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Upgrading on Korean Air Using Ultimate Rewards Points

Oct. 25, 2012
10 min read
Upgrading on Korean Air Using Ultimate Rewards Points
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Last week while I was booking award tickets on Korean Air using Ultimate Rewards points, a friend of mine told me that he would be flying from New York JFK to Seoul this past Saturday. Originally, he had a flight on hold in business class for a round trip fare of $8,484.90, but in an unlucky turn of events he received a memo from the company he works for stating that the senior management privilege of booking business class for long-distance travel would be withdrawn for all new bookings, and instead employees would have to book premium economy or economy - and that first class travel was not authorized under any circumstances. Times are tough!

Since this trip was for business purposes and he had to book through his company's travel agency in order to be reimbursed, he didn't have many options. He thought that in order to upgrade using his Delta miles he would have to be booked in coach with a refundable Y class fare of $5,716.90, which was out of the question since discounted coach seats were available for $2,090.

Before he had confirmed the tickets I told him I would call Korean Air (1-800-438-5000) find out about any possible upgrades, what the lowest economy upgradeable fare class was and to see how many miles he would have to redeem to fly in business.

Here's what I found out about Korean Air upgrades:

-You cannot upgrade an award ticket
-You can only upgrade one class of service
-The following fare classes are not eligible for upgrade: discount tickets (of 50%) or more, G (group), H, E, K (except for domestic Korean flights), Q, T, D, or I fares
-Only the following fare classes were eligible for an upgrade from economy to business class: Y, W, B, M - all of which were a higher fare class than discounted economy

In order to be upgradeable, the tickets would have to be booked as an M class fare or higher, which would cost $2,557 round trip (not bad) and he would need 40,000 Skypass miles to upgrade each way since he was flying the A380, which has Korean Air's Prestige Sleeper seats.

Upgrading an M fare would cost 40,000 Skypass miles per ticket each way.

I asked the representative to check the availability for upgrades from economy to business on both flights and was told that the upgrade was only available on the return flight from ICN to JFK. I then asked her if he could be put on a wait list for the upgrade on the JFK-ICN flight and also if there was any chance that he could be seated in either an exit row or bulkhead seat. If he was going to be stuck in coach for 14+ hours, I figured one of those seats would be the next best option.

Since his flights hadn't actually been ticketed yet and were still on hold, the agent couldn't tell me any information about the seat map and couldn't put him on the wait list, but she did confirm that once ticketed it would be no problem.

After relaying this information to him, he immediately got ticketed for the M class fare both ways so he could start making some changes, and he opened a Skypass account in the event that he would be able to use miles for an upgrade.

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Because of his company's rules, he was still able to book a higher-priced ticket in M Class instead of the most discounted economy ticket he could find. It cost an extra $467, but it was worth the upgrade - even if it just cleared one way.

The Upgrade Process
Once I knew he was ticketed in the correct fare class, I called Korean Air back and an agent was able to put the return flight upgrade on hold and get him on a wait list for the upgrade on the outbound flight. The best part about this was he didn't even need to have the miles in his account in order to make either of these things happen! I was expecting that he would have at least needed 40,000 miles in his account to cover the upgrade that was on hold, but that wasn't the case. He would have another day to transfer the Ultimate Rewards points he was planning on using into his Skypass account before redeeming them.

I asked about the redemption form that I had to fax over to Korean Air’s US fax line (310- 417-5678) when booking award tickets and they told me I would have to send one in (with proper photo ID) for the ICN-JFK portion since that was put on hold, and check off the box for 'Upgrade' instead of 'Bonus Award.' I did that right away since he would be leaving in two days and I wanted to try to get this sorted out for him as soon as possible.

To find this form go to > Skypass > Forms and it is the SKYPASS Family Mileage Pooling Plan / Bonus Award Redemption Form.

The following afternoon I called Korean Air once again to confirm that they received the forms and that the upgrade that was put on hold was still in place. They gave me even better news when they told me that the upgrade on the outbound flight had cleared as well! I told the agent to please keep both upgrades on hold for me and that he would transfer the 80,000 miles into his Skypass account and fax over the redemption form for the JFK-ICN portion as soon as he could.

This time the agent said "You don't have to send in the form, he will just need to sign a form when he checks in at the airport that says he will redeem 40,000 miles for the upgrade." Now the whole forms and faxing rigamarole wasn't necessary? That didn't seem quite foolproof to me so I ended up faxing in the form and photo ID anyway just so they had everything in one spot. The last thing I would have wanted would be for him to show up expecting to fly business and be told that the upgrade was no longer available - talk about a letdown.

With the Ultimate Rewards points transferred (which happened instantly), a Skypass balance of 80,000 miles and all forms sent in, I called one last time to make sure everything was going smoothly and to avoid any last minute hiccups. The representative confirmed that it was indeed all in place and that the upgrade agent was processing both upgrades.

In a few hours my friend received a confirmation email and was able to choose his seats on both flights although that had to be done over the phone. The reason for this was because when his initial reservations were made he had attached his Delta Skymiles account number. Since that program was listed and his Skypass was not attached, he wasn't able to log in through to view the seat map himself. Either way, he was able to get the seat locations that he wanted and said he had a great flight there so I was happy to have been able to help!

Notes From the Upgraded Traveler
I asked him to report back since TPG editor Eric will by flying the KE A380 from LAX to ICN in a few weeks, and I wanted to be sure the experience was worth the mileage. Here's what he had to say:

The business class cabin aboard the A380's upper deck.

"The A380 is great. Boarding was a bit crowded but still pretty streamlined thanks to a separate business class ramp on-board (it's possible to not even know that Economy exists underneath you). The cabin had super spacious overheads, high ceilings, nice ambient lighting, big bathrooms and the flight was very quiet.

The little lounge at the front of the business class cabin.

The first class lounge at the base of the stairs and the front business lounge are both serve yourself. The back lounge has a cool little bar with a menu of specialty Absolut cocktails. I went there for a little while because it was a nice for a change of pace to mix up the seating situation, and I could see the Arctic Circle landscape through the windows. There was also a cool Duty Free 'showcase' underneath the back stairs in back of Economy that I browsed.

The Duty Free showcase.

My seat was pretty comfortable and got pretty close to flat. I was a little to tall for it (I like the Delta 777 BusinessElite and the British Airways rear-facing seating and configurations better, and the BA rear-facing seats). It had two plugs per person - one USB for iPod/iPhone/iPad and a real plug for a computer. I thought the blanket and pillow were both thin and small (not as nice as Delta's domestic BusinessElite). And no pj's!

The seatback entertainment screens were pretty big.

The TV screen is very big and the movie selection had current films though I thought the headphones were flimsy and not at all noise-canceling. The food and rinks were also pretty good, but they ran out of several of the options before the end of the flight including the dinner entree I wanted, and the flight attendants' English wasn't very good.

Rather uninspired beef for lunch.

I don't want to complain too much, though, because it really was a great flight experience, and I'm so glad I was able to use miles to upgrade!"

Overall, transferring Chase points to Korean can be a great value to upgrade from relatively cheap economy class fares to business class- especially if your company is willing to pay an M fare or higher. In addition to the good in-flight experience, our friend was also able to put his Delta number on the reservation and get a ton of elite and regular miles for the flights. I personally think 80,000 miles (Chase points) roundtrip is a little bit rich for the upgrade, but it sure beats paying $8,000+ or having to sit in an unassigned economy class seat!
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