Understanding Korean Air First Class Awards Using Chase Points

Reader Carberrie asks,

Korean Air miles booking process! I know Korean miles are a good option for those of us with Ultimate Rewards points seeking transpacific F. However, I just know that the availability is great but the booking process is a pain in the butt. What I don’t know is how bad is it, and is the pain worth it?

Korean is one of the really undervalued transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Transfer to Korean Air, the transfers are usually instantaneous.

Here’s the award chart. They offer one-way awards at half the cost of a roundtrip. From the US to Hong Kong via Seoul in first class is 80,000 points. They do add fuel surcharges which vary by destination, though Asia is usually less costly than Europe.

The key here is that first class award space is amazing on Korean. There’s really not a ton of competition for the seats. Korean is in Skyteam with Delta, but Delta frequent flyers are not allowed to book first class awards. I find two first class award seats most days on most flights from Washington DC and New York, sometimes more from Chicago, and even four from Los Angeles.

Korean Air flies to Toronto, Vancouver, Atlanta, Washington Dulles, New York JFK, Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. So that’s tons of North American gateways you can use. Between these cities it’s hard not to find availability. And they do not ‘black out’ as many dates as Delta tells its members are unavailable (and those high demand dates are still available to Korean members, just for more points).

They offer a good product, too — nice amenities, a good seat, good pajamas and bedding, good food. It’s not as good as Singapore’s suites and I do prefer Cathay Pacific overall but it’s a solid product and the key is you can get it when you want it — I flew them back from Malaysia one-stop to DC the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year and had no problem getting the seats I wanted.

FlightStats.com 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.

So is it worth it? I believe it is. But they do offer a cumbersome booking process, which if you understand it is easy to work through. It’s just different

The two key things to know are that:

  1. You can only redeem for yourself and family members.
  2. And they want proof of family relationship.

So no fudging! If you want to bring a boyfriend or girlfriend or just plain ‘ol friend, it can be done. For instance, instead of transferring points for two tickets to your own Korean account you would transfer points for yourself to one account and for the second passenger to their own account. Korean requires all award passengers to have frequent flyer accounts anyway. (Chase Ultimate Rewards says you’re not supposed to do this, although most of the concerns I’ve read are about transferring from one Chase account to another.)

Assuming you are booking two tickets together, and are going to transfer points into your own account and book two seats, your companion needs to open a frequent flyer account as well and fill out a form online to register them as a family member. They say it can take 2-3 days to do this but my own experience was it happened overnight.

Once that’s accomplished you call Korean to set up the booking. You can of course book online but I find the website glitchy for doing this. Agents are reasonably competent, and I’ve not been charged a fee for booking through them.

Once the reservation is set up you then have to fill out a form to authorize the redemption which you then email or fax to Korean.

The award is on hold in the meantime. You then ring back a couple of days later to confirm that the form was received and processed. Only then will the taxes be finalized and they’ll take payment.

Finally, when you turn up at the airport you will have to show them the credit card used for the taxes and sign another form.

That’s the process. There is paperwork, but it’s not cumbersome or frustrating, just a bit old fashioned I think.

(Note that most though not all of the cards in this post offer credit to me if you’re approved using my links. I try to offer only the best available cards, and most lucrative deals available for those cards. So if you’re aware of better deals than I’ve featured please do let me know! The opinions, analyses, and evaluations here are mine. The content is not provided or commissioned by American Express, by Chase, by Citibank, US Bank, Bank of America, Barclays or any other company. They have not reviewed, approved or endorsed what I have to say.)

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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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. What happens if you no longer have the credit card used to pay the taxes. In this game, cards circulate through my wallet very often. I can make a conscious decision to use a card I know I will keep, but what happens if the card is lost and I get a new card with a different number?

  2. I booked a first class flight on Korean back in June. I thought the website was fine. I didn’t have to email or fax anything. I was prepared for a difficult process after reading a TPG post from last year. I found it painless. Like booking a United flight, but with super awesome availability. The fuel surcharge for the one way ORD-ICN F class was about $150. The flight is in November, so I will see how it goes once I show up.

  3. What about Skyteam and other partner awards? Is the process the same? Is the award chart the same? Fuel surcharges high? Availability easy to find?

  4. While this post is specifically about flying Korean Air, it might be worth clarifying the point about one-ways at half the miles cost: this is only for Korean Air flights — awards on partners are round-trip only.

  5. I just can’t get excited about 180k RT to Asia in First, when I can get there so comfortably for 90k Business using US Air miles, AND get crazy routings, AND avoid “the process.” Even as a backup, you’re talking big points if you’re using it to get 2+ people there. IMO, it’s biggest value is that it has some sweet spots on other partners (which, unfortunately, require round trip awards). Combined with blackout dates though, I dread a scenario where I’d have to resort to using them — tip toeing around for the privelege of blowing so many URs? I guess I feel about KE what most newcomers feel about FF miles in general.

  6. I’ll second @James’ comments about the process not being so awful. I wanted to hold seats for a Thanksgiving trip while I waited for some points to post. I called up and they put it on hold. I did this in May… and got a hold valid through sometime in November. A few weeks later, I just went on the website and clicked the button to redeem. They took the miles, charged my card for the taxes and fuel surcharge, and the ticket has been issued. I am prepared to show the card at check-in, but there was no form to fax or anything like that.

  7. So what? This is a business, he provides you info which you chose to read for free!! I hate people who are always jealous from the success of others. If you can do better than Gary , it is a free world, go for it!!

  8. Is it possible to see Kerean Air award availability and it’s partners’s award availability without having miles in the account yet

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