Flying first class is a fantastic experience. Just sitting in the cabin and being part of this rarified club of travelers is thrilling, no matter the airline. Most travelers will never sit at the front of the aircraft, which tends to be dominated by business travelers, the wealthy, and points-savvy passengers.
I consider myself “points-aware” and was able to redeem points and use a companion ticket to fly in the nose of a British Airways Boeing 747. There was tea and warm nuts at the outset of the flight, as well as plenty of wine and food that was actually delicious. The seats were converted by the flight attendant into a completely flat bed where I could stretch out my tall frame. Best of all, there was a navy, soft cotton pajama set I could wear for maximum comfort. (My wife surreptitiously snagged hers and still wears it from time to time.)
Aficionados will point out that the British Airways first-class “product” is dated and the lavatories are small. I didn’t notice—I was too busy loving every moment of the experience. We arrived at JFK three hours early for a preflight meal in a special first-class lounge, complete with a British celebrity sighting.
“The best first-class product is the one you can actually book and really enjoy to fly,” says Zach Honig, editor-at-large of The Points Guy. Honig tests first-class flights with regularity and is among the few who can provide comparison reviews. We asked him—and a few other frequent first-class flyers—which airlines are considered to have the best first-class cabins in the world.
Etihad Airways: An apartment in the sky
The Etihad Residence launched between Abu Dhabi and London in 2014 and is widely considered to be the most incredible first-class cabin experience in the skies—instead of a fully-flat bed, the ticket gets you a three-room suite. It doesn’t come cheap. The fare for the Residence covers two people, but one-way tickets cost around $25,000 between New York’s JFK airport and Abu Dhabi. Why the exorbitant price tag? The Residence has a living room, private shower, bathroom, as well as a separate bedroom with a double bed. Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, splurged on the trip as soon as it was announced. Kelly was greeted at his New York apartment before the trip with a luxury town car—and a second town car for his luggage.
More reasonable, and still in the first-class cabin, are the Etihad Apartments, which are decidedly smaller but also comparatively less expensive—two can fly one-way between JFK and Abu Dhabi for around $14,000. Notably, the Etihad Apartments are available for those who want to redeem rewards points. “The Apartment can be booked with American AAdvantage miles and it’s almost as luxurious,” Honig says. “The food is similar, as is the seat, and you even get access to the onboard shower.” Emirates: The shower. The caviar. Even the stationery.
Matthew Hranek, a style influencer, photographer, and author, favors Emirates, the carrier that turned Dubai into a worldwide hub. “Emirates is magical,” he says. “They’ve got great staff and a lounge. I love the single berths with flat beds. And stationery, for yes, letter writing, Grand Cru wines, vintage champagne, and a shower before you land. Oh, and did I mention the caviar? It’s a mic drop.” Emirates first-class suites have total privacy thanks to floor-to-ceiling sliding doors.
Honig concurs with Hranek, but adds that Emirates is perhaps too over the top. “I think the newer version of the Boeing 777 suite is far more tasteful, but even the original A380 looks more ostentatious in photos than it does when you’re actually sitting in the suite,” he says. Honig cited perks like a pop-up mini-bar—“clearly just for show”—but loved the entertainment options: “the giant screen loaded with hundreds of movies, airplane tail views, and more.” Lufthansa: A Mercedes-Benz or Porsche directly to the plane, danke
Lufthansa recently unveiled a subtle but extensive rebrand to the 63-year-old carrier. That refresh extended to one of the most sought-after first-class cabins from North America to Europe. As with all carriers, the first-class service begins on the ground. Lufthansa has a first-class lounge at JFK, where one bathroom has its own luxurious bathtub. That’s on top of a phenomenal meal that wouldn’t be out of place at a top New York restaurant. First-class passengers are whisked directly from the lounge to the aircraft via Porsche or Mercedes-Benz.
“Lufthansa sports luxurious pajamas, slippers, and even a special pillow to hold your wristwatch,” Honig says. On board, you’ll enjoy caviar and top-shelf liquor like Johnny Walker Blue Label. And Lufthansa first-class guests are always welcomed with a signature, freshly cut red rose. Singapore Airlines: Double beds to stretch out in
Singapore Airlines has been perfecting the first-class experience for some time now. “The first-class suite you’ll find on Singapore’s A380 from New York has already been flying for a decade, but it’s still one of the world’s most ‘aspirational’ redemptions,” says Honig. He was able to score one of two coveted, spacious double beds in his recent travels. On Singapore Airlines, the physical divider between two seats can be lowered to create one single bed—perfect for the high-flying couple.
Every first-class seat also comes with gifts to take home, and Honig appreciated the Singapore Airlines leather kit bag full of Lalique beauty products and a candle for home. How first class has changed—and what to look for today
“A lot of today’s ‘business-class’ cabins are as nice or nicer than first-class cabins of 15 years ago, and what we call ‘premium economy’ today looks a lot like business-class cabins looked 15 years ago,” says Seth Kaplan, editor of Airline Weekly and an airline industry expert.
“As business class became nicer with lay-flat beds and then all-aisle access becoming standard, it cannibalized first-class sales,” he says. “Airlines felt their own rather nice business-class cabins—and not other airlines’ first-class cabins—were often siphoning off business from their first-class cabins.” That’s why some carriers no longer have a branded “first class” product. Air Canada, for instance, has chosen to focus on creating a highly rated business class, especially on its new (and very gorgeous) Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
What should discerning travelers consider when looking for high-end options, first class or otherwise? “I’d search for award availability, of course, since first-class fares can easily climb into the five figures,” Honig says.
He also recommended looking for “Instagrammable moments,” such as “a fully enclosed suite, which is available on the new Emirates Boeing 777, or a posh caviar spread, like you’ll find on Asiana, where the Ossetra is served alongside a perfect red rose.”
Sounds deliciously indulgent. Hopefully someday I’ll give it a try.
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