March 26, 2020.
Stuck at home thanks to a rapidly emerging pandemic, I happen to pop into FlyerTalk’s Premium Fare Deals forum to see if there might be an interesting fare deal or two as a result of airlines’ revenue management teams having to work from home.
Lo and behold, I see that Air France is having a “super sale”: US$472.05 for a one-way fare from Algiers, the capital of Algeria, to either Portland or Houston in the La Première cabin.
Now, I’ve booked my fair share of these wild sales before, including a particularly memorable round-trip in Cathay Pacific First Class from Vietnam to North America for US$900 back in 2018.
But this was no ordinary fare: Air France La Première is known as one of the world’s most sought-after and difficult-to-book First Class products.
Regular fares typically hover in the region of €10,000 for a flight in one of these fancy seats, and it takes a monumental effort to redeem Flying Blue miles for La Première (you can only book as a Flying Blue Gold elite member or higher, and the redemption rate starts at a whopping 200,000+ Flying Blue miles one-way).
For all intents and purposes, Air France La Première is considered virtually “off-limits” for premium cabin enthusiasts hoping to score tickets on the cheap… unless you stumble onto an incredible sale like this one out of Algeria.
Online, the usual debates about these unbelievable seat sales raged on.
Was any chance that Air France would honour these tickets in the first place?
Would you be able to get a refund if it didn’t work out, given that all the airlines were facing a cash crunch at the time?
How would you even get to Algeria to start the ticket, given that the North African nation was entirely closed to travel and enforced a difficult visa process even during normal times?
But there’s one enduring truth to these fare sales that seem too good to be true: they never last very long, and you’ve simply gotta get in the game and ask questions later.
I pulled up the fare on Priceline, lined up a travel date in February 2021 (as far in the future as I could book, given the uncertainty around travel at the time), and pulled the trigger. US$472.05 for Air France La Première.
I was in the game.
Air France headquarters, Paris, France.
Somewhere at Air France HQ, a supervisor notices that a fare had been filed for La Première departing out of Algeria for far below the usual price.
The base fare was 34,500 Algerian Dinars (DZD), which is about US$250; throw in the government-imposed taxes and airport improvement fees, and an overall fare no more than US$500 had been booked by hundreds of people.
The supervisor knows that Air France maintains a deliberate air of exclusivity around their First Class cabin, purposefully making it near-impossible to book on miles and rarely offering discounted fares in the first place.
There was simply no way that the unwashed masses could be allowed to step foot into its hallowed halls for the price of an economy class ticket.
The supervisor consults with their superiors and authorizes a mass downgrading of everyone who had booked the fare into business class. Booking references get updated, confirmation emails sent.
It’s a fair outcome, perhaps, given that US$472.05 is still a decent price for Air France business class – and that affected customers could always request a refund if they didn’t wish to travel.
But it’s a wholly unfair outcome when you consider that Air France had advertised a price and customers had simply taken them up on it.
The airline was now unilaterally and wrongfully cancelling the purchase – but hey, they had the power to do so.
Air France call centre, somewhere in the United States.
An Air France customer service agent takes a sip of her coffee.
She’s approaching the end of her shift, and there’s probably time for one more call before she clocks out.
The customer at the other end gives her the six-digit booking reference, and then makes a rather peculiar request: he had originally booked a First Class fare, but now finds that his ticket has somehow been downgraded to business class.
“It must be a mistake,” he sighs. “Can you please help me reissue the ticket in First Class?”
The agent pulls up the file and starts looking through the history. Indeed, the Paris–San Francisco flight was originally in La Première, but now it’s showing Business.
The customer carries on: “I paid a lot of money for this fare… I was booked in La Première… it doesn’t make any sense…”
Cursorily, the agent glances at the base fare that was paid for the ticket.
A whole five-figure sum. That must be a big chunk of dough indeed.
“I can’t deal with an angry customer right now,” the agent mutters to herself. And besides, the reservation system had indeed been acting up in recent weeks, so a glitch like this wasn’t out of the question.
Class of service. La Première. Reissue.
“It’s done for you, sir.”
“Merci beaucoup,” came the reply.
Vancouver, British Columbia.
Throughout all of 2021, I anxiously sat on my Air France reservation departing from Algeria, hoping to be able to experience the coveted La Première cabin for myself.
There was one small problem, though: not only was Algeria closed to entry, but as a non-US resident, I was also unable to transit the US after having transited the Schengen Area (including Paris) in the past 14 days.
Thankfully, Algeria’s continued closure meant that Air France had kept cancelling the initial Algiers–Paris flight, which allowed me to push the booking further into the future in 30-day chunks.
Each month, like clockwork, I’d receive a notice of cancellation on Algiers–Paris, and I’d be able to push the flight to the next available one the following month.
As we approached the end of the year, however, Algeria gradually started allowing some flights to operate. Air France’s cancellations were no longer happening quite as reliably, which meant that I’d quickly run out of grounds to keep pushing the date.
If I wanted to fly La Première for a fraction of the usual price, it was now or never.
Eventually, I managed to lock in an outbound date of December 12, 2021 for Algiers–Paris, followed by December 13, 2021 for Paris–San Francisco. The United States had relaxed their travel ban on the Schengen Area back in November – so this was my chance.
There was just one obstacle left: Algeria was still closed to foreign visitors.
However, I had read anecdotally online that travellers may transit without visa at Algiers Airport if they had an onward flight booked, even if it was on a separate ticket.
There was no official documentation to be found anywhere on this, but multiple laborious calls to both the Algerian embassy in Ottawa and Algiers Houari Boumediene Airport confirmed this possibility.
My Algiers–Paris flight was departing at 2:05pm on December 12. I locked in a flight on Vueling, the Spanish low-cost carrier, for Barcelona–Algiers that morning at 7:20am, arriving into Algiers at 8:30am.
Five and a half hours should give me plenty of time to navigate the mysterious transit without visa process…
Barcelona El Prat International Airport (BCN), Terminal 1.
December 12, 2021, 5:30am Central European Time.
…or so I thought.
I show up at the airport as early as possible, knowing that I might have to explain to the Vueling check-in agents how the transit without visa works.
The check-in agent consults her supervisor before letting me know that no such policy exists.
“You need a visa to fly to Algeria,” she says.
I go speak to the supervisor, knowing that there’s not much the frontline agent can do. I meet Vueling’s station manager in Barcelona that day, a portly bespectacled Spaniard wearing a hi-vis Vueling vest.
“I will check the policy again and let you know.”
He chats on the phone in Spanish for quite a long time, before hanging up and saying to me, “We checked with our head office and you still need a visa to get on the flight.”
I was getting quite desperate by this point, but trying not to let it show.
“It’s called a transit without visa. I’m not trying to enter Algeria! Can you please call your team in Algiers and check with them?”
“No señor,” Vueling Vest replies sternly.
They’ve done their due diligence with multiple sources, and the verdict is clear: I need an Algerian visa to board that flight, and I don’t have one.
At this point, I was kicking myself. All of the other anecdotes of the Algiers transit without visa were between full-service carriers like Lufthansa and ITA.
I was kicking myself for relying on a low-cost carrier of all airlines to help me out with a semi-unofficial immigration policy.
This was hopeless. It was time to let this avenue go, and follow-up with a credit card chargeback on the fare if Vueling had indeed incorrectly denied me boarding.
Still, I held a valid Air France La Première ticket departing Algiers in a few hours’ time.
Sure, I had no hope of getting to Algiers – but I was still in the game for now.
Barcelona El Prat International Airport (BCN), Terminal 1.
December 12, 2021, 9am Central European Time / 3am Eastern Time.
The only play left was to call Air France and somehow persuade them to change the ticket so that it’d begin in Barcelona, rather than Algiers.
Since time was running out, I enlisted the help of my assistant Rachel to call Air France on my behalf, while I mulled over our strategy.
For context, Delta, Air France, and KLM had previously offered a little-known pandemic-era allowance to change the origin of a ticket within a 300-mile radius without any change fee or fare difference. In the past, some holders of these ultra-discounted La Première fares had been able to get the origin changed from Algiers to Valencia or Barcelona as a result.
That was our first plan of action: to convince an Air France agent to move the origin to Barcelona based on this 300-mile flexibility policy.
The North American call centres – which had proven to be the most easily persuaded in the past – were closed at this hour. So Rachel calls the contact centres in Singapore, Japan, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Denmark… but all to no avail.
Some agents are initially willing to try changing the origin, but run into an automated supervisor block when reissuing the ticket.
We assume this is because the flight’s departing in less than 24 hours – but regardless, the ticket still starts in Algiers, and I’m still stuck across the Mediterranean Sea.
It’s 4am in Toronto, and Rachel needs to sleep, so I take over on calling duties. After trying many call centres around Europe, I eventually discover that Air France Croatia has some of the shortest hold times of less than five minutes.
I start working with a sympathetic Air France Croatia agent, although she too is unable to change the origin of the first flight – a flight that’s departing in less than five hours’ time.
Out of desperation, I ask a question that I already know the answer to: “Is it possible to skip the first flight and just fly the Paris–San Francisco segment?”
At most airlines around the world, this type of practice (technically known as “using the flight coupons out of sequence”) is strictly forbidden. Indeed, the prevailing wisdom is that skipping the first flight leads to the entire ticket being cancelled.
But much to my surprise, the agent pokes around and replies, “Yes, it’s actually possible to do this, but you will need to pay a €1,500 penalty for using the coupons out of sequence.”
I’ve never heard of this policy before, but upon further research later on, it’s indeed embedded in Air France’s General Conditions of Sale:
Now, my mind is spinning.
Would I pay €1,500 to be able to fly Air France La Première straight out of Paris tomorrow?
Surely I would, right?!
After all, my backup plan for the return journey was to fly Lufthansa First Class via Frankfurt instead of Air France. That itinerary to San Francisco would cost me 100,000 Aeroplan points + $200 in taxes.
When you think about the valuation of those Aeroplan points, it’s pretty comparable to a €1,500 one-time payment – except I can redeem points for Lufthansa First Class at any time in the future, but this La Première ticket was now or never!
(Note that if I didn’t pay this penalty, then the ticket would remain in limbo due to the fact that I had missed the Algiers–Paris segment at the start.)
I asked my new Croatian friend if she could charge me the €1,500 over the phone and reissue the ticket right then and there. She replied no: the rules are very clear that the “out of sequence penalty” must be paid at the airport.
It was mid-afternoon in Barcelona at this point. As the agent notated my file for ticket reissuance upon paying the €1,500 penalty, I came to a sudden realization.
If I wanted to stay in the game, I needed to get myself to Paris tonight.
I pull up Google Flights to search for a cheap ticket up across the Pyrenees that evening. You’ll never guess which airline came up as the best option.
It was ****ing Vueling.
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), Terminal 2B.
December 12, 2021, 9pm Central European Time / 3pm Eastern Time.
Stepping off a Vueling flight that I had paid for using my resultant flight credit from that morning’s fiasco, I trudged my way through the snaking hallways of Charles de Gaulle Airport, heading to Air France’s hub at Terminal 2E.
The plan? Show up at the ticketing desk, pay the €1,500 out-of-sequence penalty, and get my flight in La Première reissued successfully for a smooth journey the following day.
At first, the Air France ticketing agent was very confused by what was going on with my ticket.
He was understandably unfamiliar with the policy around flying coupons out of sequence and the €1,500 penalty, given that it’s buried deep in Air France’s byzantine ticketing rules.
Still, he saw the memo from the Air France Croatia agent, and was starting to set up the payment terminal and take my money…
…until his colleague walked by, happened to glance at the screen curiously, and asked what was going on.
“Je sais pas, c’est très bizarre, ça…”
The two agents studied the screen quizzically, their brows slowly furrowing, their expressions transforming from curiosity into consternation.
“C’est pas correcte!”
This isn’t right!
The colleague started scribbling something on a piece of paper, and I watched her as she wrote.
D… Z… D… 3… 4…
The jig was up.
The two agents went into the back to discuss in private, but I already knew what the outcome would be.
About five minutes later, the first agent returns to the desk. He says, “I can reissue the ticket for you to travel tomorrow, but it will be in economy class.”
“Mais pourquoi?” I ask with a blank look.
“Because this fare is not a La Première fare.”
I point out the fact that it does indeed say La Première on the booking reference as it currently stood – but the agent was having none of it.
This was a fare that Air France did not want to honour, so he could only offer me a choice of either accepting the downgrade into economy or leaving the ticket intact in its un-fly-able limbo state.
Once again, I needed to think on my feet.
On one hand, leaving the ticket in the limbo state would do me no good. I’d be back to square one, with less than 12 hours to go until the flight’s departure from Paris the next morning.
On the other hand, being downgraded into economy would spell the end of my La Première dream.
Or would it?
No, there’s no way it would work…
We’ve persuaded Air France’s phone agents into reinstating in First Class before. Perhaps we could do it again?
It was really the only play left.
Don’t get knocked out of the game.
“Please go ahead and reissue the ticket in economy,” I said. Moments later, the confirmation email arrived in my inbox.
The class of service? Indeed, economy.
But most importantly, the route?
A singular one-way flight from Paris to San Francisco, with no mention at all of Algiers.
Moxy Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.
December 12, 2021, 11pm Central European Time / 5pm Eastern Time.
I need to sleep.
Stumbling into a €89 Moxy Sleeper room at the Moxy Paris CDG, I charge my phone battery and call Rachel to explain what had happened.
“We’ve got 10 hours to persuade an Air France agent to reinstate the ticket in La Première… one last time.”
Rachel’s busy running errands all day, but she says she’ll try to call the North American contact centre as best as she can.
I set an alarm for 3am, knowing that I needed to be up early. I dream about receiving a confirmation email with La Première back on the ticket. I wake up and check my phone…
Rachel says she’s called three times, to no avail. The agents weren’t willing to touch the booking, even though some of them noticed that the ticket was indeed booked in La Première for most of its history, and it now showed economy.
Meanwhile, my backup flight of Lufthansa First Class required me to fly out of Paris to Frankfurt at 6:45am.
Dammit, Rachel, we’re running out of time!
“Keep trying,” I tell her as I pack up my bags and head back to the airport.
To be honest with you, I was losing hope at this point.
But we had come way too far to not give it everything we’ve got.
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), Terminal 2B, Gate 40.
December 13, 2021, 6:30am Central European Time / 12:30am Eastern Time.
As I stood in the priority boarding queue for the Lufthansa business class flight to Frankfurt, I was having a crisis.
What’s wrong with me? I thought.
People dream of flying Lufthansa First Class, and here I am, feeling disappointed – nay, devastated – that I must fly Lufthansa instead of Air France. Have I lost my marbles?
Ultimately, I had already come to accept that it wasn’t going to work out this time.
Air France’s North America call centre had technically already closed at 12am Eastern Time. Rachel was still waiting on hold for one last call, but honestly, what were the odds that this particular agent would bite?
You win some, you lose some.
I’ll still get to fly La Première at some distant point in the future, and it’ll be all the sweeter thanks to this near-miss.
I step onboard the Lufthansa A320, put my bags into the overhead bin, and settle into Seat 1A.
It’s time to let it go.
“Cabin crew, boarding complete.”
I leaned against the fuselage, getting ready to settle in for a nap en route to Frankfurt, and took one last glance at my phone…
No way. Noooooo way.
I check my inbox. Indeed, a sympathetic Air France agent had worked their magic.
I was back in La Première!
My first instinct was to start the online check-in process on the Air France website.
If I could check-in successfully, I’d know that there were truly no issues with the Algiers segment anymore, and that I was good to fly.
I start tapping away at my phone… before a sudden realization hits me. I look up, and then around me, in shock.
I’ve gotta get the **** off this plane!
The doors to the Lufthansa A320 could close at any second. If the plane took off for Frankfurt with me onboard, then there was no going back!
I bolted upright, shot for the overhead bins, and dashed out the door and onto the jet bridge. There, I kept tapping away at Air France’s online check-in, all while the Lufthansa crew members shouted at me to figure out what was going on.
“I have to go… I can’t make it on this flight!” I stammer.
The online check-in is slow and laborious.
Upload your negative test and proof of vaccination. I stumble through my Files folder to upload the PDFs.
Enter your destination address in the USA. I type “in transit”, and then “90210” for the ZIP code.
Choose your seat. Seat 1A. Confirm.
The circle spins and spins and spins…
…before I’m presented with a mobile boarding pass in all its glory!
“Sir! Sir!” I hear a voice bellowing. I look up – it’s the Lufthansa A320 captain.
“You have a bag checked onboard? We will need to unload your bag – this is bullsh*t for us!”
I apologize profusely. “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, but I really must go.”
The captain escorts me down the jet bridge, quickly mellowing out. “I apologize for saying it was bullsh*t. If it’s personal, I understand.”
After all the events of the past 24+ hours, Air France La Première was indeed personal.
“No problem. And I’m very sorry again.” I parted ways with the Lufthansa team, heading off to Terminal 2B baggage claim to wait for my bag to be unloaded.
From there, I embarked on the long walk through CDG once again, this time en route to a different corner of Air France’s hub in Terminal 2E: the exclusive La Première check-in area.
The staff there were initially a bit confused upon seeing my mobile boarding pass. When they had looked at the La Première manifest upon starting their shift that morning, they would’ve seen an empty forward cabin en route to San Francisco.
The gentleman stepped into the back office and double checked. I held my breath as he looked through his records before emerging from the room.
“Welcome to La Première, sir.”
Later on, as we breezed past the throngs of other passengers through security, my La Première private escort asked: “Did you change your ticket? We didn’t see you on the list this morning.”
Already looking forward to the Alain Ducasse catering in the lounge, the private BMW car transfer across the tarmac, and the ultra-exclusive four-person La Première cabin – all on a ticket that I had rightfully paid for at the advertised price, might I add – I cracked a wry smile.
“Yes, I had to change my ticket a few times.”