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Born in Seoul and raised in and around Chicago, Han likes to escape the Midwest whenever he can. His favorite destinations—and frequent subjects of conversation—are New York City, Las Vegas, and Macau. He is usually cooking up trips with points and miles that combine his interests in film, design, architecture, fine dining, gambling, and baseball (real and fantasy).
Air France Upgrade to First Class
Back in October 2021, I was scrolling through YouTube, and well-known aviation vlogger Sam Chui’s video review of Air France La Première (LP) caught my eye. Here was some more digital footage of a first class product I was unlikely to ever fly! Bah! Or, as the French might say, N’importe quoi!
A La Première flight usually costs between $5,000 and $10,000. Moreover, Air France first class award flights are bookable only when you have top-tier elite status (gold or platinum) in the Air France/KLM Flying Blue loyalty program. And even with such status, you’ll still need to burn 200,000-plus miles to book an LP ride between Paris and most (if not all) of the cities where it’s made available. To be clear, Air France doesn’t make first class award space available to any of its airline partners.
These hurdles—let’s be frank, they’re more like steep stone barriers with fleur-de-lis patterns chiseled across them—make Air France first class one of the most challenging products to book economically. (The only product that rivals it in terms of degree of difficulty in booking inexpensively is SWISS first class.)
LP’s exclusivity is part of its allure to travel bloggers and the points and miles community at large. However, that shouldn’t deter you from trying it out yourself. You just have to be willing to gamble a bit with my strategy, which was inspired by Sam Chui’s video.
My Inspiration to Fly in Air France 777 First Class
At first I was just watching Chui’s video for vicarious fun. But then toward the end of it, Chui shared his “secret” for flying in Air France first class for cheap: At online check-in the day before departure, he was able to upgrade into LP for around 1,000 euros (an amount I don’t personally find absurd or offensive) for his flight on a 777-300ER (77W) from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport Airport (CDG) to Dubai International Airport (DXB).
Now, that tip from Chui’s video got me to wondering if you could book a business class award on Air France metal and then upgrade into first class with cash the same way he did. (It’s not as if revenue Air France business class tickets come cheap, though they’re cheaper than first class ones.) In his YouTube video, Chui was not forthcoming about whether he booked his original business class itinerary from Nice to Dubai via Paris with cash or miles, but I suspect it was a revenue ticket, not an award.
My googling eventually led me to a FlyerTalk (FT) thread on the outlook for La Première, which an FT member started in mid-2020. And after studying that thread of 50-plus pages and others like it, I gathered it was probably a decent bet that booking a business class award on Air France metal with Flying Blue miles or a partner’s miles and then later upgrading to first class with money in the French carrier’s coffers would work out just fine.
FT threads indicated cash upgrades to La Première were generally cheaper when flying out of Paris than when flying in. But notably, you can still access the much lauded LP lounge in Paris when you arrive in first class and head onward elsewhere, even in another class (it’s pretty straightforward with a single two-segment ticket, but this can be done on two separate tickets with some finagling, according FT members). Also, the FT threads suggested that the CDG-DXB route (the one Chui flew on in his video) offered one of the least expensive cash upgrades into first; only the LP upgrade on the route between CDG and Mexico City International Airport (MEX) was cheaper (I’ll have more to say about that a little later).
I also wagered that once I booked a business class award, there would still be some empty first class seats left to upgrade into 30 hours before departure time in Paris if I chose my flight strategically. According to the FT LP outlook thread, T-30 hours was the earliest time that relatively economical LP upgrade offers would be made to business class passengers checking in online (I just wasn’t sure if passengers who had booked with cash were prioritized over those who had booked with Flying Blue or partner miles—it turned out that this factor didn’t matter at all). I figured that during these uncertain times, first class seats (even the coveted window seats) might well be available if I chose the right date of travel. But this was a bet I felt less sure about.
There weren’t tons of data points for upgrading to La Première from a business class award among the FT threads that I could track down, but there were just enough that I was open to becoming a data point myself. Flying on Air France (whether ultimately in business class or first class) would be the focal point of my first trip overseas since early March 2020, when the pandemic shut down much of international leisure travel.
How to Fly Air France La Première: Step by Step
Here are the basic steps for getting into LP economically (each step is covered in detail afterward).
- Identify a long-haul Air France flight on a 77W with empty first class seats. I recommend flights on the CDG-DXB route (or maybe the CDG-MEX route) for the least expensive cash upgrade.
- Book a business class award with the Flying Blue program or a partner’s miles (I used Delta’s) on the 77W flight you’ve identified.
- If you use a partner’s program, make sure the award booking also shows up on the Air France website.
- Book a positioning Air France flight to CDG, Paris—ideally arriving six to eight hours before the departure time of the business class award flight (on the 77W with first class on it).
- Thirty hours before departure time in Paris (T-30) for the business class award flight, log in to the Air France site to check in. You should be offered the cash upgrade to first. Purchase it and choose your seat.
- If successful with the online upgrade, email or phone Air France to let them know you’re flying in on a separate Air France flight and would like to be escorted from the jet bridge to the first class lounge.
- If not successful with the online upgrade or if unable to contact Air France that you’re arriving on a separate flight before your upgraded flight, go to an Air France business class lounge to get the upgrade (if seats are still available) and/or to be escorted to the first class lounge by car from there.
Details of My Air France Bookings
I have absolutely no status with any airline, and my stash of points and miles is rather modest compared with many other enthusiasts’ (much more so after mid-December, which I’ll go into toward the very end).
Around mid-October 2021, I began looking for business class award space on Air France metal that had first class on the CDG-DXB route between November 2021 and February 2022.
First, using Google Flights, I found that the lone direct flight with La Première on the CDG-DXB line was Air France flight number 662 (AF 662), which departed Charles de Gaulle at 1:30 pm Paris time.
Next, I logged on to ExpertFlyer (I have the Pro Basic Plan, which costs $4.99 per month) to check which dates featured AF 662 flights with the most empty first class seats to upgrade into. Ideally, you’ll be flexible enough to book your business class award on a date when all four first class seats are empty. I checked the seat maps of AF 662 on various dates, and eventually targeted mid-December 2021 for my trip (many of the dates in that time frame had at most one seat in first class already reserved).
Naturally, to search for business class award space on AF 662, I started with the Flying Blue program, which I’d joined several years ago, though seldom used since. Unfortunately, the trip dates that I preferred didn’t have the lowest rate available at the time: 55,000 Flying Blue miles plus 264 euros.
Besides the fact Flying Blue is Air France’s (and KLM’s) own program (offering more award space to fly on Air France metal than its partners), there are other reasons to consider using this program to book your Air France business class award. First, Flying Blue is a transfer partner of several transferable currency programs (including those of American Express, Capital One, Citi, and Chase), so it’s easy to accrue Flying Blue miles. Second, each month the Flying Blue program offers its members Promo Rewards, which discount economy class and sometimes business class award flights for designated markets. I was only recently reminded of Promo Rewards, so I’m not sure if back in the final months of 2021, Dubai was one of the targeted markets. Regardless, I didn’t check Promo Rewards when I was booking, but you should if you decide to try to fly LP like I did.
Striking out with Flying Blue, I next searched for Air France award space with the Delta SkyMiles program. I ended up booking a business class award on AF 662 departing on December 12, 2021, for 42,500 SkyMiles plus 264 euros. Checking Delta’s website in early January 2022 as I’m writing this piece, I see this CDG-DXB Air France business class award space with the same “Sky pesos” pricing is widely available in the coming months. Just make sure you book AF 662 (which is nearly always operated with a 77W) and not another Air France direct flight on this route (which is operated with different aircraft).
I could’ve searched the sites of other partner programs (such as Virgin Atlantic Flying Club) for AF 662 business class award space. Yet I considered a business class redemption of 42,500 SkyMiles plus some cash for a nearly seven-hour flight to be a bargain, and none of the alternatives I was familiar with were going to reduce the taxes, fees, and other charges significantly, so I didn’t bother to check them.
I also used Delta’s site to book a positioning flight in economy on Air France metal from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to CDG. This was a revenue flight, as Delta’s award pricing to cross the Pond in mid-December 2021 was way too steep for my blood, even for an economy class flight. (I couldn’t find better alternatives to pay with miles to get over the Atlantic on Air France metal.)
At the time of booking, I thought it would be critical to fly on Air France metal in order to be met by an attendant on the jet bridge and be whisked away in a posh car to the La Première lounge (just like Sam Chui in his video). Although I was going to be flying under two separate Air France tickets, that is, two passenger name records (PNRs), I was fairly certain that I could communicate with Air France staff while still in the U.S. so that I’d get the same treatment as if I were under a single PNR with two flight segments (like Chui). But unfortunately, my plan didn’t work out, which I’ll explain in the next section.
If I could’ve found inexpensive business class award space from Chicago (or New York) to Dubai by way of Paris on Air France metal, I might have avoided the problems associated with booking under two PNRs. But I think I wouldn’t have been able to maximize my time in the LP lounge in Paris had I taken this approach. And back in October and November, I simply couldn’t track down such award space at reasonable redemption rates.
Here’s a key point: If you use a partner’s miles to book AF 662, make sure to get the Air France ticket number or booking reference (which will be different from the ones for Delta or another partner). You’ll likely need this information to check in online on the Air France website (not the partner’s) at T-30 hours in order to get the LP upgrade offer.
A Brief Diversion Using FlyerTalk, ExpertFlyer, and Google Flights
Allow me to indulge in a side trip: According to FT threads, the very least expensive cash upgrades for LP tend to be offered for the CDG-MEX route; but last fall, I didn’t take that option into serious consideration because 1) I’d been too influenced by Chui’s video about the CDG-DXB route; 2) I’d never been to Mexico City, whereas I’d visited Dubai before, and during the pandemic, I wanted to stick with semi-familiar settings; and 3) I’d found some compelling award space to fly in British Airways business class back to the U.S. from Dubai. But in retrospect, I likely would’ve ended up with a somewhat cheaper cash upgrade to LP, a better chance of getting my LP seat of choice (based on ExpertFlyer seat maps), and a greater return on investment in terms of flight time in the first class cabin (around five additional hours) if I’d booked the CDG-MEX route (specifically, AF 178, per Google Flights); I also would’ve spent much less in cash or points to get back to Chicago from Mexico City. As of this writing, I’m seeing plenty of Air France business class award space for 65,000 Flying Blue miles plus $362.20 for this route over the next few months. So, keep that in mind.
The only remaining reservation I have about this theoretical booking is that I might’ve gotten some odd stares from airline staff had I flown from Chicago to Paris only to transit (without ever officially entering France) to fly to MEX, but such
bonkers eccentric itineraries are not unheard of among professional content creators in the travel space.
Regardless of which route you choose (CDG-DXB or CDG-MEX), if you’re truly committed to trying out LP, I suggest you start planning to book sooner rather than later. It’s not clear to me how long these inexpensive LP upgrades will stick around. Whenever the pandemic becomes endemic and travel spikes up and stays up, I suspect the cost of LP upgrades will jump accordingly.
Upgrading to La Première (from a Business Class Award)
Obviously, one potential pitfall of trying to get into La Première this way is that there’s no way to lock in your first class seat until T-30 hours. So, if you’re going to be sorely disappointed about having to fly to Dubai in Air France business class (or in a first class seat you didn’t select), then don’t bother trying this approach.
A few weeks after my initial booking, around Veterans Day in the U.S., I saw via ExpertFlyer that another first class seat had been sold on the December 12 AF 662 flight (leaving me just two empty seats to try to snap up at T-30 hours), so I ended up switching to the AF 662 flight departing on December 11 (with only one first class seat reserved by then). I thought I’d incur a $150 fee from Delta (or Air France) for switching the departure date for a flight not originating in North America, but it turned out to be an even exchange (that is, no extra costs were incurred for switching). I did, however, pay a little extra (just the small fare difference) to switch my positioning flight from December 11 to December 10, and I had to connect through New York JFK instead of going directly to CDG from ORD.
About three or four days before the trip, I noticed, yet again via ExperFlyer, that both first class window seats on the December 11 AF 662 flight had been filled (leaving me once again with just two empty first class seats to try to snag). Up until then, I thought I was going to nab first class seat 1A, but it got away from me (as I knew might happen). By that point, I didn’t want to shift my flights for a second time, so I just played out the hand I’d been dealt.
At 12:30 am Chicago time on December 10, which is 30 hours before 1:30 pm Paris time on December 11 (the time difference of seven hours having been accounted for), I completed online check-in on the Air France website for my AF 662 flight. On the online check-in page, I was indeed given the opportunity to upgrade to LP for $1,231.60. I accepted that offer, paying for the upgrade with my American Express Platinum Card to earn 5X on the airline transaction (and ultimately paying off that charge with profits from reselling U.S. Mint coins in 2020 and 2021). I chose seat 1E, the center seat toward the port side. (If I hadn’t gotten the LP upgrade offer at online check-in, I would’ve tried to purchase it at a business class lounge in CDG.)
My economy class flight to Paris by way of New York proceeded without a hitch. While at JFK, I had staff at the Air France lounge in Terminal 1 attempt to contact their colleagues at CDG to have someone greet me on the jet bridge and escort me to the first class lounge. (In retrospect, I probably should’ve phoned or emailed Air France to inform them of my two-PNR itinerary right after I’d upgraded to first—which a staff member in the LP lounge also confirmed I should’ve done.)
Issues with My La Première Experience
Unfortunately, when I arrived in Paris around 7 am on December 11, I was met by no one from the first class lounge on the jet bridge or anywhere nearby. When I spoke with Air France staff from the plane and at the arrival gate, I was given directions to walk to the La Première lounge on my own. I probably should have spoken with other staff at the Air France transit desk, who probably would’ve called the LP lounge staff to come get me, but I was a tad miffed (irrational, disoriented, what have you) and just tried to stubbornly follow the verbal directions and airport signage to get to the lounge by myself.
So, wow, Charles de Gaulle is terribly, awfully, dreadfully difficult to navigate. To me, it’s a gargantuan labyrinth on par with Caesars Palace Las Vegas in terms of its configuration. So, after I made it past the security checkpoint, I wandered around for a while, schlepping my luggage, and then caught an airport shuttle train to somewhere within Terminal 2. After walking up (or was it down?) some stairs and through some hallways, I finally made my way to an Air France lounge, but it wasn’t the La Première lounge. It turned out to be the airline’s business class lounge in Terminal 2E, Hall L (which I only identified long after my visit). To be frank, never in a million years would I able to reproduce how I got to that lounge from my arrival gate. Ah, the notorious CDG: You definitely lived up to your reputation!
To their credit, the staff in the Air France business class lounge apologized for no one having met me upon my arrival in Paris (technically it wasn’t their fault, given I’d been on two PNRs) and then put in a call to the La Première lounge on my behalf. After I waited for about 30 minutes, sipping coffee and soaking in the calm vibe of the early morning hours within that lounge, a smartly dressed La Première staff member introduced herself and escorted me to a fancy car outside. (While her name escapes me, I recall she was warm and easy-going and knew multiple languages; and she kindly loaned me her personal European charging adapter while I was in the LP lounge.)
After I was driven to the first class lounge, I cleared security a second time and then dined well, showered, and dined well again during the five hours I spent there.
Eventually, after bidding the lounge and its staff a fond farewell, I was driven in another fancy car to the 77W. On board, I genuinely enjoyed being in the middle seat (I was alone in the center, which probably helped, especially when the privacy curtains for both 1E and 1F were drawn). I also appreciated the refined yet friendly service from the attentive flight attendant, as well as the superb French cuisine catered out of Paris, on my flight to Dubai—where I ended up spending the bulk of my time at the World Expo 2020.
I’m not going to write an extensive review of my LP lounge and flight experience, given that a multitude of professional bloggers and vloggers have already covered them both. I’ll just post a few photos below to give you a sense of what I got to experience firsthand in mid-December.
Final Thoughts: Air France First Class Review
So, was Air France La Première worth the time, effort, and money? I would say yes. This entire experience of booking and flying LP quenched a curiosity that I’d had for some time. With that said, to me, the LP lounge, while pretty, is on the small side and falls short of some of the more modern lounges, such as Qatar Airways’ Al Safwa First Class Lounge in Doha (personally, that remains my favorite first class lounge in the world). To me, the LP lounge doesn’t even match Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, Germany. Unless you happen to be a huge fan of Gallic gastronomy (which admittedly I’m not), I think you might be a little disappointed with the LP lounge, especially if you’ve been fortunate enough to have already visited other first class lounges in the Middle East. I think the La Première lounge was simply too hyped up for me.
While the first class hard product on the Air France 77W is beautiful and comfortable, it pales in comparison with the more innovative and more private first class products featured on many Asian and Middle Eastern carriers, such as Singapore Airlines and Emirates. The in-flight entertainment options on my Air France flight were also mediocre at best; the wi-fi acceptable. The LP amenity kit and pajamas were quite good, but not truly exceptional to me.
I will say this much for Air France: Its first class ground service at CDG—and even at the DXB outstation—is second to none. This is where Air France really excels over other carriers (as long as you can communicate in advance you’re an LP customer!). But for me, LP’s stellar ground service doesn’t make up for what I find lacking in its lounge and 77W hard product. Everything associated with LP is elegant and understated. I guess I prefer some of the bling and whimsical flourishes of its competitors.
I think with some better planning I could have reduced the downsides of upgrading to La Première the way I did. I’ll admit the two-PNR method can be problematic if it’s very important to you to be met by LP staff at the jet bridge for a seamless first class experience from arrival at CDG. However, if you don’t care about that, you could secure an LP seat by upgrading online at T-30 hours, fly into CDG on almost any carrier, and go to an Air France business class lounge like I did (albeit you’d be doing that on purpose) and probably still be driven over to the LP lounge (like me).
So, the real biggest downside of going on this trip—my lone, lingering regret—was that I missed out on that spectacular American Airlines (AA) SimplyMiles deal in mid-December 2021, which Bethany had the scoop on and other travel bloggers declared the points and miles deal of the year!
PSA…. Activate those offers ASAP. American Airlines Huge Holiday Miles Bonus Offer (500% Extra) https://t.co/3Wr2xVg4vn— Bethany Walsh (@BougieMiles) December 10, 2021
I even retweeted Bethany’s original December 10 tweet to remind myself to study her Bougie Miles post more carefully later, but then I lost track of it while traveling through Europe and the Middle East. It didn’t matter anyways because I hadn’t brought along any Mastercard plastic (which I needed to buy all those millions of miles for very cheap). I don’t mean this, of course. Well, maybe just a little I do. Oddly, that remarkable AA deal will always be associated with LP for me.
I’m very grateful to have flown in Air France first class: It was truly an enriching experience (just not in AA miles).
Many thanks to Bethany for letting me guest blog about this once-in-a-lifetime journey!