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You Can Get Korean Air Points from Both Chase and Starwood
Chase was, for quite some time, the only realistic way for most US residents to accrue large amounts of Korean Air Skypass miles. There’s a US Bank co-brand Korean Air credit card, but the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is far better at earning Korean’s miles (because of double points on travel and dining) and of course comes with the flexibility to transfer points to many other programs as well.
Starwood’s Starpoints were already the most valuable loyalty program currency. And they have the most airline transfer partners where points transfer 1:1 plus when you move Starwood points into 20,000 miles you get 5000 bonus miles. That gets you effectively a 1:1.25 transfer ratio with most airline partners.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has a signup bonus of 40,000 points after $4000 spend within 3 months of cardmembership. (You can also get another 5000 points for adding an authorized user to the account and making a purchase within that timeframe.)
Korean Air is Amazing for First Class Awards
Korean Air has the absolute best first class award availability. Most Korean flights will feature at least 2 first class award seats, but 3 and 4 is common on some routes. (Note that first class awards book into “A” class)
Korean flies to more US destinations than any other Asian airline:
- Las Vegas
- Los Angeles
- New York JFK
- San Francisco
- Washington Dulles
Their primary US partner is Delta — and Delta miles can’t be used for Korean Air first class. Korean also partners with Alaska Airlines, and Alaska miles can’t be used for Korean Air first class.
As a result when you have Chase or Starwood points, which transfer to Korean miles, you’re really not competing against that many people for the seats. With great availability, little competition, and so many flights you can usually find Korean Air award space. I had no problem booking them a couple of months out for the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
What’s more, Korean is unique in operating many intra-Asian routes with first class cabins. That means in addition to flying US – Seoul, your flights beyond Seoul to your final destination will often have a first class as well.
Korean Air is a Great Strategy for Hawaii
Korean partners with both Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines and offers exceptional value awards on both (with no fuel surcharges).
You have to book roundtrip, and fly only one airline, so you can’t fly Alaska one way and Hawaiian the other. There’s no change to routing after departure of first flight. Once travel begins you can change only dates/times.
You cannot use ‘family pooling’ of miles (combining miles from more than one family member’s account) to claim a partner award. All of the miles have to come from one account.
Korean allows a stopover on domestic US awards on Alaska Airlines. Hawaii and Mexico are 30,000 miles roundtrip in coach and 60,000 in first. This is one of the best first class awards to Hawaii there is.
For short-haul non-stops, such as Seattle, Portland, or Los Angeles along the West Coast, you’d do better transferring points to British Airways to redeem flights on Alaska. But for connecting flights or cross-country flights you’ll do better with Korean. And indeed Korean’s award prices for travel on Alaska are cheaper than Alaska’s own prices for the same flights.
For West Coast non-stops to Hawaii In coach you may do better using British Airways Avios at 25,000 miles roundtrip. But from the East Coast, with connections, or in first class Korean is the superior partner to use.
Award availability on Alaska matches what you’ll see on Alaska’s own website (for redemptions at the low/saver level).
Awards between the US and Hawaii on Hawaiian are similarly 30,000 miles roundtrip in coach and 60,000 in first. However, unlike with Alaska, these awards do not include connecting flights, which are charged at extra mileage. So New York JFK – Honolulu – Maui – Honolulu – New York JFK would be 40,000 miles roundtrip in coach (since Honolulu – Maui is 10,000 miles roundtrip in coach and the pricing is additive).
Korean Air is Cheap for Europe Business Class, Too
You can fly Skyteam airlines between the US and Europe for just 40,000 miles each way in business class. Compare that to 70,000 United miles one-way to fly a Star Alliance partner airline to Europe.
You pay fuel surcharges, the amount that would apply to a given paid ticket on the same itinerary. With the mileage savings, you’re basically spending a cash co-pay to make your miles go farther, sometimes essentially buying back miles at a discount.
Transfer times from Chase and Starwood
Transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards to Korean Air are usually instantaneous, although there are a few reports where it’s taken hours for points to show up.
Starwood doesn’t transfer points ‘live’ to its airline partners. Some non-US airlines in particular can take weeks for trasnferred points to show up. So I was especially interested in how long it would take for a test transfer from Starwood to show up in my Korean Air account.
Since I’m a Starwood Platinum member I can transfer as little as a single Starpoint. So on Wednesday afternoon I made that transfer (it was the wee hours of the morning in Seoul).
Those points showed up in my account sometime between Sunday morning when I checked my account balances and Monday morning when I checked again. I assume the points posted during the day Monday in Korea.
It will take more transfers to determine what the normal pattern looks like. But it took five days, including over a weekend, for this transfer to go through. Which, for Korean Air awards, is just fine.
Korean Air’s Generous Award Hold Policy
You don’t need instant transfers to Korean, at least unless you’re doing immediate travel. That’s because Korean allows award holds and those holds are among the most generous in the world.
When redeeming miles on Korean Air flights they’ll usually set up holds until a few days prior to travel. You don’t need the miles in your account to set up the hold and this can even serve as a backup plan — create a Korean award and only transfer points and ticket if the award you really wanted didn’t open up.
If you’re booking six months to a year in advance I’ve heard of agents setting up the hold only until a month prior to travel, but I haven’t experienced this.
For partner award redemptions award holds are similar to American AAdvantage at ~ 5 days (depending on time zone). My transfer went through in somewhere between a little last than 4 days and a little less than 5. I’m curious how the weekend played into this and will need to run another test.
Korean’s Bureaucratic Restrictions
You can only use your points for your own travel and that of your immediate family. They want proof of the family relationship. That works for most people, but it means you can’t redeem points for a girlfriend or boyfriend. (If you live with that person, transfer points from your Starwood account to theirs and then on to their own Korean account.)
Korean has told me that it takes 2-3 days to register a family member to an account, but in my experience it’s been done overnight.
Once your reservation is set up they require that a form on the website be completed and emailed or faxed in to authorize the redemption. That can take a couple of days to get set up. And it needs to be done before you can pay taxes on your ticket.
The agent who sets up your reservation can’t take credit card details, they have a separate setup for that. And the credit card used for the taxes needs to be presented at check-in when traveling on Korean’s flights.
They have a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through but I find the program to be hugely worthwhile.