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Three European Cities (Almost Entirely) on Points and Miles

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Last month, TPG Contributor Adam Erace burned a mix of miles, bonus nights and other loyalty-program and credit-card benefits for a three-city, three-country holiday in London, Istanbul and Paris — the latter, unfortunately, during the recent terror attacks. Here’s how Erace planned a luxurious European vacation with minimal cash outlay — and managed to get home amidst a city-wide emergency.

Since I discovered this website two years ago, I’ve become increasingly serious about collecting points and miles and pursuing the baller-on-a-budget travel experiences they can provide. This past June, my wife and I decided to burn our solid stash of points and miles on a shoulder-season November trip to Europe, where we could take advantage of wide-open redemption availability and low rates. We embarked on a fantastic tour of Istanbul and London — and then we arrived in Paris on November 13, 2015

We’d spent a leisurely day eating foie gras and ogling Louvre masterworks when terrorists wreaked havoc on the City of Lights, killing at least 129 innocent people, injuring scores more and setting the Western world on edge. We were shocked in light of these attacks, and opted to end our trip a day early in order to get home safely. (I applaud American Airlines for making it easy and efficient to make these emergency changes, which I’ll outline a little later.) However, we’ll soon return to Paris to show our continued allegiance to this amazing city.

Here’s how our exciting and heart-wrenching European journey — booked almost entirely on points and miles — unfolded.

Istanbul featured shutterstock 277651025
Istanbul (with its Hagia Sophia) was the inspiration for this three-city, three-country journey. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Istanbul had been on our travel short-list for a while, so we decided to make the Turkish capital the focus of this trip. However, since we live in Philadelphia, we knew we’d have to connect through New York or Washington, DC. Therefore, we decided to break up the trip with two-night stops in London on the outbound and Paris on the return, using AAdvantage miles for the transatlantic segments, Avios to get us from London to Istanbul and the Citi Prestige card’s $250 automatic airfare credit to nearly cover our Air France flights from Istanbul to Paris.

American Airlines A330 in Economy — Philadelphia to London

We departed Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) on a 9:30pm flight to London-Heathrow (LHR). British Airways, which also flies from PHL, offers a better product, but wanting to avoid the airline’s appalling surcharges, we opted to fly American and used AAdvantage miles at an economy MileSAAver redemption rate of just 20,000 miles + $5.60 per segment in economy. Business would have run 50,000 miles, but the redemption was unavailable on any of the nonstops between PHL and LHR.

American Airlines economy, where at least you get a pillow.
American Airlines economy, where at least you get a pillow.

The Airbus A330 was laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration, and having selected our seats five months earlier, my wife and I scored the relatively comfortable two-seat set-up. The flight appeared to be fairly empty anyway, and some antsy passengers were eying up the vacant four-seat rows in the back of the plane like seagulls on a sandwich. This caused some distress to the frazzled head flight attendant, but after a short delay caused by a passenger disembarking for medical reasons, we were at last London-bound.

Having chased dinner at the airport with a couple Advil PMs apiece, we skipped the plane’s rote chicken or pasta dinner in favor of a couple hours of uncomfortable but vital shut-eye. When we woke, the crew was serving a breakfast box that consisted of off-brand raspberry yogurt, a berry-studded muffin top, granola and a packet of dried cranberries.

Antioxidants to the third power
American Airlines’ breakfast box: antioxidants to the third power.

The flight landed in London around 9am. We cleared customs quickly, but had an hour delay waiting for luggage. The story from one employee was that the hatch on the plane was stuck, but a more forthright staffer laid it out for us: layoffs. Apparently 80 baggage-handling jobs had been cut as the airport transferred its contracts from one company to another. “And you’ve got 30, 40 blokes calling out for work everyday,” he lamented.

After the bags arrived, we hopped the Heathrow Express, which gets you into downtown London in 15 minutes. A cab would take three times as long in London traffic and would cost much more than the Express’ saver rate, which you can lock in at about 12GBP ($18) round-trip if you buy online 90 days in advance.

Here is what my room at the Park Lane would have looked like. Photo courtesy Marriott.
Here’s what my Executive Room at the Marriott Park Lane *would* have looked like. Image courtesy of Marriott.

London Marriott Park Lane (Almost) and Rosewood London (for Two Nights)

Originally we planned to stay at the Category 9 London Marriott Park Lane, set across from the Marble Arch with Hyde Park views, but shortly before leaving on this trip, I was assigned a story for another publication that would include a different property, so I had to cancel this booking last-minute.

We originally booked the Marriott Park Lane to use our cache of Ritz-Carlton/Marriott Rewards that I earned from my Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card‘s sign-up bonus (then 140,000) and my wife’s Marriott Rewards Premier sign-up bonus (80,000 points, at the time). We redeemed 90,000 points for our two-night stay, then opted for a cash upgrade to an Executive Room with access to the Executive Lounge and its complimentary snacks and drinks for £100 ($152) per night. Per Marriott policy, I cancelled this booking within 24 hours of the start of our planned stay and my points and cash were instantly refunded.

After two peaceful nights in the Central London neighborhood of Holborn at the Rosewood London (an Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts property that enables cardholders of the The Platinum Card from American Express and the The Enhanced Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN version to book through the Amex FHR travel portal and earn perks like early check-in/late check-out, a room upgrade when available and an £85 ($128) food and beverage credit), we returned to Heathrow to catch our next flight — to Istanbul.

Two nights in London is better than no nights in London. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Two nights in London is better than no nights in London. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

British Airways in Club Europe — London to Istanbul

Since we had banked more than 150,000 Avios from two sign-up bonuses on the British Airways Visa Signature last year, we booked BA’s Club Europe tickets for 17,000 Avios and $40 per ticket.

After checking in at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, we headed to the Galleries Club Lounge, one of three BA lounges stacked like a glass-encased layer cake on the south side of the terminal. There are entirely separate lounges for business- and first-class passengers, plus the crème-de-la-crème Concorde Room.

The Galleries Club Lounge at LHR: pretty, but there's not much to eat.
The Galleries Club Lounge at LHR: pretty, but there’s not much to eat. Image courtesy of British Airways.

Though deluxe finishes and gobs of space give the Galleries lounge an attractive look, the food selection was abysmal. As we entered around 6pm, the staff was removing the dredges of chicken harissa stew, penne marinara and other entrée-type platters from the buffet, leaving us with a couple soups, three types of sandwiches and two desserts. I managed to nab us a couple of jacket potatoes — without toppings — the last of the penne and a bowl of soup made with squash, peas and pesto.

Though the food in the lounge was disappointing, the in-flight dinner service was surprisingly delicious. More on that in a second.

In BA short-haul business class, a tabletop insert blocks the middle seat.
In BA short-haul business class, a tabletop insert blocks the middle seat.

To Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST), we flew an Airbus A320 with seats in a 3-3 configuration; on BA’s short-haul Club Europe business class, the middle seat is blocked out with a table, giving passengers more space in what amounts to a comfortable economy seat. Our row’s hilarious flight attendant took a liking to my wife and me and force-fed us Champagne – he even sent us off with a sack of split-bottles.

1998 called; it wants its wasabi mashed potatoes back.
1998 called; it wants its wasabi mashed potatoes back.

For dinner, BA served a dated but delicious miso-glazed cod over wasabi mashed potatoes on beautifully painted china, plus a small salad featuring cherry tomatoes and mixed lettuces and bitter greens that were surprisingly snappy and fresh. Dessert was blue cheese with fig jam or a killer passion fruit panna cotta.

Upon landing, since we’d flown business, we were fast-tracked through customs, grabbed our bags off the belt and met our driver right in IST’s arrivals hall.

You'll have views of the Bosphorus from the Four Seasons' marble-paved terrace. Photo courtesy of Four Seasons.
You’ll have views of the Bosphorus from the Four Seasons’ marble-paved terrace. Image courtesy of Four Seasons.

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorous

We knew we wanted to stay at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus, one of two FS properties in the city. The original is in touristy Sultanahmet near the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque; this newer one is a bit farther out in the residential Besiktas neighborhood, but is located in a former palace with dazzling views of the water. Four Seasons doesn’t offer a loyalty program, but like the Rosewood London, it’s part of the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program.

Four Seasons ain’t cheap, but Istanbul offers a favorable exchange rate and terrific value for American visitors. Currently, we get nearly three Turkish lira for every one US dollar. In November, rooms were going for about 250 euros a night ($266) – you can’t even stay at the Four Seasons St. Louis in the dead of August for less than $300 a night! For four nights, plus airport transfers, room service and some other incidentals, the final bill came out to roughly $1,400.

I used my Citi Prestige card here, knowing we’d earn 3x points for every dollar of our hotel spend and boosted my Thank You account by 4,200 points. As a frequent American Airlines flyer, I love ThankYou points — they’re worth 60% more when redeeming on AA, and I also earn miles on each flight. I just booked a December round-trip economy flight on American from PHL to Austin (AUS) for just 16,075 ThankYou points.

Summer sunset in Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Having been there, I can assure you that Istanbul is a city worth visiting. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

A Note on Visiting Istanbul

We’re seasoned travelers, but I’d be lying if I said we didn’t reconsider our plans to visit Turkey after this year’s attack on the US Embassy in Istanbul and the bombing in Ankara. However, after talking to many friends who’d recently been to Istanbul, we decided to push forward — and I’m so glad we did. Though Istanbul is presently at a strange, precarious political crossroads, it’s also an electric, cosmopolitan city that manages to feel both familiar and exotic — I can’t say I’ve been anywhere like it. Turkish Airlines, a Star Alliance member, is adding more nonstop flights from the US than ever, and there are many points-hotel options. Your only concern should be getting TSA-flagged, like TPG did after his Istanbul trip in August. (Whether my wife and I also get hit with the SSSScarlet letter remains to be determined.)

Air France A318 in Economy — Istanbul to Paris

After Istanbul, we caught a predawn flight from IST to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) on Air France. We paid cash for these one-way economy tickets ($163 each), and as they were the first airline charges on my Citi Prestige card, $250 was instantly credited back to my account, in effect giving us two one-way tickets for $76. In addition, we earned roughly 1,400 Flying Blue miles per ticket.

On Air France, a mere three-hour flight gets you breakfast — a carb-y breakfast, but still.
On Air France, a mere three-hour flight gets you breakfast — a carb-y breakfast, but still.

We flew a short Airbus A318 with seats in a 3-3 configuration. When flying Air France economy, you can’t even pay to select your seat in advance, and we were stuck in the second-to-last row of a full flight. Breakfast on this three-hour flight consisted of a plain croissant, an orange-and-melon medley, a cucumber, tomato-and-feta sandwich meant to evoke the traditional Turkish breakfast and some sort of raisin-walnut bun served warm in a foil envelope. The carbs-on-carbs-on-carbs spread would have been great if we were planning on running a marathon once we landed in Paris.

Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme

We checked in at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, a Category 7 luxury property decked out in marble, walnut and gold (or lamé, according to TPG, who stayed here in March). With rooms averaging 650 euros ($695) per night, it offers a tremendous value for 30,000 Gold Passport points, but we used our two free nights from the Hyatt Credit Card we opened last fall. The Hyatt card also comes with automatic Gold Passport Platinum status, which includes perks like discounted breakfast and 50% off cocktails after 8pm at the gorgeous Le Bar; this status also scored us a complimentary upgrade from a Standard to Deluxe Room, with a storybook view of the Rue de la Paix. These small, well-designed rooms are more cozy than cramped and definitely plush. The best feature was being open to the huge windows and peering over the wrought-iron Juliet balcony into the bustling street.

I wish I'd had more time to enjoy our Deluxe Room at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome. Photo courtesy of the hotel.
I wish I’d had more time to enjoy our Deluxe Room at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome. Image courtesy of the hotel.

The Terror Attacks in Paris — and Our Decision to Head Home

Twelve hours after we arrived at the Park Hyatt, though, our windows were locked and the automatic shades drawn as gunfire, explosions and ambulances wailed through a very, very tense night. We’d arrived back at the hotel from dinner just as news of the Paris terror attacks was beginning to trickle in. In the immediate aftermath, the front desk staff at the Park Hyatt was cool-headed and professional, assuring us the hotel was safe and secured. We kept hearing banging and groaning outside, as if, in our terror-twisted imaginations, an intruder was trying to scale those romantic balconies. More attacks likely, was the refrain from CNN. Terrorists on foot!

We slept uneasily between fielding texts and Facebook messages from worried family and friends. The following morning, Saturday, was spent debating whether to stay in Paris until Sunday or try to leave early. The Embassy wasn’t much help. The representatives we spoke with in Paris and in Washington wouldn’t advise on whether we should or should not travel. Their noncommittal statements amounted to: Ask your airline, not us.

The beauty of Paris will always endure — and so may the shock of anyone who was there on November 13, 2015. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

We decided to take our chances and I called American. All I could think about was the mess that ensued trying to change tickets over the phone during Polar Vortex 2014. I figured this would be that times 10, but surprisingly, an agent picked up immediately. She was sweet and sympathetic, assuring us that flights were landing at and taking off from CDG, business as usual.

It was 9:30am, and I knew we’d have no chance of making the 11am nonstop Air France flight to Philly. So I gave her the flight numbers for the second-best option, a short hop to Heathrow, followed by a 5:15pm flight to Philly, both on British Airways. During severe weather events and emergencies like Paris, AA normally waives change fees and fare differences, so moving our flights up cost nothing. After a couple minutes on hold, the new reservation appeared in my inbox and we headed to the airport. On the way out of the Park Hyatt, sad to leave, I saw what the front desk meant by secured — massive wood doors blocked out the usually open hotel entrance, like something out of Game of Thrones, and we exited out a small side door into a taxi.

CDG was busy; you’d never know it wasn’t any other day, except for the French military roaming around the terminals. We boarded our BA flight to London with a mix of relief and nerves, like the Iranian hostages in Argo. Fortunately, the flight was an uneventful 45 minutes and we connected onto our second flight through an also-busy Heathrow, re-screening at security, where my bag was searched. My hair pomade was a small sacrifice for the pumped-up security, which we appreciated.

British Airways Dreamliner in Economy — London to Philadelphia

We got to fly a Dreamliner home, which was nice and a first for us. Though I had a ton of writing to do, I was so burnt out that all I could bring myself to do was zone out for seven hours to the fully stocked entertainment system. Unfortunately, the headphone port at my seat was broken; I could only get sound in the left or right ear and only when I pressed in the jack. However, the row behind me had empty middle and aisle seats, so I moved back, giving each of us an empty middle seat. I watched five of six episodes of Show Me a Hero (excellent) and most of San Andreas (less excellent), pausing for an aromatic chicken curry with rice, red wine and orange-scented chocolate mousse. This food, in economy, is better than what I’ve been served in first class on American.

The seatback entertainment and food in economy on British Airways' Dreamliner was almost enough to distract me from the shock of the Paris terror attacks. Photo courtesy of British Airways.
The seatback entertainment and food in economy on British Airways’ Dreamliner was almost enough to distract me from the shock of the Paris terror attacks. Image courtesy of British Airways.

The Dreamliner gleamed. The seats felt fresh and crisp. The lighting flattered. But functionally, there were some flubs: The armrests only fold up 90 degrees. The trays BA uses for meal service slide around on the tray tables as if greased with motor oil. The toilet seat wouldn’t stay up.

But on November 14, did any of this really matter? No. It was a stark reminder that the bells and whistles that airlines do or don’t offer pale in comparison to the central good in which they traffic: safety.

Maybe it was my imagination, but our captain seemed extra chatty and warm during his frequent — more frequent than normal? — announcements. Maybe he could sense everyone was a little nervous flying over the Atlantic that night. The seatback entertainment was a good distraction, but I didn’t fully feel the weight of the attacks dissipate until we dipped below the clouds and Philadelphia was lit up like a motherboard below us. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to wait around baggage.

But now that I’m home, I can’t wait to see Paris again — and use my travel dollars, points and miles to show the city that I care about its enduring safety and happiness, too.

Credit cards Shutterstock 145590460

Helpful Hint

Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Starwood Preferred Guest Amex and the Citi ThankYou Premier don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on vacation in France, Turkey and the UK. For more cards without these fees, be sure to see, Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.

For more on London, Paris and Istanbul, be sure to see these other posts:

Travel to London on Points and Miles
Your Points and Miles Guide to London
5 Things I Loved About My Trip to Istanbul
How to Use Airline Miles for Award Travel to Istanbul
10 Photos: What’s New in Paris

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