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!
A quick update on how long it took for miles (AAdvantage miles via Fidelity promo) and points (Ultimate Rewards via Chase Sapphire Reserve bonus) to post:
Chase: Applied for the Sapphire Reserve card on Thursday 11/17; got card on Tuesday 11/22; met spend by 12/7 December statement close date. 100,000 Ultimate Rewards bonus points appeared in my account on Sunday 12/18, BEFORE I had paid the statement balance which is not due until January. Wow.
Fidelity: I made deposit to Fidelity on 12/5; miles appeared in my AAdvantage account on 12/18. 13 days. Not bad at all!
The day David and I landed from our 2.5 months in Asia, we headed to our local Chase branch and each applied for the new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. The Chase Sapphire has lots of perks, including a huge 100,000 point initial bonus, a $300/calendar year travel rebate, and 3x Ultimate Reward points for all travel expenses and dining. We’d really wanted to get the Sapphire Reserve card before we left on our Asia trip, but it had just launched and was so popular that there was a delay that made it impossible to get before we left. Getting these cards was high on our to-do list when we got back to the States. Happily, Chase had worked through the backlog while we were gone. We were both approved on Thursday and received our new cards the next Tuesday (November 22,2016). [Chase has recently announced a 5-card limit on applications within a 2 year period. When rumors of a new Chase premium card surfaced online, we were careful to hold a spot open for Reserve. I’m so glad. It would have been excruciating to miss this offer!]
The Sapphire Reserve is a premium card with a high annual fee ($450), but its perks more than make up the cost. One of the most enticing aspects for those of us who travel a lot is an annual $300 credit on ANY travel. (A bigger and much more useful credit than the $200 I get on my AmEx Platinum that is limited to certain expenses–not tickets–on one airline of my choice.) Given that we easily spend $300 a year on travel, the annual fee is instantly reduced for us to $150. Moreover, the travel rebate is per calendar year (which means the travel charges must show on the December statement to be included in that calendar year) so we could get $600 in travel rebates apiece in the first 13 months if we moved quickly.
Since we wanted to get maximum travel rebates by spending $300 each in the rapidly-dwindling 2016 calendar year, we knew timing would be tricky. I called to confirm when our first statement closed in December and found mine was December 7th. David’s was even earlier. Not much time! We got busy (and creative*) and charged enough to get the full $300 each before our statements closed in December…meaning we’ll have yet another $300 credit in 2017. ‘Not bad at all for a card that comes with a whopping 100,000 point bonus after $4000 spend in the first 3 months.
Ultimate Reward points are one of the most useful and valuable points out there and I regularly see them valued at 1.7 to 2.1 cents, which gives the bonus points a value of $1700-$2100 if redeemed for travel. If you’ll remember, we used 95,000 points each for our Korean Air First Class tickets from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas. By that measure, the points are worth substantially more ($6500+ apiece for those tickets). Chase also offers cash redemption at a rate of 1 cent/point so you could get $1000 cash for your points if you’re not into travel. Alternatively, the Sapphire Reserve card lets you redeem through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal at a 1.5 multiplier, giving you $1500 to spend on travel. This can make sense over transferring miles when things like timing (e.g., when award flights aren’t available) or earning more miles via an airline are an issue. [If we didn’t want to keep our Sapphire Reserve cards, we could conceivably cancel after receiving and using or transferring our bonus points and be paid a not-insubstantial amount for using the card! I’m not a fan of this kind of bonus chasing, though, and you risk getting flagged and closed out by the credit card company.]
I know $4000 is a lot of spend, but there are ways to do it if that’s beyond your normal: prepaying things like insurance is one easy way. (Unfortunately, a veterinary medical crisis followed by an expensive car repair made my spend much “easier” and quicker than I’d planned. Happily, my dog made a full and speedy recovery!)
Other benefits of the Sapphire Reserve include Priority Pass Select (which we already get via AmEx Platinum) and Global Entry (which we also already have as a benefit of both AmEx Platinum and Citi Aadvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard). These overlapping benefits are yet another reason I’m considering cancelling my AmEx Platinum after all these years. When Platinum lost Admiral’s Club access, its major benefit was gone as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never found a “free” partner plane ticket that worked out cheaper than what I could find two tickets for on my own for. Hotel chain upgrades are nice, but just not something we use much. We did have a fantastic getaway to The Plaza in NYC and enjoyed the many perks of Platinum Fine Hotels & Resorts (free breakfast, bar and spa credit, room upgrade, late check-out), but it was still an expensive short trip and it’s just not something we do often enough to care…and there are similar benefits with Sapphire Reserve. The AmEx card offers I load onto our cards haven’t been of much use to us recently either. (Valuable offers like an awesome $50 per card deal on AirBnB a year or so ago, cash back on spends at small businesses, and cash rebates at Whole Foods have given way to 2x points offers and rebates requiring large spends at stores we don’t frequent.) Just recently, AmEx Platinum has offered 5x points on flights and related expenses booked directly with airlines or through their travel company. That’s more interesting, but not decisive standing alone. The main benefit to Platinum that I would seriously miss is the Centurion Club. Not $450 worth, but damn, Centurion is a nice lounge. Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many Centurion Clubs. We’re lucky to have a Centurion Club at DFW’s Terminal D which we usually fly out of for our not-infrequent overseas flights. The Admiral’s Club full membership (also available to authorized cardholders for free, i.e., my sons) that comes with the Citi MasterCard is more often useful to us.
NOTE: (1) I got the Chase Sapphire Preferred card this past summer and was really happy with it until the Reserve came out. I was able to apply for the Reserve as a new card, so I get not only the 55,000 point bonus for the Preferred (50k + 5k for adding my college-age son), but am also eligible for the 100,000 point bonus for the Reserve. DO NOT upgrade your Preferred. Apply for a new card or you’ll miss the 100,000 point bonus. (2) It’s fine to cancel or downgrade the Preferred once you get the Reserve, if you have it, but you MUST TRANSFER your Ultimate Rewards points from your Preferred to your Reserve card before you cancel the Preferred or you will lose your points. It’s easy to transfer online; just click on the Ultimate Rewards box, then follow the links to transfer.
*About that being creative with the travel spending: With so little time and no plans to travel prior to the first week in December (We did just get back, after all!), we needed to find some way to get that $300 travel rebate we each had coming. We have reservations on British Airways to Belgium and back in March and May (for which I’d used BA miles and a free companion pass I earned with my BA AmEx). I could only find Business Class availability on the trip over, so we were booked Economy on the way back. We did want exit row seats on that flight, but I’d not yet ponied up the (ridiculously-high) charge. Voila! I charged the exit row seat selections to my Sapphire Reserve. For the balance, I found I was able to gift David with an American Airlines electronic gift card and an AirBnB gift card, both of which were instantly rebated when the charges posted. (Charges take about 3 days to move from “pending” to posted.) American is the airline we use most, so we’ll have no problem using that gift card. The AirBnB gift card will be easy to use as well, probably in April or May in France. We are avid AirBnBers, having stayed in AirBnB apartments in 11 countries on 3 continents in this year alone. By happy coincidence, my mother needed to make a quick trip to Corpus Christi for a friend’s birthday. She let David charge her plane ticket to his card. She paid him back, and his $300 spend was done for the calendar year, too. As an extra perk, these travel expenditures count towards our $4000 initial spend and also garner us 3x the points as well. Thank you, Chase!
The above reflects my personal experience and understanding. If you’re interested in learning more, read the details of the benefits and restrictions of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and/or apply at:https://creditcards.chase.com/a1/sapphire/reserve
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!