Korean Air first class upgrade guide

By Chris C., October 25 2017
Korean Air first class upgrade guide

Business class is a pleasant way to fly, but if you're travelling with Korean Air, you could upgrade yourself to first class on your next flight using Korean Air Skypass miles for an even more enjoyable flight.

As few as 40,000 Skypass miles can land you a first class upgrade on flights between Sydney or Brisbane and Seoul, with upgrades from Australia right through to Europe starting at 62,500 Skypass miles.

Wherever your travels will take you, here's how you can move forward from business class into first class on your next voyage with Korean Air.

Korean Air first class upgrades: the basics

Firstly, to snag a first class upgrade with Korean Air, you'll need to already be flying in business class.

That means you can't upgrade from economy straight to first class, or from economy to business class and then from business class to first class on the same flight, as upgrades are all 'one class' only.

Your Korean Air flight must also be booked under the usual KE flight number – book a codeshare flight and you'll be ineligible for an upgrade, even if Korean Air is the airline serving your flight.

To make things even trickier, upgrades using miles are only permitted from the most expensive business class fares, being those of the J and C 'fare buckets' as shown on your ticket or booking confirmation documents.

Purchase a more affordable fare, namely one corresponding to the D, I or Z fare types, and there's no upgrade for you – ditto if you booked your business class flight using miles rather than money, as your ticket falls into O class which is also ineligible.

Still in the running? Upgrades aren't guaranteed to be available on every flight, even if first class seats are still being sold: but should one be open and you're booked on an approved business class fare type, you'll be able to secure your spot in first class instantly.

Unlike Qantas, there's no 'upgrade lottery' or 'waitlist' here, but even so, Korean Air certainly doesn't make it easy!

We should also highlight that on many Korean Air planes – particularly the Airbus A330s flying to Brisbane – the physical seats in first class can be almost identical to those in business class.

For example, here is Korean Air's Airbus A330 first class seat...

... and here is Korean Air's Airbus A330 business class seat on the same plane:

The difference? First class gets a marginally bigger TV screen, with an upgrade to the overall service, inflight dining, bedding and lounge access (in Seoul), as opposed to there being a bigger seat as you'd expect on other airlines.

Korean Air first class upgrades: how many miles to you need?

Most frequent flyer programs determine the number of number of miles needed for an upgrade based on the length of the flight and the type of fare purchased, although Korean Air takes a different approach: calculating upgrade costs based on the regions you're flying between and the time of the year.

That means the number of miles needed for an upgrade on any given flight is generally higher during busy times like Christmas and school holidays ('peak'), and lower during other periods ('off-peak'): favouring business travellers more so than families jetting off on holidays.

On flights to Seoul from Sydney and Brisbane, a one-way first class upgrade can be yours for 40,000 Skypass miles during off-peak periods, but that climbs to 60,000 Skypass miles for the same upgrade during the peak season.

Jetting from Australia through to the UK and Europe? Expect to part with 62,500 Skypass miles for a one-way, off-peak upgrade, or 92,500 Skypass miles to upgrade during peak times.

You'll find bigger and better first class suites aboard Korean Air's Boeing 747-8i, dubbed 'Kosmo 2.0'...
You'll find bigger and better first class suites aboard Korean Air's Boeing 747-8i, dubbed 'Kosmo 2.0'...

To make things more confusing, dates covered by Korean Air's peak season vary between destinations and also from one year to the next – so on the same calendar day, 'peak' rates may be applied to some routes and 'off-peak' rates to others.

Fortunately, flights between Australia and both Korea and UK/Europe all adopt the same peak/off-peak schedule, with the following dates corresponding to the peak period, during which you'll need the higher number of miles to upgrade:

  • December 21 2017 until January 1 2018
  • February 14-19 2018
  • July 13 until August 18 2018
  • September 20-27 2018
  • October 5-7 2018
  • December 20-31 2018

Fly at any other time throughout the year and you can upgrade at the reduced off-peak rate.

Korean Air first class upgrades: for more advanced flyers

While relatively few business class airfares quality for first class upgrades, if your ticket is indeed part of that group, Korean Air is more generous than many other airlines when planning a stopover and hoping to upgrade from A to C.

Rather than charging for two separate upgrades – A to B plus B to C, such as Sydney to Seoul and then Seoul to London – Korean Air instead allows the entire journey to be upgraded at the one 'A to C' rate, even when spending a night or more in transit in between flights, typically in Seoul.

There's just one catch: to secure this type of upgrade, such as from Australia to Europe, first class upgrades need to be available on both flights when making the request to take advantage of the lower mileage rates.

If only one leg is open for upgrades, the only option is to upgrade that one leg as-is (either Australia-Seoul or Seoul-Europe), and then request a further upgrade for the other flight if one later becomes available, being billed separately.

Korean Air's newer Kosmo 2.0 suites offer closing doors, as we're beginning to expect in first class...
Korean Air's newer Kosmo 2.0 suites offer closing doors, as we're beginning to expect in first class...

You can browse Korean Air's upgrade award chart to find out how many miles are needed for any given upgrade, noting that the figures given are for return trip upgrades (simply divide by two for a one-way bump), and that the 'Oceania' region includes Australia, 'Europe' still includes London and the UK, and 'Prestige' means business class (look at the Prestige>First column for first class upgrades).

Korean Air first class: finding and booking your upgrade

Because upgrades are all subject to availability, there's a way you can check whether a first class upgrade is available on any given Korean Air flight before you book your paid business class ticket, thanks to subscription website ExpertFlyer.

(It works after you've booked your ticket as well, but if you're choosing which flight to take based on your ability to upgrade, this saves much time, hassle, and disappointment.)

ExpertFlyer offers free trials to new users, while existing subscribers can head to the 'Awards and Upgrades' tab to get things moving, before keying in the details of their trip.

In our example, we're looking for an upgrade from Sydney (SYD) to Seoul (ICN) on or around November 14 2017. We're flexible with our dates, so we're going to change the 'exact date' option to '+/- 3 days' to search across an entire week, before selecting 'Korean Air - KE' from the airline list, and checking the 'First - Award & Upgrade (A)' box, as we're hunting for first class upgrades.

You can save time later by searching for availability on your return flight by completing the 'return date' box, but to keep things simple, we're just going to search one-way, by clicking 'search'.

The next screen shows a list of possible flights. What we're looking for is a number in the 'seats' column greater than zero, as this indicates how many first class upgrades are available on that flight (zero meaning no upgrades are possible).

For example, on KE122 from Sydney to Seoul on November 11 2017, we found three first class upgrades available:

Repeating the search for Brisbane-Seoul flights on the same day, we can see that one first class upgrade is also available on flight KE124:

Upgrades can't be booked via ExpertFlyer – this simply helps you check whether they're available – but Korean Air Skypass members can instead call 02 9262 6000 within Australia (+61 2 9262 6000 from overseas) to request these.

Korean Air also permits mileage-based upgrades from a small number of SkyTeam frequent flyer programs, but typically, upgrades aren't available at all during peak times, and most of Korean Air's partner airlines don't have access to Korean's first class seats for upgrades or outright reward bookings (business class is okay, though), so we've not covered this approach.

If you're sitting on a bounty of SkyTeam miles, it certainly won't hurt to contact your frequent flyer program and ask what's possible, but be pleasantly surprised if an upgrade comes through rather than expecting it to happen and being disappointed when it doesn't.

One last thing: however you upgrade, you'll earn miles from your flight based on the fare type you originally booked and paid for, rather than at the higher first class rates. That's one thing your first class upgrade doesn't include!

Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

16 Oct 2017

Total posts 5

They dont fly to Melbourne....its annoying as a frequent flyer to Seoul

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Apr 2017

Total posts 133

I love Korean Air - their economy product is one of my favourites, and their business class is really nice too. Plus Seoul is a great airport to transit in.

But it’s not worth upgrading to first class, even on the 2.0 suites. There’s just not enough differentiation from the business product.

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