The Strange Process of Redeeming Awards Through Korean Air Skypass

I have booked hundreds and hundreds of millions of miles worth of premium cabin international awards through my award booking service. But believe it or not I had never booked anything with miles in a Korean Air Skypass account before.

Actually, this isn’t that surprising. Most of my clients are US-based with a smattering in Europe and Australia. The clients I’ve had in Asia have mostly been using miles in US frequent flyer programs for their rewards.

Not too many US customers have Korean Air Skypass accounts. Plenty have Chase Ultimate Rewards points, though (from Chase Sapphire Preferred). And those transfer to Korean — but since the Ultimate Rewards program is pretty new, and the Korean Air partnership still just shy of a year old, I actually haven’t had occasion.

And today I discovered that they offer one of the Most. Backward. Systems. Ever.

  • You can only redeem for yourself and family members.

  • And they want proof of family relationship.

If two non-family members are going to be traveling, transfer points into each of their accounts separately don’t put all the points into one account. Fortunately with Chase Ultimate Rewards you can move points from your account to whatever mileage account you wish. And points transferred to Korean usually transfer in real-time.

In this case I was redeeming for two passengers out of the same account, spouse pre-registered to the account with the points in it. Korean said it could take 2-3 days after filling out the online form to register a family member for processing to occur, but it actually happened overnight.

The redemption tool online wasn’t working properly — the website wouldn’t populate the origin and destination city drop down boxes. There was no way to pick where you were flying from and to, and the form wouldn’t submit without values in the boxes. So I had to call.

Fortunately the telephone agent answered quickly, and they found the flights right away.

In my very limited experience, and Expertflyer show “A” availability on Korean Air (first class award space) and what is shown in those two places matches Korean’s view of what’s available.

The agent set up the reservation. And then they require that a form on the website be completed and emailed or faxed in to authorize the redemption.

I was told to call back in two days to confirm that the form was received and processed, and that I would be able to find out the taxes and be able to pay them at that time.

Meanwhile I don’t like that while I have a booking reference number, the award inventory still appears to show available.

Booking process notwithstanding, though, Korean Air’s award space in first class is downright amazing. First class on the Airbus A380 from Seoul to JFK is out of this world good, several seats on most of the flights I’ve checked are available. With enough points you can to go Asia and back in first class and on one of the modern big birds, all on award tickets.

Mind you, there’s even tons of space booking over peak holiday periods like Christmas.

And Korean Air flies to Toronto, Vancouver, Atlanta, Washington Dulles, New York JFK, Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.

What’s more there doesn’t seem to be a ton of competition for first class award seats. You can transfer points over from Chase Ultimate Rewards, but you aren’t competing with members of Delta’s frequent flyer program for the seats, even though Delta is a partner of Korean through Skyteam the Delta Skymiles program does not allow redemptions in first class. Taking that huge base of members with large point balances off the table and availability is great.

Korean’s business class availability is really good too. And while Delta members face blackout dates on all routes any date that Korean blacks out on any route (which means that about a third of the year is blacked out entirely), Korean’s members have access to seats on many of those days at the low level (and even on ostensible blackout dates for more miles).

They offer one-way awards and those can include a stopover, such as JFK – Seoul (stop) – Hong Kong all in first class on an Airbus A380 for 80,000 points.

Sure, the award chart is more expensive in many cases than that of US frequent flyer programs. But it’s competitive with world standard and the availability in first class is truly golden.

Walking through their process, though, now that’s another story!

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. I’m sure people will complain you are letting the cat out of the bag. But, thanks for another great post, Gary.

  2. As a foreigner living in Korea I completely get how certain things are just backwards sounding. As for tge website, it was probably because u didnt use Internet Explorer. For some unexplainable reason Korean websites dont work well or at all with Chrome, Safari, Firefox…

  3. chase INK biz cards downgradable to avoid annual fee?
    There are 4 different chase biz cards,

    1 INK CASH, 2 INK CLASSIC, 3 INK BOLD. 4 INK PLUS…dit-cards.aspx

    I currently have the ink bold. my wife wants to apply for either one of the above and she has no chase biz card.
    we both have SP card which is personal.

    Are all four or three of the above are downgradable/convertable each other?

    If she applies for INK BOLD now and when annual fee comes next year, she can downgrade to ink cash or the ink classic to avoid annual fee?

    Out of the 4, only INK CASH has some kind of zero liability, purchase protection?


  4. Gary,

    Why do you and lucky refer to “Korean Air blackout dates”? Yes, *Delta* has blackouts for Korean Air travel, but can you show me where Korean Air has blackouts on its own metal for its own members?

    KE has high and low season redemption, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate blackouts with their own miles…

  5. And once you get your award booked (which takes a few faxes and letters of authorization even if you are the account holder traveling) you MUST present the credit card used for taxes at check-in. No exceptions. If you forgot to bring it…tough luck no kimchi for YOU.

  6. SFOCanuck: NH does require you to register family members before you can redeem awards, but they don’t require proof. IMO it’s a damned stupid policy but I assume it’s to prevent the resale of awards.

  7. How many points are we talking about for a US – Asia award with Korean Air in first?

  8. chase INK biz cards downgradable to avoid annual fee?
    There are 4 different chase biz cards,

    1 INK CASH, 2 INK CLASSIC, 3 INK BOLD. 4 INK PLUS…dit-cards.aspx

    I currently have the ink bold. my wife wants to apply for either one of the above and she has no chase biz card.
    we both have SP card which is personal.

    Are all four or three of the above are downgradable/convertable each other?

    If she applies for INK BOLD now and when annual fee comes next year, she can downgrade to ink cash or the ink classic to avoid annual fee?

    Out of the 4, only INK CASH has some kind of zero liability, purchase protection?


  9. @DS I think they’ll probably take most anything but a marriage license or tax return documents are examples given for a spouse

  10. ANA and JAL both limit award tickets to family members, but they don’t seem to check that closely unless there is clearly suspicious behavior going on. I have traveled with my wife on award tickets from both carriers, and we have never been asked to provide proof of our marital status.

  11. I had an Asiana account back when Bank of America was offering 2 miles for every dollar spent on the Asiana/Amex card and when I tried to redeem those miles for my mum to fly on Asiana using their points, they wanted my birth certificate showing my mother’s name on it! Their policies haven’t changed since (January) when I tried booking another award so I think it must be a Korean thing, not just Korean Air policies. It helps that they have a head office in NYC (where I’m based) so everything was expedited quickly but if you’re located elsewhere, good luck with expediting anything cause they demand you fax the proof of relationship to their LA office. And like Korean Air, they allow only yourself or family members to use your miles. Although like Korean Air which Gary has pointed out, availability is extremely generous in Asiana’s first class cabins but seems to apply only to their own members.

  12. @TrvlGuru – Is it really that big a deal to remember to stick the credit card in your wallet?

  13. I’m a Ultimate Rewards guy all the way. Since Korean is the transfer partner for Sky Miles, I spent 3 days [that’s what it took!] researching its on-line site, the “awards search engine” [non-existent] and speaking with some of its reps. It was a truly surreal experience, a la today’s post. I’m attaching it for your info and entertainment:

    Korean Airlines [KA] Frequent Flyer Program [FFP] as a Transfer Partner [“Portal”] for Chase Ultimate Rewards [UR]

    The Chase UR program has proven a very robust and flexible means for leveraging points through 3 credit cards- Chase Sapphire Preferred, Freedom, and business Ink Bold
    Visas. UR has many other attractive features that some argue make it superior to the longer-established Amex Membership Rewards and Starwoods Starpoint programs. UR’s recent addition of Korean Airlines as its point transfer partner for the Skyteam Alliance has given KA a new and greater importance. Yet, despite this strategic position, the blogosphere has given the KA FFP little attention. It’s a good time, then, to look at it more closely.
    Accordingly, this retiree spent 3 days at this task, looking specifically at KA’s web site, its search engine, its customer service phone desk, its airline partners and award redemption charts, awards availability, and finally the terms and conditions of its FFP.
    Apologies in advance for mistakes, inaccuracies and blunders.
    Gracious corrections happily received.

    1] The KA web site.
    – It was a tough slog. The site is not organized intuitively nor in a manner similar to the US legacy airlines. “Labyrinthine” is the descriptor that comes to mind. There were many false starts and blind alleys. Awkward phrasing made matters worse. However, a helpful customer service agent eventually guided me successfully though the site. And, unaccountably, once further into the site, a more intelligible writing style emerged.
    [see 4., below, for navigation instructions].

    2] The on-line awards search engine-
    – IT DOESN’T EXIST!! [unless you want to fly within Korea and use a KA co-branded credit card]. Thus, all awards must be made by phone.

    3] The phone desk-
    – A brief 2-step ladder gets an award agent.
    – Waits were short, 1-2 minutes.
    -The agents were Korean, with heavily-accented, somewhat halting English, but were uniformly pleasant, polite and helpful.
    They seemed knowledgeable and well-trained.

    4] Redemption Charts- there are two (in italics below). Here’s how to find them:
    -Home>Skypass>Redeem Miles (upper left)>Partner Airlines
    (left column, second choice,), then 4 choices (red lettered):
    ➢ Tips for Skyteam Award Travel and Upgrade, OR
    ➢ Skyteam Award Travel Reward Redemptions Chart [listed are the Skyteam partners plus China Southern and China Eastern]>Departing from USA/Canada (below, in red, second column), OR
    ➢ Skyteam Upgrades Redemption Chart, OR
    ➢ Other Airline Award (Redemption) Travel [Alaska, Garuda, Emirates, and Hawaiian].
    Nine of these airlines have many flights that are ineligible for awards. The destinations are not named, nor are the reasons or purposes for ineligibility given.
    KA has code-share agreements with 10 airlines other than the Skyteam and other 4 partners above. However, NONE of these airlines grants award seats.

    5] Award Availability-
    – completely unknown. Need info from users!!

    6] Terms and conditions of KA FFP:
    [In this age? Can’t be possible, but appears to be.]
    – Tickets taxes, fees, fuel charges, etc? Unknown to me.
    – Holds on reservations? “depends on partner” per agent.
    – Black-out days- per partners
    – “peak season” awards on KA itself require 50% more points! The peak season is a few days pre-Xmas and after New Years, varying each year by date, flight direction [eastwest], and destination.
    – NO one-way ticketing.
    – 2 stop-overs, including open jaw.
    – Points expire in 10 years- computer tracks when points were accrued.

    7] Bargain Awards?
    The award redemption charts appear generally in-line with the industry. Possible exceptions are the 50,000 point coach seats from USA/Canada to southern So. Amer, Europe, and North Africa. Those sound pretty good, especially considering leveraged UR points.

  14. I am one of those with a Korean Air CC and have had a Korean SkyPass account since 1991, ever since I first moved to Asia for teaching overseas there. Agreed, the process of getting BC and FC RT awards is complicated, but oh, so very worth it. One of my last trip between SLC and ICN RT was absolutely fantastic. I was on the upperdeck alone! Great service!

  15. Hmm, award availabilty.. well, as a teacher, I’ve always gotten those upgrades or free tickets. How to get them? If you want to go at Christmastime, call before Chuseok. If you want to leave before summer vacation hits, call at Christmas to get your tickets. That requires planning. And yes, DO NOT forget the CREDIT CARD, ever, that you purchased the ticket with. Be prepared for mutliple emails, calls to both Korean agents in the U.S. and SK. Complicated, yes, but please remember that the agents try very hard to present you with the best possible service since this is cultural more. I love Korean Air!

  16. Oh, and love this: 2 stop-overs, including open jaw. Used to fly from LAX to NRT as a stopover, figure out where I was going for Christmas – usually a destination south of the freezing winter, and then go there, come back to NRT to work another 4 months, and then go home. Love, love that aspect.

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