This is part 1 of a 2-part review chronicling my return flight from Tokyo back to the U.S. this past April.
Although Korean Airlines operates 5 flights a day from Tokyo to Incheon, there are significant considerations to make regarding which flight to pick.
First of all, all but one of the Korean Airlines flights to Eastern North America (Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and Washington DC) depart Incheon at 10am +/- 1 hour. The one exception is the red eye Incheon to NY JFK flight that departs at 7:30pm. So if you are trying to get to say Atlanta or Chicago from Tokyo via Seoul without having to do an overnight layover in Korea, your only option out of Tokyo is the 6:20am flight out of Tokyo Haneda.
The Haneda –> Incheon flight is operated on a Boeing 737 with a reclining business class seat with no first class. So you’d be paying first class mileage but flying business class. It being a 6:20am flight, you more or less have to stay at an airport hotel at Haneda to make this flight. So it’s not ideal.
The other 4 flights out of Tokyo Narita all arrive in Seoul around noon or later, so your only option to the East Coast becomes the 7:30pm flight to NY JFK. Although that flight is attractive since it’s on Korean Airline’s brand new Boeing 747-8 with their new Kosmo Suite 2.0 first class suites, there aren’t any flights out of JFK back to my home airport in Columbus, OH that late… so I’d need to do an overnight in New York.
If you are headed to the west coast of North America, all of the flight from Incheon to LA, San Francisco, and Vancouver depart in the early evening… so your connection out of Tokyo becomes much more flexible.
Ultimately, I opted to do an overnight layover in Incheon. Since I’d never been to Seoul before, I took the 9:25am flight out of Tokyo Narita on Korean Airline’s Boeing 777-200, arriving at Seoul Incheon a little before noon. This aircraft is in my opinion your best option between Tokyo and Seoul, as it has lie-flat first class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. My plan was to have half a day to tour Seoul before I headed back to Incheon to spend the night at the Grand Hyatt Incheon.
Of the other 3 flights between Narita and Incheon, the 12:50pm flight is also on a Boeing 777-200 while the 2pm and 5pm flights are on a smaller Airbus A330 with lie flat seats in a 2-2-2 configuration.
How I Booked This Flight
I transferred 80,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points from my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card to Korean Airlines SkyPass to book both legs of my flights in first class from Tokyo Narita to Seoul Incheon and then from Seoul Incheon to New York JFK on their 10am Airbus A380 flight. The fact that I had a 23-hour layover in Seoul was not an issues at all, from a ticketing standpoint.
Korean Airline’s award chart groups South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan all into the same zone. So you can fly one-way in first class from any of those countries to the U.S. for 80,000 miles. Korean Airlines has one of the most generous award seat availability in the industry, so there’s a pretty good chance you can snag a premium cabin seat using miles on the day that you want, +/- 1 day.
The small downside is that all flights route through Seoul. Korean Airlines does not fly, for example, directly from Tokyo the U.S.
Not only does Korean Airlines have excellent award seat availability, they allow complementary award ticket holds that are good for 1 whole month! Just look up award seat availability on Korean Airline’s website, call their phone agent, and request to put your itinerary on hold. You don’t even need to have the required miles in your SkyPass account to place the hold. So what I typically do is I would call to place the tickets on hold, take some time confirming that this is in fact the itinerary that I want to take, then at a later date, I can transfer Chase points into my SkyPass Account, and then actually pay for the ticket.
As Korean Airlines is a part of the Skyteam alliance with Delta Airlines, you technically can use your Delta Skymiles for an award ticket on a Korean Airlines flight. HOWEVER. The pool of award seats available to those booking using Delta miles is exponentially smaller. Also, since Delta does not offer international first class in their fleet, international first class seats on Korean Airlines are off-limits to those trying to use their Delta miles. That and Delta charges 80k miles or more each way for their DeltaOne (business class) seats while Korean Airlines charges 80k miles each way for first class… No wonder some people call Delta miles “Skypesos!”
The Ground Experience
I first made the mistake of arriving too early at Narita. I arrived around 6:50am for my 9:20am flight, only to find that the Korean Airlines check-in counter doesn’t open until 7:15am-ish. Oops. Fortunately, the check-in was quick and I had access to the SkyPriority security line where there was no wait.
When flying out on Korean Airlines first class out of Tokyo Narita Airport, you have access to either the Korean Airlines lounge or the Delta SkyClub in Terminal 1, North Wing. I’ve been to the Delta SkyClub several times before, so I was excited to check out the Korean Airlines lounge. However, the First Class lounge was just a roped off, curtained off section of the regular business class lounge. Aside from having a great view of the tarmac where I got to see a Delta 747-400 and the ANA Star Wars BB8 777-300ER, the lounge wasn’t that amazing. Although the Korean Airlines lounge was less crowded than the Delta SkyClub at Narita, the SkyClub is roomier with a better selection of food and drinks.
My flight from Tokyo Narita to Seoul Incheon, as mentioned earlier, was on Korean Airline’s Boeing 777-200ER. The first class cabin featured 8 Kosmo Sleeper lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 configuration across 2 rows. There were only 2 first class passengers on this flight, including myself. As the other passenger sat on the opposite end of the cabin from me, it felt like I had the entire cabin to myself! Although the Kosmo Sleeper is technically Korean Airline’s previous-generation first class seat (as the Kosmo Suite and Kosmo Suite 2.0 are the most up-to-date first class seats in their fleet), things don’t get much better than this on a 2.5 hour flight!
The In-Flight Service
Korean Airlines apparently doesn’t serve alcohol on the ground, so I was presented with a glass of water and some macadamia nuts prior to departure.
After take-off and reaching cruising altitude, I was presented with a meal menu for their brunch service. I chose the bi bim bap option.
They also presented me with their wine list. Unfortunately, Korean Airlines apparently uses the same wine list on all of their international routes. As some of the bottles are route-specific, not all the bottles listed on the list were actually available on this flight. In fact, none of the Perrier-Jouet champagnes were loaded onto this particular flight. #FirstWorldProblems
Right as the meal service was about to begin, I gazed out of my window and caught sight of this amazing view of Mount Fuji! Weather permitting, you should be able to see Mount Fuji out of the left side of the aircraft (to your left as you sit in the aircraft) on the Tokyo-Seoul route. My seat (1A) was perfect for that purpose. I’ve read elsewhere that Japan Airlines actually has a website where they will tell you which side of the aircraft to sit on to get a glimpse of Mount Fuji, based on your flight route!
The meal service followed, where I had some bi bim bap, a fruit plate, and a glass of Chateau La Gaffeliere 2007 (retails for ~$60 on the ground). This was followed by some coffee and a can of Coca-Cola Lite. I’d like to point out again that this all happened on a 2.5 hour flight! Within the continental U.S., that’s like a flight between New York and Atlanta. Why can’t we get amazing service like this from American carriers?
And before I knew it, we were landing at Seoul Incheon International Airport. On my way off the airplane, I finally managed to snag these photos of the aircraft.
I also caught sight of one of Korean Airline’s behemoth Airbus A380’s that I was scheduled to take the following day.
The flight that I took the following day on Korean Airline’s A380 to New York definitely blew this flight away. But really, short-haul flights don’t get much better than this… unless you’re flying one of the ME3 (Emirate/Etihad/Qatar) airlines. I’ve booked this exact same flight again with my wife next spring, and can’t wait to fly Korean Airlines again!