I’m not famous. I don’t have a trust fund. Or a sugar daddy. I don’t have millions of airline miles. And yet, I’ve been able to fly around the world (literally, several times) in some of the most expensive, most exclusive first-class seats on the planet. And I'm here to tell you: Pretty much anyone can, if they know what they’re doing.
I do travel frequently for work (writing about travel, and all), so I have the opportunity to rack up a lot of frequent-flier miles that way. But I also have a few carefully chosen credit cards with great sign-up bonuses and spending opportunities. I’ve also taken the time to learn about airlines and their award charts, all of which has let me travel with world in style for mere pennies per mile.
Here are my favorite first-class experiences and how I flew them. (Intrigued? Find more of my hacks for upgrading like a celeb here.)
1. Etihad First Class Apartment
Back in 2014, Etihad (the carrier based in Abu Dhabi) revealed it would be installing all-new first-class cabins aboard the 10 A380s it had ordered from Airbus. The pièce de résistance that set the airline industry on its head was the three-room Residence including a private bedroom, living room, and lavatory complete with shower, as well as your own dedicated Savoy-trained butler. But for the rest of us who can’t afford to pay the $30,000 or so each way it’ll cost you to fly from the States to the Middle East, we can still fly in one of the nine Apartments that also make up the first-class cabin.
These babies each contain a Poltrona Frau leather recliner plus a separate bench that folds out to become a twin-size lie-flat bed, not to mention swiveling 24-inch HDTV flat-screen entertainment systems, private minibars, and even a vanity where you can freshen up using the Le Labo products in your personal amenity kit. Unfortunately, the shower on my flight (there’s another one for the rest of the first-class passengers) wasn’t working.
Oh, and there’s a chef on call the whole flight to make your meals to order whenever you’re feeling peckish. For lunch on my flight from New York to Abu Dhabi, I ordered the selection of Arabic mezze, the lamb biryani, and a molten chocolate cake. The chef was also happy to help me decide between the Bollinger Grande Année and Duval-LeRoy rosé champagnes on offer (start with the rosé and continue with the Bolly, if you ask me).
How I flew it:
I was flying on a discounted business-class airfare originating in Sri Lanka that cost $1,795 round-trip, and was able to bid on an upgrade for my one-way flight for just $1,100. That brought my total for this particular journey from New York to Colombo via Abu Dhabi to just under $2,000. You could also redeem 115,000 American Airlines miles for the experience.
2. Singapore Airlines Suites
Singapore Airlines set the standard back in 2007 when it unveiled the first suite-style seats in the sky aboard its new fleet of A380s. Designed by luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste (after all, if you have a luxury yacht, you want a French designer), each suite contains an Aeristo leather armchair that folds down into a bed.
I was on a seven-hour afternoon flight from Melbourne to Singapore and I didn’t want to miss a moment. After takeoff, I was treated to a tasting of both Dom Pérignon and Krug, then served a caviar course (no accompanying Belvedere vodka for me, thanks, I stuck with the champagne!), then Australian lamb chops served on Wedgwood china. I’d ordered ahead of time through the airline’s “Book the Cook” service. It allows you to pre-select from over 60 meal options created by the airline’s “Culinary Panel” of internationally acclaimed chefs.
After the meal, I changed into my Givenchy airline pajamas and freshened up with my Salvatore Ferragamo amenity kit while the flight attendants (who are clad in classic Balmain designs, by the way) turned down my bed with Givenchy sheets. Before landing, there was a quick snack of Singaporean noodles with seafood (okay, yes, and another glass of champagne) and a little trashy TV on the 23-inch LCD flatscreen in my suite.
How I flew it:
If you want to use miles to fly Singapore Airlines’ first class, it’s got to be Singapore’s own KrisFlyer program miles. Luckily, the program is a one-to-one transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest. So I was able to use just 63,750 points and paid about $240 in taxes and fees.
3. Emirates First-Class Suites
Emirates’ first-class suites are among the most-lauded (and most ostentatious) seats out there. Aboard most of the airline’s long-haul fleet, including its 777s and A380s, they’re paneled in gold and burnished wood, boast sliding doors for privacy, and come with fully stocked minibars and vanities with Temple Spa products.
I didn’t get to experience the full 13 to 16 hours of luxury from the U.S. because I took advantage of the airline’s system of so-called “tag flights” — those that just operate as a continuing segment from a longer flight. Instead, I had about two hours to enjoy it from Bangkok to Hong Kong. But the crew made every moment count.
As soon as I was seated, I was served a glass of Dom Pérignon, and perused the lunch menu to select a five-course tasting menu that included smoked salmon, filet mignon, and a chocolate-pear tart. While I was shaking up a cocktail at the bar at the aft of the top deck with a few of the business-class passengers, the flight attendants prepared the shower suite for me.
I scrubbed up at 39,000 feet and was just toweling off as we started our descent into Hong Kong.
How I flew it:
My short flight (one of several the airline operates with its long-haul aircraft) only cost about $600, but I got the full-on first-class experience, minus several hours of sleeping in the lie-flat bed. If you want to fly it on a longer route from the U.S., your best bet is to redeem Alaska miles at a rate of 150,000 each way from the U.S. to Dubai.
4. Cathay Pacific
Hong Kong’s flag carrier has long been a standard-bearer of service in the airline industry, and its first-class cabins are among the toniest up in the air. There are just six of these seats aboard some of the airline’s 777-300ERs, each a standalone little cocoon, so the small cabin feels quite exclusive and private.
I snagged one of the window seats which, like the others, is one-yard wide. That’s right, I’m not even talking about inches or feet here. It reclines to a bed that’s six feet, 9 inches, and was designed by London starchitect firm Foster + Partners.
On my night flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, dinner service started after takeoff with the airline’s signature caviar and smoked salmon course. None of the other passengers partook, so I got an entire tin of the stuff to myself along with a few glasses of Krug. I went surf-and-turf, and ordered the filet mignon after that, along with a glass of red Bordeaux.
Then I changed into my organic cotton PYE airline pajamas, dabbed on a little Aesop eye cream from my amenity kit, started watching a movie on my 17-inch personal flatscreen… and promptly conked out for the rest of the flight.
How I flew it:
Cathay is in the Oneworld alliance with American Airlines. At the time, I used 67,500 American miles to book a first-class award, though the same flight will now cost you 110,000 miles. Better to use Alaska miles (which is also a partner) at a rate of 70,000 miles each way instead.
I’ve been lucky enough to fly Lufthansa’s top-shelf first-class not once... but three times! That’s not to brag. It’s simply to demonstrate how easy it is to book. One of those times was in the old first class aboard an A340 five years ago, and would not have made this list on its own. However, since then, I’ve gotten to fly the airline’s newest first-class seats aboard the A380. There are only eight on that plane, arranged in two rows of four seats each. They’re sort of like enormous chairs that fold down into beds that the flight attendants will make up with mattress covers, duvets and fluffy pillows.
My favorite seat, however, had to be the one aboard the Boeing 747-400, which included a reclining armchair and a separate twin-size bed. That’s right, it was a seat and a bed all to yourself, and there were just eight of them aboard the upper deck of the plane, one on either side of the aisle in four rows. I think it was the most exclusive-feeling flight I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, the airline has phased out this particular seat.
On all of my Lufthansa flights, though, I’ve partaken of the Italian caviar, which is served with all the fixings from a special cart. Then there were four- or five-course tasting meals and various famous champagnes including Laurent-Perrier, Pommery Cuvée Louise and Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame. The champagne selection alone is enough to entice me to book an award… but I also like the La Prairie amenity kits.
How I flew it:
In each case, I used United miles to book my flights since the airlines are partners through their Star Alliance affiliation. These days, a first-class award from the U.S. to Europe on Lufthansa will run you a jaw-dropping 110,000 United miles each way. Better to transfer Amex Membership Rewards points or Starwood Preferred Guest points to Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and redeem just 70,000 miles that way.
6. Thai Airways
While it’s not industry topping, Thai's first class aboard the A380 is still pretty stellar. That doesn’t operate to/from the U.S. at the moment, but if you’re catching a flight to Asia from another region like Europe or Australia, this is a great way to travel.
The first-class cabin on the A380 is at the front of the top deck, and has just three rows of four seats each. Couples should snag the middle two seats while solo travelers will appreciate the privacy of the window seats.
These seats aren’t exactly eye-catching, but they are among the biggest in the sky, at 26.5 inches wide and with 83 inches of pitch, and they convert into fully flat beds. My flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok began in the afternoon, though, so before napping, I had a six-course meal that included a caviar course, various appetizers and canapés, penang curry chicken, a selection of cheeses and fresh fruit and a cappuccino cream cake. After an initial glass of Dom Pérignon (it seems to be the first-class standard these days), I switched to a Premier Cru from Chablis and then a red wine from Bordeaux.
After the meal, I changed in one of the enormous bathrooms — seriously, we’re talking normal lavatory plus a changing-room area — into my purple airline PJs, moisturized with the L’Occitaine products from the amenity kit, and slept the rest of the flight.
How I flew it:
I combined this flight as an award with a connecting flight from the U.S. to Frankfurt on Lufthansa. If you wanted to fly it on its own, though, it would require 115,000 United miles or 110,000 Aeroplan miles.
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