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Breaking the Unbreakable Rules of Business Travel
June 8, 2017 -- Every smart business traveler has unbreakable rules of the road. If we have learned nothing else over the years, we know these rules cannot be changed, altered or ignored lest we suffer the most dire consequences.
So here I am on a flight back from Paris/CDG having broken any number of my most inviolate road rules. I have survived. Mostly ...
For example, one of my firmest rules is never book a connection when a nonstop is an option. Even if it's on an airline I absolutely abhor, I'm flying nonstop if one is available. Why double your chances of an airline screwing you up? Enough can go wrong with any one flight, so why take two when one is available?
Another unbreakable dictum: Don't check luggage. You can't win.
Also firmly held: Don't change planes at Charles de Gaulle, the huge, meandering and confusing Paris airport. CDG is where connecting flights, Anglo-Saxon sensibility and travel schedules go to die.
Oh, yeah, one more rule: Don't spend miles on upgrades. Too costly, too iffy and a bad value in this day and age of massive co-pays and hideous restrictions.
But like I said, here I am two hours out of New York after connecting at CDG, checking a bag and essentially having used miles to fly business class on a JFK-CDG-Genoa roundtrip. And I've survived. Mostly. I mean, assuming Air France isn't somehow losing my bag as I type.
Why was I breaking rules in the first place? Mister Meatball turned 60 last Sunday and his associate surprised him with a trip to Italy. She invited my wife and me to surprise Ralph during the Genoa portion of the trip. Cavalli selvaggi couldn't keep us away.
A trip from New York to Genoa would generally entail a nonstop to Milan and then an effortless train jaunt to the city of circuitous caruggi, piquant pesto and fantastic focaccia. But I wanted to stop in Rome to pick up a birthday present from Meatball's favorite cheese monger. So suddenly I was looking at an open jaw: New York-Rome and Genoa-New York.
After some cogitation and much consternation, I decided the best option was a double rule-breaker: JFK-CDG-Rome on the outbound with a Genoa-CDG-JFK return. And since I was already breaking two rules, might as well break a third and check bags.
Now the using miles for upgrades part is a bit trickier. I moved 250,000 credit card points to my Air France/KLM Flying Blue account for a pair of business class awards. On the outbound to Paris, I'd fly a Boeing 777 and see Air France's newest business class seat. On the return--the flight I'm on now--I'd get to see how Air France was handling its A380s with its older business chair. The Paris-Genoa roundtrip would allow me to catch up with both the airline's mainline intra-Europe business class service and its HOP! commuter operation.
But Flying Blue's reasonable 250,000-mile price for a pair of business class tickets had its cost: more than $1,000 in taxes and airline-imposed annoyance fees.
When you consider that a pair of roundtrip coach tickets between JFK and Milan on Emirates Airline's nonstop run costs as little as $900, well, the net-net is that I paid 250,000 miles for upgrades. That's really the only way to consider frequent flyer awards these days. Coach fares are so low and business class award "co-pays" so high that you are paying lots of miles just for the privilege of bumping up to business.
How'd the rule-breaking go?
CDG still basically stinks as a connecting airport. The walks are long between its terminals, if not quite as confusing as I recall. At least on the outbound transfer from the JFK-Paris flight to the Air France mainline run to Genoa. On the return, our HOP! flight from Genoa was hardstanded at Terminal 2G. That meant long walks with bad signage and a color-coded bus transfer to our Paris-JFK flight.
Honestly, a nonstop into Rome and a 90-minute train ride from Genoa to Milan for a nonstop back would have been less tiresome. Even when they work, connecting flights stink. Your mileage may vary. As may your tolerance for mediocre lounges and too-long-to-ignore/too-short-to-leave-the-airport layovers
Air France, meanwhile, remains as inconsistent as ever. I booked the 11:30 p.m. Night Service flight from JFK to CDG. That includes pre-departure dinner in the tired Air France Salon in Terminal 1. Dinner choices? The same as the in-flight menu. I mean, literally the same as served in-flight. The in-club meal is even served on the same trays--with the same dishes, glasses and flatware--as Air France uses in-flight. Bottom line: If you think in-flight meals are sad, imagine being served the stuff on the ground. It's memorable for all of the wrong reasons.
The Air France lounges at CDG are substandard. Overcrowded, overworked and overdue for overhaul. And what good are endless bottles of mid-range Champagne if they are kept in bins that haven't seen ice since Emmanuel Macron was elected president? The Internet is fast enough, however, assuming you can find an unoccupied work surface.
On the 95-minute Paris-Genoa runs, the Air France HOP! service on EMB-170s is much better than Air France's listless mainline A-318 service. The lovely and quite extensive meal service offered by HOP! was genuinely surprising. And full marks to Air France for maintaining a comparatively more comfortable intra-Europe business class than British Airways and Lufthansa. Those two are down to 30 inches in what they call "business class." Air France offers 32 inches on the A318s and 34 or more inches on those HOP! runs.
Across the Atlantic, the newer seats (configured 1-2-1) on Air France's B-777s fold down into more spacious and more comfortable beds than the A380 chairs. Air France also has basically wasted the A380 real estate that some other carriers use for makeshift in-flight lounges or social space. It has even hidden the "grand staircase" that was once the double-decked A380's signature amenity. If there's a choice, book the 777 eastbound for a better night's sleep. A380s (configured 2x2x2 on the upper deck) are fine for most westbound flights, though. (Air France's IFE is also well-stocked. For example, I screened engrossing French-produced documentaries on the "controversial" expressionist Bernard Buffet and the "legendary" Italian hatmaker Borsalino. Plus there are enough Billie Holiday and Nina Simone albums to while away an entire flight. )
Meanwhile, Air France deserves genuine admiration for a move it made before today's CDG-JFK run. A fierce, fast-moving thunder and lightning storm lashed the airport just as boarding began and Air France stopped loading passengers. The delay only lasted around 15 minutes, but employees instantly flooded the boarding area offering sandwiches and bottles of water. Passengers will remember that kindness, I think.
(If you're a SkyTeam player, the obvious question: Should you fly Air France or Delta Air Lines to Paris? No-brainer. Air France. Even with Air France's quirks, it's not a close call. The only caveat: No WiFi on Air France.)
What's it all mean? Did I learn anything? I dunno. I'll still go to my grave saying book nonstops, avoid CDG for connections and don't check bags. But I survived. And even if I had to burn 250,000 miles for what were essentially upgrades, I like that a lifetime of business travel has allowed me to fly somewhere on a whim to celebrate a friend's milestone birthday.
I mean, that almost makes all the business travel worth it …
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