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My parents immigrated from South Korea to the United States in the early 90’s. Over the past couple of decades, my extended family and I have traveled to and from South Korea quite often. Ultimately, the visiting friends & family (VFR) market is a huge travel segment for many immigrant families.
However, it’s no secret that flying across the globe is costly – especially when you’re traveling during the summer or over the holidays. In fact, my mother has only visited South Korea once in her 25+ years of living in the United States. I’m convinced that if she knew how to book using points & miles, she could have visited more frequently.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, my mother and I had flights booked to South Korea in May 2020. While I eventually had to cancel my trip altogether, my mother rebooked her trip for the end of August.
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While South Korea initially experienced a high number of COVID-19 cases at the start of 2020, the Korean government has since effectively contained the outbreak. By providing fast and free testing and enforcing contact tracing, life has slowly started to return to normal.
Still, Korea continues to implement strict measures. Once you enter the country, you must take a COVID-19 test and quarantine for 14 days, even if you test negative. For Korean nationals and residents of Korea, you’re allowed to quarantine at your residence for 14 days. Foreigners, however, must quarantine in a government-mandated facility that costs roughly $100 per night.
While most people don’t have the financial means – or simply the time – for a 14-day quarantine abroad, there are still many reasons why people currently have to fly to and from South Korea. Especially with the recent student visa changes, over a million international students may be forced to return to their home countries.
Personally, I have even considered traveling to South Korea for a few months to make this 14-day quarantine worth it. By looking at award travel for the end of the year and early 2021, there are plenty of ways to get to South Korea on points & miles – regardless of the reason for your trip.
Many airlines fly direct from the United States to South Korea. I have only flown economy to South Korea, which is a lengthy, 14+ hour flight. While flying economy can save you some miles, business class is a much better value.
Using Delta SkyMiles
Before the pandemic, Delta often had deals to fly from the United States to South Korea. You could find round-trip fares in their Main Cabin for 50,000 SkyMiles. Looking at availability within the next year, I found that current round-trip fares typically go for under 80,000 SkyMiles. In fact, for most cities, economy round-trips are currently around 75,000 SkyMiles and about $50 in taxes and fees. Let’s take a closer look.
From my home airport at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), I found a fare to Seoul (ICN) that costs 66,000 SkyMiles and $51.45 in taxes. Since SkyMiles are worth 1.2 cents each according to TPG valuations, these points are worth $792.
The cash price of this fare is $975. If you have built up some SkyMiles, this is a decent way to get to South Korea on a budget.
Delta vs. partner awards
When booking on Delta’s website, it’s important to pay attention to whether or not the flight is operated by Delta or their partner, Korean Air. Note that the flight above is operated by Delta only.
Let’s take a look at this route from Boston (BOS) to ICN. The international legs on this trip are operated by Korean Air. For 75,000 SkyMiles and $47.75 in taxes and fees, this redemption is worth about $900 (according to TPG valuations).
Meanwhile, the cash price for this flight is $1,918.95. At this rate, you’ll get over 2.5 cents of value out of each mile. This is over double its normal value of 1.2 cents.
My experience flying Korean Air
If you’re looking for an economy award on Delta’s website, I recommend booking a flight that is operated by Korean Air. One of our senior editors, Alberto Riva, flew on Korean Air’s economy class on the A380, and stated that it was “as good as economy class gets.” For a 12+ hour flight, I much enjoyed the food and service onboard.
Flying business class
If you have even more SkyMiles to burn and want to fly Prestige (business class) on Korean Air, it costs 170,000 SkyMiles and $47.75 in taxes and fees. According to TPG valuations, these miles are worth a little over $2,000.
The cash price of this same round-trip is $7,332.95. The value of your SkyMiles effectively jumps to 4.28 cents each, making your miles worth almost four times the TPG value.
Earning Delta SkyMiles
Whether you’re flying economy or business class on Delta or Korean Air, using your SkyMiles may be a solid option. You can earn a ton of SkyMiles through Delta’s co-branded credit cards with American Express, which offers substantial welcome bonuses.
You can also get a Membership Rewards-earning card, which will then transfer to Delta SkyMiles at a 1:1 rate. Our favorites are the American Express® Gold Card and The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Miles
Transferring Membership Rewards to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club can be another great way to score a sweet deal on long-haul international flights – especially in business class. The best part of this program is that you can redeem Flying Club miles for flights on Delta. While award availability is more limited, with some digging, you can find some incredible deals.
For example, I found a one-way, nonstop flight in Delta One from Atlanta (ATL) to Seoul for just 60,000 miles and $5.60 in taxes. Note that Main Cabin is 40,000 miles and $5.60 in taxes.
This same ticket on Delta’s website costs a whopping 115,000 miles for Main Cabin and 120,000 miles for Delta One.
And look how much these fares are in cash.
Clearly, using your Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles gives you a major advantage. While award availability tends to be limited, you’ll score a great deal if you’re flexible with your dates.
Earning Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Miles
It’s fairly easy to rack up Flying Club miles without ever flying Virgin Atlantic, thanks to its many transfer partners. You can transfer American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Diners Club Rewards to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club at a 1:1 ratio. You can also transfer from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 ratio.
Using Korean Air SkyPass
Korean Air’s iconic first-class can be booked using SkyPass miles. Here is the award chart for round-trip flights between South Korea and the United States. Note that one-way tickets require half the miles listed below.
There are a few other things to note with SkyPass. The taxes and fees add another $37 to all international award redemptions but can vary on other factors. Finally, the rates are only applicable to direct flights from the United States. Korean Air flies directly out of 12 cities in the United States, which include:
Earning Korean Air SkyPass Miles
Earning SkyPass miles can be a bit more challenging. Marriott Bonvoy is currently the only transfer partner, offering a ratio of 3:1. You’ll get 5,000 bonus miles for every 60,000 points transferred. Of course, there are also Korean Air’s co-branded cards to consider.
Because Korean Air is part of the SkyTeam alliance, you can also credit flights that you take on other airlines (e.g., Delta or Air France) to the SkyPass program. Note that the number of miles you receive will also depend on the fare and class of service.
Using United MileagePlus miles
Searching on United’s website is fairly easy. While United stopped publishing award charts in 2019, the redemption rates are pretty standard when looking at the 30-day calendar. From searching multiple cities, I found that the lowest one-way tickets cost 35,000 miles on economy and 88,000 miles on business – plus only $5.60 in fees.
United miles are worth approximately 1.3 cents each. Therefore, you’re getting an okay deal at 70,000 miles round-trip for an economy fare, worth about $915 including tax.
To fly United Polaris, the 170,000 miles you need for a round-trip are worth about $2300. This is a fraction of the cost of how much you’d pay in cash, so you’re getting a better value booking on business class.
Finally, these are the cash prices for those same round-trip tickets. As you can see, the lowest price for round-trip economy class is $957, while business class costs $4,355.
Earning United MileagePlus Miles
If you’re a Chase cardholder, you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to United at a 1:1 ratio. Marriott Bonvoy transfers to United at a 3:1 ratio. And if you fly United frequently, signing up for their co-branded credit cards are also an effective way to lock in a ton of United miles. In sum, flying United Polaris to South Korea may be more feasible than you think.
Using Avianca LifeMiles
Through Avianca LifeMiles, you can book flights on any Star Alliance airline, which includes United and Asiana Airlines. By transferring your hard-earned points to Avianca LifeMiles, you may score an even better deal than simply booking through United’s website. Plus, you can redeem LifeMiles for Asiana’s business class product for just 75,000 miles one-way or 150,000 miles round-trip.
Meanwhile, a one-way on United’s economy prices out at just 35,000 LifeMiles.
Earning Avianca LifeMiles
The Avianca LifeMiles program has many partners. You can transfer from American Express Membership Rewards or Citi ThankYou Points at a 1:1 ratio. Capital One miles transfer at 2:1.5, and Marriott Bonvoy transfers at 3:1. Finally, Avianca also offers two types of co-branded credit cards: the Avianca Vuela Visa Card and the Avianca Vuela Vida Card.
Pooling your points and miles from these various programs can easily turn this flight into a reality.
Using ANA Mileage Club Miles
You can book flights to Seoul through ANA’s Mileage Club, which partners with both Asiana and United. Note that you can only book round-trip flights, not one-way.
For example, nonstop round-trip flight on Asiana’s business class from New York (JFK) to Seoul (ICN) costs 95,000 miles and $307.69 in taxes.
While these taxes are quite hefty, the overall miles you need to book a round-trip on ANA are relatively low. ANA miles are worth 1.4 cents, meaning 95,000 miles are worth almost $1330. The cash price for this business class flight is almost three times the value of your Mileage Club miles.
The same flight in economy class costs 60,000 miles and $307.69 in taxes. The miles portion of this award is valued at $840.
Meanwhile, the cash price of this flight is $1,021. In this scenario, you would be getting a better deal paying cash on this ticket.
Earning ANA Mileage Club Miles
American Express Membership Rewards is a key transfer partner for ANA Mileage Club. At a 1:1 ratio, you can land an awesome deal on a roundtrip business class fare to South Korea. Marriott Bonvoy also transfers to Mileage Club, but at a 3:1 ratio.
And of course, you can also earn by flying ANA as well as flying any Star Alliance airlines and its non-alliance partners.
Related: Ultimate guide to ANA Mileage Club
Using Aeroplan Miles
Air Canada Aeroplan’s website has a published redemption chart for awards between Canada & the continental United States and Asia 1, which includes South Korea.
Through Aeroplan’s website, you can book awards on Star Alliance flights, including Air Canada, Asiana and United.
Here is an example of a business class award to Seoul through Aeroplan. For 150,000 miles and about $50 in taxes, this is another solid option to consider.
Earning Aeroplan miles
Through American Express Membership Rewards, you can transfer your points to Aeroplan miles at a 1:1 ratio. Capital One miles transfer at a 2:1.5 ratio and Marriott Bonvoy at 3:1 (with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred). You can also credit your flights to Aeroplan instead of United Mileage Plus. You’ll often find you’re getting a better return on your miles this way.
As you can see, there are countless ways to get to South Korea using points and miles. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, award redemption rates are standard across the board, giving you plenty of flexibility for dates. The options for both economy and business class offerings are impressive, so how you want to redeem your hard-earned rewards depends on you.
Since many of these award redemption rates are similar, you ultimately have the choice to pick which airline you want to fly. I am personally biased towards Korean Air when flying to South Korea, as I’ve had great experiences flying their economy long-haul. If you’re aiming for business class however, I would read up on our reviews of each flight to decide the best option for you.
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