Suites, Treats, and Eats, a Malaysian Mileage Thanksgiving: Korean Air First Class, Seoul – Washington Dulles

  1. Introduction: Constructing — and Re-constructing — the Award Trip
  2. American Eagle DC – New York and the New Nicest JFK Airport Hotel, the Hilton
  3. Cathay Pacific First Class, JFK – Hong Kong
  4. The Wing lounge in Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Kuala Lumpur
  5. Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
  6. Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Kuala Lumpur – Langkawi
  7. The Andaman Langkawi
  8. Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Langkawi – Kuala Lumpur
  9. Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur
  10. Things to See and Do in Kuala Lumpur
  11. Korean Airlines First Class, Kuala Lumpur – Seoul and the Korean Air First Class Lounge Seoul
  12. Korean Air First Class, Seoul – Washington Dulles

It was a short walk from the lounge, down the escalator and over to our gate at the very end of the terminal. The first line encountered wasn’t for boarding but for coffee, although the people in line to load up on liquids for the long line to the U.S. were in for an unpleasant surprise.

There was a long line for economy boarding, but as boarding had already commenced there wasn’t much of a line for premium cabin boarding.

First stop? A security check. Where any liquids in excess of 100ml were confiscated. People downed their Gloria Jean’s coffee.

Once onboard I discovered that there was only going to be one other passenger in the cabin, so first class was full to 3 of 8. The flight was onboard a 777. I was somewhat regretful that I hadn’t gone ahead and booked first class on the A380 to JFK, just to try it, but I was also thankful that when the flight was over I’d be going home instead of changing terminals, re-clearing security, and taking another flight.

Korean’s 777 is set up as 2 rows of 4 seats across in first. There’s a window seat on each side and two seats together in the middle that actually would be quite private from each other with the privacy divider up.

In contrast Cathay Pacific’s 777 first class consists of three seats across. So while the Korean seats are perfectly wide, they’re closer to the ANA seats (that I find cramped) than to Cathay’s generous offering. And it’s that width that makes Cathay so special a seat for me, I have so much private space set apart from the rest of the world (aircraft) that I feel almost like I’m at home on my couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon rather than inflight.

The seat has ample storage, one of my usual complaints about most seats (and even the Cathay seat where — while you have your own closet and space under the ottoman, don’t have a ton of spots to stash stuff for use inflight). Just don’t forget anything when you land!

Pajamas and amenity kits were distributed, as well as menus, and I continued excitedly checking out the seat controls.

I had some champagne to begin while I pondered it all.

My overall impression of the cabin at this point was that it was still pretty new, it offered a good solid hard product, but that it was far from a true ‘suite’ in the Cathay or Singapore or Emirates sense of the term.

We were on our way after what seemed like only moments in the seat, probably the time just flew by quickly since I was so enthralled by checking out a new product for the first time. Taxi around the Seoul airport seemed to take forever, however. But once we were in the air the flight attendants were around the cabin quickly providing service.

I had a bloody mary to start the flight while I looked over the menu.


Pre-drink service
Prawn with fruit salad

Caviar service

Red bell pepper puree soup (offered with western main course)
Korean porridge

Seasonal garden greens served with a choice of balsamic dressing, mango lemon dressing or Caesar dressing

Main course
Korean Bibimbap offered with minced bef and seasonal vegetables, accompanied by sesame oil and Gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)

Pumpkin nutritious rice serced with Korean style soup and side dishes

Grilled beef tenderloin with meaux mustard sauce served with baby pumpkin mash, bell pepper timbala, oven dried onion ring and dried cherry tomato

Seared black cod covered with yam served with yellow paprika sauce, potato tower with ginko nut, fava beans and dried cherry tomato

Cheese Tray
Camembert, chaumes, comte

Seasonal fresh fruit

Chocolate mouse
Designed by premium dessert gallery, Passion 5 in Seoul

Bread selection
Potato rye roll, olive oil roll, focaccia, Korean Makgeolli rice roll

Coffee / Tea / Green Tea / Ginseng Tea / Omija Punch

The wine list is extensive but generic for all Korean first class service, showing the different wines offered on different routes. For instance theLaurent-Perrier Alexandra Rose 1998 (champagne) and Chateau Rieussec 2006 (sauternes) are limited to Seoul – Paris and Seoul – New York flights.

For this flight we had:

Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle
Chablis 1st Cru 2007
Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2010
Chateau Giscours 2006
Ghost Black Single Vineyard 2009
Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
Founders Reserve Porto Sandeman

My table was set and I had a glass of the Ghost Black.

We began with the prawn and fruit salad.

I moved onto the caviar, and I thought the presentation was outstanding. One of my pet peeves about airline caviar is that they make a significant investment but miss the last mile by failing to offer a caviar spoon. I was pleased to see Korean remember that nicety. I am, after all, not a baboon.

I ordered the bibimbap. Which I realize is a controversial choice to some. Certainly to someone in Korea that’s like ordering a turkey sandwich. And this is international first class. I recall flying Hong Kong – Seoul on Asiana a couple of years ago, and I ordered the bibimbap while every Asian in the cabin (which was nearly everyone) ordered the steak.

But it’s not something I get every day, and I was confident that if Korean was going to offer this staple that they would do it well, so it seemed a good opportunity.

The bibimbap comes with instructions, but having had it plenty of times in Korea (and flying Asiana) I didn’t read through them on the flight.

  1. Please put the steamed rice into the Bibimbap bowl
  2. Add gochujang/Korean hot pepper paste
  3. Add sesame oil
  4. Mix the Bibimbap together
  5. Enjoy the Bibimbap with side dish and soup

I’m not really sure that instructions are required, although a first timer I suppose should be told ‘mix all the stuff’ and that would suffice.

They brought by the cheese and fruit cart but I declined.

I couldn’t resist, though, trying the chocolate mouse.

It was much prettier than it tasted though it wasn’t bad, after a few bites I decided not to waste the calories.

I thought that the meal was good, far from the very best I’ve had in the sky but certainly I was happy with it.

After lunch I decided to change into my pajamas and really settle in for the flight.

I came out of the lavatory and there wasn’t anyone around to help with hanging my clothes. I waited around for a bit to see if I could get the attention of a passing flight attendant, but after failing that for nearly 10 minutes I decided to ring my call button to ask to have my bed made.

I napped on and off for the next two and a half hours, but having slept so well on the redeye in from Kuala Lumpur I just wasn’t going to be sleeping much on the fight. I began to regret letting myself sleep earlier, since I really wanted to sleep well on this flight, arrive in DC in the morning and have the full day ahead of me to adjust back to the time. That wasn’t going to happen, I wasn’t going to worry about it, I fired up the inflight entertainment system and watched a bit of My Sister’s Sister and then retreated to the offerings on my laptop. Korean’s inflight entertainment was good, not great, not nearly as extensive as Cathay’s and also not stocking very many things that happened to pique my interest. Instead I watched the better part of the first season of Game of Thrones.

Midway through the flight I had a look at the snack menu.


Ramen with Side Dishes
Fresh Cookie
Pecan Pie
Brownie Cake and Snack

.. and was disappointed by what I found.

Now, this is an area that I think Cathay does quite well offering interesting hot and cold items to choose from. And ANA does it probably better than any other airline. But few carriers even in the best first class cabins do more than what you’d find from the old British Airways business class ‘raid the larder’ offering. (Although I’ve had luck in the past on, say, Singapore asking after items leftover from the main meal to have as snacks.)

It was around this time that a flight attendant came asking whether I’d like to have my second meal, I let her know I’d take it much closer to landing. She actually came to me again about an hour later asking ‘at least if I could let her know my selection’ which I found strange, I wondered if she wanted to know what items she wouldn’t need to save in order to use for something else?

Light Meal

Main Course
Korean style Dongchimi noodle served with grilled beef rib and side dishes
Seared Je-dong farmhouse chicken with red bell pepper sauce with yam
Seafood tagliatelle pasta with rose sauce

Seasonal Fresh Fruit

Bread Selection
Chinese date scone, whole weat Swedish tomato bread, onion focaccia bread

Coffee / Tea / Green Tea / Ginseng Tea / Omija Punch

After several more hours of television I was ready for that second meal.

I had the Korean noodle soup with grilled beef rib.

The beef was somewhat tough and fatty though incredibly flavorful and overall I enjoyed it very much.

I read for about 45 minutes after this, changed back into my clothes, and it was nearly time to land. Shortly before arrival we were served perhaps the most delicious tea I’ve ever tried. I wish I had asked more about it.

Arrival was on-time and since the flight gets in before the other transpacifics to DC (and long before the afternoon Europe arrivals) the immigration hall was nearly empty.

Ultimately I enjoyed the flight. It was a great way to travel and it’s a real bonus to be able to arrive back from Asia in my home city without taking another domestic flight. Korean offers Seoul service, United and ANA offer Tokyo service, and United offers Beijing service. Transpacific options are indeed limited.

The hard product was good but a notch below Cathay and Singapore for sure. I’d rate them above United and British Airways of course. The food was delicious and I have no complaints there.

The two Korean flights though were a study in contrast in terms of service. While on my shorter regional hop from Kuala Lumpur to Seoul, the flight attendants were attentive and friendly and couldn’t do enough, on this longer flight they mostly disappeared from the cabin and — while willing to do whatever I asked — seemed indifferent or bothered whenever I did ask and never proactive (I had to ask every time I wanted a water refill, for instance).

Perhaps the best thing is how easy it is to get the seats. There’s really not that much competition for Korean Air first class awards. Most US customers are using Delta miles, which means competition for business class seats but Korean’s partner Delta doesn’t allow redemption for first class. Instead, it’s mostly folks based in Seoul (who don’t have the advantage of big credit card signup bonuses like we have in the US) and US-based folks with credit card points that transfer to foreign airlines which allow redemption in Korean First. And very few even think of it.

I used my Chase Ultimate Rewards points, those moved directly over to Korean instantly. And though the booking process is cumbersome, having to fax authorization letters and wait for actual ticketing plus show the credit card used to pay taxes at check-in, it was actually quite easy overall. The space can be searched easily at Expert Flyer (you can’t use a Korean account to search for the space unless you have the points in your account to book). Korean’s agents have seen the space exactly as shown at Expert Flyer.

I would definitely do it again, though recognize there’s a real sweet spot in the award chart from the US to Hong Kong (160,000 miles roundtrip in first) versus farther south (my one-way from Malaysia was 95,000 per person so would have been 190,000 miles roundtrip — about a 35% mileage premium over what United charges for the route on its partners).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Korean Air First Class Between the US and Hong Kong One-way. They charge 80,000 points for first class, and the availability is amazingly good. They serve more US destinations than any other Asian airline. You can fly between the US and Hong Kong (or to the North of Hong Kong) in first class via Seoul, south of Hong Kong is 15,000 points more expensive. Here’s my Korean Air experience from back in November. […]


  1. Be happy you have a few choices to Asia…up here in Boston we just got our first Asia service ever (JAL to NRT)!

    Interestingly, I was on this same flight a couple of months ago in J, and found the cabin crew to be much more like what you described on your first flight, so perhaps it was just the specific crew on your flight. For example, even when I woke up way too late to have my second meal (~15 minutes prior to arrival), one of the FAs offered to put together a plate with fruit and bread for me, to which I acquiesced after refusing it twice. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as quickly in my life–I thought I was going to need to hold on to the plate and flatware for landing!

  2. I am a bit new to the travel blogs and game, but I am curious what it is like traveling in these kinds of first class seats with a travel companion.

    Is it isolating? How easy is it to speak with your friend/wife/kid/companion? Do other passengers get annoyed if you are making conversation?

  3. Great report and a lot of useful info. Sorry to be blunt but has it ever occurred to readers might not be so interested for the PJ pictures in the bathroom?

  4. @AJTrenkle – the Korean seats you’re right next to each other, assuming the privacy screen is down, though you do need to lean over to speak to each other without raising your voice. The Cathay seats you cannot see each other while seated. But the seats are wide enough to sit next to each other, so you can go visit if you’d like. And they are set up to allow dining across from each other as though in a restaurant!

  5. Gary, can you tell me more re. the gate security for liquids? I always enjoy taking a bottle or can of refreshment from the local airport/airline lounge with me onto the plane, not necessarily to drink but bring home. For example, at London Heathrow, one has already gone past security to get to the controlled area where the lounge is located, then no additional checkpoints at the gate. As such, I usually bring a bottle or two of local English cider. Lounge aside, there is also the regular concession stands/shops in the terminal. Was what you encountered an issue just in Seoul for flights departing to the U.S.? Any other places? I have a trip in the fall and I go from Bangkok to Seoul to Tokyo to San Francisco and I’m sure I’ll have some stuff. I recall from my last departure from Tokyo a year ago that there wasn’t any gate check for liquids. Appreciate any insights from you or your readers. Thanks.

  6. Airports that do not do a liquids check at security will have a liquids check at the gate for US-bound flights (or for US airlines regardless of destination). I departed Hong Kong on Saturday night, they don’t check you for liquids coming into the airport so they do it at the gate (or in the case of this departure, where there’s no clearly cordoned off gate area they can control, on the jetway). Duty free is the only liquid > 100ml coming on the aircraft unfortunately in that instance.

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