Forget Everything You’ve Read, These Are the 9 Best Airline First Class Products

Business Insider runs a piece on “10 First-Class Airplane Seats That Are Nicer Than Your Apartment” and it’s probably better than many of these pieces since it actually lists products that are mostly actually good (United and American do not make the list).

On the other hand, it includes products that don’t exist yet — Etihad’s 3-room Residence which will debut in late December on the airline’s new A380, and Air France’s new La Premier cabin which features curtains instead of doors and doesn’t much impress me. And it does include products like British Airways’ which simply doesn’t belong, classy a cabin as though it may be.

My own view is that it’s really hard to put together a list like this if you haven’t flown a lot of the products involved. And that the best pieces are going to compare those products you have actually sampled.

So here are what I believe are the best first class airline products, taking care to highlight where I have knowledge and where I don’t (such that my list should be subject to revision based on better first-hand experience).

In other words, this is the ‘real world’ list of best first class products. Read on to see which one is best, which ones are great, and which ones are easy to get with your points.

Cathay Pacific

This is my favorite all-around first class product. Their newly-remodeled first class side of The Wing lounge in Hong Kong is good but not out of this world good.

There’s not much in the way of first class ground service with this airline. Their seats do not have doors. And the food is good but not great.

However, as far as the hard product goes, in my mind it cannot be beat. The 777 has just 6 seats. Most first class cabins are 4 seats across on the 777, and Cathay has just 3. Their seat gives a sense of spaciousness that I haven’t experienced with any other product. Their seat – aided by good bedding – is the best one I’ve experienced for sleeping. I flew it again a week ago, I intended to sleep only two hours in order to adjust as quickly as possible to my new time .. but I involuntarily slept 8 hours and I don’t sleep well on planes usually.

Service is very good. You have to know what to expect. Their flight attendants aren’t necessarily proactive, rather they’re a bit more reserved and try not to disturb. But they’re at your seat within seconds when you call, always friendly and always helpful.

I’m not overly impressed by their main meal service, especially their Western meals, but they have Krug and caviar, Chinese options are good, and their midflight snack service is very good (there are usually more things that I would want to try than I have time or room for). I like their pajamas, even now that they do not offer Shanghai Tangs any longer. Their amenities and video on demand are very good as well.

Overall, they’re my number one, always reliable and in general award space is quite available when schedules open (far better than before 2009, but not as good as 2012) and they reliably offer more space at the last minute when seats go unsold.

Singapore Airlines

Among their current products I’ve only flown their 777 first class and toured their new first class product. Somehow I’ve managed new to have flown the A380 Suites, although I have a booking for later this year.

Service is fantastic, their TV commercial claims are even credible.

The hard product is good but somewhat vexing. Their first class seat is great for sleeping, but not for lounging. Amenities are good (note: no amenity kit offered in business class), plenty of items in the drawers in the lavatories, though I miss the full-size Ferragamo amenities I received back in 2011.

Singapore does a very good job with its main meal service include its pre-order options. Its midflight snack service is very weak.

Singapore is the only airline that I know that offers both Dom Perignon and Krug onboard. Their flight attendants sometimes fail to conceal their smirk, when you ask for champagne, and they check in with you for your preference between these two top shelf offerings.

The Private Room first class lounge in Singapore is good, but it’s not the best in the world, I don’t find the space itself all that appealing — mostly a big room separated by furnishings rather than being at all architecturally interesting. But the lounge food is among the best, in fact they will make you anything you wish (the menu is really there to serve as a suggestion rather than as a constraint).

Overall I’d take Singapore over almost anyone else.

You really can’t redeem miles on Singapore’s partners if you want premium cabin award seats flying most of their long haul routes.

But if you have Singapore’s own miles, availability is excellent — even on some routes for their A380 Suites. Fortunately, American Express Membership Rewards points and Starwood Starpoints transfer one-to-one into Singapore Airlines Krisflyer (albeit not instantly, and Singapore does add fuel surcharges to awards).

Asiana

Good seat, very good service. Flight attendants frequently don’t have strong English skills even on US routes, which is fair but has led to some awkward requests and some frustrating interactions (probably most frustrating for them and I’ve felt bad, I ask for something and they bring me the wrong thing, after a couple of attempts I know it must annoy them).

The food is magnificent. And I’ve long been touched by the departing gifts I’ve received in the past, such as Wedgewood sterling silver wine bottle stoppers and designer coffee mugs. Those leave me with a warm feeling for the product overall, and I grant that’s historical.


    Yes, those are sliced black truffles


    Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee

Their Los Angeles – Seoul and Frankfurt – Seoul flights have historically been easiest to get. They don’t have very many routes offering first class, and most of the time New York JFK – Frankfurt has been tougher.

All Nippon Airways

ANA has good seats — they are functionally and not flashy. This applies of course to first class only, I find some of their other products lacking like their intra-Asia business class seat. But first class is very good. And while their service style is very culturally Japanese and some will prefer Singapore’s service more I find that in its own way their onboard service to be amongst the very best in the world. At the very least, no one will apologize more.

And it’s the little things — not just the product, the amenities, the food, but attention to detail. Try to imagine a US airline’s flight attendants cleaning the lavatory between each use, for instance.

But the food really helps make them, it’s tough to beat the meal service on ANA, especially if you enjoy Japanese food although I’ve also found their Western options to be very, very good.

Years ago ANA was an easy first class to get, back when they had 12 seats in their ‘SuperStyle’ first class.

Then they reduced to 8 seats in ‘new’ first class and usually limited advance booking of first class to the winter months.

With their new First Square, and stronger bookings, first class has been harder to get except close to departure.

Thai Airways

They have more different products on more different planes than almost anyone. And no one changes up aircraft more than Thai, so you really can’t count on what product you’re going to get until you actually board.

I find onboard service to be a mixed bag, I’ve had fantastic crews and I’ve had mediocre crews. There are great seats and merely good seats. And while they do offer pre-order meal service, the quality of their meals while more than good enough isn’t at the level of Singapore, ANA, or Asiana.

But I do find Thai to offer the very best ground service in the world – especially at their home base of Bangkok, and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong.

When you check in in Bangkok there’s a seated area, then you’re escorted through premium passport control and taken to a buggy which will drive you through the backside of the business class lounge to the first class lounge.

It’s an attractive space, with semi-private living rooms you can request.

The number one highlight is the spa. A real, honest-to-goodness Thai spa inside the airport. Have a shower, take your massage, clean up again and you’re truly relaxed before a long haul flight.

I much like the ‘food room’ in the first class lounge. There’s an abbreviated menu, but visit the room displaying food choices, point at what you want, and they will bring it to you.

And then when it’s time to board they will come get you in the lounge and escort you to the plane. I do love that — you don’t have to worry about what time your plane is leaving, or what gate you’ll be departing from, it’s someone else’s job to worry about that.

Thai first is good — but the key to enjoying it is to fly them departing from Bangkok, rather than merely flying to Bangkok, where you’ll be met on arrival and escorted through priority immigration but otherwise left wondering what the fuss is about. It’s the Bangkok outbound ground experience that’s special.

And scoring first class Bangkok – Europe as well as Bangkok – Hong Kong can be a fairly easy adventure.

Qantas

Now, I’ve only flown Qantas first class on their 747. I have the A380 booked for the first time later in the year.

They’ve always had a good but not world-leading seat. The service is also good but very Australian so it’s not going to rival the better Asian carriers.

But their lounges in Sydney and Melbourne are outstanding, and the food is excellent. I’m a fan of their tasting menus, and while their wine isn’t always as top shelf expensive as some of their competitors it’s very thoughtfully chosen especially if you enjoy trying top notch Aussie offerings.

Getting first class space on Qantas though can be hard. They don’t have very many routes offering first class anymore, and they are far from generous.

Qantas is probably the only airline where the old belief that it’s necessary to book space when airline schedules load actually holds true. And the frustrating thing is that American and Alaska do not let you book award space when Qantas’ schedules load, instead making you want until they load their own flights 331 days out. Note that Dubai flights are much much easier than US routes to find space.

Etihad

I’ve taken Etihad first on three trips in the past 15 months. It’s very solid, and very easy to get. They fly or have plans to fly to New York JFK, Washington Dulles, Los Angeles, and Dallas with first class service (Toronto and Chicago feature business as their top cabin).

You can redeem American Airlines miles for 90,000 each way to Abu Dhabi and beyond if you’re flying to the Middle East, India, and surroundings (I’ve used them to fly to India and twice to the Maldives).

They tend to open up space early and leave it open until seats are booked, although they do not reliably add more inventory as departure nears in my experience.

They offer a car service for both business and first class passengers for many of their destinations, both heading to and from the airport.

The first class lounge in Abu Dhabi has good, extensive food, and a spa, but I find it can get a bit crowded and I’ve not had the best luck with internet there (never able to connect my laptop but no problem with my Android phone).

They feature an onboard chef concept in their first class, which is a flight attendant with real world restaurant experience in the kitchen. Combined with a ‘kitchen anytime’ offering and extensive menu this can work out wonderfully, although I’ve found it to be somewhat hit or miss depending on the chef you get. Some will want to be creative and match meals to your preferences, and others will just serve what’s on offer (which isn’t bad). I’m not a huge fan of Middle Eastern cuisine, but I always find good food onboard to eat. And I love the baklava.

Korean

Korean’s first class is one of the easiest premium products in the world to get if you have Chase points to transfer. I had no problem scoring first class awards for travel the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

It’s not suites with doors. The food isn’t as good as Asiana’s or ANA’s. The ground service doesn’t match Thai’s (although you can get customized luggage tags in the Seoul first class lounge).

But it’s a very solid product, with a good seat and good service, and wonderful food especially if you like Korean meals.

The reason their space is so available is because here in the US they partner with Delta but Delta doesn’t permit first class redemptions. There just isn’t much competition for the space, and not very many US folks have enough Korean miles to claim the space.

Lufthansa

I am not a huge fan of Lufthansa. I’ve never had a truly amazing Lufthansa first class flight, and they gave me probably my worst first class flight ever. But I do find them to have an all-around classy product, from the dinner rose to the caviar.

But the First Class Terminal is a special place, with very good food and very good drink… showers and bath that are made more special by rubber duckies.. and of course a car ride in a Mercedes or Porsche to the plane. (First Class lounges are nearly identical to the terminal, in some cases even offering the car service for flights departing at a non-gate position.)

Lufthansa first class used to be one of the easiest to get in the world, I’ve booked as many as 8 seats on a single flight for award booking clients. No longer.

It’s very rare that Lufthansa makes first class award seats available to partner airline frequent flyer programs more than two weeks in advance (although Lufthansa’s own Miles & More members get access to better inventory).

At the last minute, though, and with the number of routes Lufthansa operates from North America, is not hard to get if you have some flexibility and can either book last minute or are willing to make changes to your award as travel nears.

Everyone Else

There are several other good products of course. Swiss is one, and to me fairly similar to Lufthansa and with a good lounge but not offering the same special feel I get from the First Class Terminal. Within Asia JAL is very good. Even Air China is underrated. And while I haven’t flown Jet Airways, I’ve flown their 777 with first class suites (that now show lots of wear and tear).

I haven’t flown – and do not rate – Emirates (onboard shower in their A380) or China Southern first class. Of course there are other products, too, that I haven’t flown like Saudia’s first class, Air India’s, or Air France’s as well (which doesn’t look impressive, but their Paris lounge does).

The great thing is that means I have plenty to look forward to, and airlines are still coming up with more even though fewer airlines are offering first class and those that do are offering it on fewer routes and with fewer seats per plane.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] News and notes from around the interweb: This review makes flying Singapore Airlines economy sound downright appealing. Hot towels. Nuts. Printed menus. Beef rendang, ice cream, and chicken rice for meal service. Extensive video on demand. And thoughtful flight attendants. Sounds pretty good (not that I’ll mistake it for first class). […]

Comments

  1. I’ve flown Asiana twice this year in F: ICN-LAX and LAX-ICN. In both cases, I was looking forward to the “lovely parting gifts” others have mentioned, but they didn’t distribute anything. I’m curious about others’ experience in 2014.

  2. Fun post, Gary. I also love Cathay Pacific, and would rate it above the other first class options I’ve flown, which I’d rate in this order (including, as you do, the lounge and ground experience): Singapore 777, Thai, Lufthansa A340, British, American, United. But I’d definitely rate the Singapore A380 even higher; I suspect you’ll agree.

    The only slight quibble I’d have is that I was more impressed with the Singapore Private Room than you (and admittedly, many others) are. The best first class lounge service, ambiance and meal options, in my experience. But again, that’s just a quibble.

  3. Etihad Diamond First doesn’t really belong in this group. Good hard product alone does not a top-10 first-class product make. The flight attendants and ground staff are poorly trained and usually overwhelmed. The food in the air is often inedible, and the on-board “chef” is a joke. (Biryani swimming in vinegared chili sauce? Steak with grilled pineapple?) Most of all, the departure experience through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Abu Dhabi is horrendous. One has to leave the lounge 90 minutes before departure, walk a mile, suffer through three separate queues, and arrive at a chaotic gate where there is no place to sit. And there’s no Global Entry option. Not a first-class experience at all.

    I would definitely put Swiss on this list. Good/great hard product (depending on A330 or A340), attentive service rivaling ANA, and for departures out of Zurich, particularly outstanding food on board. Their first class lounge at ZRH isn’t as glamorous as the Lufthansa HON Circle lounges/first class terminal in FRA, but ZRH is so much more pleasant and takes much less time to navigate, particularly for transit passengers.

  4. I’d put the new JAL suite up there, as well. Fantastic hard product, good on-ground experience, and wonderful Japanese service. English was not great, but there were no real language problems, although there was a slight misunderstanding with one of the dishes (that resulted in a profuse, only-the-Japanese-do-this apology). Award availability using AA miles was tricky, but so happened to work on the exact date I was looking for.

  5. “Quote By Lucky”
    They’ve always had a good but not world-leading seat. (agreed)The service is also good but very Australian so it’s not going to rival the better Asian carriers.(disagree)

    I have flown Emirates first and Business (certainly not Asian :))
    Cathay Pacific in First Singapore In Business class
    Japan Airlines in First and not one can measure up to the First Class experience at Qantas on a A380 or older 747 from curbside meet and greet @ arrival to the massage and dinner before boarding in SYD there is nobody that does it better than Qantas IMHO
    Each brand and experience will be perceived by ones own preferences and even cultural preferences and is subjective at the end of the day. However I have had far to many phony smiles and subservient phony service experiences with inedible food on Asian carriers to last a lifetime
    And of course some positive experiences along the way as well.
    While the hard product may or may not be better
    Ill even take British Airways over some of my experiences at these so called marvelous Asian carriers
    that is of course they can find our plane that may have been lost or under sea level 🙂

  6. Can you do such a list for business class too? I’d especially be interested in the most consistently good business class products — i.e. carriers that don’t have hidden traps where an equipment change leaves you with terrible old recliner seats.

  7. Gary, curious about the JAL comment. Have you flown them long-haul? Their new 777 hard product is great IMO – certainly better than Korean and looks pretty similar to Singapore. Food, drinks, and service are excellent. I flew them NRT-JFK after flying CX F twice in the previous two weeks and in the overall scheme of things (hard product, ground service, food, drinks, in-flight service) I’d put the experience above CX. Several recent TRs on FT saying the same thing too. If you don’t include them because you haven’t tried the product I’d suggest you get it on your to-do list!

  8. @colleen – I was wondering the same. I flew JFK – ICN in F earlier this year as well and did not receive a parting gift.

  9. Good run down. I agree on Cathy as #1 and with fly again to HKG n July. I won’t get to visit the Pier but enjoyed a cabana for 5 hrs layer over last Oct RTW. Very nice IMO

    I’m flying back on Asiana HKG- ICN (380 but n J no 1st being sold) then 1st to JFK. I have SYD-DXB-JFK in Emirates 1st in Oct RTW.

    Did Lufthansa 747-8i IAD-FRK-IAD N Feb & really enjoyed it incl FCT. Got gift of bottle of Monkey 47 Gin

    I still like AA cause the seats swivel to look directly out the window.

  10. @collen ,mw- Asiana & Korean air discontinued gift service for first class. if you depart from Korea, Asiana air will give you booklet has 20 $1 bill so you can use as tip money while traveling.

  11. Did LH from Frankfurt to JFK on their 747, seat for traveling and full side bed great product

  12. @Carlos I would probably take American first class on the 777-300ER over Cathay’s business class… but Cathay business over the old 777-200 first. Ultimately it depends on the route though as I’m mostly interested in getting there as directly as possible in comfort vs. taking a roundabout way of getting there especially when flying in business.

  13. @CW I tried to make clear this is about products I have direct experience with and have not tried the newest iteration of their product. I don’t have a fully enough formed opinion of their new first yet. Perhaps my opinion of them is overly dated.

  14. @Sercan I’ve never been turned down second helping sof caviar on those occasions where I’ve asked, but come to think of it I’ve only ever asked when it’s served on the plate already doled out from a tin rather than from an individualized tine (eg Cathay’s old version of the service prior to this month, Lufthansa). Basically if they have it they will give it to you, but if it’s from an individual tin and they don’t have more they can’t.

  15. @jack as I say, Etihad’s onboard chef can be hit or miss. I’ve had some fantastic meals with them, and some only good. I’ve had an amazing salmon biryani that was some of the best I’ve ever had.

    I agree that the departure experience in Abu Dhabi can be a challenge, the security queues alone are annoying, I recently left the lounge only 35 minutes before departure and somehow made it but was definitely sweating it 🙂

    I’ve found the seats, food, amenities, pajamas, and overall onboard service to be good although some crews do get overwhelmed with a fairly full cabin for sure.

  16. American Airlines haven’t returned the lobster tails to the salads from JFK-LAX in domestic first yet, so that I can connect to CX to HKG (in first)?

    Yep, I agree, Cathay Pacific first class is Number 1. Can’t wait to return.

    ED

  17. Asiana has really cut its First service. They also no longer provide things like concierge ground services and the parting gifts. I’m going to try using Korean Air as their food seems better and especially because of United’s Mileage Plus award devaaluation.

  18. Gary,

    Great list, keeping it for future reference 🙂

    But – why not BA First? I thought that was a really good hard product?

  19. @Seoul If you got $20, then the Asiana gift continues to fade away. I flew ICN-JFK last week, the dollar book given to me has 10 singles.

  20. Qantas first on A380 is a much nicer experience than on 747 (which is being phased out). I’d rate it higher on the list than you.

    Thai first also provides buggy and escort for BKK transfers, even if arriving on another airline (and departing in TG F) or (arriving in TG F and) departing on another airline.

    Emirates first would also feature on my preferred first class list. Good suite, great food (exception Australia to NZ flights), good service, great lounges (especially DXB A380 terminal but also outstation lounges are better than average).

  21. Flew Lufthansa First Class from Frankfurt to Detroit last Christmas. Embarassingly bad hard product- old A340 where the seats didn’t even recline fully.

    But nicest flight staff, and with only two people in First, they just gave me the whole tin of caviar to finish (“once we open it, we just throw it away”)! Also got a nice parting gift- a Lufthansa nutcracker…

  22. Lufthansa first class is spectacular only if you get the new seats – but you can check on the website. The 747 seats with the bed next to them are quite unique! The food is fantastic- surprisingly so considering they are german 🙂

  23. @Niels – BA first is decent in the air, the seat is narrow and cabin large, I find the 777 better than the 747 and haven’t flown the A380. PJs and amenities are good. The ground service is pretty non-existent. I detest the Concorde Room, service is surly and they don’t keep it clean.

  24. Gary,

    Do you know how much was the fuel charges flying Korean first class round trip – JFK – ICN?

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