Among Miles & Points enthusiasts, the possibility of redeeming your points for jaw-droppingly expensive flight experiences carries with it an undeniable appeal. International First Class flights usually come with five-figure price tags, and the satisfaction in indulging in a multi-course gourmet meal or $500-a-bottle whiskey at 35,000 feet in the air, all for the price of a few credit card applications, can therefore be quite profound indeed.
I myself am making an ongoing effort to try as many of the world’s First Class airlines and products as possible. I feel like since these opportunities are so readily available at our fingertips, it’d be a shame if I missed out on these “cheap” ways to fly First Class while they’re around.
Having already flown First Class on five of the world’s leading airlines, I will outline in this article the five airlines whose First Class cabins I’d love to sample next, as well as my intended strategies to make these trips happen through redeeming points. Some of these airlines I already have upcoming trips planned, while some I’m hoping to book in the near future.
To revisit the airlines in whose fanciest seats I’ve already had the good fortune of flying, you can read the reviews I’ve written of Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, ANA, and Cathay Pacific. A review of Asiana Airlines First Class, which I flew recently this year, will be forthcoming as well.
In addition, I’ve written a series of booking guides for Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, and ANA (with the others to follow), which outline the process you’d follow if you wanted to book one of these flights for yourself.
Let’s jump into the list with two airlines with whom I’ve secured bookings already…
1. Singapore Airlines
Perhaps no airline evokes a feeling, based on reputation alone, of consistently delivering world-class flight experiences quite as much as Singapore Airlines.
Their famous Suites Class on the Airbus A380 was a game-changer in terms of luxury travel when it was introduced, setting a new standard with its salivating Book the Cook offerings and the “double bed in the sky”.
Meanwhile, the new generation of A380 Suites Class, which came onto the market last year, looks to be equally as transformative.
While there doesn’t seem to be a good way to book the new Suites Class at the moment, the old product is definitely still worth trying, and it’s readily bookable via Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer. Singapore doesn’t tend to make their premium awards available to partners, so you’ll usually have to earn KrisFlyer miles to fly long-haul business class or First Class with them.
In Canada, that means transferring miles via either the Marriott program (60,000 points will get you 25,000 KrisFlyer miles) or HSBC Rewards (every 25 HSBC Rewards points will earn you 9 KrisFlyer miles), or dabbling with US credit cards and then transferring miles via Amex, Chase, or Citi. When redeeming KrisFlyer miles for Singapore Suites, the rates start at 76,000 miles for a one-way flight at the saver level between New York JFK and Frankfurt.
However, earlier this year there was a brief window when Singapore Suites was bookable via Aeroplan (and other partners) on the route to Auckland, New Zealand. Since I was going to be in the region at the time anyway, I went ahead and booked myself a trip in Suites Class for 95,000 Aeroplan miles, and I can’t be more excited for the flight date to come around!
At the moment, the most pressing first-world problems on my mind are deciding which two meals out of the Book the Cook menu I’m going to order, as well as monitoring the empty suite adjacent to mine and hoping that it stays empty, so that I can have a “double bed in the sky” all to myself.
If you play the mileage game, chances are you’ll have pored over a review of Emirates First Class at some point. The Gulf airline is known for its ostentatious cabin finishes and its extravagant First Class amenities, many of which are almost entirely unnecessary beyond a pure “wow” factor. The in-flight shower onboard the Airbus A380 is, of course, a prime example.
A while back, it was really easy and affordable to redeem Alaska miles for Emirates First Class; however, the rates have since increased significantly, and a one-way trip will now cost you at least 150,000 miles. Nevertheless, if you have Alaska miles to burn, Emirates First Class is no doubt one of the most indulgent ways you can treat yourself to a truly special way to fly.
That’s exactly the situation I found myself in recently, as I was planning my upcoming travel for 2019. I had an excess of Alaska miles from the Marriott Travel Packages earlier this year, so I was considering splashing them on an Emirates First Class redemption.
A brief side-note here: just like Singapore Airlines, Emirates also launched a new First Class product on their Boeing 777 aircraft last year, which looks truly mind-blowing. Each First Class suite is essentially its own individual room, packed to the brim with over-the-top features such as virtual-reality windows with the outside view and a video chat feature to communicate with the crew.
Now, Emirates typically blocks award redemptions on the routes that feature their new First Class. However, earlier this week, they announced that they’d be launching the new First Class on their Dubai–Vienna route. Upon seeing this news, I immediately checked to see whether Emirates had pulled the award availability yet, and to my delight, they hadn’t!
And so I booked a routing that goes from Vienna to Toronto, with a stopover in Dubai, for next summer. This will allow me to try out Emirates First Class on both the Airbus A380 (with the onboard shower) and the new Boeing 777 (with the individual enclosed suite)! At 180,000 Alaska miles, this was not a cheap redemption, but in hindsight it was exactly what all those Marriott Travel Packages were meant to be for.
If you don’t want to drop a large stash of Alaska miles on a single award, then the alternative is to book Emirates First Class using JAL Mileage Bank, which is a transfer partner of the Marriott loyalty program. JAL operates a distance-based award chart, so the amount of miles you need will be based on your total routing distance.
Note, however, that you may be on the hook for carrier-imposed surcharges when booking Emirates via JAL’s loyalty program.
3. Etihad Airways
Compared to Emirates, Etihad Airways may be seen as the “other” UAE airline, but its First Class offerings are no less impressive.
The Abu Dhabi-based airline goes toe-to-toe with its Dubai counterpart onboard the Airbus A380 by way of its world-renowned First Class Apartments, a product that’s truly unique among its peers. The sheer amount of real estate that each passenger gets on the Etihad Apartments is simply incredible – the fact that everyone gets their own individual leather armchair and a 6’10’’ flat bed says it all.
Just like Emirates, Etihad’s A380s are fitted with an onboard shower as well. You can also visit The Lobby, an onboard bar and lounge located in-between First Class and business class on the upper deck of the aircraft.
The most popular way to redeem miles for Etihad is through American AAdvantage. 115,000 miles will get you a one-way in the Apartments from North America to the Middle East, while 62,500 miles will allow you to fly between Abu Dhabi and either London or Paris.
However, the downside is that there’s no easy to way to earn AAdvantage miles in Canada besides transferring points through Marriott (60,000 points will get you 25,000 AAdvantage miles) or RBC Rewards (10 RBC Avion points will get you 7 AAdvantage miles).
The other annoying thing about AAdvantage is that its routing rules don’t allow you to transit a third region on your way between two destinations, so you can’t fly Etihad First Class say, between North America and Australia on the same award.
Meanwhile, Etihad partners with Asiana Airlines as well, and the award rates via the Asiana Club program are relatively attractive. You’ll only pay 80,000 Asiana miles for a one-way to North America, and 40,000 Asiana miles for a one-way to Europe. That’s just about the lowest amount of miles you can pay out of any program to fly in Etihad’s swanky Apartments.
To accumulate 40,000 Asiana miles, you can transfer points over from Marriott – taking into account the 3:1 transfer ratio as well as the bonus when transferring in chunks of 60,000 points, you’ll need 105,000 Marriott points in total to make this happen. Alternatively, if you have a US credit profile set up, you can apply for Asiana’s US co-branded credit cards issued by Bank of America to earn miles in the program as well.
I’m not sure when I’ll be able to fit Etihad First Class into my travels, but when the time comes, I’ll probably book via Asiana Club because of its more favourable award prices.
4. Korean Air
Korean Air is well-known for making lots of First Class awards available through its SKYPASS program. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see up to four First Class seats available on the same flight! Combine that with their spacious First Class suites on their A380s and 777s, as well as their remarkable onboard Korean cuisine, and you have all the makings of a wonderful transpacific flight.
Better yet, the award rates that you’ll pay for First Class through SKYPASS are quite reasonable as well. For just 80,000 SKYPASS miles, you can fly First Class between North America and Korea, Japan, or China. That’s a very lucrative deal compared to say, Aeroplan, which would charge you at 105,000 miles for the same award.
The difficulty here is that one of the best opportunities to earn SKYPASS miles was recently closed off – indeed, SKYPASS was once among the most useful transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards in the US, but that partnership was suddenly removed a few months ago. These days, the only way to earn SKYPASS miles efficiently would be to transfer points from Marriott at the usual 60,000-to-25,000 ratio.
A few days before Chase and Korean Air had ended their partnership, I had gone ahead and transferred over the 60,000 miles I had from signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred. I’d love to redeem 160,000 miles in total for two seats in Korean Air First Class, which means I’ll likely have to top up my balance at some point via the Marriott program.
There are a few more tricky things to be aware of when chasing Korean Air First Class: first of all, the SKYPASS program only allows you to redeem miles out of your own account for your documented family members. And yes, they do ask for verification of spouses through marriage certificates!
The other caveat is that not all Korean Air First Class flights are created equal. Indeed, while the airline’s Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s feature the large and comfortable Kosmo Suites 2.0, the First Class product on the Boeing 787s (which they fly to Vancouver and Toronto) and Airbus A330s are in fact glorified business class seats. You’ll still get the First Class dining and service, of course, but the overall experience wouldn’t quite be complete!
5. Thai Airways
Among the Star Alliance airlines with First Class that are both industry-leading and realistically bookable via Aeroplan, Thai Airways is the last one I have yet to try.
That’s primarily because they don’t fly to North America, so the only opportunity I’d get to try them would be when flying on their European, Australian, or intra-Asia routes. The airline offers First Class on their Airbus A380s and Boeing 747s, which they fly to a select handful of cities around the world, including London, Paris, Frankfurt, Sydney, and Tokyo.
The Royal First Class Lounge in Bangkok is also a favourite among Star Alliance loyalists and is known especially for the complimentary full-body massage that First Class passengers can enjoy.
Now, the Aeroplan Reward Chart is reasonable when redeeming miles for business class but quite expensive if you want to try First Class. Indeed, a round-trip from North America to Asia 2 (where Thailand is classified) would run me 215,000 Aeroplan miles, and if I wanted to continue onwards to Sydney in Thai First Class, that’d be 220,000 miles! Even taking into account how easy it is to earn Aeroplan miles here in Canada, that’s still quite a considerable chunk of mileage to burn on one trip.
When comparing those two options (Asia 2 vs Australia), I can realistically see myself going the full distance and redeeming an Aeroplan Mini-RTW in First Class down to Australia some day, since it’s only an incremental 5,000 miles. The maximum permitted mileage (MPM) between say, Toronto and Sydney, would definitely be generous enough for me to fit in lots of First Class flying on a single award.
The other thing I could see myself doing would be to redeem a simple one-way trip between North America and Thailand for 107,500 miles. If I were to do that, I could either cross the Atlantic and combine Thai with Lufthansa via Frankfurt, or cross the Pacific and combine Thai with ANA via Tokyo.
Honourable Mentions Go To…
Air France is usually mentioned among the highest echelons of First Class airlines in the world, but the trouble is that there’s no easy way to redeem miles for La Première. First you need to be an elite member within the Air France FlyingBlue program, and then you need to shell out the mileage cost of a “standard” award (rather than a “saver” award, which is what most awards we discuss are priced at).
Paris to the US would cost 200,000 Flying Blue miles. That’s ridiculously expensive, and I can’t see myself justifying that outlay anytime soon.
Perhaps my best chance to try Air France La Première would be via a reasonable fare sale or even a mistake fare of some sort; however, the latter is something I wouldn’t expect the airline to honour. Indeed, I had booked one of their US$600 First Class mistake fares last year, and they didn’t honour those at all (understandably so).
The same is true for Swiss and Garuda Indonesia. Both airlines have industry-leading First Class cabins but are notoriously difficult to book on points. Swiss blocks its First Class awards to its own top-tier elite members within Miles & More, and even goes so far as to unilaterally cancel tickets when they are inadvertently released to partners.
Meanwhile, Garuda Indonesia First Class can’t be redeemed through any of its SkyTeam partners (in fact, the SkyTeam alliance as a whole isn’t very friendly to partner awards in First Class). I’ll therefore be biding my time and watching out for any reasonable First Class fare sales on these airlines.
Lastly, I haven’t included it on the list because it doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, but I’d love to fly Air China First Class sometime soon. It’d certainly be a comfortable way to travel to Beijing and visit my family, which is a trip I usually take at least once a year. Moreover, I get the feeling that Air China’s onboard service often receives criticism due to the language barrier and the crew’s meagre command of English, which I don’t expect to be a problem for me since we’d be able to communicate in Mandarin.
For me, nothing demonstrates the power of Miles & Points more substantively than its ability to casually knock a couple of zeroes off the price tag of an international First Class ticket, and I’m keen to maximize these opportunities we have by trying as many of the world’s leading First Class products as possible.
By the middle of next year, I ought to have checked Singapore Suites and Emirates First Class (both old and new) off the bucket list, and I’ll aim to conquer Etihad, Korean Air, and Thai Airways soon after that. One thing’s for sure – plenty of riveting adventures lie ahead!