Bargain First Class to Asia: $18,681.60 in tickets for $34.30 and points!

I love paying for flights with points and miles and David and I try to maximize the points we earn on nearly every purchase we make. But, as anyone who’s tried to book awards flights knows, those “free” flights are often hard to find. Airlines tend to raise the amounts required for convenient times and schedules, offer less award seats on a flight than you need, or simply don’t offer award flights at all on certain flights. Taxes and fees on some airlines and at certain airports (I’m talking about you, Heathrow!) can turn a “free” flight into an expensive proposition. For flights to Asia from DFW, we think Korean Air is the ticket. (Our opinion holds even with all the saber-rattling currently going on between our government and North Korea, although we’ll definitely keep an eye on developments.)

It’s hard to beat Korean Air for both award availability and affordability …and we love their product, too. Last year, we flew Korean Air First Class from Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul for 95,000 Korean Air Skypass Miles plus $204.77 each, flights that would have cost us over $13,000. We only flew one-way because we used repositioning cruises to get to Asia. (Repositioning cruises are one of my favorite, most comfortable and cost-effective ways to cross an ocean without jet lag.) Being pampered with super-soft designer pajamas, a down mattress, duvet and big pillow, plus delicious food, high-end champagne and wine, and attentive service turned a miserably long flight into a pleasure.

We enjoyed our Korean Air experience so much, I searched their flights again when I started planning next spring’s around-the-world odyssey. This time, I was able to book First Class again (DFW-Seoul-Singapore) for the same 95,000 miles each, but taxes and fees were a shockingly low $34.30 apiece. If we’d paid cash, our two tickets would have totaled $18,681.60! We could have booked business class for 75,000 each or economy of 42,500 each. Award availability was wide open in all categories. (Korean Air is partnered with American, but it would take 120,000 AAdvantage miles to fly business class just from DFW to Seoul on the same day and there was no First Class availability.) Korean Air flies to more American cities than any other Asian airline and flies to Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo and more. Seoul itself is a fun, dynamic city and Korean Air offers free stopovers at ICN on award flights. (If you have enough time in Seoul ICN and are flying first class, stop by the first class lounge for custom engraved metal luggage tags, a free perk.) See my earlier post for details about combining Korean Air Skypass points with a spouse and family on Korean Air.

We’ve found Korean Air Skypass Miles easy to accumulate using Chase credit cards that generate Ultimate Rewards (UR) points and SPG Starwood points we get from Starwood Amex. Starwood points give a 25% bonus when transferred to their airline partners, but the card and points may soon be phased out with Marriott’s purchase of SPG. UR points are transferable 1:1 to Korean Air Skypass (and many other partners) and are especially easy to accumulate. Last year, Chase offered a whopping 100,000 sign up bonus for the Sapphire Reserve card and my husband and I both jumped on it. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is expensive at $450/year, but that is quickly offset for us by a very unrestricted $300 travel reimbursement that applies to a wide range of travel expenses: airlines, hotels, AirBnB, taxis, trains, rent cars, cruises, toll tags and more plus other valuable travel perks that more than make up for the remaining $150/year. The bonus for Sapphire Reserve is currently down to 50,000, which is still good, but I’d keep my eye open for another super bonus if you’re a frequent traveler, or get the same 50k bonus with the Chase Sapphire Preferred for $95/year without some of the other perks. We use Chase Ink to get 5X miles on office purchases (with includes gift cards from Office Depot for Shell gas, Whole Foods, Amazon and more) and Chase Freedom Unlimited to 1.5X points on everything else purchased in the U.S. (Note: The Freedom Unlimited card charges a foreign transaction fee, so Americans should leave it at home when traveling overseas.) Those points are then combinable with our main UR Reserve accounts. It adds up!

Korean Air First Class with credit card points: Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul

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Setting up for dinner service on the Seoul to Dallas leg of our journey home via Korean Air first class

We love playing the credit card miles and points game and are always on the lookout for an exceptional bonus or a great redemption deal. We charge everything to credit cards–every little bit adds up, but we ALWAYS pay in full at the end of the month. I emphasize the “always” because I encourage everyone to take advantage of the great freebies to be had by using credit cards, but only so long as you never charge more than you can pay at the end of the month. If you can’t afford to pay in cash, don’t charge it to a card. Period. Interest rates eat people alive and can cost way more than any perk you might get from accumulated points. That warning aside, here’s how we paid for two first class flights (one 5 hours long and one 12 hours long) with credit card points.

For 190,000 Korean Air miles plus $409.54 in taxes and fees (95,000 points and $204.77 each), I booked our two one-way first class flights from Bangkok via Seoul to Dallas. I booked the flights as one trip, Bangkok to Dallas, even though Korean Air does not offer a direct flight for this route. This saved 60,000 miles over booking the trip as two separate flights (Bangkok-to-Seoul and Seoul-to-Dallas). Given the 1.5-hour taxi ride during rush hour in Bangkok, security at both Bangkok and Seoul and a 6-hour layover in Seoul, we traveled 27 hours to get home. First class elevated the experience from excruciating to pleasurable and was a great use of our points.

When I’d first decided that Bangkok would be our departure city for our final flight home, I did an initial search to determine which airlines flew out of there to Dallas. I preferred an Asian airline to wind up our extended Asian trip so focused on those. With a working knowledge of which airlines I could book with points we had and which airline had the best redemption rates, it was easy to choose Korean Air, an airline whose first class product I’d had my eye on for a while anyway. Korean Air is known for good award availability and decent redemption rates. A quick search on their website confirmed that reputation.

The first step, after finding available award flights that fit our plans (and creating Korean Air Skypass accounts), was to link David’s and my Skypass accounts. Korean Air allows families to pool miles, but they do require husbands and wives to provide a marriage certificate. We scanned ours and emailed it and soon we could see on the Korean Air website that our accounts were linked. In addition to great award availability, Korean Air has very generous free hold options, so I put our chosen flights on hold while David and I moved the necessary miles. I put in 60,000 Starwood points which, with their standard 25% transfer bonus, credited as 75,000 Korean Air miles. 30,000 of those points went to purchase two one-way economy class tickets from Seoul to Shanghai in October. The remaining 45,000 was applied to the first class tickets from Bangkok home. For years now American Express Starwood card has been my go-to card, although others get primary usage for awhile if I’m trying to meet a spend for a specific bonus, get extra points or benefits at a hotel or airline linked to a card, etc. I find Starwood points to be very useful and versatile, much more so than AmEx’s Membership Miles which I’ve found decreasingly good value for over the twenty years or so I’ve had my formerly-preferred Platinum AmEx. [With the benefits greatly reduced in recent years and other premium cards offering more, I’m seriously considering cancelling my Platinum card. More about that in a future post.]

David transferred 145,000 Ultimate Rewards points that he’d accumulated with his Chase Ink business card. Those points came from a sign-up bonus and from using bonus points offers on that card wisely: The card pays 3x points for purchases at Office Depot/OfficeMax and we buy fee-free gift cards there for gas, groceries, Amazon and much more to take advantage of the extra points.

Once the miles were in our Korean Air account, we had to print out an award redemption form, sign it and email the form and copies of our driver’s licenses to Korean Air. Korean Air is a little different to deal with than other airlines in things like this and and requiring a copy of marriage licenses. They also frequently ask to call you back when you telephone them rather than just take your call. But, they do call back as promised, and I’ve found them to be helpful and easy to deal with. There may be some slight language issues from time to time, but speaking slowly and clearly usually solves any problem.

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Lounges are less than impressive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. With our Korean Air first class tickets, we got access to the “first class” upper floor of Louis’ Tavern CIP First Class Lounge. Nothing to write home about. (We also had access to the main floor via our Priority Passes.)

We had a slight disappointment on our 5-hour flight from Bangkok to Seoul several weeks before departure when I received an email saying the plane had been downgraded so that our first class seats were now “Sleeper” seats rather than the Kosmo Suites we’d originally booked. On board, this turned out not to be a problem. The seats reclined to a virtually flat state, were wide and comfortable and David and I liked being able to sit next to each other. (The contained pod configuration of many first class seats leaves us isolated, especially since we both like window seats.)

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Appetizer on the Bangkok to Seoul leg of our trip home: mango and smoked salmon with seared ahi tuna

We were the only first class passengers on the 9:45pm flight, so received extra-attentive service. The food turned out to be excellent as well. I was impressed that they managed to turn out moist, perfectly-cooked shrimp with airplane facilities. After dinner, we stretched out and slept well for a couple of hours or so before landing.

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Pan-seared prawns with saffron sauce served with mashed potato and vegetables

Surprisingly, our flight attendants knew nothing about Korean Air’s first class lounge in its home base, Seoul. They checked on the Internet when we landed at 5am and informed us that the lounge was closed until 5am. So, we headed to the Asiana Lounge, the only Priority Pass lounge open at that hour. Although the Asiana Lounge is nice, the closest it has to sleeper chairs are 4 or 5 chairs with ottomans in semi-private, slat-walled cubicles. David and I staked out a couple of those. The food laid out looked good and varied, but I wasn’t hungry. I wandered down to the Korean Air first class lounge when it opened, but finding no better chairs than what we had and less of a food choice, we opted to stay at the Asiana lounge. I’d read mediocre reviews of the Korean Air lounge online–and lots of calls for them to up their game–so wasn’t surprised. The only perk that I’d meant to take advantage of but didn’t was a free engraved metal luggage tag that the Korean Air first class lounge will do while you wait. Oh well.

Time actually passed relatively quickly in Seoul before we were on our final flight. Our plane was equipped with Korean Air’s Kosmo Suites. They’ve got a newer, even more private, product called Kosmo Suites 2.0 that I’d like to try sometime although, if anything, I was feeling a little too isolated from David. The first class cabin was set up in two rows of a 1-2-1 configuration and we’d chosen the two window seats on the left side. Two other first class passengers took the two window seats on the far side. The four seats in the middle were empty. Our flight attendants were more than happy to set up my meals in the aisle seat across from David, so that solved my lonely dinner issues.

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Happy as a clam with my dinner set up across the aisle from David

Dinner was a truly enjoyable 8-course affair. I won’t bore you with too much detail, but will hit on some highlights just to emphasize the pay-off for playing the miles and points game: We chose Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2007 (a $160-170 bottle) to accompany the first courses. The Perrier-Jouët pink champagne served on our earlier flight was good; this was something special! A tiny goblet of prawns and berry gelée served as an amuse bouche, followed by lobster medallion, king crab salad and roquefort in roasted pepper.

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King crab salad, lobster medallion & roquefort in roasted pepper

Other courses included a salad made table-side and a roasted red pepper soup.

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Salad made table-side…a far cry from the limp, peel-back-the-plastic-wrap type served in back!

I don’t usually choose beef as a main course, but the red wine selections were so good, I based my dinner around the wine. A Vosne-Romanée, one of my favorite Burgundian wines caught my eye immediately. The Korean Air offering was delicious…but then there was that $100 bottle of 2007 St-Emilion Grand Cru. I had to have both. Of course!

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My main course: grilled beef tenderloin with meaux mustard sauce served with baby pumpkin mash, bell pepper timbale, oven-dried onion rings and dried cherry tomato

David opted for the seared black cod which was beautifully presented, wrapped in thin slices of white yam.

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David’s main course: Seared black cod covered with yam served with yellow paprika sauce, potato tower with ginko nut, fava beans and dried cherry tomato

Dessert included both a delightfully tart lemon tarte and excellent cheeses, with quality aged port and cognac.

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Lemon tart with ultra-rich vanilla ice cream

Full and sleepy after our feast, I returned to my original seat where the attendants had made up my bed with a thick feather-bed-style “mattress,” duvet and nearly full-sized pillow. Comfy in the soft cotton jammies provided by Korean Air, I snuggled under the duvet, stretched at full length with one arm flung over my head and still not touching either end of my pod. Heaven!

I slept well, but was awakened when I became too warm. A word to an attendant, and things were cooled off again. My only criticism would be that the usual dryness of air travel seemed magnified. I wish airlines would do more to try to humidify their cabins, although I confess to total ignorance as to what that might entail in the way of equipment, extra water weight, etc. Korean Air did give us small misting bottles of water just prior to take-off and I did make use of that, gratefully breathing in the refreshing mist. We also received Davi amenity kits with wine and grape-based products from a California company founded by one of the Mondavi family.

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Davi amenity kit

Another light meal was served before landing. We opted for the free range chicken from South Korea’s Jeju Island, fruit and cappuccino. I can’t say we weren’t tired and jet-lagged when we landed, but it wasn’t bad at all, especially given the 11-hour time difference between Bangkok and Dallas. We’d had a fantastic experience and Korean Air provided a great end to our 2 1/2 month Asian adventure. I can’t imagine the misery we would have been in if we’d flown sitting up in the back…and the money we’d have spent if we’d paid cash for first class luxury. Hooray for miles and points!

AirAsia to Krabi, Thailand

 

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Domestic departure terminal, Chiang Mai

This will be a quick post, but I thought I’d throw it in. We left Chiang Mai via an AirAsia flight to Krabi, on the southwest coast of Thailand. This was our 3rd AirAsia flight and we felt pretty complacent since the previous two experiences were great.

AirAsia is a budget airline serving much of southeast Asia and has some strict money saving guidelines/rules about pre-printing boarding passes and luggage tags, luggage weight, etc. Since my suitcase was on the edge of the 20 kg checked bag weight limit, I’d taken to buying an extra 5 kg, which really is a lot of extra weight and, happily, can be pooled with tickets on the same booking, i.e., David and I had 45 kg between the two of us. We never came close to going over this, but for an online charge of about $4, it was well worth it not to worry about weight. Also, carry-on is ostensibly limited to 7 kg/bag–not much, but we’ve found they never weigh carry-on luggage, so it’s really a non-issue. The flights are cramped for leg-room, but on our longer (2 hour) flight to Krabi, I “splurged” for exit row and we had plenty of space. Even the pre-booked seats I got for our 2 previous flights (Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, and Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Luang Prabang, Laos) counted as upgraded seats and got us a “meal” (a “hot pocket” on the shorter flights and “assorted sandwiches” on the Krabi flight) and early boarding. Anyway, the airline had been cheap, clean, efficient and punctual.

We knew right away that something was different when we arrived at the Chiang Mai airport. At first, we thought the problem was the security scan of luggage and people at the entry doors, but once inside it was obvious something else was up. A huge crowd of people milled in a poorly formed “line” that seemed to circle around a central escalator. Unfortunately, all this seemed related to AirAsia as other airlines’ check-in counters were virtually empty.

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Chaos at the AirAsia domestic departures counters in the Chiang Mai Airport

Thankfully, we’d printed our boarding passes at our hotel in Chiang Rai and carried them all this way. (AirAsia opens online check-in 14 days prior to the flight.) So, when I spotted a short “baggage drop-off” line, we fought our way through the crowd and got in that line.

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On the other side: looking back

It turned out that AirAsia was experiencing what seemed to be rolling computer failures, but they were able to check in some people some of the time via scanner and some by hand. I was worried we might be turned back because we didn’t have pre-printed baggage tags this time; they simply hadn’t been offered when we checked in online. We got through the baggage drop-off line relatively quickly (despite multiple failures on the part of people ahead of us, particularly a pair of Chinese tourists who hadn’t printed out their boarding passes like we had). Thankfully, our boarding passes were enough, they were able to print out our luggage tags, and we moved on. Our flight was delayed nearly 30 minutes and we waited on the plane while they boarded the last of the people stuck in the check-in fiasco. The flight to Phuket seemed even more full than ours, though, so those people may have waited longer.

Anyway, just a heads-up that arriving early is never a bad idea…and print and bring those AirAsia boarding passes!

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In the boarding area things were more calm

Checking luggage on Korean Air at Seoul (train) Station

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Access to the airport train from Seoul Station is to the left of Entrance/Exit 3 in this photo

Korean Air offers a very convenient service (unavailable for code-share flights): You can check-in and check your luggage at Seoul Station before taking an express train to the airport. To do this, you need to arrive 3 hours before your flight. (This isn’t really a big deal since they ask you to arrive at the airport 2 hours early if you’re going to check luggage there, and the direct train from Seoul Station is about 45 minutes.)

The process at Seoul Station is as follows:
1. Arrive 3 hours early. (The location is by Entrance/Exit 3 of Seoul Station, down two floors via escalator and/or elevator.)
2. Buy a train ticket to the airport (either at a machine if you have cash or a local credit card, or at the office just by the machines–to your left as you face the machines–with a foreign credit/debit card). You MUST buy the train ticket first. You’ll need to show it at check-in. Choose a time at least 30 minutes in the future for your train ticket to allow time for check-in and immigration. If you should miss that train departure time, you can exchange your ticket for a later time at the office.
3. Check-in and check your luggage at the Korean Air check-in desk just as you would at the airport.
4. Go to immigration. This is located at a small office just beside the ticket office, at the entrance to the check-in desks. The process was very quick.
5. Take the elevator a short distance away to the train platform. The train is clean, comfortable, air conditioned and (like so many public places in Korea) offers free wi-fi.

At the airport, you take a special entrance, along with diplomats and crew, for those who have already passed through immigration. (There’s a convenient photo of this entrance taped to the Korean Air check-in desk.) Follow the signs to this “Designated Entrance” which was to our right just past a cell phone service shop as we exited airport security.

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Photos of entry points at airport taped to Korean Air check-in desk at Seoul Station

The system worked like a charm for us and our luggage was first off the plane when we arrived in Shanghai.