5 Tips for Flying to Japan

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of a Long, Long Flight in Economy Class

Young woman sleeping on airplane, side view
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If you've ever flown from a major US city to Tokyo, the horror of sitting in a cramped, economy-class airplane seat for such a long flight slowly sinks in. Minutes slow down and the waiting is a little like agony. Imagine sitting roughly 14 hours between New York or Boston and Tokyo, 13 hours and 5 minutes between Chicago and Tokyo, 11 hours and 10 minutes between San Francisco and Tokyo, or 10 hours and 5 minutes between Vancouver and Tokyo.

Consider how much longer that travel time would be if you broke up the flight into two or three legs with transfers. You wouldn't be stopping to have fun but just waiting around in airport seats.

Of course, with such a long, and, depending on your final destination, complicated flight, many things can go wrong. Here are five tips to make life a little bit easier.

1. Next Stop, Haneda

Unless you're flying into Narita to get right to Tokyo, there's a good chance you'll need to catch a domestic flight to nearby Haneda International Airport. If flying from Boston to Okayama, you'll look at your flight itinerary and see something like this: Boston to Narita to Haneda to Okayama. You'll have maybe a three-and-a-half hour layover at Narita and think: How hard could this be? Well, unless you know what you're doing, there's a good chance you could end up missing your flight from Haneda to Okayama. This is because it's usually left up to you to decide how to get to Haneda, which is about an hour away depending on traffic.

And you must pay your way there. On top of that, you'll almost certainly have to pick up all your checked bags in Narita, and then lug them to Haneda to recheck them.

How to get to Haneda? The bus. You'll need to look for the orange signs for the airport limousine and buy tickets, which are reasonably priced, at the service counter on the first floor of Narita, not far from where you'll pick up your luggage.

Tell the workers at the counter which airline you'll be taking, Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways, so that you go to the correct gate. Once you're at Haneda, you'll have to go through security again, get your boarding passes, and check luggage. Whew.

2. Cheaper Isn't Always Better

It used to be my goal when buying tickets to spot the absolute cheapest deal possible. But then I fell into a trap. Ordering tickets through a highly popular online airline and hotel reservation service, I saved a little cash on three tickets for my family's trip to Japan. But then about a month before the trip, I reviewed the reservations and spotted a typo in my wife's name, making it different on the ticket compared to her passport. I called the service and they claimed they couldn't fix it. I'd have to ask the airline, they said. So, I called the airline and was told that because I bought the ticket through a third party, their hands were tied. To fix the name and thus avoid any potential problems going through security, we ended up essentially having to pay for a new ticket. Making matters worse, the plane I was on was completely booked, so my wife had to get her ticket on a different jet.

Buying tickets directly from the airline instead of on popular services like Priceline and Expedia can help avoid such trouble.

But it's also good to work with Japanese travel agencies such as Amnet, which can get good prices, too.

3. Direct or Not Direct

Now, with Boeing 787s back online, you can cut your flight time by flying direct from more cities. Despite the so-called Dreamliner's battery woes, the small, lightweight aircraft are a pleasure to fly on, with their slick design, windows that darken at the press of a button, and limited seating compared with jumbo jets. But taking a direct flight might not always be the best thing to do, especially if you're flying with babies or toddlers. It's one thing if you'll be flying straight to Tokyo or Osaka, then going straight to the hotel. It's another, however, if you'll be heading to other cities and will need connecting flights, trains, or buses, which, when added to the initial drive to your local airport, can make your door-to-door trip time easily 20 or more hours.

Ask yourself: Would it be better to break up the trip, have lunch and walk around in the connecting airport, or even stay overnight in, say, San Francisco or Osaka, before heading toward the rest of your trip? A good night's sleep on the first night, on Japan time, can go a long way to alleviating jet lag and enjoying the rest of your trip.

4. Water Down, Walk Around

You may feel like you're getting taken when you pay for a few $4 bottles of water at the airport shop before takeoff. But this is exactly what you should do (and, yes, you are getting taken advantage of). If this is your first flight to Japan, and you've never been on a plane that long, you might not know how much you'll want a sip of water after you hit the three- or four-hour mark on a 13-plus-hour flight. By seven hours, your throat dries out from the recycled air in the plane. Different airlines are more generous with drinks, but in any case, why not have your own supply?

In addition, don't forget to walk around every hour or so and stretch; keep reminding yourself that you are trying to avoid deep venous thrombosis or blood clots in the legs.

5. Kidding Around

If you're traveling with toddlers, be especially prepared. You'll know the entire time that your kids will at some point explode into tears of frustration from being cooped up in the plane, and you'll have to calm them down when they do. But advance planning can help.

When you buy the tickets, call the airline and let them know you'll be traveling with a toddler or two. There's a good chance you'll be near other families and empty seats if there are any, making it a tiny bit easier if your kids start crying. (Some parents bring earplugs to pass out to neighboring passengers in the event of a terrible-twos tantrum, which is not a bad idea.)

For the flight, some passengers find that low-sugar drinks and snacks, such as freeze-dried fruits, keep kids distracted when they get upset. Asking for a kids' meal in advance, if your airline offers it, is also a good bet. JAL is far better at responding to kids' needs like this than Delta.

If your tot is in diapers, bring at least 10 more than you think you'll need. Nothing's worse than running out before you find somewhere to buy new ones.

Reconsider the virtue of layovers when you travel with children. Check in advance to see if the airport where you have a layover has a play area for kids and find out how to get there. A play area would allow him or her to let off some steam midway through the trip. Haneda offers a small cushioned play area for toddlers and so do other airports. You'll need maps for Haneda, for Narita, and for Kansai in Osaka.

Finally, when the airline attendants offer to let you board the jet first, consider whether that's a good idea. You'll be sitting in your cramped seats for at least 30 minutes before takeoff, adding to the already long time your child will be cooped up in the plane. Waiting to be the last one to board seems so much wiser when you travel with children.