An Old-Timer's Thoughts on Premium Class Travel

This week, I flew Asiana Airlines First Class on my way back to Toronto, thereby checking another international First Class product off my bucket list. While I’d normally have a post sharing my initial impressions, I decided to mix it up a bit by chatting with you guys about my general thoughts on travelling in premium cabins, now that I’ve circumnavigated the world in the posh seats quite a few times.

For context, I wrote the below two articles after my maiden flights in long-haul business class and First Class respectively, and this post is meant to be a natural continuation of the reflections I had back then:

As for the Asiana First experience, it was of course a tremendously satisfying flight in just about every way. I’ll be putting together a detailed review in due time; for now, a few teaser pictures to keep you occupied…


The Variance Among Airlines

Flying in a premium cabin for the first time is no doubt a special thing. I remember my first flight on Brussels Airlines – from the moment we stepped on board, we were struck with unbridled amazement at our luxurious surroundings. The flight attendants could tell it was our first time by the looks on our faces, and were extra diligent in refilling our drinks as a result. It was awesome.

But once you’ve got a few flights under your belt, you start to notice the differences between the premium cabins on different airlines. I’ve actually come to be quite surprised at the sheer gulf in quality, especially between airlines that I’d otherwise hold in equal regard.

For example, EVA Air business class was spectacular both times I flew it, offering reverse herringbone seats, delicious pre-booked meals, and attentive personalized service. It’s therefore become one of my first choices for transpacific flights, and I'd easily go out of my way to fly with them if I couldn’t find availability on their Toronto flight.

 EVA Air business class on the Boeing 777

EVA Air business class on the Boeing 777

On the other hand of the spectrum, you have something like Lufthansa business class, which I flew recently from Toronto to Frankfurt (I should have the review out soon). I’ve always thought of Lufthansa very highly – perhaps it’s the German efficiency ideals and whatnot – but my goodness do they have lots of room for improvement with their business class. 

No privacy at any seat, outdated interiors and seat features, and factory-line service – not exactly befitting of one of the world’s leading airlines. Even if their flights didn’t come with ridiculous fuel surcharges, I’d probably avoid them going forward, since there are certainly better options for transatlantic business class. (Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s still worlds apart from economy class – a topic I’ll get to later…)

 Lufthansa business class on the Boeing 747-400

Lufthansa business class on the Boeing 747-400

Even on short-haul flights, the differences between airlines can be stark. For example, Japan Airlines seems particularly fond of putting wide body aircraft on regional routes, making them an excellent choice if you want to hop around Asia in relative comfort. Air China, ANA, even the venerable Singapore Airlines have lots of A320-family jets operating on intra-Asia routes, whereas if you fly with JAL, you’ll likely end up in one of many cutting-edge business class seats on a Boeing 777 or 787. 

 Japan Airlines Sky Suites III on the Boeing 777

Japan Airlines Sky Suites III on the Boeing 777

While the variances among airlines can be frustrating when you’re stuck on an inferior product, it’s ultimately part of what makes premium travel so fun to begin with. Economy class tends to be very similar across the board, while business class tends to give you something different on each airline, which makes the journey a little more interesting on your way to the destination. 


Lie-Flat Beds Make the Difference

The more time I spend in business class cabins, the more I value one particular benefit much more than any other – the ability to arrive well-rested thanks to a decent sleep on a lie-flat bed.

Sure, dining on a few gourmet dishes by signature local chefs is a nice perk, but you aren’t going to die from eating off the economy trays either. There’s only so much alcohol you can throw back before everything starts to get a little hazy. As for lounge access? You can easily get that with a Priority Pass card, which in many cases takes care of your food and drink needs as well.

A proper lie-flat bed is the primary reason why people are willing to pay for business class outright, because the better-quality rest can make all the difference between energy and lethargy upon your arrival. When I flew in economy class, I’d always need a day or two to deal with the double-whammy of poor sleep and jet lag, but nowadays I’m able to jump on the sightseeing trail right away with the help of a coffee or two.

 Lie-flat bed on the Swiss 777

Lie-flat bed on the Swiss 777

Of course, this isn’t a universal truth – for example, I struggled to fall asleep on Air Canada business class because of the unreasonable design of the seat in lie-flat mode. Moreover, if you’re a light sleeper, you’d have a hard time drifting off amidst the cacophony of an aircraft cabin, sleeping angle be damned. 

But one way or another, I know that I can expect a certain added level of comfort from business class – which might not be quite worth the considerable cash premium but certainly is worth the smaller premium in mileage – and it’s therefore the main reason why I always look to secure lie-flat seats whenever I know I’ll be overnighting at 37,000 feet in the air.


First Class Is Always Special

While my maiden flight on Brussels Airlines business class had left me awestruck, I’ve since flown many more segments in the forward cabin, which has established the business class experience as a baseline of sorts. Nowadays when I board a flight, I no longer gape in amazement at my surroundings; instead, I simply settle into my seat and absorb the comfort of the cabin.

First Class, on the other hand, is a different story. An upcoming First Class flight still has me marking my calendar, counting down the days, and waiting in anticipation with my heart racing on the day. 

 Asiana Airlines First Class on the Airbus A380

Asiana Airlines First Class on the Airbus A380

To see why, you have to realize that First Class flights are pretty rare to begin with, and you often need to go out of your way to be able to fly one. For example, the only First Class options out of Canadian airports are Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Saudia, and Emirates; to fly the First Class product of any other airline, you’ll probably have to connect via the US.

Furthermore, most airlines only operate First Class on a select handful of their most premium-heavy routes, and many are also in the process of further cutting First Class services given that they’ve found business class to be the most profitable cabin in general. 

Throw in the exorbitant costs in terms of both cash and points (and the well-documented restrictions in terms of booking with the latter), and it becomes something that very few people get to try in their lifetimes. All this conspires to ensure that First Class is special every single time, no matter how many times you fly it.

That’s not to say that there aren’t major variances among different airlines’ First Class cabins either. Some, like Japan Airlines, focus on delivering incredible in-flight dining; others, like Lufthansa or Cathay Pacific, concentrate on all-round excellence, investing in the ground experience of lounges and car transfers in addition to the flight itself. 

  The Pier First Class Lounge  by Cathay Pacific

The Pier First Class Lounge by Cathay Pacific

Having flown First Class on five different airlines now, I think they can generally be grouped into two different categories. There’s the top-tier cabins, which were incredible, unforgettable, and which I’d make every effort to fly again, and then there’s a second, slightly lower tier, which were still incredible, still memorable, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly it again unless it was the most logical option.

Based on my experiences so far, I’d probably put Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, and JAL in the former category, Asiana Airlines in the latter, and ANA somewhere in the middle (but only because it was an overnight flight with a limited meal service). Hopefully there’s many more to come!


Keeping My Inner Snob In Check

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll notice that I make every effort to redeem my points for long-haul premium cabins wherever I go. In fact, the last time I flew long-haul economy class was nearly a year ago on my trip to London; since then, I’ve done South East Asia, China, Latin America, and Russia and China again in business class or higher. 

I say that not to engage in empty boasting, but rather to emphasize the reality that ever since stepping foot on my Brussels Airlines flight in May of last year, travelling in premium cabins has become, for better or worse, something I’ve become accustomed to. And that’s a little scary, because it also means that I’ve developed a general aversion to flying in economy class – in other words, I’ve become a bit of a snob.

I’m totally comfortable a short-haul flight or two in the economy seats, but anything involving an overnight and I begin to shudder at the thought of sleeping on something that’s not a lie-flat surface (and yes, I do hear myself saying that, thank you very much). Indeed, an oft-repeated word of warning among points-collecting circles is that “once you start flying business class, you can’t go back!”

 The WestJet 767, my most recent flight in economy class

The WestJet 767, my most recent flight in economy class

That can be a dangerous line of thinking, because there’s no guarantee that Miles & Points will be around for the rest of my lifetime. Economy class has always been how people around the world travel; it’s how I travelled before dabbling with credit cards – and I had enjoyed every second of it, because I actually like flying. But now that my tastes have shifted in the direction of the swanky, I imagine I’d be in for quite the reality check if the opportunities to affordably fly in premium cabins were to disappear.

I suppose one way to resist these tendencies would be to deliberately fly in economy class every now and then, just to make sure I never lose that perspective. Indeed, there’s a good case to be made that tempering one’s encounters with luxury makes them that much more special. Whether I follow through with that, though, only time will tell…


Conclusion

The way I travel has changed drastically ever since I discovered Miles & Points. Whereas before I had happily subjected myself to 16-hour hauls in Seat 61H out of nothing more than the sheer love of flying, these days I'm able to revel in the comforts of business class and First Class as I take to the skies. I'm obviously immensely grateful for these opportunities, and while I do feel a little troubled by the thought that they may disappear one day, I also think that the best we can do is to maximize them while they're here.