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With US airlines regularly offering less value for their points, I’m putting together this series with background, tips, and tricks for frequent flyer programs programs whose points:
- can be very useful to you
- that you can earn easily by transferring in from bank rewards currencies.
I love flexible points far more than earning points in a single airline frequent flyer program. That helps me to diversify so I don’t get hurt as badly when one airline program devalues and that gives me the points I need, when I need them with the airline that has availability for the award that I want.
Here’s my tips for the outstanding Korean Air SkyPass program.
My Biggest Flexible Points Balance is With Chase Ultimate Rewards
A real go-to for the past 5 years has been the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. It’s been reliably the most rewarding card for spend.
There’s a 50,000 point signup bonus (after $4000 spend within 3 months) and they’ll give you 5000 more points for adding a no fee authorized user to your account and making a purchase in those same 3 months. The card earns double points on travel and dining. So they start you off quickly with points, and you accumulate points quickly for your spending.
Chase points transfer to:
- Airlines: United, Korean, Singapore, Air France KLM, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways
- Hotels: Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Ritz-Carlton
Korean Air Also Partners With Starwood
The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express gives you 5000 bonus miles when transferring points into 20,000 miles. So you effectively earn 1.25 miles with the airline of your choice of over 30 airlines.
Korean Air was added as a Starwood transfer partner last summer. Points don’t transfer as quickly as with Chase but they transfer within a few days. And that’s usually ok, because Korean Air has generous award holds.
Important Tips, Tricks, and Cautions Using Korean Air SkyPass Miles
Here are 17 things a US-based frequent flyer should know about the Korean Air SkyPass program:
- Korean Air has the best first class award availability of any airline. They make great first class award space available to their members. Korean and Delta are partners, but since Delta SkyMiles members cannot redeem their miles for international first class (on any airline) there’s very little competition for the space.
And not just one or two first class award seats either, I frequently see 4 seats on Los Angeles and New York JFK flights.
No cherry picking, these were the first two dates I looked at and the same dates for both LAX and New York JFK:
- Korean Air award space is doubly useful because Korean flies to more US cities than any other Asian airline. They fly to Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Honolulu; Houston; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; New York JFK; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington Dulles. With all their US gateways you can almost always find award space to and from Asia.
- First class awards are less expensive than what United and American now charge. From the US to Japan, South Korea, and China (including Hong Kong) the price is 80,000 miles each way. Southeast Asia is 95,000 miles each way. If you want to travel all the way to Australia it’s 120,000 miles — expensive, but roughly market for first class and with great availability.
- Korean charges just 80,000 miles roundtrip for business class between the US and Europe. This means flying on their SkyTeam partner airlines like Delta, Air France and KLM. That’s a 36% savings on the 125,000 miles that Air France KLM Flying Blue charges and that Delta charges. You have access to the same saver award space that these airlines make available to their partners, too.
- Korean Air award space can be searched online. It used to be that Korean wouldn’t let you use their website to search for an award without having enough miles in your account. You could use ExpertFlyer, but while that shoes first class award space it doesn’t show very much business class space. Partner websites aren’t always reliable showing Korean Air business class inventory.
However Korean Air SkyPass now lets you search award availability online and you do not even need to log into an account to do it.
- You can have a stopover on a one-way award. That’s only for Korean Air flights, since partner awards must be roundtrip. But it’s still a very generous and useful policy.
- There are almost no booking fees. There are currently no change fees and no redeposit fees. Starting August 2017 (and we were given more than a year’s notice of this change) they’re implementing very modest fees. Changing an international award will cost KRW30,000 (~ US$27).
Cancelling and redepositing an international award ticket will cost 3000 miles — unless you book a ticket and then wait more than a year from when it’s issued to request the refund (hard to imagine!), in which case that goes up to 10,000 miles.
- Infant travel on Korean Air is cheap. For US domestic travel, lap infants (children under 2) are free. However internationally they’re charged. On a paid ticket, you’ll generally pay 10% of the adult fare for a child to ride in your lap (not to have their own seat). US frequent flyer programs will generally charge you 10% of the adult fare as well, which gets super expensive on business and first class tickets.
Korean Air SkyPass charges only 10% of the mileage for a lap infant traveling on Korean Air. So a one-way first class ticket between the US and Hong Kong for 80,000 miles will cost you an additional 8000 miles for a lap infant — rather than, say, $700 (10% of a $7000 fare) plus tax.
- Korean offers super generous holds on reservations. You don’t need the miles in your account to put an award on hold. For partner awards you get ~ 5 days (depending on time zone).
With Korean Air SkyPass holds can even serve as a backup plan — create a Korean award and only transfer points and ticket if the award you really wanted in another frequent flyer program didn’t open up. That’s because holds for travel on Korean Air can last a month or more, and even up until a few days prior to travel.
- US-Hawaii awards are a great value. 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.
Flights between the US mainland and Hawaii (or Mexico) are 30,000 miles roundtrip in coach and 60,000 in first. A stopover is permitted.
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).
- Domestic US awards on Alaska Airlines permit a stopover. Korean’s award prices for cross country travel on Alaska are cheaper than Alaska’s own prices for the same flights.
- Many other fantastic values in the award chart. SkyTeam awards between the US and the Mideast or Africa are 120,000 miles in business class. Business class between the US and South America is just 110,000 miles roundtrip.
USA-Tahiti awards on SkyTeam partner Air France are just 90,000 miles roundtrip in business class. However this is just a single three-times weekly flight and award availability can be spotty. In the past I’ve seen reports of Korean Air SkyPass agents that have been confused on the pricing requiring hanging up and calling back but I haven’t experienced that myself.
Korean partners with both Emirates and Etihad, with business class pricing for US-Europe and US-Dubai reasonable on Emirates and a little higher on Etihad. They charge separately for travel beyond the cities listed in their award charts.
- Korean Air SkyPass has higher-priced peak demand dates when using SkyPass miles for travel on their own flights. This is in lieu of blackout dates. (Partner airlines generally black out dates entirely that Korean charges their own members more for.)
From North America to Seoul, these dates are May 12 through June 30, 2017 and December 8 through December 25, 2017.
For Seoul to North America, they are January 1; January 26 through 31; July 14 through August 19; September 30 through October 10; and December 21 through December 31.
- Korean Air SkyPass adds fuel surcharges to award tickets (but for travel on Korean Air they’re quite low). US-Seoul has no fuel surcharge. For US-Hong Kong it’s $1.80 on a roundtrip. Bangkok is about $64. Fuel surcharges to Europe can be high but Korean Air awards are cheap enough that’s like buying back miles at a discount.
- You can only book awards for family members. Korean does enforce redemption for direct relatives only, and they can require proof. You cannot redeem miles from your own Korean account for a girlfriend or boyfriend, for instance. That’s a drawback.
- You can pool miles from family member accounts for most awards. If you don’t have enough miles in your account you can combine your miles with those of up to 4 other family members. Some partner awards do not allow for family pooling.
- Korean Air SkyPass is a great program to save up miles in, because miles only expire after 10 years. They do expire 10 years from when they are earned, meaning you cannot extend the life of miles. You need to redeem eventually or you will lose them.
Up until 2008 Korean Air SkyPass miles didn’t expire at all. They planned to implement 5 year expiration but got too much pushback from the government if I recall correctly. South Korean airlines simply don’t make drastic changes without notice, either.
Korean Air SkyPass is an incredible program for US members because of access to fantastic award availability, low change fees, generous award holds, and great partner awards.