How to Fly Out of Japan Without Paying a Fortune

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Zach Honig

One-way economy tickets from Tokyo to the U.S. have climbed above the $5,000 mark on some airlines, but booking roundtrip tickets and redeeming mileage awards can help make a huge dent in prices. Yesterday, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to U.S. citizens in Japan, and "strongly urges" Americans to leave the country. The State Department has arranged charter flights to neighboring Asian countries, but suggests that citizens take advantage of available commercial flights as well.

"Persons interested in departing Japan via USG-chartered transportation should proceed to Narita and Haneda airports or contact the U.S. Department of State and Embassy Japan by sending an e-mail to JapanEmergencyUSC@state.gov or by calling 1-202-501-4444," according to a memo from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

U.S. citizens who wish to return directly to the United States have a variety of flight options at their disposal. As of this writing, commercial flights are available to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, and Miami on major airlines departing as soon as Friday evening, but one-way economy tickets range in price from $786 to $5,000 and up, depending on the airline and destination.

The least expensive flight Friday evening from Tokyo Narita (NRT) to Los Angeles International (LAX) is $786, on Singapore Airlines, for example, while the least expensive direct flight to New York (JFK) costs $5,155, on board American Airlines, according to a search on Momondo.com. In this case, it would be more cost-effective to book a flight to Los Angeles on Singapore Airlines, then purchase a domestic ticket to New York, rather than searching for connecting flights.

It's not unusual for an airline to charge significantly more for a last-minute one-way flight than it would for a round-trip flight. An economy seat on Friday evening's American Airlines flight 168 from Tokyo to New York is priced at $5,155, when searching for one-way tickets. A roundtrip ticket, including an economy seat on the same outbound American flight, costs $2,265 – less than half the amount. It's clearly more cost-effective to book a roundtrip ticket, even if you don't plan to return to Tokyo.

If you're booking using your American Airlines frequent flier miles, however, a one-way ticket becomes the better bargain. American allows one-way mileage redemptions, so a ticket from Tokyo to any city in the U.S. requires just 25,000 miles - the same as a domestic U.S. roundtrip ticket. Because a limited number of seats are available for award tickets, you may need to wait a couple extra days to redeem miles for an economy ticket. One-way tickets from Tokyo to New York are available beginning with flights on Sunday, though business-class seats are available for flight 168 on Friday, with a 50,000 mile one-way redemption.

Frequent flier tickets are available on other airlines as well, but American's one-way ticket redemption policy makes the airline the most cost-effective option if you're unable to select a return date. If you don't have enough American miles to cover the flight, additional miles are available for purchase, but may take 72 hours to post to your account. 25,000 miles can be purchased for $625 plus taxes and fees.

The window for flights out of Tokyo may be closing quickly, however, as airlines begin to reduce and suspend service in response to growing radiation fears. Some crew members have already begun requesting placement on alternate routes, while others have refused to fly to Japan altogether, according to an airline employee who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, because they're not authorized to speak on the airline's behalf.

If you're currently in Japan with limited Internet access, it may be advantageous to have a friend or family member in the U.S. call you in Japan while searching for flights from home. U.S.-based cell phone service providers have waived fees for outgoing calls to Japan, so your friends and family in the U.S. won't incur usage charges.

If you're currently in the U.S. and don't have friends and family in Japan, consider donating to the relief effort using your mobile phone:

• Text "REDCROSS" to "90999" to donate $10 on behalf of the American Red Cross.
• Text "JAPAN" or "QUAKE" to "80888" to donate $10 on behalf of The Salvation Army.
• Text "TSUNAMI" to "50555" to donate $10 on behalf of Convoy of Hope, Inc.
• Text "WAVE" to "50555" to donate $10 on behalf of the World Relief Corp. of National Association of Evangelicals.

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