Review: ANA First Class, Houston – Tokyo

I’m just back from ANA first class roundtrip to Tokyo and side trip to Shanghai. My wife and I flew to Asia on a Virgin Atlantic 120,000 mile roundtrip ANA first class award. It’s one of the better value redemptions in all of travel — United would charge 220,000 miles roundtrip for the same thing, Aeroplan 210,000 miles, and Avianca LifeMiles 204,000. ANA itself charges 150,000 miles roundtrip.

If you’re flying out of San Francisco or Los Angeles it’s just 110,000 miles for ANA first class, 120,000 is the price for Chicago, Houston, New York, and Washington Dulles – Narita in ANA first class.

And it turns out the deal is even better than that because most of the points for these two tickets came from American Express Membership Rewards transfers — when there was a transfer bonus. I called up Virgin Atlantic, put the award on a 24 hour hold, and then transferred the points. Not bad for an ANA first class roundtrip ticket that was pricing at $22,907 apiece.

I’ll share more detail of the trip in subsequent segments but from Tokyo I booked JAL business class using British Airways Avios to Shanghai and I stayed at the Park Hyatts in both Tokyo and Shanghai using confirmed suite upgrades. Mostly though I ate amazing sushi and soup dumplings.

ANA flies out of Houston Intercontinental’s terminal D.

Security was something of a cluster. The terminal is busier in the afternoon, so they were operating only one security lane. They honored PreCheck for expedited security. There was a PreCheck line and a regular line, but only one document checker and the lines didn’t converge. Not everyone in the PreCheck line had their documents checked, they just proceeded into the chaotic security line. The process took about 25 minutes and that was circumventing the longer non-PreCheck line.

ANA doesn’t contract with any of the lounges in D. There’s an Air France lounge, a KLM lounge (both Priority Pass), and a British Airways lounge as well as an airport Executive Lounge that several carriers use. Instead they send their premium customers to the United Club at the entrance of the C concourse.

Eventually there will be a Polaris lounge, and ANA first class and business class passengers will have access. For now instead of the United Club I used the American Express Centurion lounge. Overall I find the Houston lounge to be the least busy American Express lounge.

Right after security there’s an elevator up to the Centurion lounge, so instead of heading up the escalator and through duty free you can get on the elevator on the ground floor.

There’s a long barren hallway to the Centurion lounge.

I won’t review the Centurion lounge, I’ve written about it before, but it’s a reasonable place to wait until the flight is boarding and it’s upstairs just one gate away from the gate that ANA was using.

We walked downstairs just as they were beginning to board. At the jetway they checked boarding passes and immediately escorted us to our seats in ANA first class. There were already two other passengers in the cabin, and that would be the load for our flight, 4/8.

ana first class

The ANA first class cabin is very understated, which I take to be Japanese luxury. There’s no Emirates bling. There aren’t even doors, though the seats are very private.

ana first class

ana first class

In fact that’s one of the downsides, the middle seats don’t even provide for couples to look over and see each other inflight. When seated back you cannot see the other person even with the divider pulled back.

ana first class

I found the seat comfortable, but there’s not very much storage.

There are noise cancelling headphones at the seat. A flight attendant brought by an amenity kit – a Samonsite suitcase packed with items – and offered me pajamas as well.

I put down the pajamas and decided not to change into them yet, I’d get to that inflight. At my seat was also a blanket and a shrink wrapped sweater. ANA has long offered sweaters, which aren’t to take with you, on their long haul first class flights. I’ve only ever seen Japanese businessmen wear them.

A side panel to the seat has a mirror, and there’s a little bit of storage there but it won’t hold much. There’s also a video controller, though the monitor is also touch screen. There’s more storage where the headphones plug in.

The seat controller is electonic and touch:

A flight attendant came around offering predeparture beverages. When I first started flying ANA over a dozen years ago they didn’t offer predeparture beverages in first class, an artifact of Japanese law. Crew are supposed to be 100% focused on safety duties. That requirement has since been relaxed, however they don’t open ‘the good stuff’ on the ground because they’d have to pay local taxes on it.

The flight was on time and there’s not much air traffic congestion departing Houston just after 11 a.m. so we were on our way quickly. Once in the air flight attendants distributed menus and took drink orders.

Towels are always distributed, in fact I think I receive more towels on an ANA first class flight than any other — with snacks, before and after meals.

The beverage menu is impressive.

My photo of the main meal menu page didn’t come out well, but there’s a Japanese main meal and a Western option. I pretty much always opt for the Japanese choice. (ANA nicely posts menus on their website.)

There’s also a page of food options available anytime throughout the flight.

I got started on this flight quickly — Suntory Hibiki 21 year. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I have the palate to really appreciate whiskey of this quality. I ordered it neat and asked for some water on the side. It was fantastic.

Shortly thereafter the amuse bouche was delivered.

Instead of using ANA’s entertainment system I started catching up on some shows on my laptop. I had the laptop out on the tray table, so the flight attendant serving me lunch kept my meal on the other side of the table. She offered not to use the black tray they put underneath the Japanese meal, but that tray worked out fine.

I genuinely don’t understand how ANA is able to do such a good job with the food service, even departing from a US station and even from Houston. Lunch was simply fantastic, and I don’t say that often.

I skipped over having dessert and decided to change into pajamas. ANA’s bathrooms in first class aren’t especially large. Still it’s great to get changed on an ANA flight. A flight attendant always checked the lavatory before I went inside, they clean it between passengers. And they a changing platform so you don’t have to stand on the floor of the lav.

It’s stocked with amenities as well, including toothbrushes and mouthwash in sealed packets.

Leaving the lavatory a flight attendant is there to offer to take your clothes.

I watched television for several hours. I just wasn’t tired. That’s the thing I really don’t like about midday departures for Asia. I can’t sleep much, I’m ready to start sleeping late into the flight — when it’s midday in Japan already and when there’s no time left for sleep really.

After about five hours I had a snack, the ‘sake accompaniments.’

Then I had a flight attendant make my bed.

I slept on and off for about three and a half hours. I woke up and had some coffee, and some absolutely incredibly delicious ramen noodles as well as some fish cakes.

After breakfast, lunch, or whatever it was I had just eaten — it was around 1 p.m. Tokyo time — I changed back into my street clothes. As soon as I got up to the lavatory a flight attendant knew what I was there for and offered me my clothes. After I changed she asked if I wanted her to straighten the pajamas to take them home (I declined) and she took the hanger back from me that my clothes had been on.

I read for the rest of my flight and filled out my arrival paperwork. We were given fast track passes as well.

Ultimately ANA first class service is incredible, among the best in the world. I’d argue the same is true for their food and beverage service, although I’ve noticed some cutbacks in the soft product over the years. The seat was very comfortable and good for sleeping, the cabin wasn’t kept nearly as hot as it is on Japan Airlines.

However the seat lags the world’s best products. It isn’t a true suite. There isn’t enough storage space. ANA first class is very nice, a great way to fly, and a great value when redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles. But it’s not a top 5 world product.

On arrival in Tokyo immigration was quick but customs took a long time. I got into what seemed like the shortest line but everyone else knew what I wasn’t considering. They clearly do some form of racial profiling at customs. Japanese passengers and Americans are basically waived right through. Indians especially get thorough examinations of all of their belongings. I noted that for my trip international arrival to Japan.

After what seemed like ages we were on our way to the Narita Express.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. And for what it’s worth ANA *does* change… at least over a long enough time horizon.. since this is the third first class seat I’ve flown with the airline. When I first flew them they had ‘SuperStyle’ fully flat reclining seats, and those were replaced by NewStyle fully flat shell first class seats around 2006 🙂

  2. doesn’t change much except they downgrade amenity kit from Rimowa to Samsonite. For that reason, I would not fly until they present something more presentable.

  3. I really don’t get why airlines serve lesser bubbly on the ground. Yes, they save some tax. How much do they really save per flight versus the premium fares? It seems like a nickel and dime decision.

    Thai doesn’t care. It’s Dom Perignon on the ground as well as in the air.

  4. I just flew them FRA-HND. Food and service top notch. Better than any of the ME3, better than CX and better than SQ in all departments. Only a few good movies. It’s BYOE. WiFi worked. Cabin kept nice a cool. Like US carrier cold. Loved it. Slept most the way.
    BTW. First and Biz class get the IPPUDO Ramen and WOW. That works on the plane. Flavors jump out.

  5. Hibiki 21? Oh wow! I understand you say ANA is not a top 5 F class product. Could you list your top 5? Thx

  6. @Marcus — I’d say top 5:

    Singapore A380
    Emirates New 777
    Etihad A380
    Emirates A380
    Air France New 777
    Garuda or CX F

    I wouldn’t put Lufthansa in my top 5. I’d choose JL F > LH F as well but I value the inflight experience over the ground experience.

  7. I really liked ANA F from ORD to HND. Great service and solid hard product. JAL is a bit more polished than ANA IMO.

  8. Great review Gary, thanks. As ANA is Star Alliance I probably won’t end up there but I enjoyed the review.
    I particularly appreciate the top 5 first. My biggest problem is Etihad, which I’d love to try. Problem: Often you can only get First part way…..

  9. Great review!

    What are your top 5 TPAC from LAX? Leaves out A380 so ANA, JAL, CX, Sq non suite, etc

  10. Gary, I just booked 2 first class tickets on ANA using Virgin miles. I was charged $512 in taxes and fuel surcharges. So was this wrong?

  11. @JohnB what’s the route? I just checked and there’s a higher YQ now than when I last booked, eg $174 on a roundtrip US route.

    I suppose it’s possible as well that Virgin Atlantic could have started charging higher fuel surcharges than those matching published fares for award tickets, that hasn’t been my experience though. Although I haven’t done one of these in a month or more.

  12. @Beachfan non-stop from LAX? Probably in order overall F products, and you can separate out transpacs:

    Emirates A380
    Air France 777
    Etihad 777
    Cathay Pacific
    Japan Airlines
    Singapore 777
    China Eastern, China Southern
    Air China
    British Airways A380

    Eventually we’re supposed to get LAX-DEL on Air India.

    What am I forgetting?

  13. Gary,
    Kind sir, ORD to HND, return NRT to ORD. I’m thinking the fuel surcharges went up. I also found ANA Milage Club very accurate for finding seats. If they show 2+, then you usually can get an award with Virgin miles. We could not get the return from Osaka. So we purchased those tickets from ANA for $74 each.

  14. Okay, please advise me exactly how you scored two ANA 1st Class RT tickets for a 120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles.You don’t specify if that’s each or total, so I’m going to assume that’s 120,000 miles each, or 240,000 miles total.. The best I can find on the VA site is 165,000 each plus $41.00 each and that’s only on Delta. ANA isn’t included as a VA partner airline and VA isn’t in the Star Alliance. So how do VA miles buy ANA tickets? What am I missing, please?

  15. @Gary – ANA is a Virgin Australia partner, I have written several times about how to book this award and link to one such post in the piece. Search for the award space on the ANA site,, the Aeroplan website etc and you have to call — it is not bookable online. And it’s 120,000 miles roundtrip per passenger for Houston, Chicago, DC or New York – Tokyo and Los Angeles/San Francisco are 110,000 miles per person roundtrip for first class.

  16. Just as an FYI, when I booked two F roundtrips through VA with points ORD-HND in January, we were charged 340 total for two passengers (so, 170 each). Our trip is in November – really looking forward to it! Thanks for the review.

  17. I recreated our trip on the ANA site. The exact dates and flights are available to book as revenue. The YQ is $174. Which is exactly what Virgin charged me. While the fuel surcharge was not nearly as high as BA awards, it still is charged on award tickets. Wish it wasn’t as oil is supposed to go down significantly in the next 3 months.

  18. Odd – I made a roundtrip redemption for ANA First JFK-NRT and ANA Biz NRT-DEL for a total of 180000 Lifemiles (90000 LM one way) – not the 204000 that you mention.

  19. Probably not going to get a response since its a while back…

    Not sure about ” departing from a US station and even from Houston. Lunch was simply fantastic, and I don’t say that often.”

    I am guessing you have not eaten out much in Houston….always love it when people make sweeping statements without some underlying data (other than their own prejudices…)

  20. @Raj Kanwar – you misunderstand, my point is about *airline catering* that ANA is able to source fantastic japanese food at the airport when there isn’t as much Asia service as LAX, SFO etc.

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