Introduction: Battle For South America — TAM vs. Korean

I’ve always wanted to try TAM first class, though unfortunately for the longest time it was completely unattainable on miles. Up until February I don’t think I saw a single first class award seat available to partner airlines ever. So as far as I was concerned they’d join my beloved Transaero as the two airlines I’d never have the chance to fly in first class.

That all changed in early February, when, for whatever reason, TAM opened up a ton of first class award space. Overnight they went from not releasing any first class award space whatsoever, to releasing virtually every available first class seat into award inventory.

I assumed it was a glitch, similar to the Singapore Airlines first & business class award glitch in July of 2012, or the Lufthansa first class award glitch between Toronto and Munich in November of 2013.

But I guess that’s not the case, because TAM is still releasing a ton of first class award space, for reasons I can’t quite wrap my head around.

A majority of flights with seats for sale also have award seats available, and in many cases all seats in the cabin are available for awards (keep in mind TAM’s first class cabins have just four seats, which is the smallest of any airline I know of).

TAM-Award-Space-41 TAM-Award-Space-42

I mean, I’ve shared award reimbursement rates between airlines in the past, and they don’t give airlines much of an incentive to release premium cabin award space, to put it lightly. But I’m certainly not complaining. 😉

Unfortunately when planning this trip I didn’t actually have a very big window in which I could travel. I’ll be moving into hotels full time in a couple of weeks, so didn’t really have time to take a long trip to South America as I’ve been wanting to do. Beyond that, I promised that I would visit my parents in Florida before I moved. So in the end I decided to just book a one night trip to Sao Paulo to review a couple of new first class products.

Booking the award ticket

While I had considered flying TAM in both directions, I figured it would be more fun to try Korean Air’s fifth freedom service between Los Angeles and Sao Paulo on the outbound instead. I’ll explain the logic of each segment below, but upfront here’s what my routing looked like:

03/21 KE61 Los Angeles to Sao Paulo departing 6:40PM arriving 11:25AM (+1 day)
03/23 JJ8082 Sao Paulo to New York departing 9:20AM arriving 6:05PM
03/29 CX889 New York to Vancouver departing 9:55PM arriving 12:45AM (+1 day)
03/30 AS2233 Vancouver to Seattle departing 4:55PM arriving 5:45PM


Outbound: Korean Air First Class 777-300ER Los Angeles to Sao Paulo
Cost: 70,000 Korean Air SkyPass miles + $120.90 taxes/fuel surcharges

In January I flew Korean Air A380 first class from Seoul Incheon to Los Angeles. I was blown away by their product. I always assumed Korean Air was style over substance, but the soft product was one of the best I’ve had on any airline.

The hard product was solid as well, though definitely not cutting edge.

Korean Air first class

So I really wanted to fly Korean Air, not just to see if they were actually consistently as good as I experienced on my first flight with them, but also to see how the 777-300ER first class cabin compared to the A380 first class cabin.

What makes Korean Air between Los Angeles and Sao Paulo so awesome?

  • Korean Air (probably) offers the best first class product between the US and South America. For the most part airlines flying between the US and South America are pretty lackluster, so I’m fairly certain this is the best first class product flying between the US and South America. Of course the only way to find out for sure is to test it!
  • First class award space on the route is phenomenal. Korean Air SkyPass fairly consistently releases 2-3 first class award seats per flight on this route.
  • Korean Air SkyPass is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. Chase Ultimate Rewards points are one of the easiest credit card points currencies for US based members to rack up.
  • Korean Air SkyPass has very reasonable redemption rates between Los Angeles and Sao Paulo. They charge just 70,000 SkyPass miles for a one-way in first class, which is pretty darn good given what a great product it is and how great award availability is.


I ended up booking this award ticket through Korean Air’s website, so in the next post will outline that process. In the meantime check out my post on redeeming Korean Air SkyPass miles for more information on the booking process and generally archaic rules they have.

Return (Part 1): TAM 777-300ER First Class Sao Paulo to New York
Cost: 62,500 American AAdvantage miles + $90.40 taxes

TAM is in a unique situation in that they left the Star Alliance on March 30 and joined OneWorld on March 31, 2014, as a result of their merger with LAN.

So I decided to redeem American miles since they charge just 62,500 AAdvantage miles for a one-way first class ticket. The added benefit is that they allow a stopover at the North American gateway city on an award, which brings me to my favorite North American fifth freedom route…

TAM 777-300ER first class

Return (Part 2): Cathay Pacific 777-300ER First Class New York to Vancouver
Cost: 62,500 American AAdvantage miles + $90.40 taxes

I love the fact that Cathay Pacific flies between New York and Vancouver. And I love how close Seattle is to Vancouver. And I love how American lets you do a stopover at the North American gateway city on a one-way award. This worked out ideally, since I wanted to visit my parents in Tampa. So I booked a seven day stopover in New York, and then booked a roundtrip revenue ticket on American between New York and Tampa so that I could visit my parents.

I’ve flown the New York to Vancouver route before and enjoyed it, but what made this segment special is that it was operated by a 777-300ER with Cathay Pacific’s refreshed first class product.

Cathay Pacific 777-300ER first class

It’s hands down the most comfortable flight within North America, and the only one that serves Krug, for that matter.

Krug in Cathay Pacific first class

Lodging in Sao Paulo

I had under 24 hours in Sao Paulo, so given traffic in the city I decided to just stay near the airport. Last time I had a layover there I stayed at the Hotel Caesar Park Sao Paulo Airport, which I quite enjoyed. To mix things up I decided to stay at the Marriott Sao Paulo Airport this time instead.

Lodging in New York

During my seven day New York “layover” I ended up spending two nights in New York and five nights in Florida. In New York I almost always book the Andaz Wall Street or Andaz 5th Avenue, which are my two “go to” hotels in the city. However, Hyatt’s footprint in New York is growing like crazy lately, so I decided to check out the new Hyatt Union Square for a night, followed by the new Hyatt Times Square the following night.

Lodging in Vancouver

On the return I also had one night in Vancouver, so decided to check out the Fairmont Waterfront, which I booked through American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts. The rate was just $180 and that included complimentary breakfast, a $100 food and beverage credit, guaranteed 4PM late check-out, and a room upgrade, so was quite a steal.

I’ll be posting one installment per day, so stay tuned! And of course if you have any questions, let me know in the comments section and I’ll do my best to help. Thanks for reading!

(In the interest of full disclosure, I earn a referral bonus for anyone approved through some of the above links. Thanks for your support!)

Filed Under: Travel
  1. @ Lucky – considering spending some time in Victoria and Vancouver when I come up to Seattle for FTU so was also looking at Fairmont though FHR. What’s your general verdict — is that a good option for 1-2 nights or should I consider one of SPG properties on points instead?

  2. @ Ivan Y — The Fairmont properties through FHR are a phenomenal choice in Vancouver and Victoria. I would absolutely stay there. I just did the Fairmont Waterfront and will be doing the Fairmont Pacific Rim shortly, so expect reviews of those coming up. But I’d do Fairmont over SPG there.

  3. @ Lucky – thank you! Is Fairmont Express in Victoria available through FHR if I call in? Not showing up on the site.

    For Victoria I was actually thinking of Westin Bear Mountain which seems to have very nice reviews and pretty low rates ($ or points – just Category 3).

  4. @ Ivan Y — It’s not part of FHR though it is part of Virtuoso.

    Not actually familiar with the Westin Bear Mountain, though looks beautiful!

  5. Hmm, so you believe that Korean’s offering to South America is better than American’s new first class on the 777-300ER?

    Looking fwd to the report, esp to see how Cathay’s newish product has changed and TAM’s product.

  6. And, apart from that, why don’t you ever review the Alaska leg? Unlike when you usually omit reviewing Delta or American domestic non-transcontinental business class since you’ve reviewed it many times in the past, you’ve never reviewed Alaska Airlines on One Mile At A Time. Apart from that, looking forward to your trip report. 🙂

  7. @ Lucky – As many as you can (usually you sometimes cram in 2 installments per day)? I like your trip reports, but (I may be biased, since there’s pretty much nothing interesting for me to do besides reading/writing trip reports) they seem to come slightly slowly. That said, I’m really looking forward to your trip reports. 🙂

  8. @Ben,

    I have the same question as Euro above: You feel that the Korean Air product to GRU is better than the new AA 1st class product? I haven’t flown either one, but from trip reports and pictures, to me it appears that AA has the upper hand (in particular the hard product.)

  9. I would bet that anyone who thinks AA F could possibly be better than KE F has never experienced Korean service.

    I would opt for KE (or OZ) ten times out of ten over any US carrier.

  10. @ Coutureguy @ Euro — At the end of the day I think a top Asian carrier beats a US carrier hands down when it comes to service and food. The hard product is great on both. Korean has an upper hand on the bedding, while the “shell” of American’s seat might be marginally better.

  11. @Lucky: You’re searching for JFK-YVR award space on BA right? There’s not a lot of it in first or am I doing sth. wrong?

  12. @ Tobias — Yes, I searched on They don’t release all that much space in advance, but within a couple of weeks of departure they release quite a lot of award space.

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