I’m leaving shortly on a bit of a last-minute trip to Europe. The planning theoretically started several months ago, when I locked in a British Airways A380 first class award seat. British Airways is pretty stingy with first class award space on the A380, so when I saw the space several months back I figured I might as well lock it in, as I could always cancel or change it for free due to my British Airways Gold status.
I was also hoping to get creative with the outbound flight and try a new airline. One of my goals is to try every A380 first class product (so far I’ve done Emirates, Lufthansa, Malaysia, Qantas, Thai, and Singapore), and the only A380 first class product that’s truly not efficiently attainable on miles is Air France first class, which is ironic since it’s probably also the least impressive first class product any airline has on the A380.
Up until June the only way to redeem miles for Air France first class was to both be an elite member in the FlyingBlue program and redeem at the “flex” award price, as they didn’t release saver/”classic” award space in first class. In June they eased up on the elite restriction by allowing all FlyingBlue members to redeem for first class, though also raised the award costs further, with one way first class between the US and Europe increasing in cost from 125,000 miles to 162,500 miles. However, if you book before the end of the year, Air France will still honor the old award rates, so you can book first class as a non-elite member at the old price of 125,000 miles one-way.
So I decided to book the Air France A380 in first class. Now this is outrageously expensive, though I had a few reasons I wanted to try their first class anyway:
- I really do want to try every A380 first class product for review purposes, and with the price going up even further, I figured this was the best time to do so.
- There are very few reviews of Air France first class, and in particular of the Air France first class lounge in Paris, which actually looks quite nice… so I figured you guys would enjoy the review. Frankly nowadays I get more enjoyment out of trying an inferior product that I haven’t tried before and getting to share it with you guys, vs. flying a top-notch product over and over.
- Maybe first class isn’t actually that bad of a value at 125,000 miles one-way. I mean, these are “flex” awards, meaning as long as there’s a seat for sale in the “F” fare bucket you can redeem miles for it, so potentially you can book a family of eight (or whatever) in this product. After United’s award chart devaluation they’ll charge 110,000 miles one-way for partner first class to Europe, and that basically limits you to Lufthansa’s sparse first class availability within 15 days of departure. So being able to lock in so many seats so far out through Air France is worth something… right?
Anyway, my friend sjs had the idea for me to fly Air France first class to begin with, and was kind enough to share some tips with me, as he booked a couple of Air France first class awards within the past week. sjs is one the smartest guys I know, so I take what he says with whatever is the opposite of a grain of salt. His advice was:
- Skip the US call center and call the French call center
- Request they manually price the award under the old chart
- Don’t transfer the miles from American Express till they’re ready to issue the ticket
Now, while I trust what sjs says, I didn’t actually listen to him, since half of my motivation for booking awards is the “research” aspect of it. In the end the booking experience was perfectly pleasant… minus the fact that it took eight calls.
Finding Air France first class award space
First I went to ExpertFlyer.com to search Air France first class award space. Like I said, it’s really readily available. When searching you just select the “F” fare bucket.
Virtually every date was available. For example, the below flight has seven first class award seats (out of eight total seats for sale).
Then I just separately had to search availability for my flight from Paris to Frankfurt in business class, which was also readily available:
Booking Air France first class award space
My friend sjs had told me to not even bother with the US call center, though I did want to give it a try because I was curious what they’d say. I called three times, and was told each time that first class awards were only available to elite members.
Then it was off to the French call center. Over the next three hours I became intimately familiar with the FlyingBlue hold music, the Nouvelle Vague cover of “Making Plans for Nigel:”
And I found it to be a really fitting song, because they sure as hell weren’t Making Plans For Ben! I only started singing along on the third call. 😉
Anyway, on to the actual content of the calls. The first selection when calling the French number is to get an agent in English, so it was really easy to navigate even without speaking a word of French.
Across the board every agent I spoke to was outrageously friendly, which kind of surprised me. Here are how my five calls to the French call center went down:
Call #1: He found the award space easily and quoted me the number of miles needed. I requested the old award rates, which he immediately agreed to, so he placed me on hold so he could manually price the ticket. After 10 minutes on hold the call dropped (and it wasn’t on my end, since I have a really stable connection).
Call #2: Another friendly agent that quickly found the award space I was referencing. He was having some technical issues, and asked if he could place me on hold so he could go talk to his “mentor.” He put me on hold for roughly 15 minutes, at which point the call dropped. Crud!
Call #3: Another friendly agent that found the award space in no time. We entered all my personal information into the reservation, including passport information, so we got along further than on the first two calls. He quoted me the award rate, and I requested the old ratw. He said “yes of course, please just hold for a moment while I manually adjust the price.” Before I could ask him for a confirmation number he placed me on hold. After roughly 10 minutes the call dropped. CREPE!
Call #4: Agent immediately informs me that because I’m only an Ivory (non-elite) member I’m not allowed to book a first class award. I asked her to check with a supervisor, though within 30 seconds she came back and said she checked and that was in fact the policy. So I thanked her for her time and hang up.
Call #5: At this point I’m getting a bit nervous, because the FlyingBlue call center is closing in 15 minutes. So I’m feeling a bit like Avianca 52 (that crashed in New York because it literally ran dry — admittedly we’re talking about slightly different scales of severity here), because I knew this was my last “shot” at getting this booked. The agent was absolutely lovely, got everything on hold in no time, and this time around I even got a confirmation code before he had the chance to place me on hold. He gladly waited on the phone while I instantly transferred points from American Express Membership Rewards. I immediately received an email confirmation, and was able to select my seats online. Woohoo!
Bottom line for booking Air France first class award seats
While there’s no doubt Air France first class awards are overpriced for the “recreational” flyer, I’m happy to take one for the team and report back. 😉
While their awards are expensive, I do think there’s actually quite a bit of value in them. If you were to otherwise just pay for first class or have a large family you want to travel on the same flight in first class, it’s tough to beat Air France’s availability. While British Airways and Lufthansa both release a fair amount of first class award availability at the saver level, neither offers a “standard” award option. Beyond that, given that you can request the old award prices, you’re much better off locking in an Air France award before December 31, 2013
Can’t wait to report back on Air France’s first class product! For anyone that has flown Air France first class before, any tips for maximizing the experience?
PS: Now I can’t stop playing “Making Plans For Nigel” on repeat. Hmmm. Guess it’s better than Turkish’s hold music.