Korean Air. It’s surprising because they’re a Delta partner (and since when are SkyPesos worth anything?). It’s not surprising because there’s no way to search their award space online, and there is a pretty direct correlation between the ease with which an airline’s award space can be searched online and the difficulty of finding award space with them.
Back in February ExpertFlyer added the functionality to search Korean Air award space on their website. I suspect Delta didn’t like that since it made finding Korean Air award space too easy, so that functionality was taken away only a month later.
Korean Air is actually really good about releasing business class award space. The biggest catch is that the only way to search award space on them is to call Delta’s SkyMiles call center, and as I’ve mentioned a million times before, they have among the most incompetent agents in the industry.
Keep in mind that Korean Air does have blackout dates, which are as follows for this year:
January 1-8, January 20-25, March 1-4, May 4-6, May 18-July 1, July 14-August 26, September 28-October 3, and December 7-31 (put simply, the whole summer is blocked out)
Aside from those blackout dates, there’s award availability on a very high percentage of flights, and they do have an extensive route network to the US.
The issue is actually finding the space. Delta’s SkyMiles agents are among the most incompetent in the industry to begin with, and Korean Air award availability isn’t especially straightforward to search. The availability doesn’t appear to the agents on the surface, but rather they have to request the space and wait for a response from Korean Air. So expect the process to take at least five minutes if you get a great agent. If they tell you almost instantly there’s no space then chances are they’re not actually searching.
So let me explain my strategy for booking Korean Air awards in the form of an example.
Today I tried to book a ticket from Los Angeles to Bangkok (via Seoul Incheon) on Korean Air in business class for a client.
With my first phone call I always request space one segment at a time (I don’t want to overwhelm the agents and make them pessimistic), so I told her I wanted to fly from Los Angeles to Seoul Incheon on Korean Air roundtrip, and gave her the dates. She immediately said “you wanna fly who, Korea Air?” After putting me on hold she claimed they weren’t a Delta partner. Great. See what we’re up against?
I hung up and called back. I gave the agent the same request, and within literally 30 seconds she said “there’s nothing available.” I said “on any of the flights? What about a day on either end?” She said “there’s also nothing available.” Obviously she wasn’t actually searching, so rather than argue with her I hung up and called again.
This time I got a helpful agent. She put me on hold for five minutes to verify Korean Air’s blackout dates and came back to tell me we were good to go in that regard. She then searched space, and the preferred dates had business class award availability. It’s always helpful when the SkyMiles account doesn’t have enough miles, because then they can place the ticket on a 48 hour courtesy hold. Just tell them you’ll transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards. You can always switch the SkyMiles number later if you want.
However, don’t get excited until you have the agent actually price the ticket. They should be booking the ticket in the “O” fare class, though half of the time they don’t do that correctly, so it doesn’t price. Once they confirm the ticket is 120,000 miles in business class (for US to Asia) you know you’re good to go.
Once I had the record locator I was happy since typically finding the transpacific award space is tougher than finding the intra-Asia award space. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve run into intra-Asia Korean Air flights that didn’t have award space.
So before hanging up on the agent I said “hey, out of curiosity could you check if there’s any award space from Seoul Incheon to Bangkok in business class that would connect with the flights from Los Angeles? She was happy to check, and after five minutes came back to tell me they didn’t have availability.
I thanked her and hung up. While I had no reason to doubt her based on how helpful she was, this would be one of the few times I’ve seen an intra-Asia flight without business class award space, so I called back just to double check. Fortunately the next agent was equally helpful, and she did find business class award space on the ideal flights. Once again I didn’t get my hopes up until after she priced the ticket and confirmed the cost was still 120,000 SkyMiles roundtrip (which it was).
So hopefully this is helpful, not only for those of you with Delta SkyMiles, but also for those of you with American Express Membership Rewards points. Nowadays Korean Air is probably the best option for travel to Asia in business class using Membership Rewards points. The most practical alternative is Air Canada’s Aeroplan, though they impose hefty fuel surcharges if you’re traveling an airline other than United.