Seoul is one of my favorite cities. The food is great (assuming you like Korean food…), the city is really accommodating of tourists (e.g. lots of museums are free, they’ve had promotions where they’ll give you free postcards and mail them for you), public transit is great, there’s interesting history as well as modern influences, and it’s relatively affordable.
So what are the best ways to redeem a Star Alliance award to Seoul?
Seoul is the hub of Asiana Airlines, one of my favorite airlines. It’s a 5-star airline according to Skytrax and has won Airline of the Year awards from both Skytrax and Business Traveler in the past. Asiana is an awesome choice for a premium cabin (or even coach) redemption to Seoul.
In the US, Asiana flies nonstop to Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York (JFK), San Francisco, and Seattle. Of these routes, only Los Angeles and New York have a first class cabin (well, Chicago has it for now, but that plane is switching to New York on July 22, 2013), and the New York flight will have the new Asiana first class suites as of July 22. The old first class on the LAX route isn’t too shabby, but it is an older product.
If you’re flying business on Asiana, you definitely want to look for a route with the new Quadra Smartium seats. While the old business class is angle-flat, the Quadra Smartium seats are completely lie-flat. This product is generally found on flights to San Francisco, Los Angeles (on the 777 flight, not the 747 flight with first class), Chicago, and New York (starting on July 22nd). Beware of aircraft swaps, though, as you’re not guaranteed to get the new product even on these routes.
Award availability on Asiana is best far in advance (as in, right when the schedules open), especially if you’re looking for the new first class suites product. Best of all, they usually release 2 award seats in first class.
Caution: Asiana has blackout dates for awards (which I often forget about). There are different dates depending on whether or not you’re departing from the US, so even if there’s a blackout date for one direction that you want, it’s possible that the other direction is fine. Check out my post on Asiana blackout dates for more info.
United flies nonstop to Seoul from San Francisco. While United isn’t a very aspirational premium cabin product, the hard product is actually quite good in both business and first. Business class is lie-flat, and the entertainment system is pretty good, although the service and food are not up to par with Asian carriers. Award availability is best far in advance or else close-in.
Singapore also flies nonstop to Seoul from San Francisco. Unfortunately, if you’re using United or US Airways miles, you won’t be getting into a premium cabin as they serve that route with a 777-300ER. You can transfer Amex Membership Rewards into Singapore’s KrisFlyer program and redeem for premium cabins this way, though.
Thai flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Seoul 4 days a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday), served by a 777-300ER with a lie-flat business seat, but I only see the schedule loaded until the end of November 2013, and it doesn’t look like they’re releasing any business class seats.
Finally, Air Canada flies nonstop from both Vancouver and Toronto, but no one cares about Canada, so I’m not going to write about them (jks, but I honestly don’t know much about Air Canada; business class availability looks okay on both routes, and I believe both routes are served by lie-flat seats in business, but please, someone correct me if I’m wrong).
Those are your options for nonstop flights to/from North America. The most aspirational product accessible with United or US Airways miles is Asiana’s new first class suites from New York (staring July 22, 2013), although I don’t think you can go wrong with the Quadra Smartium routes from San Francisco and Los Angeles (note: you can also do a routing like SFO->JFK->ICN if you really want to do the suites).
You can also route the long way through Europe, and there are also lots of options if you want to connect in Tokyo. Now that EVA Air has joined the Star Alliance, you can also route through Taipei, and EVA’s Royal Laurel Class (currently to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York) looks quite good, although connecting through Taipei is a little more out of the way than connecting through Tokyo.
Hope this helps if you’re looking for an award to Seoul! And if you don’t want to deal with finding award availability and booking an award yourself, you can contact me at efficientasianman (at) gmail (dot) com to employ my award booking service.