In our last post, we announced that we are returning to Korea this fall. We can’t wait to get there! Unlike previous trips, though, we are almost as excited about the journey as the destination. Say what?! Yes, this is truly a first for us. We normally dread the long hours of travel, smashed into itty seats for dozens of hours on end (though we only fly Korean Air back and forth, so we can’t complain too much about their great economy product) but this time is different.
We began looking into the points/miles game a couple of years ago and, though that was how we secured our Southwest Air Companion Pass for 2017, we hadn’t used points yet for any premium products. Whitney has religiously read The Points Guy, Brian Kelly, for awhile now and has been dying to try some of the great products he reviews.
The long and short is this: we are flying Cathay Pacific Business Class back and forth to Korea on points! Based on social media interest, this post will be one of our longest ever, detailing how we did it and the pros and cons, but you don’t have to read on if you are not interested in playing the points game yourself. We have had enough people express interest that we wanted to record it here for reference. No offense if this is not your cup of tea!
Note: As the large majority of our readers are Korean American adoptees who travel between Korea and America (like us), that is who this post caters to. We don’t have the experience to advise someone flying, for instance, from Europe to Korea — we aren’t familiar with those regional airline carriers. We also are not endorsing any brand; we are simply sharing our own experience.
Airline: Cathay Pacific
Equipment: Boeing 777-300ER & Airbus A330-300
Route: SFO > HKG > ICN > HKG > SFO
Booking Airline: Alaska
While Whitney has been reading up on premium products and airline miles for awhile now, we had not yet bit the bullet to open credit cards and take advantage of those bonus miles (that is certainly in the works now). There is a whole separate universe (complete with its own language) when it comes to which card is the best for which airlines and which destinations and lots of fine print and rules governing that world (read up on the 5/24 rule before you start opening credit!) and for us, it has felt overwhelming to the point of paralysis. We now plan to dive into that world in the near future, but this particular Korea trip began with absolutely zero points/credit cards/etc.
It began when Whitney was catching up on The Points Guy (TPG) posts and read about a sale Alaska Airlines was running on miles. This is not an airline we ever use (besides that once in a lifetime trip to Alaska we took last year) but what caught her eye was the mention of the value of this bonus for travelers to Korea. She looked into it (not as much as she should have!) and found, yes, we could purchase miles via this sale and use them to fly Business Class on Korean Air this fall.
We had been planning a trip to Korea already and we typically spend about $2,500 USD round-trip on our 2 Korean Air economy seats. Like we mentioned, KE offers a great economy product, but after 16 hours in the sky sitting straight up, even the best product will leave your back and behind sore. Additionally, Whitney has an ongoing battle with back issues, so she absolutely dreads the journey between Korea and the States.
Within a couple of hours (too soon! more research needed!), we decided to purchase enough points with the sale bonus to redeem for 2 business class seats for our fall trip. Points players will generally advise you that purchasing points outright is not worth it, but we had zero points accumulated and the bonus seemed to make this a very viable option. In hindsight, we would not do this again (the list of cons will tell you why), but fortunately, everything turned out OK for us at the end of this crazy rollercoaster.
From the second we hit “purchase points,” our problems began. Lee’s posted immediately to his account, but Whitney’s weren’t showing up. We refreshed and kept refreshing for about 4 hours until we went to sleep. Whitney was frantic. What if the flights we wanted were no longer available tomorrow? Searching the internet didn’t help. While the official Alaska Airlines site made no mention of it, some bloggers were saying there was a 10-day waiting period for points to credit to your account. 10 DAYS? Surely our flights would be gone by then. At one point, someone made mention of a 30 day waiting period and Whitney practically fainted. She stayed online until all hours of the night/morning trying to find a way to make the points magically appear but nothing was working. On a whim, we’d just invested a few thousand dollars into 210,000 (nonrefundable) airline miles. Were they going to be useless to us?
First thing the next morning, Whitney checked her account. The screen flashed “0 Points” and her heart sank. She took to the TPG forum, explaining the situation, and hoping someone might have advice. A dozen helpful souls had mercy and sent their best tips. #1 – call the airline, you dummy! Finally, she picked up the phone. She explained the situation to the agent and they were very reassuring. Don’t worry, the points typically take 24 hours to show up. Anytime now. We don’t normally do this, but let’s look at the flights you want and see if we can hold them for you until the points clear your account. Uh-oh. I don’t see those flights. I don’t see any availability within that week. I don’t see any availability within a month. OK, 2 months.
Whitney very honestly almost had a heart attack. Thankfully, Alaska is widely known as having the most helpful and kind agents, and they went above and beyond to help us out. They asked if we’d be OK flying Cathay Pacific, instead of Korean Air. Was that a possibility? Cathay is known for their top-of-the line, world-class product. Could we really use our points for that?
The agent stayed on the line with us for over an hour. By the end, we had a Cathay flight on hold and an assurance our points would clear soon. We were so relieved. After hanging up, we decided to check again on those Korean Air flights, because we definitely saw them available the previous night. Sure enough, we could still see them available on our front-end of the Alaska Air site. Maybe we have different views and options than the agents? We decided our Korean Air itinerary was preferred over Cathay, so once the points cleared, we would try to book that one online.
Finally, that afternoon, about 18 hours after purchase, the points showed up in Whitney’s account. Relieved, we weighed our options again – Cathay Business or Korean Air Business? – and decided to proceed with booking Korean. We were so excited! We went through field-by-field and entered our passport info, contact info, and seat preferences. Holding our breath, we clicked “Purchase.” An error flashed. “Unable to verify seats on partner airline (Korean Air).” WHAT? We tried again. Same error. Five more times. Error, error.
We played with the dates and tried others showing availability. Same result every time. We called Alaska Reservations again. “Yes, this is a known issue.” Excuse me? Yes, this is an actual thing – phantom availability. Because the flights are on a partner airline, Alaska has to rely on the partner information given to them to update their own site. Alaska may show availability but when trying to purchase, you may find those seats are not actually there for you to buy. The agent looked again, “I’m sorry, there is no availability within 3 months of those dates. I know the website shows it, but there is nothing open.”
We pow-wowed and Whitney ranted about how this isn’t right and they need to fix their technology issues. Eventually, we decided to call back and book the Cathay flights being held for us, even though the dates were not 100% ideal. We got an agent and our hearts sank when we found out that the dates had gotten confused. We wanted to go for 10 days but the flights being held only allowed us to be on the ground in Seoul for 5. We decided it wasn’t worth it for that short period of time, and begrudgingly removed our hold on the seats.
By the end of day 2 of the ordeal, we had spent dozens of hours on the phone, many more online, several thousand dollars, and had no flights. We were empty-handed. “Are you mad?,” Whitney asked. “No,” Lee replied. “Are you sure?,” she was not convinced. “No, I’m not sure,” he said. Fair enough. Whitney herself was anything but OK.
Though we were utterly depressed, we still had the points (which would not expire) so we still had options. We could use them to fly coach, but that seemed ridiculous after all the trouble we’d gone through and money we spent. We could use them to fly somewhere else. Alaska has a large market share on the West coast, but less where we are in Tennessee, so there were very few options available to us for different destinations we actually wanted to visit. We could try to use them again for Korea in the spring. But availability is still not guaranteed then and that is over a year from now!
The next day, Whitney was wallowing in self-pity until she finally got so ticked off about the situation, she resigned to do anything in her power to get something booked, no matter what. We were beyond desperate. She took back to Google to see what our options were. We learned that with Alaska booking, Cathay Pacific is a partner airline, but their booking and availability is not available online, only over the phone. So how in the world could we see which dates were available? We found out one good backway was to use the British Airways and Qantas Airlines websites. Whitney had to create accounts and register with both of those airlines to see what award flights were available. She searched for hours and hours trying to piece together an itinerary, but every time it almost came together, one piece would come up missing. After spending a whole day on this, she finally found a potential itinerary. She didn’t want to get excited too soon, so she called Alaska to see if she could book. We found out that, indeed, the flights going to Korea were available. Had we done it?! No, we hadn’t. For some reason the flights we saw as available returning home were not there. More phantom flights. The agent was patient and spent an hour trying to find us return flights but there was nothing within a month. Frustrated, Whitney hung up, took a deep breath, and redialed to start the whole process all over again. She did this three more times on hour-plus long phone calls. Finally in hour five, she got a hold of an angel who had worked in award bookings for 15 years. She normally did not take calls, as she is a lead, but she was filling in this particular night. She and Whitney worked together for another hour to find flights going. She searched yet another hour for flights returning and our call got disconnected. Whitney almost died. Thank God, the agent already had our account number so she could look up our contact information to call back. We got connected again and we were finally able to secure and confirm tickets. It took three days, many frustrations, some tears, some anger, about 15 agents, endless hours online, and dozens more on the phone.
We would probably not ever do this again. Buying the points outright, while a deal, was just too risky with the award booking availabilities being so scarce. (If we had done more research before purchasing, we would have known that and not proceeded.) However, in the end, it worked out and we were able to secure two business class seats valued at up to $36,000 for just a few thousand on a world-renowned airline.
- It is possible to get these seats without spending the thousands in cash outright like we did. We simply had not yet taken the steps we needed to earn the necessary points. If you have time until your next trip, you can easily find ways via credit card to earn points for airline tickets. In our opinion, this would be worth the booking frustration if they’re essentially free tickets (spending just what you normally would on a rewards credit card). You need to do a lot of homework on which credit card is most valuable to you based on your desired destination, your home airport, and what you spend your money on, but this is easily doable.
- In the end, it did work out. We are going to have amazing lie flat beds all the way to Asia. This is one of Whitney‘s dreams come true.
- Showers, sweet, sweet showers. We are going to have access to lounges fully equipped with Wi-Fi and food and most importantly, SHOWERS along the long journey.
- There isn’t time/space to explain all the details, but we will be flying first-class to California on Virgin America, another first for us, since they have been recently acquired by Alaska.
- We had no idea booking award tickets would be so difficult. While talking to others, though, it does seem like our situation was extraordinarily challenging to the nth degree and this is not the norm.
- In general, award tickets seem to require a lot of flexibility. Some people book these tickets the same week of travel. That does not really fit our personalities and therefore made the process very stressful. If you are a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of personality, maybe this would be no issue for you.
- If your party is more than two people, we personally would not even attempt to try doing this. If you are looking to fly coach, that is a different story because there is much more availability. But because the premium seats are so scarce, we were hardly able to find a flight with two seats available. It varies among airlines and their partnerships, but we have read that some airlines to start will only offer one premium award seat per flight to partner airlines. If you are a single person, you could have a huge advantage on booking premium award travel.
- As great as technology is, it is not perfect. The phantom seats we were finding were just maddening. You might spend hours building an itinerary around one leg you think is there, just to find out it is not available to you. Know that this is common and possible and could make you pull your hair out.
- You cannot trust everything you read on the Internet. Throughout the process, we based some decisions on incorrect (or at least outdated) information we found on Jim Bob’s blog from West Chattahoochee. This caused us to waste extra hours needlessly.
- Depending on where you live, some rewards programs that may be inherently valuable could be nearly useless to you. Or at minimum, require you to travel to main gateway cities for positioning. For example, for us to travel from Tennessee to San Francisco for our Korea-bound flight, could have cost us on our own dime. Thankfully, our heaven-sent agent worked that out for us, but it easily could have been ~$600 additional expense to get from Tennessee to California.
- Unbelievably, some airlines (i.e. Cathay Pacific via Alaska) don’t show booking availability online, requiring you to spend hours on the phone working with an agent, which is honestly Whitney’s personal nightmare. The best thing about the internet is the elimination of the middle man.
- Relatedly, people are people and therefore a lot of human factors came into play here (talking to at least a dozen different agents). We had to call 12-18 times until we finally found someone willing to go above and beyond to book these extraordinarily difficult flights for us…and that was with an airline renowned for their excellent customer service!
- Our route for this trip is way out of the way of our normal Nashville > Atlanta > Seoul direct route. We are flying ~5 additional hours (one-way) out of the way to go SFO > HKG > ICN but we decided it was worth it this one time, since we will have beds. It also means we get to visit the “home” of Cathay Pacific and see their renowned lounges at HKG (including an arrivals lounge!), another place we have not visited before.
You probably think this 3,000 word post is over the top, but we honestly left out a lot of details for the sake of brevity. Words cannot describe how painstaking and frustrating this booking process was for us. As you can see, our cons list has far outweighed the pros.
We will obviously follow up with a review of our experience once we are able to fly this itinerary in the fall. We have no doubt it will be an amazing experience, but it certainly came at a cost – almost the loss of our sanity! Nevertheless, we cannot wait to fly this fall and we are already planning our next points venture (earning via cards, not paying in outright dollars) for our next business/first class journey.
Have any of you had a similar experience or any related stories from playing points/miles? We want to hear them! Comment below.
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