Fantastic First-Class Availability to Asia with Ultimate Rewards and Korean Air

May 7, 2015

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The final leg of my whirlwind trip to Brazil, South Korea and China was flying Korean Air first class from Hong Kong to New York via Seoul. To get the 80,000 miles I needed for this redemption, I transferred some of my Chase Ultimate Rewards points into my Korean Air SkyPass account, then booked my award by calling Korean Air. Though the Korean Air award booking process is still a total pain, the airline has made some improvements to its website and award search.

Searching for Korean Air Awards

Look for awards on Korean Air’s website, and you’ll be shown search results for the entire month.

Korean Air
Korean Air’s site has gotten a lot better at searching for awards.

However, the search engine is still a bit wonky, and has trouble pulling up awards for multiple segments.

Korean Air has difficulty searching for multiple segments at once.
Korean Air has difficulty searching for multiple segments at once.

With my intended itinerary, for instance, I had to pull up award availability separately for the Hong Kong-Seoul and Seoul-New York legs, as you can see in these examples.

But there is usually availability when you search individual segments like this one from HKG-ICN.
But there is usually availability when you search individual segments, like this one from HKG-ICN.
And this one continuing from ICN-JFK.
And this one continuing from ICN-JFK.

The other way to do this is to log into ExpertFlyer and pull up Korean Air award space from there; this process helps you find segments that fit together.

Use ExpertFlyer to search for multi-segment awards.
Use ExpertFlyer to search for multi-segment awards.

Here’s a sample date where there are plenty of first-class award seats from Hong Kong-Seoul-New York:

ExpertFlyer displays tons of award availability.
ExpertFlyer displays tons of award availability.

As you can see, one of the great things about Korean Air is that it tends to have a significant number of award seats available. The airline is notorious for imposing quite a few blackout (or “peak”) dates during Korean and western holidays, but as long as you steer clear of those, you’ve got a good shot at finding a few seats on flights that will suit your needs.

Avoid Korean
Avoid Korean’s (many) blackout dates.

Unfortunately, you can’t find Korean Air first-class award availability on since you can only redeem Delta miles for economy and business-class awards on partners, and Alaska does not let you redeem its miles for first-class awards on Korean.

That means your best option for booking Korean Air first-class awards is by using Korean Air SkyPass miles.

Once you find the award you want, you have to call Korean Air to put the award on hold—agents may be able to put seats on hold for weeks or months if you ask, up until a few days before departure. Then you can transfer Ultimate Rewards points into your Korean Air SkyPass account (more on that below). Finally, you have to fill out an award application, email it to the airline and then call Korean Air back to give them your credit card information for the taxes/fees and have them actually issue a ticket.

Transferring Ultimate Rewards Points to Korean Air SkyPass

Korean Air is one of Chase Ultimate Rewards
Korean Air is one of Chase Ultimate Rewards’ 1:1 transfer partners.

If you’re like most US flyers, you probably don’t have Korean Air SkyPass miles sitting around. However, the good news is that Korean is an instant 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus cards, so you can transfer points into a SkyPass account from there in order to book your award.

For my particular redemption, Hong Kong is in Korean Air’s region of Northeast Asia/China. First-class awards between there and North America require 80,000 miles each way off-peak. That’s the same as just flying from South Korea to the US, so I basically got an extra four-hour flight for free.

I was looking for two tickets since Julio was with me, and each of them priced out to 80,000 miles and $85—a relative steal for tickets that would have cost nearly $8,000 if we had bought them outright.

I think it’s important to point out what an amazing value this is relative to some of the other options out there. For instance, Delta would charge you 70,000 miles each way for business class between the US and Hong Kong (or Seoul), so you’re getting the first-class experience for just 10,000 miles more.

In terms of other Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, United would require 80,000 miles for first class on its own metal, ANA asks for a jaw-dropping 120,000 miles and British Airways would charge you an astronomical 150,000 Avios! For its own SFO-HKG flight, Singapore Airlines would require 70,125 miles plus about $50 in taxes/fees.

On the other hand, American would require just 67,500 miles to fly to/from Hong Kong to the US on American itself or on its partners Cathay Pacific and JAL. However, because of the wide-open availability (especially for more than one first-class seat on the same flights) and relative ease of the points-transfer process, Ultimate Rewards/Korean SkyPass were my programs of choice this time around.

Once I
Once I’d found the awards I wanted, booking was a breeze since I could instantly transfer Ultimate Rewards points to my Korean Air SkyPass account.

In order to get the miles we needed for this redemption, I simply transferred some of my Chase Ultimate Rewards points into my own Korean Air SkyPass account, and some into Julio’s (we created a new one for him) since he is my domestic partner and Chase allows transfers to spouses and domestic partners, though it has cracked down on transfers to other people.

Because Chase points transfer instantly, that means you can search for awards and then transfer points once you find the flights you want without risking those award seats disappearing. I called Korean Air to put the awards on hold, made the instant transfers, completed the rest of the booking process and then called back in to pay the taxes/fees.

One thing to remember is that when you check in for your Korean Air flight, the agents will require you to show them the same credit card you used to make your booking. They even make a copy of it, so be sure you have it with you!

Have any of you booked award travel with Korean Air? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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