector cable to remind you that.
Once you want to crash you can ask for help or just lay your seat down and a flight attendant will usually notice and set your bed up with a mattress. There’s a “hard” one and a “soft” one but they are both pretty hard, which didn’t bother me. They’ve also got a light and a heavy blanket you can use.
One thing that had me stressed about this flight was that I’ve heard that JAL keep the plane cabin hot af. I’m a pretty miserable person when I’m hot and sweaty, kind of a big baby about it actually.
I was prepared though with a full change of clothes including shorts in my carry on bag to freshen up if needed. However this was not the case on our flight, in fact it was really cold, which I loved. The blankets were super warm so it worked out perfectly for me.
The plane’s lav was just a regular plane restroom, same size and everything, with a few exceptions. Instead of crappy paper towels there were crappy cloth towels. It’s nice and everything but when you pull one like 4 fall out and you can’t really use them if they fall and get soaked so it’s like such a waste. There was always some more mouthwash, toothbrushes and toothpaste in here which is nice after eating all of that fancy food.
Oh and the toilet had a fairly simple electronic bidet. This would be the first of several and increasingly complex robot toilets we would encounter on our trip.
Even landing in first class is great. Someone walked us all the way up to customs and our bags actually came out first on the conveyor. On the way back I left my wallet in the plane – unreal right? I would have waited but they sent me through customs and hand delivered it to me at baggage claim at LAX. Top tier service.
Tokyo / Shibuya
The night we got into Japan we hung around in the airport for way too long while we figured out SIM card and money changing, and also thinking that my stomach was going to explode. Probably shouldn’t have tried like 6 new fancy foods on one flight.
We got 20,000 yen out of a 7-11 ATM – it took us some time to find one in the airport (bottom floor) but they are everywhere in Tokyo and they have one of the best rates. Other than this we mostly used our CapitalOne 360 card specifically because it doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee and it gets a solid conversion rate, plus 1.5% back. It’s commonly repeated that cash is king in Tokyo but we rarely were unable to pay with Visa or MasterCard.
We picked up a SIM from SoftBank after checking out all of the options. It ended up being like $70.00 for unlimited data and tethering, the other plans were all for like 1 or 2 gigs and I figured we would be in better shape with unlimited internet.
My phone usually said it was connected via 4G but it was way faster than US 4G (and even LTE) most of the time so I’m not really sure what the connection was but it was great.
Hotel Shibuya EN
Our hotel is like right in the heart of Shibuya. This place is pretty western but it’s tiny and has a cool Japanese vibe. Each floor has a different theme and our room was all about this wood look.
We tried to maintain the shoe / slipper rule but the room was small so it’s easy to stomp in and forget to switch. Also those slippers are cute but like most shoes they are terrible for Sarah’s chronic foot pain.
We didn’t spend too much time in the hotel because it was tiny and we wanted to explore, but it was cool and the people working there were friendly and helped us to find some places to eat in the area.
This place had a cool toilet – when you open the bathroom door it sprays the bowl and starts warming up the seat. This one had a pretty complicated control panel on the wall with no English but it was easily translated with the unbelievable Google Translate app.
This area was really cool. It has a reputation for sort of being the Times Square of Tokyo, which sort of captures it but not really. It’s also one of the main areas that Lost in Translation takes place in (the other is Shinjuku, they are super close).
There are tons of places to eat, local and international, and tons to do. There are also “love hotels” everywhere, which are super strange. You can pay for a block of time less than a night if you want but they aren’t as sleazy as hourly-rate motels in the US.
If you are in Japan and Starbucks still has the Strawberry Sakura Latte definitely jump on it. Sarah ordered like 5 so I eventually tried it and loved it (and I hate coffee).
Before we left this area we went to the coast and picked up our JR Passes from FedEx. I’m pretty sure it’s a miracle we were able to get them, this was not your average FedEx location.
We took our time walking through some cool areas on the way back to the train. We were there a few weeks too early to see the cherry blossoms but we found a few plum blossoms that resembled Sarah’s monthly wallpaper for this March enough to take a photo.
On the way back we noticed something incredible on this vending machine. In what appears to be the greatest instance of life imitating art, it turns out that Tommy Lee Jones is the face of Suntory BOSS . Tommy Lee Jones is playing is playing the guy that Bill Murray’s character Bob Harris played in Lost in Translation, in real life.
Tokyo / Toranomon Hills
Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills
This place is unbelievable. Let’s get the only gripe out of the way – location isn’t great. And also the building is strange. If you are good with walking like 12 minutes to the metro it’s nbd. If you are taxiing everywhere it’s going to be expensive.
The lobby is nuts, these big cut out doors are unreal and the lights are super cool. It’s sort of like a mix between some ancient mechanical doors openeing in a temple in Uncharted and a Rolls Royce commercial, all the way down to the starry ceiling.
Head to the 52nd floor to check in, grab some snacks and a glass of wine in the evening and then down to your floor. We were on 48 with a king bed and a view of the Tokyo Tower.
The room was easily 4x the size of the room at the previous hotel and every detail was so cool. The vibe was like a modern take on traditional japanese architecture, mixed with a baller shower and hot tub that is also a waterfall.
The switches for lights, privacy and even the motorized window shade were cool tiny little levers with LEDs next to them. Super anachronistic, almost felt like a fancy steampunk vibe.
The view that night was pretty incredible.
The next day we were feeling lazy and strolled down to breakfast in the hotel rather than finding something else to eat. On the way in I noticed this notice:
We thought that seemed interesting so I checked it out. Turns out Japan has a law requiring traceability of rice.
The buffet was incredible, probably the best breakfast spread we’d ever seen. My fav was the blueberry bread pudding, which was basically a cake.
This was the most expensive meal we had at ~$50 per person – pretty pricey. Would we have spent that if we knew the price beforehand? Probably not, that’s my bad for not calling down ahead of time to find out. It was amazing so I guess we got our money’s worth.
This one was way cooler looking – it didn’t have the exposed reservoir and it would automatically open when you walked into the room. It also had a sleeker control panel mounted to the wall.
The next morning Sarah and I rushed out to the Shibuya train station and met up with Yuka for a totally awesome sushi class. When we got out of the train we noticed the first white people we had seen all day – they were struggling to figure out which side of the path to walk on, just as we were. Turns out they were from San Francisco and they were also there for the class!
So we met up with our sushi chef and instructor for the day, Yuka, and walked over to her place. The class was in her condo, which yeah it’s like come on who wants to go inside some stranger’s house? But Sarah said she had like a million points on TripAdvisor so I figured it must be cool.
And it was! We learned a ton of tips and tricks, not the least of which is to buy short grain rice. We’re still looking for one of these big wood bowls for drying the rice.
Since we got back we made some tuna sushi with some short grain rice from The Rice Man at our farmer’s market and it was amazing. It also improved my teppanyaki fried rice (which is my other hobby).
I wouldn’t be so comfortable talking about Yuka’s restroom if she didn’t talk about it so much. She spent 2 or 3 minutes talking about how it worked which basically amounted to telling me that peeing standing up would send it out of sync and possibly kill the toilet.
When I went in there to pee I saw like a paragraph about the topic on the wall. It was basically the same thing as the Shibuya toilet but with an automatic lid. But I wanted to mention this one because in the US it’s like if your toilet breaks it’s a big deal – you may even have to call a plumber. But in Japan you might have to call an electrician too!
Our last night in Tokyo we went to Akihabara. This is probably the Tokyo you’ve seen in photos.
We checked out a bunch of shops, it was a little strange. There were basically no women anywhere and every shop was either an arcade, a casino, an anime figurine shop or some combination. We checked out this 8 story arcade and I got stomped in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo & Tekken 20 or something. This was a weird scene, lots of cigarette smoking indoors here.
On the way back we noticed these amazing illustrations on what look like sewer covers. It’s like little samurai firemen! We just thought this was a cool little shout out to culture but the next day we saw a fire truck and realized the fire fighters actually wear a hat that resembles this!
We got to the Ritz early and dropped off our bags and went to this ramen place like 10 minutes away while they prepped our room.
There was sitting room for 15 or 20 people and absolutely no standing room inside, so we wated outside. After maybe 5 minutes we were seated and another 10 we were eating the best pork ramen we’d ever had, so we went back again the next day after we hit up the bamboo forest. Definitely make time for some ramen.
History / Walking Around
On the way back to the hotel we checked out a bunch of signs in Japanese and English describing the history of the city of Kyoto. It was still early so we walked around the old palace which was massive and awesome.
After lunch we checked into our dope room. This hotel has a really similarly cool entrance “reveal” to the Andaz, this one has a huge waterfall outside though and these massive wooden doors that are like out of a movie. The lobby and lounge and hallways are equally amazing and the room is so nice.
This is the coolest shower I’ve ever seen. Something about the wood slats in the shower is so cool and wall is decorated with a pretty unique pattern. The blinds in here are on a motor connected to a switch by the sink.
It’s hard to show how much bigger this hotel room felt than it looks in these pictures, the video does it a little more justice.
The mirror between the sinks has a TV in it. Someone from the hotel was very excited to tell us about that while they showed us around the room. We’ve seen this before at Hotel Nikko, a Japanese hotel in San Francisco. I don’t really see the appeal.
The soap on the right came in a box describing the 4 month process to hand-make it and the gold flakes in it.
The room itself is smaller than Andaz but the wall behind the bed and the cutout for the table make it feel bigger than it is.
We had a basic view of the courtyard, there are rooms with a view of the city and with a view of the river. The TV is on a big swinging wood panel. It’s not motorized or anything, you just swing it out.
The closet is stocked with kimonos and slippers and there are tons of snacks, drinks, coffees and teas. I drank both of the Rooibos Orange ones, so good.
Our last night here we ordered late night room service: a rice ball, miso soup and some french fries. It wasn’t too expensive and it hit the spot when nothing was open.
This thing was cool, super fancy and came with the works. It appeared to be, however, a slightly older version of the one at the Andaz.
We took the train to the bamboo forest. Kyoto had far fewer foreigners, so when we got on the train and saw a ton of white people we assumed it was going to be a pretty touristy area.
The Ritz has some neat bikes available to rent but I think we had a better time with bikes at the forest than we would have in downtown Kyoto. For 2000 yen we got two bikes for the day and rode them through to various shrines.
When we got to the first one it really started to seem like a tourist trap but as soon as we got past the biggest group of people it was quiet and lots of fun.
We stopped at a few shrines and took some photos and videos. The Google Translate app came in handy again here. After a few stops we just biked through the town and soaked it all in, stopping at some killer bamboo spots on the way back. Definitely rent bikes here.
At the train station on the way back we hit the restroom and I saw the weirdest (and lowest-tech) toilet so far. It was just a regular toilet but with like a sink faucet going into it. Sarah said the ladies’ room had a line because it was mostly squat toilets that no one wanted to use.
Our last morning in Japan started in Kyoto where we boarded the bullet train back to Tokyo and then switched to the Narita Express the rest of the way to the airport.
Flying out of Narita on the way home was great – since we were flying in first again we went right up to the first class check-in which had no line. The agents helped us out and started to walk us to security when I remembered we still had a bunch of yen we wanted to change into US dollars, so we did that (and dropped off the SIM card, almost forgot that thing was a rental) and then the JAL agent walked us all the way through first class security where there were 7 or so officers and only 3 passengers and into the Sakura Lounge.
This is Japan Airlines’ first class lounge at Narita Airport. It’s smaller than the Qantas lounge at LAX and doesn’t have the same type of sit-down-and-order dining but it was very nice.
We checked out the buffet which had a few western things and a bunch of Japanese items and got some drinks. Aside from the bar there was a self serve soda machine as well as a beer machine, pretty cool.
Far too late after we arrived I checked to see if there was any availability for a massage or a facial but they were booked up until our departure time. Definitely stop by the desk when you arrive at this lounge to grab a comped massage.
The sushi bar opened up about 30 minutes after we arrived at the lounge and Sarah ordered some fresh tuna. It wasn’t the best tuna we had on the trip but it was good. I hit the shower to freshen up after a long day on the bullet train.
This robot toilet was similar to the one at our hotel in Shibuya, nothing too fancy, but most importantly I realized that in a few short hours we would be home with our barbaric, non-bidet toilets and that the vacation would soon be over.
We saw some things in Japan that were strange to us. For one, the amenities were out of control – we were given so many toothbrushes! I don’t get it, I’ve never considered traveling without a toothbrush.
People say Japan is really clean – it is! It’s so clean. No one ever talks about all of the ice cream crepe places though. They were all over Tokyo.
We didn’t see any vending machines that sold anything too out of the ordinary but we did see tons and tons of the usual kind. The Egg McMuffin burger at McDonalds looked like food science gone wrong (but I still regret not trying one). The sayings on the coke bottles were great.
The Flight Back
Going home at the end of a vacation is a bummer, like end of summer or the bus ride back from a field trip. So knowing that we wouldn’t be cramped in coach sitting upright was nice, not to mention all the awesome food.
Normally an international vacation is a blast with some terrible time spent traveling at the beginning and end: getting to the airport, waiting to check bags, TSA, the gate madness, boarding and sitting up straight crammed against a stranger, waiting to deplane, waiting for baggage and so on. Nearly all of the negatives are rounded out with first class:
- There was no line to check our bags
- Getting through security took us under 2 minutes
- We spent our time waiting for the flight in the lounge dining on fancy free food
- A gate agent finds us personally to tell us about delays
- We board immediately when we walk to the gate
- Our seats are beds and the service is incredible
- We actually sleep (4+ hours each)
- We deplane first and our bags are unloaded first
When we had about 45 minutes left in the sky I took stock of all of this and thought about our future vacation flights. In the future if we don’t have the miles to ball out like this roundtrip the priority will be getting business class for at least the flight home.
 This was a huge fxckup. By the time I realized we forgot them we were like 2 hours into the flight. I got online and ordered some from the closest travel agency I could find to Japan, airmail wise.
Our passes went from France to Tokyo in a couple of days and we were able to get FedEx to hold them at the distribution center in Tokyo. This seemed like a miracle, I wouldn’t count on this panning out for you. It was a pain to go get them but it saved time and money on the JR Rail trains.
 There might be some other way to get into this thing, like being a Qantas top elite person, but I’m not sure. You can’t just buy a day pass, this place is exclusive.
 Talking to anyone in seats like this is kind of ridiculous. You are so far away and you probably have the noise canceling headphones on with some AAA blockbuster movie blaring away anyway. It’s sort of like the rock bottom language on Spongebob but with people saying “What?” every other word instead.
 Amazingly, Sarah thought the plane was hot. Normally it is the other way around with us, so we assume it was probably because of the super warm blanket.
 For driving it seems pretty simple, where in the US you drive on the right side of the road in Japan you drive on the left. But with walking there are so many exceptions to the rule. Often in the subway stations there will be arrows or signs that literally say “Walk on the right here” but the thing is once you change that once all bets are off and you can’t know what’s real anymore. You start to think you’re always on the wrong side of the sidewalk no matter what you do.
 He signed on 3 years *after* Lost in Translation was released!
 I only tried the little sweet churro things, they were amazing. I got a chocolate croissant on the way out the door but Sarah ate it.