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(Please advise if this is in the wrong SE and I'll refile it)

I have a large quantity of American Express membership rewards points and a plan to go to Paris over the end of year holidays. I don't care too much about having any left after (the only reason I accumulate points is to fly business/first when I travel internationally) but I'd like to find the best option with the least distraction.

What would your advice be to get the best seats (prefer lay-flat first, but lay-flat business is fine) from SFO to CDG/Orly?

With the Continental agreement ending at the end of the month (by which I mean I can use American Express points as frequent flyer miles on Continental-coded flights), Delta has been offering a confusing melange of incentives (20% points back, 50% bonus, etc.) to transfer points to their program instead.

Of course, American Express Travel has their own offering, including companion ticket for business travel and the ability to pay in points (albeit at the worst possible $/point value).

I've looked and asked on FlyerTalk and received inconsistent information due to the shifting offers as the end of the relationship nears.

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Welcome to Travel.SE. Yes, this is indeed the right forum for you. –  Ankur Banerjee Sep 19 '11 at 9:04
    
Probably the first thing to check is who has availability for when you want to fly? No point getting a great deal on FF miles if you can't use them... –  Gagravarr Sep 19 '11 at 9:29
    
My dates work with Continental/United and Delta for the point=mile conversion, and the Amex Travel point=a whisper-thin-slice-of-a-penny arrangement covers many airlines with ample availability. –  Art Taylor Sep 19 '11 at 9:34
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For your specific case, your best flight by far will be on a direct Air France flight, in F they're apparently amazing. May require too many points though... BA direct to London, change for Paris in F will be equally as stunning but take a bit longer, though again it may need a hell of a lot of points! –  Gagravarr Sep 19 '11 at 10:01
    
Points aren't an issue (really), I've been using my plat card and almost never take vacations. :( I'm prepared to double up and use rule busters if necessary to get the flights I want on the dates I want. –  Art Taylor Sep 19 '11 at 18:10
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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The exact answer that's correct for today won't be correct in a month, so I'll try to explain how to find the right answer for you for right now instead. (Try persevering with FT for your specific one though!)

First up, you need to figure out which airlines you could sensibly fly with. This means airlines with FF programs you can transfer points into, who offer flights with a small number of changes. Oh, and probably also with a sane distance too - you might be able to take a far eastern airline from the US west coast to Paris via SE asia, but it's going to take an age and require an insane number of points to do it....

At this point, you'll hopefully have a small list of airlines. (I'd guess at Continental, Delta/Air France, Delta and BA/American). Next, you need to discover who has seats spare at the times you want to go. For many of them, you can check that online. However, some may not show you flights for which you don't yet have enough miles (I think BA is like this), so you wouldn't be able to easily check pre-transfer, and we want to know before we transfer! For these ones, a quick call to the frequent flyer program is going to be in order...

We should now have a shortlist of two or three airlines, so next we need to price up the FF miles and cash fees involved. Finding the FF miles should be fairly easy, most programs have a bit of their FF website that lets you calculate the miles needed. Be aware of the rules around direct vs changing for flights, as it may or may not affect the FF miles needed.

Most airlines also charge some sort of cash fees on redemption tickets, covering airport taxes, fuel surcharges etc. Depending on the airline and the class of ticket, these can be fairly substantial (as an example, BA are noted for having very high fees on economy short haul redemption tickets). As you want a premium cabin, double check the fees as they're often quoted by default for economy, but higher for business/first. Check if you can use miles to pay for these fees or not (some US programs may let you, most European ones won't).

You should now have a list of costs (in FF miles and hard cash) for each program. Now, go to the Amex website, and check how many reward points you need to change to get those FF miles. Factor in any bonuses in operation, and ring the lovely people at Amex to double check on figures if you're not sure (the UK team are lovely, hopefully the American ones are too!). Finally, weigh up the points vs cash figures, decide which is best, transfer and book!

As a slight aside, since you want to go to Paris, you can also turn Amex points into Eurostar tickets. Depending on the length of your journey, it might be worth investigating the costs (cash+points) for a flight to London plus Eurostar on to Paris, and splitting your trip to include a few days in London. Also, some airline programs (such as BA) allow free stopovers on reward tickets, so you could potentially look into taking a connecting flight, and stopping few days in wherever in Europe you need to change. Could make for a more fun trip, but will also make finding the best option for you much harder...

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I had the open-jaw idea tickling the back of my head and I'm glad you pointed it out. My wife thinks two+ weeks in Paris is too long (I've lived there, she hasn't ever been there) so she has suggested spending a few days in London. BA to LHR, Eurostar to Paris, and AF back to SFO works out nicely, and has surprising availability. Thanks! (I'm aware of the cash fees and they don't amount to much, basically less than the cost of a full-fare unrestricted economy ticket.) –  Art Taylor Sep 19 '11 at 18:09
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There's no better value for an award to Europe (if you want business class) than Air Canada's AEROPLAN. There are three reasons:

1) They are a Star Alliance partner and will thus enable you to fly on any of their ~27 partners.

2) Stopover rules. Air Canada will allow TWO stopovers (in addition to your destination) on ALL of their partner award tickets. So, if you want to do Paris, plus a weekend in Rome and a few days in Athens... You could do it all for the same price!

3) Number of miles required. They only require 90k miles for a business class ticket to Europe from North America. Whether you do zero stopovers or two stopovers, it doesn't change that price. So naturally, if you have the time, it's well worth it!

Thankfully, Aeroplan is an option for your AMEX MR points. If I were you, I wouldn't think twice!

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tacking on the extra destination for free really does rock. I took my mother to England and we added a Venice trip with no extra miles. Highly recommended to turn a once-a-year trip into a once-in-a-lifetime trip - every year! –  Kate Gregory Aug 16 '12 at 18:55
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FYI, If you hold a platinum AMX card holder, AMX allow you to use points on Hotels that they may not have a contract with. For example, I booked an Hotel through Bookings.com that I could not get through AMX, I called membership rewards and provided them the name of the Hotel, when the charges came through AMX calculated my points to dollars and credited my bill.

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