Airline industry experts have been proclaiming the death of first class for years.

While some airlines have done away with it altogether, others are doubling down with palatial suite-style seats, lavish amenities and services that pamper – on the ground and in the air.

What has ensued is a golden age of flying … for those who can afford it.

 

The history of first class reveals luxury air travel tug-of-war

In November, Singapore Airlines and Emirates unveiled all-new, first-class suites, fitted with such extravagant amenities such as in-suite minibars and Mercedes-Benz-inspired interiors.

A round-trip ticket from Dubai to Geneva in Emirates’ new suites can cost upwards of $8,000 – and that is on the affordable end of the spectrum.

These airlines are not alone: quieter, gradual enhancements on airlines such as Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways and Air France have resulted in premium experiences, with improvements ranging from more personal storage space to latest-generation entertainment screens and touch-screen seat controls.

 

Five most luxurious first-class air suites

Here’s what the airlines don’t want you to figure out: all it takes is a little points savvy to experience these seats for pennies on the dollar.

And thanks to powerful credit cards such as Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum, loyal flying may not be necessary.

The trick is to adjust your strategy according to where you want to fly and which seat you want to fly in (1A, please).

Here are the techniques that will get you into the five best cabins in the skies today.

1. Emirates first-class suites

Why you want to fly it

Emirates’ new suites, which were announced in November, are impressive for luxuriousness and rarity: for now, they’re available only on certain flights – from Dubai to Brussels, Geneva, and London Stansted (starting on June 8).

By the end of 2019, they will be installed on just nine planes, all new Boeing 777-300ERs.

If that sounds like a small number, it is.

Emirates’ new luxury Boeing 777 suites get a little help from Nasa and Mercedes

It is even smaller considering that there are only six suites per aircraft.

Each suite has 40 square feet (3.7 square metres) of completely enclosed personal space – a first for any airline – with stitched-leather seating created in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz and inspired by the carmaker’s S-Class vehicles.

The seats also have in-suite minibars, personal temperature zones and mood lighting, and a privacy hatch for meal service.

How to book it for less than economy-class prices

Emirates may not partner with the large airline alliances, but it does offer valuable points partnerships that are easy to use to your advantage.

Those include American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, whose points can be applied toward an award booking through the Emirates website.

These two words can help get you an airline upgrade over the phone

A first-class ticket between Dubai and Europe costs 85,000 miles each way.

Have a Chase Ultimate Rewards account? Transfer points from there to Korean Air’s Skypass programme, which partners with Emirates, and your round-trip Dubai-to-Europe ticket will cost 120,000 miles.

If you have Starwood Preferred Guest points to burn, try moving them to Japan Airlines Mileage Bank, which charges just 100,000 miles for a round-trip between Dubai and Brussels, Geneva, or London.

The caveats

Taxes and surcharges on award tickets can run to more than US$1,000, and award space in Emirates’ new first-class suites is virtually nonexistent – for now.

As more planes with the new suites go into service and the hubbub over their launch dies down, that should change.

2. Singapore Airlines first-class suites

Why you want to fly it

Similar to those at Emirates, Singapore Airlines’ first class improvements include all-new suites with closing doors on the upper deck of its flagship Airbus A380 jumbo jets, which are flying from Singapore to Sydney, Hong Kong and London Heathrow. (The cabins are being installed on new A380s first, then retrofitted onto existing A380s over the next few years.)

The distinguishing features? Swivelling Poltrona Frau leather armchairs that recline to 135 degrees, plus separate, fold-up beds that are made up with Lalique linens.

You can also turn adjacent suites into a huge one if you’re travelling with a companion, and get primped up for landing in an enormous lavatory with a sit-down vanity counter.

Mile-high gourmet: Etihad and other airlines that are stepping up their in-flight meal game

How to book it for less than economy-class prices

The only miles currency that Singapore Airlines accepts for first-class bookings is its own KrisFlyer miles – a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.

Even a new KrisFlyer member can gain the 75,000 miles it takes to fly one-way in a suite from Singapore to Sydney by rolling over the same number of points from one of these partner programmes.

The caveat

Limited availability, as with Emirates. Review frequent-flier boards such as FlyerTalk and the blogs of Boarding Area to stay up to date as availability loosens up on both products.

3. Air France la Première

Why you want to fly it

Air France’s la Première first class is one of the most exclusive experiences in the skies.

It debuted in 2014, giving it broader accessibility on Boeing 777-300ERs from US cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington.

There are only four such seats per plane, each with wraparound curtains for privacy. But it’s the details that set this experience apart: think Givenchy pyjamas, Sofitel MyBed linens and colourful cashmere throws on the beds, and Daniel Boulud-designed menus served on Limoges china with Christofle cutlery.

Singapore Airlines becomes the first carrier to put a double bed in cabins

How to book it for less than economy-class prices

As one Air France flight attendant told me on a recent trip: “There are no upgrades to la Première.”

The airline doesn’t make it easy to get it free by using air miles, either, but it is possible.

To do so, you can use only Air France’s Flying Blue miles – and solely if you have elite status with the airline.

The good news is, you need only a basic level of elite status to be eligible, so frequent fliers can credit a few weeks or months of travel to Flying Blue and they will be set.

Flying Blue also transfer partners with American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest, so it is easy to pad your account with points from other programmes.

The caveat

Brace yourself for high redemption rates. Flights between Paris and the US will cost 200,000 miles each way, while flying from Paris to one of the airline’s Asian destinations will cost 320,000 miles each way. Taxes and fees in either direction can also cost several hundred US dollars.

4. Cathay Pacific first class

Why you want to fly it

Cathay Pacific’s excellent first-class cabins offer the full package experience, with everything from preflight spa treatments to Champagne and caviar service on board.

The seats are extra-wide, at 36 inches (91 centimetres) and extra-long (the bed stretches almost seven feet), and can be found on some of the carrier’s Boeing 777-300ERs – including many of the planes it flies from its Hong Kong hub to such major US airports as Boston Logan, Chicago O’Hare, LAX and JFK.

How to book it for less than economy-class prices

Good news for US-based fliers: Cathay is a member of the oneworld airline alliance, along with American Airlines, so you can use AAdvantage miles for award tickets on the Asian carrier.

That costs 110,000 miles each way from the airline’s hub in Hong Kong to the continental US, or 90,000 miles each way between Hong Kong and Europe.

Have you Alaska Airlines miles? You’re in even better luck. It costs only 70,000 Alaska miles for a one-way, first-class ticket between Asia and the US or Europe.

Professional tip

Cathay often opens up award seats at the last minute, so spontaneous travellers can be handsomely rewarded.

 

The future of business-class includes personalisation, tech and privacy

The caveat

Booking via partners requires a bit of work, as Cathay Pacific awards can’t be found on Alaska or American’s websites.

Simply pinpoint the award seat you want, using British Airways’ award search engine (another oneworld partner), and then call Alaska or American’s mileage desks with your specific, desired flights.

5. Etihad first-class

Why you want to fly it

Most airlines are just playing catch-up to Etihad Airways, which debuted its stunning suites and three-room Residence back in 2014.

What makes these suites so special? Access to some of the world’s best lounges, on-demand dining (thanks to a dedicated, on-board chef), private minibars, and even in-flight showers. As with Singapore’s suites, these also have Poltrona Frau reclining chairs and separate twin beds. You’ll find all this aboard Etihad’s A380s on routes to London Heathrow, New York JFK, Sydney and Paris (starting on March 25).

Peek inside the world’s best luxury cabins

How to book it for less than economy-class prices

Transfer agreements with American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest make it feasible to book even the Apartment as an award ticket.

All you have to do is shuffle points into an Etihad Guest account and redeem directly through the airline’s website. Redemption rates vary by destination, but a one-way award ticket from JFK to Abu Dhabi costs roughly 136,500 Guest miles, plus US$275 in taxes and fees.

A similar ticket between Abu Dhabi and London costs far less: about 88,000 miles, plus US$235 in taxes and fees.

Prefer to use AAdvantage miles? You can do that, too. A first-class award between Abu Dhabi and the US costs 115,000 miles each way, and routes between Abu Dhabi and Europe come to about half that.

The caveat

Domestic customer support at American Airlines is not good about redeeming flights on Etihad. As a result, you will have to call one of American’s international call centres, such as the one in Australia, to book with AAdvantage miles.

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