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!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Other courses included a salad made table-side and a roasted red pepper soup.
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!
David opted for the seared black cod which was beautifully presented, wrapped in thin slices of white yam.
Dessert included both a delightfully tart lemon tarte and excellent cheeses, with quality aged port and cognac.
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.
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!
We had our first unpleasant AirBnB experience in Seoul and it had very little to do with the apartment itself. Two days before we were to arrive in Seoul (and just as we were about to begin our much-anticipated, Internet-free stay at Beomeosa Monastery, ie., with no time to make other plans), I received an email from the owner of the apartment we’d booked in Seoul, “Mr. S.” Mr. S wrote to touch base regarding handing off the keys, etc…and to tell me that “if any persons (police man) ask you regarding the you come to here through the airbnb, then pls DON’T SPEAK for airbnb will be appreciated…so you can say that this room is your friend’s room for you.”
Hmm. This was a first. I was, in essence, being asked to lie to foreign police to cover for an unauthorized rental apartment. No way was I comfortable with this and I would not have booked the apartment if I’d known. I really resented being put in this position, especially when I didn’t really have time to look for an alternative.
I researched AirBnB en route to Seoul via the KTX train’s wi-fi and discovered that a 2015 lawsuit had ruled that AirBnB rentals must be registered with the government. I now suspected that Mr. S might have avoided that registration.
When we arrived in Seoul, Mr. S met us as promised in the underground subway walkway which connects Seoul (train) Station to the building where the apartment is located. He handed off the keys, but when I expressed concern about his email regarding police and asked him to accompany us the short distance on to the building, he refused, leaving us to deal with any problems on our own. He apparently thought our odds of getting past “tourist police” better without him, but we had nothing to do with the situation and I thought it was pretty chicken of him to leave us to our own devices. Mr. S told us the riskiest part of this whole venture was when we went through the building with luggage (so he didn’t want any part of that). He dropped by the apartment 10 minutes after we were in to deliver the wi-fi hotspot he’d promised and extra blankets, so it wasn’t as if he had some pressing appointment that prohibited him from walking in with us.
On our 2nd night there, we went to explore the top floor gym and discovered a sign saying that all AirBnB rentals were banned in the building (apparently a building-specific internal rule) and could be subject to being reported to the police. “Great.” Even if Mr. S had registered his apartment with the government, it looked pretty clear that he was in violation of the building’s own rules. The next morning, we saw a similar sign on the front door. Unfortunately, we were past AirBnB’s 24-hour after check-in deadline for reporting problems that might void the whole deal and stop payment to Mr. S. From what I read, I believe it was he who was potentially in violation of laws and/or building rules, not us, but it was very awkward and uncomfortable nonetheless.
In the end, we decided to live with the situation and hope for the best, since we were already moved in and only had 2 nights to go after seeing the posted signs. Happily, we were not confronted by police or building staff. I did report the situation to AirBnB and explain the facts on the ground in my review of the apartment and Mr. S so that others would be advised. (I was surprised that no one else had mentioned the authorization problems in the many positive reviews for this apartment. Either people ignored the situation, or the signs–and Mr. S’s proposed dealing with police–were a new development.) There are other AirBnB hosts offering apartments in this same building, though, so I hope AirBnB takes some initiative here.
I intend to keep using AirBnB as apartments are often better suited to my travel needs than hotels, but I will more closely scrutinize local laws. I’d like to see AirBnB alert its users when there are potential legal problems in a city or country so that users can ask the right questions of owners. AirBnB must be aware of the legal challenges its faces in different cities and countries (as covered in numerous newspaper articles), and I’d appreciate a heads-up for those of us who use the service. A simple alert from AirBnB when I search a potentially-problematic location would be greatly appreciated.
The apartment itself was pretty much as shown in the AirBnB photos. I had some quibbles with supplies, but the location was excellent. (It shares a brand new high-rise building with a Sheraton Hotel, and is connected to covered shopping, subway and the huge, modern Seoul Station.) Had it been an authorized rental, I’d have given it and Mr. S fine marks.
I realized I failed to publish two travelogues from our time in Seoul, South Korea, in October 2016, so I’m adding them now, but back-dating them so they will be in chronological order on Wanderwiles. -Tamara, 12/5/2016:
Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) between North and South Korea was high on my list of things to do in Seoul. At this time, access to the DMZ requires booking an organized tour; you cannot visit on your own. After doing some research on tour providers, I chose Koridoor. Not only was their price competitive, but I liked that they worked with the USO and coordinated with the US Army so that there was an opportunity to hear from US soldiers stationed in South Korea. Koridoor offers two DMZ tours plus tours to other places in South Korea. I opted for the longer JSA/DMZ tour which includes the Joint Security Area. Knowing this tour is extremely popular, I booked a couple of months before we were to be in Seoul. The tour was scheduled to run from 10am-6:30pm and cost $92/civilian adult and $65 for US military personnel. Unfortunately, before we even left the States, I received an urgent email telling me there would be no JSA tours during the week we were to be in Seoul due to some “operational reason in” the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC). This situation effected all tours to the JSA, not just Koridoor. With no other options, I rebooked for the DMZ Half-Day Tour for $41pp. Our new itinerary was as follows:
08:00 : Departure from Camp Kim USO
08:50 : Unification Bridge
09:00 : Dora Observatory
10:15 : The 3rd infiltration Tunnel
10:50 : Dorasan Station – Free admission (Optional : Admission to platform – extra 1,000KRW in cash)
11:20 : Lunch at the Korean Restaurant (not included)
12:20 : Imjingak Park
14:00 : Arrive at Camp Kim USO
The morning of the tour, David and I caught the Seoul subway from Seoul station one stop to Sookmyung University station. From there, it’s an easy walk to the USO office which sits just in front of the US Army’s Camp Kim.
We arrived on time to find the waiting area full. This is a popular tour! I realized en route that I’d forgotten to bring our passports and was really worried that we’d be turned away. Thankfully, the photos of our passports we keep on our phones were good enough. Judging by the crowd there, I’m pretty sure rebooking for another day would have been impossible. I also doubt the photos would have been good enough if we’d still been booked on the JSA portion of the tour. Whew!
It turned out there were two buses in use for the day’s tour. We were assigned bus “B” when we checked in, and not long afterward we were invited to board the bus parked on the road out front.
We passed over the Unification Bridge without incident, zigzagging through barriers set up to slow the speed of vehicles. Our tour guide gave the guards a list of our names, nationalities and passport numbers and that was it. After passing a South Korean military base, we arrived at the Dora Observatory, exiting the bus to walk past a group of South Korean soldiers apparently just taking in the view themselves.
We brought our own binoculars, but there were options: A long row of pay binoculars lined the observatory deck, allowing tourists to look across the DMZ to North Korean observation towers so we could watch them watching us watching them…
Our next stop was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and DMZ museum. The small museum has models of the DMZ and four North Korean-built tunnels into South Korea, videos, relics and life-size recreations of tunneling. Following tips from a North Korean defector, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, considered the most dangerous to South Korea, was discovered in 1978 when water injected into the ground erupted into a geyser. In keeping with the hostile relationship between the two Koreas, each side claims the other dug the tunnel(s), but it seems pretty obvious the 3rd tunnel as well as the other three are North Korean creations.
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel has a very steep descent followed by a low ceiling. You have to put your belongings in a locker and no cameras or photography of any kind is allowed. Hard hats are required and we soon discovered why: The thwocking sound of hats hitting the low rocks over head came regularly throughout our visit. There are lots of warnings for people with mobility, breathing or claustrophobia issues and they should be taken seriously. It’s a steep–but relatively wide and modern–hike down to the rough rock tunnel where there’s nowhere to step aside or straighten up once you’re at the bottom. It’s also cool down there, too, about 50°F/11°C. Info at the museum and from our guide claims that 30,000 troops could move through the tunnel/hour. We found that hard to believe.
Our next stop was a weird one: the Dorasan train station. The station was built to facilitate trade and transportation between the two Koreas during a brief warming period. The big, modern station was the last stop in South Korea and was actually operational for a short period, but is now closed for all business save the kind we were there for.
You can buy a 1000 won ticket that lets you pass through a turnstile and walk along the track. At about 86 cents, we figured “Why not?,” but it’s an underwhelming experience.
Lunch at a “Korean restaurant” turned out to be lunch at an institutional-type cafeteria located upstairs in a building housing the Inter Korean Transit Office.
We had two options for meals, and David and I both went for traditional bimimbap which is sort of the national dish of Korea. “Bimimbap” means “mixed rice” and we put our own bimimbap together from ingredients laid out buffet-style, topping a bowl of white rice with namul (seasoned vegetables), gochujang (a spicy chili sauce), soy sauce, etc. Sometimes you get a raw or fried egg and/or sliced meat. When we finished, we bused our own table, carrying our trays to the cafeteria ladies behind a counter in the back. It really was an uninspiring lunch. Maybe they were going for an authentic “military” experience?
Our final stop was Imjingak Park. Bizarrely, an amusement park sits to one side of the more somber memorial areas of Imjingak Park. The park was built to console those who couldn’t return to their hometowns and families. It contains the wooden “Freedom Bridge” a former railroad bridge that was used to repatriate POWs returning from North Korea.
A dilapidated train is preserved in the park, badly damaged by artillery fire. Along one side of the old track, a barbed wire-topped fence is covered with ribbons representing prayers, memorials and wishes for peace. [See top photo.]
Another unusual tribute interested David and me; it is in honor of a television show we’d seen depicted in the popular Korean movie, “Ode to My Father.” The television show, known as “Reuniting Korean Families” or “Search for Dispersed Families” in English, was created 30 years after the Korean War as a way for separated family members to find each other. People came to be filmed holding placards describing family members, places and/or details they could remember. Many were children at the time of the war, some who couldn’t even remember their parents’ names. More than 10,000 families were reunited via the show. There’s plenty out there on it for those interested, but here’s a link to get you started: https://www.koreabang.com/2013/pictures/photos-in-1983-all-of-korea-was-crying.html
Leaving the park, we headed back to Seoul. It was an interesting day that I wouldn’t have missed so long as we were in Seoul, but I also can’t put it anywhere near the top of things South Korea or even Seoul itself has to offer. I would have liked to have done the JSA portion of the tour, but it’s a troubled area and interferences with these tours shouldn’t be too surprising. From what I saw, most of the tours looked very similar (and things can get crowded because of that). Koridoor offers one of the best deals and I like the idea of USO involvement although we didn’t get to hear from US military personnel due to the UNCMAC-induced change of plans. In sum, if you’re in Seoul and have the time, by all means go to the DMZ. If you don’t have the time, don’t worry about it.
So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!
In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:
Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
Luang Prabang, Laos
a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)
I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!
[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]