Flying to North Korea on Miles and Points…?!

A little bit ago, I went on a trip to North Korea. I debated long and hard about whether I wanted to give money to a country whose politics I don’t particularly agree with, but finally decided to make the trip out purely out of curiousity. (Selfish reason…it’d make for some good stories.) This post is not about that though.

I flew Air Koryo (perhaps bset known for being the world’s only one-star airline) from Beijing to Pyongyang, and flew back the same way on Air China. I will have a report on that up soon, once the current trip report/review series is completed.

Koryo aircraft parked at Pyongyang Airport

Koryo aircraft parked at Pyongyang Airport

A side note: North Korea doens’t like people calling them North Korea. They seem to lean towards the official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). You cannot visit North Korea the DPRK unaccompanied—whether you go by yourself or as a group, you must have two escorts with you at all times. There are actually quite a few companies that run group tours, and I booked with one that’s based in Beijing. They handled visa applications, itinerary planning, and most importantly (to the points + miles junkie mentality), hotels and flights.

North Korea is one of those destinations that you really want to tread carefully about, from planning to exiting the country. You could even be arrested just as you are boarding a plane to leave. With that in mind, I let the tour company handled all the bookings. The process got me thinking, though, is it technically possible to visit North Korea with points and miles?

Hotels

This is an easy one, so let’s get this out of the way. It’s basically a simple NO as far as points and miles go.

There are dedicated hotels for tourists in North Korea, and there are two particularly notable ones in Pyongyang. The Yanggakdo International Hotel, located on Yanggak Island, reportedly contains 1,000 rooms and is where most tourists stay. Ryugyong Hotel, also located in Pyongyang, is 105-story tall but has yet to be opened, even though its construction began way back in 1987.

Air Koryo

Only two airlines fly to/from North Korea: Air Koryo, the flag carrier of the DPRK, and Air China.

Air Koryo is out of the question. They are not in an alliance with anyone, they don’t partner with anyone, and they didn’t even have a website until a few years ago. It doesn’t appear that the airline accepts credit cards, even at their offices around the world (many located in cities they don’t fly to).

Air Koryo’s official website (http://airkoryo.com.kp) does advertise their fares, and you can theoretically book a ticket, though not in practice.

Air Koryo's Official Website

Air Koryo’s Official Website

Air Koryo Fares

Air Koryo Fares

Booking on Air Koryo's Website

Booking on Air Koryo’s Website

Air China

Star Alliance Partners

That leaves Air China, which flies to Pyongyang twice a week. Air China is part of Star Alliance, so in theory, you could use other alliance member’s miles to redeem for the ticket. That turns out not to be the case in practice. For example, the same redemption option shown on Air China’s website is absent in ExpertFlyer:

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 1.08.43 AM

Similarly, LifeMiles showed no availability for the flight.

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United does not even let you search awards to Pyongyang, returning with a “we don’t serve this destination” message.

Air China Phoenix Miles

How about redeeming directly from Air China? Air China actually does specifically mention Pyongyang in their award chart, and the redemption rates are as follows:

  • Economy: 25,000 Phoenix Miles one-way
  • Business: 53,000 Phoenix Miles one-way
  • First: 75,000 Phoenix Miles one-way
Air China Phoenix Miles Award Chart

Air China Phoenix Miles Award Chart

Interestingly though, I searched through the end of the schedule and couldn’t find a single award seat in Economy. I can’t imagine that many people are redeeming miles to Pyongyang, so it would appear Air China does not make Economy or Business award available on this route.  However, First Class seats were available on all dates. This is particularly curious, because Air China only operates a two-cabin 737 on this flight.

Air China Phoenix Miles Redemption to Pyongyang

Air China Phoenix Miles Redemption to Pyongyang

It costs 75,000 miles + $US100 in surcharges and taxes to fly one-way from Beijing to Pyongyang in First Class. 75,000 miles one-way for a two-hour seems to be a really bed use of miles to begin with. With a regional configuration, and tagging on the fees and surcharges, the value of this redemption is pretty poor.

For comparison, the cash fare to fly this same flight in Business Class is about US$909. That means you will essentially be getting a value of ~1 cent per mile.

Air China Beijing-Pyongyang Cash Fare

Air China Beijing-Pyongyang Cash Fare

Air China is a transfer partner with Starwood Preferred Guest, and you can transfer SPG points to Air China in a 1:1 ratio. Since you get 5,000 miles bonus every 20,000 SPG points you transfer, the one-way flight would cost you 60,000 SPG points. There are so many different and better ways to spend 60,000 SPG points. With that amount, you could fly First Class from the US to Europe.

Finally, this is the cost of a one-way flight, and I doubt anyone wants a one-way ticket to North Korea. Doubling the cost in points make this an exuberantly expensive redemption. I think it’s fair to say: while you could technically use points/miles to fly to North Korea, in reality, it’s simply not worth it.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this post is probably done more to satisfy curiosity over actual practicality, not unlike the trip to North Korea itself. Award travel to the DPRK is possible in theory, but not so much in practice. (Oh the irony…)

North Korea is just not a country you can book a flight to and simply show up at the airport. Their strict visa policy and unconventional application process, among many other things, make this more an experiment than anything else. Not to mention, the State Department does have an active travel warning for North Korea. But I guess that didn’t stop me after all.

Still, I have been thinking about whether there are counties that are impossible to fly to on miles and points, and now I will have to cross North Korea off that list!

Have you redeemed miles to North Korea or other unusual destinations?

Comments

    • Why does it matter how the points are named?
      You accumulate x points per flight (based on distance or cost), and when you accumulated yyyyy points, you get a free (+tax) ticket. Every single airline gives you different rates for both accrual and redemption, so you cannot even compare “miles” from two companies.

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