The airline with the best business class award space to Asia is…

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.

Comments

  1. Wow, it is surprising that you declare Korean Air as having the best business class award space to Asia given the blackout dates and difficulty finding award space if you don’t get the right agent to help, but if you say so, I’ll believe you. You are the expert.

  2. Hey lucky, 2 questions:

    What percentage of their long haul Asia-USA flights are equipped with the new business class?

    I haven’t been keeping up to date with Aeroplan’s YQ on aware redemptions, is United really the only remaining *A partner that doesn’t have YQ?

  3. @ HoKo — To the best of my knowledge all their longhaul flights are operated by the new business class product.

    There are a few partners on which they don’t impose YQs (like EgyptAir, Swiss, US Airways, SAA, etc.), but United is the only one between the US and Asia.

  4. This is slightly off topic but does anyone know the business product of Asian Airlines, specially from SFO-ICN-BKK. Do they have lay flat seats?

  5. @Lucky Can you expand on this post with the best business class experience on KE flights out of US/Canada to Asia? Also how early does KE release the award inventory (say for DL members)? Thanks.

  6. So do you think it’s worth it to spend UR points on Korea vs United for RT tickets in business to Asia?

  7. Lucky – one day you should write a book teaching people how to be so patient when dealing with those idiots… -_- ur AWESOME!

  8. @ caveman — I suspect it will be their angled flat seats on both flights. They also have a new business class product on their 777s, though they don’t guarantee it on any particular route.

  9. @ ikonos — I’d say the best experience would be on the Airbus 380, which they fly out of LA and NY. They release space 11 months out.

  10. @ Vince — No, if you’re using Ultimate Rewards points you’re better off booking through United, since MileagePlus doesn’t charge any fuel surcharges. Furthermore if you transferred Ultimate Rewards points directly to Korean Air (vs. to Delta) you’d pay fuel surcharges. So you’re only best off redeeming on Korean Air if you have Delta SkyMiles or Membership Rewards points.

  11. @Gerry – Yes, if redeeming miles from Delta for Korean flights, the same stopover and open jaw rules apply as on Delta metal (one stopover allowed, and an open jaw counts as a stopover). A data point to note, however: You can’t transit the same hub more than once in a direction. Example that I ran into: Routed through ICN on KE to to get to HKG, but then wanted to stopover in PVG on the return. I couldn’t do HKG-ICN-PVG-ICN on the return because of that rule (which isn’t clear on Delta’s website showing award rules). An yes, I ended up booking Y on MU for the HKG-PVG sector.

  12. DL blacks out all KE peak dates even if travel is not in that regions black out dates.

    Additionally, the availability on KE and what is bookable by DL is very different, 2 Transpacific biz seats are usually hard to get with DL.
    Booking (holding) sometimes opens another.

  13. Why do you think the 2nd helpful agent who found the TPAC space was unable to find you space on the conx? I often had agents tell me that they get penalized if their avg call time is too long – you think this was a case of that or did she just not search?

  14. @ ikonos — It’s also fully flat. The aircraft just aren’t as nice as the Airbus 380.

    @ Roland — Maybe, but that involves hefty fuel surcharges.

    @ aussie — In my experience as of late there’s plenty of space for two people, unlike before.

    @ mac — That’s a great question. She seemed confused and said her system was acting up, so I’ll assume she just wasn’t on top of her game.

  15. Nice post Lucky! Any rethinking the 1.0 cpm valuation of Skymiles? I mean there are quality products out there that DL points are good for and the seats are available if you know how to look or just hire you :).

    Just to test you – I just had an amazing flight on another Skyteam partner with even better availability than KE. The best hard and soft product I’ve ever had using DL miles. I really enjoy KE in J and this blew them away. Lie-flat bed, ferragamo amenity kit, havanna club, and pijamas in J all with minimal YQ. You’ll never guess who.

  16. @ mac — Okay, I’m intrigued. SkyTeam partner, meaning it’s actually a member airline (and therefore not Virgin Australia or Malaysia Airlines)? Is it one of the Chinese airlines?

    Oh, and you never revealed the Virgin Australia YQ trick! :p

  17. @mac – are you talking about the Kingfisher partnership that ends October 1? They’re not a SkyTeam Partner, but are indeed a Skymiles Partner that in my experience closely match what you describe in terms of in flight experience and amenities.

  18. @ Mac — Regarding rethinking the valuation of SkyMiles, I forgot to address that part. The short answer is “no,” at least not for me. While Korean Air is a valuable partner, have you noticed how the amount of Air France business class award space has decreased exponentially over the past several months/year? Air France was their single most valuable partner, and nowadays finding business class award space on them is nearly impossible.

  19. I’ve called delta 15-20 times about finding Korean Air availability within the last year and somehow never had issues with idiotic reps…perhaps the diamond desk is better trained. However, they always have issues pricing the complex itineraries with 3-4 connections, stopover and open jaws that i throw at them and i always end up getting transferred to the international desk to have the ticket manually issues (or something like that). Korean Air a380 business class is awesome – the food is so-so, but the experience of being able to walk around and chill at one of the two lounges and have a bar tender make you a drink is very cool. And don’t forget the world’s first in-flight “shopping mall” 🙂

  20. @D Despite the published rules, you can have both a stopover *and* an open jaw on SkyMiles award tickets (at least internationally). As to the routing problem, it’s less about transiting the same hub twice and more about needing to fly on a valid routing. Generally, DL will use MPM-based routings, and I would guess that the routing you proposed exceeded it. If you supply the full routing you were trying, I can try to figure out exactly where it was breaking down.

  21. It seems that Ben should take a closer look at KE’s hard product routings before saying that all North American routes have flat beds. KE’s 747s, A330s, and some of the 777-200s all still have the angled flat seats. A number of these aircraft do TPAC service. The 744s are being retired, and thus are unlikely to be upgraded. KE has just announced that they will go ahead with updating most (all?) the rest of the fleet to full flat seats, but we know that’s not a speedy process. To check the equipment on a route, go to koreanair.com and select Flight Schedule with New Aircraft under “On Board”.

    Americas routes with flat beds (right now): SFO, ATL, ORD, JFK, IAD, GRU

    Americas routes with angled flat (right now): LAX (most flights…select flights (A380 or continuing to/from GRU) have flat beds), SEA (some weeks see flat beds), DFW (some weeks see flat beds), HNL, YVR, YYZ, LAS

  22. @Andrew nope not Kingfisher. The airline that blew KE away for me is actually in Skyteam.

    @AAexplat no blackouts with who I’m talking about.

  23. @mac hmm…MU has ferragamo, but I didn’t get pajamas in J. There service was great, but plane was older and YQ wasn’t minimal. I’m out of guesses 😛

    @lucky/mac was his VA trick the originating in Australia to remove the YQ? They only charge if you start in the US.

  24. @ Mike — Very reasonable, usually under $100 roundtrip since there are no fuel surcharges as long as you’re originating outside of Europe.

  25. Lucky, how sure are you about the 48 hr hold time? I recently had a DL to AMS connecting to KLM reservation on hold and it disappeared before way before the hold was to expire. I called DL and was told that when KLM was added to the reservation, that the hold time only lasts 24 hrs instead of 48 and that’s why it disappeared. Couldn’t get it back either.

  26. @lucky By how much does DL allow you to go over the MPM? Also do they look at the MPM segment by segment or the entire itinerary? Say if I look for YVR-LAX-ICN-BKK-stopover-DPS and then SIN-ICN-LAX-YVR itinerary does the MPM come from YVR-DPS? or some other means? Thanks

  27. @lucky also when it says “TICKETED POINT DEDUCTION OF 800 MILES APPLIES WHEN TRAVEL IS VIA HNL” how do they enforce this? If you include HNL as part of the itinerary then allowed MPM goes down by 800 miles?

  28. @lucky: Even from Europe, you can generally avoid YQ on DL awards since KE uses embedded Q surcharges on most of its ex-EU fares. One exception appears to be Germany, where they charge YR that DL will collect.

    @ikonos: As best as anyone on FT has figured out, you cannot exceed the MPM unless the carrier nvolved publishes a fare routed that way. This, LAX-ICN/PVG/CAN-SYD exceeds the MPM for LAX-SYD, but it can be ticketed as a single award since KE/MU/CZ publish fares routed that way. MPM is origin to destination. The TPD means you can fly 800 miles more I’ve you connect/stopover in Hawaii. Basically, they reduce the miles flown by 800, effectively increasing the MPM for you.

  29. @Mitch Thanks for the clarification on TPD. I have seen lucky mention various airlines allowing a percentage more than allowed MPM. IIRC it was almost 20-25% or so for US Air and up to 15% or so for AA but I wasn’t sure what it was for DL.

  30. @lucky I actually preferred my flight on their A330 (KE2 LAX-NRT) to my flight on their A380 (KE81 ICN-JFK) when I flew earlier this year to Vietnam — even though KE2 has the angled flats. Mainly because the 388’s have such a large business cabin that service is a bit impersonal. But the stand-up bar was pretty sweet though!

    So a bunch of KE’s flights still have angled flats (all their YVR flights, for instance, and half? of their LAX flights). You can check which product operates a particular route on the Korean Air website, just to be sure. YMMV of course wrt. equipment swaps.

  31. @mangoMan Delta will usually tell you 24h but in reality it varies by operating carrier. Korean tickets they will tell you cannot be held at all — not really true, they can be held for 24 hours. Delta seats can be held for 72 hours. I have also heard elsewhere that AF/KL hold times may be shorter than the DL hold times.

  32. Hey Lucky, by saying “You can always switch the SkyMiles number later if you want.”, does it mean you can hold a reservation with any SkyMiles account and ticket the res with another SkyMiles account? TIA.

  33. @ mangoMan — The key is that the hold time needs to be reset each time you make a change, since the hold resets to expiring that same night. But you can most definitely hold Air France/KLM/Korean Air reservations for 48 hours.

    @ HF — That’s correct, you can give them a call and change the SkyMiles number from which the miles are pulled even after the ticket is held.

  34. @ ikonos — MPM is always calculated between origin and destination. Mitch is correct, though frankly I find it hard to even exceed the MPM with Delta, given that it’s not like Star Alliance where there are usually easy opportunities to fly a dozen carriers on one ticket.

  35. @Mac: I’ll bite. China Airlines has Ferragamo in their amenity kits, but unless I’m mistaken they’re angled lie-flat in biz.

    Saudi Arabian also has Ferragamo in their amenity kits but, again, they don’t have flat beds. And since you can’t drink on board, I’m pretty sure you’re not talking about them 🙂

    I flew China Airlines a zillion years ago in coach, so I won’t pretend to know what a J experience is like now. But I’ll guess that’s who you’re talking about. So Skymiles will charge you 120k for a North America – Asia r/t in Biz with no (limited?) fuel surcharge. I assume that’s what you’re alluding to?

  36. @lucky – on an indirectly related question, have you had any experience paying for a coach ticket on Korean and using their miles (from Ultimate Rewards) to upgrade to biz class? I am looking for a DL mileage run and a cool trip experience.

  37. @Lucky/Mac

    We never got an answer from Mac in regards to which carrier he was referencing. Mac don’t leave us hanging!

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