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Among award travel enthusiasts, Korean Air’s SkyPass frequent flyer program has a reputation for two things: offering some fantastic deals on its award chart and being difficult to book award tickets.

In order to learn exactly how to book these award tickets, and to take advantage of one of these incredible deals, I booked a family vacation to Hawaii using SkyPass miles. In today’s post, I’ll share what I’ve learned so that you can benefit from my experience.

Earning SkyPass Miles

Korean Air is a massive Asian carrier that serves nearly 130 destinations in more than 50 countries, and it’s the only carrier to operate the Boeing 777, the 747-8 and the Airbus A380. It also operates the SkyPass frequent flyer program, with the motto “Beyond Your Imagination.” And while it appears to live up to this claim, it doesn’t do so in the way that it probably intended.

The SkyPass program is a transfer partner of both Chase Ultimate Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, which means you can earn Korean Air miles through spending on the following cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve Card — Currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months. Earn 3 points per dollar on all travel and dining purchases and 1 point per dollar on everything else. This card has a $450 annual fee.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card — Currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months. Earn 2 points per dollar on all travel purchases and at restaurants, and earn 1 point per dollar on everything else. This card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
  • Chase Ink Business Preferred Card — Currently offering a sign-up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months. Earn 3 points per dollar on the first $150,000 spent in combined spending on travel; shipping purchases; internet, cable and phone services; and advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines. Earn 1 point per dollar on everything else with no limit to the amount you can earn. This card has a $95 annual fee.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express —Currently offering 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. Earn 6 points per dollar on eligible purchases at Starwood and Marriott hotels and 2 point per dollar on everything else. This card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Card from American Express — Currently offering 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. Earn 6 points per dollar on eligible purchases at Starwood and Marriott hotels. This card has a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year, and no foreign transaction fees.

You can also earn SkyPass miles by using one of the three Korean Air credit cards available from US Bank. The SkyBlue SkyPass Card has no annual fee but only offers 1 mile per every 2 dollars spent, while the SkyPass Visa Classic Card has a $50 annual fee and earns 1 mile per dollar spent. The SkyPass Visa Signature Card has an $80 annual fee and offers 2 miles per dollar on Korean Air ticket purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else, and it includes two Korean Air lounge passes per year.

And of course, you earn miles by flying Korean Air or its partners and crediting your flight to the SkyPass program. Miles earned are based on the distance flown, but you can earn more or less than 100% of the miles flown depending on the fare class and class of service purchased.

Redeeming SkyPass Miles

Korean Airlines is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, which includes AeroMexico, Air France, Delta, KLM and others. You can redeem SkyPass miles for flights on Korean Air, SkyPass members and non-alliance partners including:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • Emirates
  • Etihad
  • GOL
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Jet Airways

So far, nothing mentioned here is too far “Beyond Your Imagination,” but we’re just getting started. First, keep in mind that you can only book awards with Korean Air by itself, or exclusively on SkyTeam partners (including Korean Air) or exclusively on a single non-alliance partner. So you can’t use Delta to reach a domestic gateway to book an award flight on Korean Air.

Next, note that you can only book award tickets in the name of certain family members: your spouse, children, parents, siblings, parents-in-law, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, grandparents and grandchildren. This limitation is unique among the dozens of frequent flyer programs that I’ve studied, and definitely limits the award travel you can book.

Furthermore, you have to go through a multi-step process to register your family members and book award tickets in their name. And although you can use the website to book award flights operated by Korean Air, it’s a lengthy process to book SkyTeam and other partner awards.

How I Booked Four First-Class Tickets to Hawaii for 180,000 Miles

kal skyteam chart
SkyTeam awards to North America include Hawaii, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Europe in business class is also a bargain.

One of the best values among the SkyPass award charts is for tickets to Hawaii, since Korean Air considers our 50th state to be part of North America for the purpose of SkyTeam awards. This allows you to book award seats on Delta for just 25,000 SkyPass miles round-trip in economy, and a mere 45,000 miles in first class. Korean Air also considers Mexico, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to be part of the same North America Award zone, so it charges the same 25,000/45,000 miles for awards to these destinations. For more interesting classification loopholes like this, see my post, Using Airline Geography to Find Award Chart Sweet Spots.

Unfortunately, awards to Hawaii, Mexico and Costa Rica on non-SkyTeam partners Alaska and Hawaiian are 30,000 miles round-trip in economy and 60,000 in first, which is still very good, but not as good as the SkyTeam chart.

To put this value in perspective, United charges 45,000 miles for a round-trip economy-class award to Hawaii and 80,000 miles for first class, while American charges 45,000 miles for economy and 80,000 miles for first. Delta no longer publishes its award chart, so you never know how many miles it might charge you. I found plenty of dates during the summer where first-class awards from Denver to Maui cost 165,000 miles round-trip!

Delta can charge 3-4 times the miles for the same first class flights that Korean charges 45,000 miles for in first class.
Delta can charge 3-4 times the miles for first class to Hawaii.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Booking SkyTeam and Partner Flights

1. Find the award flights you need — Alaska’s site will show you awards for SkyPass partners Delta, Emirates and of course Alaska itself. Also, you can search SkyTeam partners on the Air France site. Though Delta isn’t known for offering a generous amount of award space to its partners, I was able to find four first-class award seats available in August from Denver to Maui via Los Angeles and Seattle using the online award search engine for Alaska Airlines, which you don’t even need an account to use.

Delta happened to offer a surprising amount of award seats to Hawaii as shown on the Alaska web site.
Delta happened to offer a surprising number of award seats to Hawaii, as shown on the Alaska Airlines website.

2. Join SkyPass — You also need to create separate online accounts for any family members traveling with you.

3. Call SkyPass at (800) 438-5000 — Request to book a SkyTeam or other partner award (bonus) ticket, and you’ll be promised a call back. It’s now also possible to book some partner awards online.

4. Hold the ticket — A day after requesting the callback, I received a call from a number in California, and the SkyPass reservations agent that I spoke to was quite helpful. She was able to see award seats that mostly corresponded with my findings on Alaska’s website, but not exactly. Nevertheless she was able to hold our four seats and even called me back at one point when we were disconnected.

Once you have the ticket held, this would is a good time to request both your SkyPass reservation number as well as the confirmation numbers from all partner airlines. Use the partner airline’s confirmation number to double-check your flights and to reserve seat assignments on its website.

5. Complete the SkyPass bonus redemption and family registration forms — Email the forms, your passports (or other acceptable identification) and your proof of relationship such as a marriage certificate to I used my smartphone to take pictures of all the forms and documents and attached them to an email in just a few minutes. I then had to send both forms as well as copies of all of our documents to its email address:

6. Ticket the reservation — Four days after sending the email, I received a reply confirming our SkyPass family registration and giving us a ticket number. Via email, the SkyPass representative also advised me to wait until shortly before ticketing to transfer the miles so that I could retain the option of canceling or changing my trip. Still, I plan on transferring my points to miles and ticketing well before then. As with any domestic flight, there was a charge for each passenger, but no fuel surcharges.

You can wait until SkyPass calls you to ticket the reservation a few days before your flight, or you can request ticketing in advance. If you don’t have the miles needed in your account, you can instantly transfer the miles from the Chase Ultimate Rewards program (transfers from Starwood may take several days).

Bottom Line

This was far more work than I would have done to book partner awards with other carriers, which can usually be handled easily online or with a single phone call. Over the course of a week, I spent about an hour making this reservation, which included phone calls, creating accounts, filling out forms and emailing documents. Was it worth spending this hour for my family to travel to Hawaii in first class for 180,000 miles —over 100,000 fewer than any alternative? You bet!

And now that all of family members’ accounts have been created and linked, it would take just a few minutes to book a SkyPass partner award the next time. Thankfully, you can book awards on all Korean-operated flights online, and the airline is known for offering fantastic first-class award availability.

By patiently complying with the paperwork requirements of Korean Air’s SkyPass program, you can use your Ultimate Rewards or Starpoints to book an award trip for fewer miles than you may have thought.

Have you booked an award flight with Korean Air? Share your experience in the comments below!

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