Lucky loves Ultimate Rewards points for the ultimate aspirational award…

…on Saudi Arabian Airlines. Hear me out.

I know you were thinking I was going to point out the “usual” good uses of Ultimate Rewards points like 22,000 points for a night at the Park Hyatt Tokyo or 70,000 points for Lufthansa first class from New York to Frankfurt to Singapore. But nope, I’ve done those, and I’m looking for a different type of aspirational award. Though perhaps it’s not aspirational as much as I’m just taking one for the team.

When I first started collecting Ultimate Rewards points I figured the only two “useful” transfer partners were Hyatt and United. While they have lots of other partners, the points currencies of those partner programs aren’t as valuable, in my opinion.

But I enjoy trying a new airline product that may very well be awful for the sake of exciting you guys, as much as I enjoy flying Lufthansa, Asiana, or Thai first class, all of which are products that I’m very familiar with.

That’s why I’ve increasingly been intrigued by Korean Air’s SkyPass program, which is also transfer partners with Ultimate Rewards.

Yeah, you don’t have to tell me, I know. If this whole blogging gig doesn’t work out I have a career as a graphic designer. 😉

Korean Air is part of SkyTeam, which Delta belongs to as well. When it comes to redeeming for coach and business class travel, booking through Delta SkyMiles is almost always a better deal. They typically have lower redemption rates and in many cases no fuel surcharges. Furthermore, Delta is transfer partners with American Express Membership Rewards, and I value a Membership Rewards point less than I value an Ultimate Rewards points. One of the (many) weaknesses of the program is that it’s not possible to redeem SkyMiles for international first class travel. The reason is that since Delta doesn’t have an international first class cabin, they can’t claim award seats in first class on their partners.

But the beauty of Korean Air’s SkyPass program is that you can also redeem miles for first class on Korean Air and many of their partners.

Here’s Korean Air’s award chart for travel on Korean Air (prices are roundtrip):

As you can see, first class from the US to Japan or Northeast Asia would run you only 80,000 miles one way. Given how excellent award availability is, that’s an amazing bargain (though keep in mind there are blackout dates).

For example, there’s plenty of award space from New York to Hong Kong via Seoul Incheon in Airbus 380 first class the whole way for just 80,000 miles (and available can easily be searched on ExpertFlyer):

But Korean Air has plenty of other airline partners, including the following:

A couple of those immediately jump out to me as being interesting due to their first class products.

One of those is China Southern, because they’re taking delivery of their first Airbus 380 and operating it on the Los Angeles to Guangzhou route starting in October. They have only eight first class seats and award space is wide open, so it’s also quite tempting to fly with them.

Per Korean Air’s partner award chart, that redemption would cost 80,000 miles one-way in first class:

Okay, for those of you that think redeeming miles for China Southern first class is a waste when they could be redeemed for Lufthansa first class, stop reading now. Seriously.

Over the weekend I was emailing back and forth with Gary, and I think he may have very well baited me, much like my good friends in Bangkok, Shanghai, and Kuala Lumpur. I suspect he’s still miffed over how right I was with my valuation of Hilton points. 😉

He mentioned in passing how tempted he was to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Korean Air in order to book Saudi Arabian first class. Admittedly my sarcasm detector was probably a bit screwy or he was just baiting me, but it sounded like a… brilliant idea!

Not only is Saudi Arabian a dry airline (as long as Diet Coke is on tap that’s fine by me!), but I can’t find a single trip report on them. Let me take that a step further — I can’t even find a single picture of their first class product. Or of their lounge. Or of anything. Perhaps that’s for good reason, but I’m always up for a bit of fun. They have a ridiculous amount of award space as well, and on some dates release seven first class award seats on their Washington to Riyadh flight (which makes me wonder how many seats are in first class, since I can’t find a seatmap online).

This redemption would also cost 80,000 miles one-way, and I’m thinking of making my final destination either Bahrain or Amman.

What do you guys think? Am I entirely nuts for even thinking of redeeming 80,000 miles for Saudi Arabian first class? I like to run this blog pretty democratically, so I’ve created a scientific, objective poll below, and will go with whatever answer the majority of you choose:

[poll id=”18″]

All kidding aside, I actually would consider giving them a shot if it interested you guys. Assuming I don’t end up in Saudi Arabian prison for taking pictures or requesting my nuts be warmed…

Filed Under: Advice, Awards
  1. GO FOR IT BEN!! I have always wanted to see what Saudia’s service is like…I know the coach service is awesome and you get almost first class food. So what if its a dry airline? Everything else will make up for it.

  2. @ awardtravelconsulting — Saw that as well though they’re so tiny that they might as well not be there. They also show the same seat for first and business class, no?

  3. As someone who often has visa requirements that I have to comply with (even for countries like Japan & the Uk!) my motto is that if they’ll let u in, then go. And getting there in style won’t hurt. Bring on the trip report!

  4. Go for it. There is a lot of money in Saudi Arabia, it could be the best flight you’ve ever been on.

    I’ve never been to Bahrain, but Amman is nice and close enough to Petra if you haven’t popped down to see that before. Highly recommend.

  5. Can you connect with them to somewhere if you don’t get a visa? I was on a flight from DXB once with an american who lived there and SHE loved it!

  6. The 772LR should be a nice product in all classes, staffed with expat crew. The F & C crowd will be tough though, a lot of clichees about wealthy Saudis out there, most of it true. But then you know the DYKWIA UA1K crowd flying LH F, so no worries :p

  7. Lucky,

    Are you sure that there are blackouts using KE miles on KE metal?

    One thing you don’t talk about when it comes to KE award costs is that there seems to be a high/low season. It’s during KE high season that Skymiles (Delta) blacks out awards on KE metal. (The DL blackout dates are the same as KE high season.)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t you be able to redeem KE miles on any date, you just have to pay a surcharge to do that?

  8. I’d personally be more interested in seeing a trip report in J since we can easily access that inventory with DL but F would be interesting as well.

  9. You should do it, especially since there are no trip reports already. However I would suggest you transit to a more intresting destination. Perhaps somewhere on the sub-continent?
    no visa needed for transit

  10. That product looks surprisingly mediocre compared to all the Gulf competition. Maybe rich Saudis all fly private?

  11. Be careful. if you have been to Israel or parts of Jordan that would require you to go through Israel, they won’t even let you in.

  12. Here’s my trip report on flying SV J for LHR-RUH-LHR last may:

    I’m pretty sure they have flat beds in F. Just angled flat in J. The J service is pretty dreadful compared to MH, KE, AF, and even DL (the full list of carriers whose long-haul J products I’ve experienced).

    There are no pictures of lounges because of how hyper-sensitive Saudis are about photography. The lounge in RUH is nothing special (better food than domestic lounges, but that’s not saying much).

  13. On the FT Delta forum there is a thread with some discussion of Saudi and some limited experiences with the airline, connecting in and arriving in KSA.

    Personally I wouldn’t want redeem my miles to support a state supported airline from a country with such barbaric, misognynistic and discriminatory laws and practices – no matter the novelty of it. BUt to each his own.

  14. Ranking is reviewed annually. Rankings are applied following detailed Quality analysis of front-line standards by SKYTRAX. Rankings do not have any association with trip reports / traveller assessments that you will find in the consumer areas of our web site.

    QUALITY APPROVED AIRLINE STATUS : Tuesday August 21, 2012

    Saudi Arabian Airlines is a NOT Quality Approved Airline

    Go fly emirates…

  15. I think you should go. I want to hear the story later down the line how you got detained trying to track down a Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight Attendant 🙂

  16. I can barely fly from JFK to BOS without a drink so Saudi is impossible. That being said, I would be interested to read a report.

  17. I’d encourage you to try and fly on as many new or rarely trip-reported airlines as possible. I guarantee you’ll win over readers even more if you can begin delivering this type of unique content. The reports on the same old airlines are getting a bit tired.

  18. Honestly, I’m at best mildly interested. I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d want to redeem a whole bunch of miles to fly a dry airline in first class, so a trip report on Saudia would only be a curiosity.

  19. SV is horrible and Saudi Arabia is worse. My worst airport experience was a transit from EY to BA in RUH where I couldn’t tell whether I was going to be abandoned or arrested by the lazy, entitled Saudi CBP. For what it’s worth TWOV is supposed to be way easier on SV connections since they joined SkyTeam. My hottest day ever was on an earlier trip to Riyadh that surpassed 47 C.

    Regardless, I actually had an interesting time in Riyadh and recommend you look into getting a transit visa (easy process) and stop over for a night. The Hilton Garden Inn Olaya is an okay propert but they treated me very well back then when I was a HH Gold. When I arrived at 8am they apologized that my room wasn’t ready, gave me free breakfast, and had it ready at 8:30. Then they gave me 6pm late checkout the next day, all on one ~$160 night. There’s a really cool British FTer who lives in Riyadh and he showed me around, email me for his handle.

  20. @ DKP — You can’t redeem Korean Air miles for travel on Emirates out of the US (though you can in other markets).

  21. I don’t have any miles in my skypass account. But when I try booking one-way award tickets from US to China/Korea in first class, the popup message says I need 70,000 miles to continue. Just curious it’s 70k or 80k?

  22. I bet you’d get arrested if you ask a male flight attendant to warm up your nuts… they are very sensitive about man-on-man action in that part of the world.
    If you ask a female… you may get Lucky!

  23. I could care less if you fly Saudi Arabian. What your post did was shake up my thinking. I am a Delta Diamond and I can’t fly anywhere in international First Class. What you pointed out is that I can basically get Skyteam International First Class through the Chase/Korean connection [I have lots of UR points]. So why am I not going after top status with AA or UAL and have access to everyone’s First Class?

  24. Is Hawaiian a partner only fron intra-island flights or could you redeem awards from the mainland US down to Australia and NZ?

  25. I’d be scared to just transit in Saudi Arabia, but you may be too if you were both gay and Jewish. Lol

  26. I say go for it Ben, but I thought you thought some of your past Middle East trips, such as Doha and UAE, were a little bit boring?

  27. Funny — I’ve been living in Saudi for the past year and was just trying to figure out a trip back to the States using miles. If you do wind up booking this and transiting through RUH or just want more info about Riyadh let me know — I’ll gladly show you around town if you do make it. If you want to make it truly aspirational you should stay at the Ritz

  28. I’ll admit that I’m rather torn between my curiosity of seeing what a rarely reported airline is like on the inside and a conscience that would not want to help support a state as socially backward as Saudi Arabia. I’m honestly surprised you’d select them considering how they might treat you if you were completely open with how you live your life. Why would anyone want to reward state sanctioned bigotry? I think I’ll go with my conscience on this one. On the other hand, if you do decide to go I’ll still read it anyway. 😉

  29. I looked too. KA looks like Thai Business class and SAA looks even less impressive. Finding something, very cool. This however… Not so sure. But on the other hand – if it is cool, you would be the first among us to know.

  30. has at least half a dozen TRs on Saudi Arabian Airlines. Just search for them. Some of them are domestic reports.

    If you are going to fly, Lucky, don’t fly to Jeddah (horrible airport), though Jeddah is a nice city by Saudi standards, and if you are into diving, it’s great since it’s on the Red Sea.

    If you want to really be adventurous, fly to Dammam and then drive an hour or so to Bahrain…

  31. For someone who didn’t like Qatar…I can’t imagine you’d like Saudi Arabia.
    Depending if you just stay in transit at the airport or want to visit the city – I’d actually recommend Jeddah – much better as a start than Riyadh. I’d also offer to show you around in Jeddah.

  32. For differences between business and first: Make sure you don’t end up on an old 747. The new 777s have a much better business and first. Also an philippine cabin crew is better than the moroccoan one. For the flight deck its mostly expat on the 777 anyway.

  33. @Carberrie

    I didn’t worry about being gay in Riyadh, but I wouldn’t go if I were Jewish. Obviously I wouldn’t go with a boyfriend or try to pick anyone up.


    Plenty of people and legislators hate gays here in America too. We may not execute people for it, but we aren’t the most gay friendly county either 🙁

  34. @BrewerSEA, @Carberrie I wasn’t worried about being gay in Riyadh during my week there, either. I was joined by a female Jewish colleague who didn’t have any problems either. She did have another man in our group who acted as her “husband” (since her actual husband was not there) when out in public, and her surname is not Jewish (Her real husband is British.), so it was not obvious that she’s Jewish.

  35. “The reason is that since Delta doesn’t have an international first class cabin, they can’t claim award seats in first class on their partners.”

    This logic doesn’t make sense and is incorrect. Delta may not have international first class, but this isn’t WHY you can’t book partner F with miles. They just don’t let you do it.

    By this logic you wouldn’t be able to get international F with US miles, AS miles, or pre-merger CO miles, for example. Just saying, its not an “if, then.”

  36. “Personally I wouldn’t want redeem my miles to support a state supported airline from a country with such barbaric, misognynistic and discriminatory laws and practices – no matter the novelty of it. BUt to each his own.”

    @ Erik – Couldn’t agree more!

    As I get older I only want to spend money in countries or states where equality for all is recognized.

  37. Lucky
    Can I use them to book an emirates flight From Moscow to Cairo /- I couldn’t get it to work online thanks

  38. @Alex There is widespread speculation that there is a rule in SkyTeam that to allow for international F redemptions on partners, your carrier must offer an international F cabin. Thus, DL cannot redeem for international F. The situation with FlyingBlue is interesting, since F awards on AF are only available to FlyingBlue elites as flex awards. To the best of my knowledge, FlyingBlue members cannot redeem for F awards on other SkyTeam members.

  39. @aeroman380 and equal marriage is supported by all states of the US? Guess you can’t spend money there then!

  40. I welcome any trip report, but the odds of NA pax flying Saudi is too slim to be really useful, so I vote NO and would vote YES for Korean Air instead

  41. Go for it 🙂 I’m really looking forward to a Saudia trip report. They do permit TWOV at RUH and JED, as I’m sure you already know, so just make sure your departure is within 18 hours of your arrival and you’re set! Just don’t expect to leave the airport to check out the Faisaliah.

    I spent part of my childhood in Saudi Arabia actually. My family and I flew out on Saudia First (from what I was told, I was pretty young at the time, in the mid 90s) en route back to Canada. From what I was told at the time it was cheaper to buy up to F than pay the excess baggage fees. Expats tend to have a lot bags, I guess.

  42. @lucky As for where your ultimate destination is, I’d recommend Lebanon or Jordan. My family and I visited those two countries + Syria a few years back, when Syria was a bit more stable. Jordan and Petra are a big +1 recommendation from me.

  43. @ Amit — Unfortunately not. There are only select markets in which you can redeem for Emirates first class, and that’s not one of them.

  44. If you wanted to use Ultimate rewards to travel to Sydney from the US in business how who would you target for that?

  45. @Lucky: I’m a bit curious as to why you think redeeming coach/business on Delta Skymiles would be a better deal than on Korean Air Skypass. At least from the US, by the looks of the award chart most Korean Air award tickets cost the same number or fewer miles than Delta tickets at the “low” cost level, and they’re almost always cheaper than at Delta’s “medium” cost level. Except for most trips to Asia, ironically where low-level Delta tickets cost less.

    Are there fuel surcharges, rule and availability restrictions that would make Korean Air Skypass miles even less valuable than Delta Skymiles? Or is every other day considered “peak”?

    I’m a bit torn on whether to go for the Saudia redemption… I’d say if there are sights you think are worth visiting in Saudi Arabia and you are comfortable with going there, sure. If you have doubts about going to Saudi Arabia, do they have any fifth freedom flights? I’m all for seeing trip reports from airlines that aren’t reviewed as often. Cheering to see a China Eastern/Southern long-haul report myself.

  46. Hi Lucky;

    Is their Kosmos Suites Class a true suite like the SQ suites?

    Any Lucky KE trip reports that you could link to? Thanks!

  47. @ Alex. You are right. Good thing I don’t live in the states! If I did it would be in Iowa…well, if I REALLY had to. haha. otherwise it would be CA,
    CT, DC, MA, NH, NY, VT, Coquille, Suquamish, MD, RI or WA.

  48. Why Saudi Arabian(Given the above comments). 9W has dom, even in J. F TR likned- he likes it better than CX

  49. Was intrigued by this – “70,000 points for Lufthansa first class from New York to Frankfurt to Singapore”

    Could you elaborate some more? Does that mean 70000 Ultimate Rewards points? One way? Round trip? Or did you mean *A miles?

    I’m considering trip options from SFO-BOM (which is usually 120k in business class on Star Alliance, 160k in first).


  50. @ Okay — I would even redeem miles for business class on Jet, though I haven’t been able to find any longhaul premium cabin award space on them lately.

  51. @ Nash D — Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to United, and they charge 70,000 miles for a one-way first class award ticket from the US to Asia (and you can transit Europe if you’d like). The prices you’re quoting for Mumbai are indeed the cheapest available.

  52. Lucky- Can I ask for your expertise in regards to redeeming Ultimate rewards for an award trip to the Maldives. I looked at Cathay and Singapore but both will take forever and a day given the flight times that are available for the months I can travel. I’d appreciate any additional thoughts on some of those more obscure airlines that you mentioned.

  53. @ Euro — The main reason is because Ultimate Rewards points are significantly more valuable than Delta SkyMiles or American Express Membership Rewards points, at least in my opinion. So even if the costs were the same, the opportunity cost of an Ultimate Rewards point is that much higher.

  54. @ John — If you can make a booking before September 15 I highly recommend transferring to United and booking Qatar Airways, as their relationship with United ends in September. They have one stop service from the US to Male, which is as direct as it gets.

  55. @Sam

    What is that supposed to mean?

    Oddly enough, a disproportionately large number of FTers are gay, just look in the GLBT forum and see how many names you recognize.

  56. Lucky, are you sure you can use KE miles to redeem CZ F? From what I know KE can only redeem their F and so does CZ.

  57. @ John — It can be anytime within ~11 months of that date (as far as the schedule is open).

    @ Pablo — Not 100% sure though that was my understanding. I’ll do some more research and let you know.

  58. @John: Turkish Airlines is starting service to
    Male, Maldives (MLE) on 24 November 2012 (5 times weekly). Economy + Business only and a little bit tricky to get business class award space on TK. TK has nonstop services from the US to Istanbul..where you could connect nonstop to MLE. And they do fly A330..instead Qatar’s A320.

  59. @John: So TK is an idea for Star Alliance/ UA Miles. For Oneworld and AA Miles…there is still EY (Etihad) via Abu Dhabi.

  60. @BrewserSEA:

    It’s interesting how many people interested in airlines/air travel are LGBT, I would say about a third of my close gay friends (including myself obviously) are regular FT/Airliners/Boardingarea readers…

  61. @ hosax — Are you sure about that? Can you combine partners on a roundtrip, or it has to be a single partner for a roundtrip?

  62. @ hosax — Good to know, thanks! Guess I’ll be booking a roundtrip with travel in one direction on Korean Air and one direction on China Southern then.

  63. If you want redeem korean air with airline partners award program(i.e. skyteam award), I think you have to check the korean air peak season chart.
    korean air peak seasons = korean air blackout dates

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