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While many airlines, including some of the major ones in the US, are cutting back on their first-class cabins, other carriers around the world are doubling down with bigger, newer and better products to keep their premium flyers happy. Here, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen rounds up some of the best ways to fly first class to Asia, including tips and strategies on booking those seats using your points and miles.
With a stronger dollar and increased competition among international airlines, more carriers are upping their first-class offerings in the hopes of attracting those premium, high-value flyers with things like over-the-top amenity kits and celebrity-chef partnerships. Although flying in some of these Champagne-soaked suites might seem like a pipe dream for most, if you’re savvy about your points and miles, there are more opportunities than ever to live high on the hog while in the air.
Here are five of the most exciting first-class cabins (in alphabetical order) that fly between the US and Asia, and some ideas about how to book them as awards:
This South Korean Star Alliance carrier really raised its first-class offerings when it took delivery of its A380s with newly designed first-class suites back in 2014, then put the same new suites on its 777-200ERs, as well. The airline currently flies these aircraft from its hub at Seoul Incheon (ICN) to Los Angeles (LAX) and New York-JFK.
Confusingly, the airline’s 777-200ERs are sometimes listed as 777-300ERs, while they also fly 777-200LRs with an older first-class seat, so always check the seatmap of your specific flights to make sure that it has the latest first-class suites.
The A380 has just 12 first-class suites in three rows of a 1-2-1 layout on its lower deck, while the 777 has eight of these suites in two rows of the same layout. Each suite has 84 inches of pitch and is 25 inches wide with a 32-inch HD video screen for entertainment with a hand-held remote. The seat is controlled by a touchscreen tablet embedded in the armrest with buttons for service and do not disturb. The seat also offers several power points from a universal adapter and a USB port.
Seats come with their own personal mini-bars (though it’s basically just a water-bottle holder), and at meal time, you can turn the ottoman into a seat for a dining companion. The airline offers caviar service in first class and you’ll typically find flagship Champagnes such as Pol Roger as well as both Korean and Western menu options.
The seat turns down into an 81-inch bed that the crew makes up with a duck-feather down duvet, and passengers can slide the double doors closed for privacy. Amenity kits feature Salvatore Ferragamo products.
While Asiana doesn’t have the flashiest first class, I chose it for this list over ANA’s arguably more exciting product because award availability using United miles is fairly good. At 120,000 MileagePlus miles each way to Seoul, awards are expensive, but as you can see in the screenshot below, there are often days where both LAX-ICN flights are available. You could also opt to use Aeroplan miles or transfer Amex Membership Rewards points (earned from Amex cards like the Platinum or Premier Rewards Gold) to the program, but it’s only a slightly better redemption at 105,000 miles each way.
Your best bet for award searches are on United.com or Aeroplan.com, both of which accurately display Star Alliance partner award availability, though things get a little more complicated if your itinerary involves several legs, so you might need to search segment by segment before calling either mileage program to actually book the award.
Though Cathay is a relatively small carrier, this Hong Kong-based oneworld member’s first class is routinely ranked among the best in the world — and it’s a TPG favorite. Cathay Pacific offers first class aboard its flagship 777-300ER aircraft, which it flies to Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Chicago (ORD), New York-JFK and Boston (BOS), so there are lots of options for award tickets. Note that the 777-300ER that flies to Newark (EWR) does not have a first-class cabin.
The best value here is using American Airlines AAdvantage miles at a cost of 67,500 each way from North America to Asia 2, which includes Hong Kong. That’s followed closely by Alaska’s Mileage Plan program, a non-alliance partner with Cathay, which would require 70,000 miles each way. By contrast, since its devaluation in April, British Airways would charge you double that amount in Avios — a whopping 140,000 each way!
If you’re looking day by day for award space, I find the best resource is British Airways‘ website. However, be aware that Qantas.com.au allows you to search award availability with a month-long calendar, and is generally good at piecing together itineraries with more than one segment.
Cathay’s 777-300ER first-class cabin has just 6 seats in 2 rows in a 1-1-1 configuration. That’s right, just three seats across the entire plane. Though not enclosed like comparable suites on airlines like Emirates or Singapore, Cathay’s first-class seats are 36 inches wide — among the widest in the industry — and 81 inches long, and each one reclines to a fully lie-flat bed.
In my experience, the menu options are not as interesting as on some other airlines, but meals tend to start with a salmon and caviar appetizer, and the airline pours Krug, so things could be worse! The personal IFEs onboard are a respectable 17 inches, as well.
First-class passengers get Ermenegildo Zegna amenity kits stocked with Aesop products, and 100% organic Pye pajamas from Hong Kong for when it’s time to hit the hay.
Another oneworld carrier, JAL features some understated but truly elegant suites (not to be confused with the airline’s “Sky Suite” business-class seats) aboard its 777-300ER aircraft.
The suites are currently available on the airline’s routes from Tokyo-Haneda (HND) to San Francisco (SFO), and from Tokyo-Narita (NRT) to New York-JFK, Los Angeles (LAX) and Chicago (ORD). You can see all the routes here. TPG actually flew from SFO to HND earlier this year in the latest first class — you can read his review of the experience here.
The 777-300ER’s first-class seats are laid out in two rows of a 1-2-1 configuration. They recline to 78.5 inches and are 33 inches wide, and are upholstered in chocolate-brown leather with wood-grained paneling meant to create a sense of tranquility. The middle two seats have a retractable privacy partition in case you are or aren’t traveling with a companion, and each seat has a 23-inch flat-screen monitor for entertainment.
When it comes to meals, passengers have a choice of Japanese and Western menus produced by the airline’s so-called dream team of Japanese chefs, including Seiji Yamamoto and Chikara Yamada. And when you want to freshen up, you’ll find familiar Japanese Toto toilets with warm-washing cycles in the first- and business-class lavatories.
You can read this post about how TPG booked his JAL first-class award using American AAdvantage miles for just 62,500 miles one-way.
As with Cathay, your best bet for award searches is either Qantas’ site — or British Airways’ site if you have some specific dates in mind. Above, you’ll see two sample awards from New York-JFK to Tokyo-Narita; one is aboard the 787, which doesn’t have first class, and the second one is aboard the 777-300ER with first class — and as of this writing, there were four seats available!
South Korea’s other major carrier, Korean Air, also features a fantastic first-class product aboard its A380s. The airline actually recently announced that it would be installing new first-class suites with sliding privacy doors and updated in-flight entertainment systems with 24-inch monitors aboard its 787-9s, 747-8s, 777-300ERs and A330-300s, but not the A380.
Although the suites in Korean’s handsome taupe-and-turquoise cabins are not quite up to par with those on carriers like Singapore or Etihad, one of the things that sets Korean apart from other carriers is the fantastic availability and value of first-class awards if you have Korean’s own SkyPass miles. You might not have banked any yet, but the airline is a 1:1 transfer partner with Chase Ultimate Rewards if you have the Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus cards, so you can transfer points into a SkyPass account from there in order to book your award.
The good news is, Korean actually made a lot of improvements to its award search engine, so you can now easily search its site for awards.
The other bright spot is that off-peak awards from North America to Seoul are just 80,000 miles each way (plus about $100 in taxes and fees). This is a relative steal, considering Delta would charge you 70,000 miles just to fly Korean’s business class (you can’t use SkyMiles to book first class) on the same route.
Now for the cabin and the experience. On Korean’s A380s, which it flies to Atlanta (ATL), Los Angeles (LAX) and New York-JFK, there are just 12 seats total at the front of the plane’s lower deck, laid out in three rows of a 1-2-1 configuration. Each seat is 79 inches long and 26.5 inches wide, and looks like a big armchair when upright. When reclined, the top of the seat flips over to become the lie-flat bed’s mattress, and the ottoman becomes the foot of the bed.
Each seat has its own 23-inch LCD monitor, and passengers are offered Bose noise-canceling headphones. Amenity kits include five DAVI cosmetic products, which are based on wine-grape extracts: face cream, hand cream, aftershave, eye gel and lip balm, and passengers are also offered Gianfranco Ferré pajamas. Meals feature both Korean and Western options, and you can usually count Perrier-Jouët as the onboard Champagne.
For more information, check out these posts:
- First Class Award Availability to Asia on Korean Air Using Ultimate Rewards Points
- Flight Review: Korean Air A380 and A330 First Class
Singapore Airlines’ first-class suites were among the first suite-style first-class seats in the skies when they were launched in 2007. Though newer products like Emirates’ suites and Etihad’s Apartment have since hit the market, Singapore’s suites have remained some of most sought-after award seats, thanks to hard-product elements like bespoke leather seats, as well as fabulous amenities and service.
Though Singapore has introduced a new first class aboard its 777-300ERs and plans to roll out a new A380 first class in 2017, for now you’ll find the suites aboard the airline’s A380, which it flies from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) and New York (JFK) to Frankfurt (FRA) and on to Singapore (SIN). There are just 12 suites per plane in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration, with four seats on each side of the plane, and two rows of two seats each in the middle. Those middle two seats are combinable into one larger suite if two people are traveling together. They were designed by French yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste — très chic!
Each suite contains a Cognac-brown Italian leather seat, and can be closed off for privacy thanks to sliding doors with curtains. Suites also feature 23-inch entertainment screens, as well as a power panel with universal adapters. The seats are 35 inches wide when the armrest is down, and can recline up to 130 degrees. However, when it’s time for bed, the crew will turn it down for passengers, creating an 81-inch lie-flat bed with Givenchy linens and a full duvet. Guests are also offered Givenchy pajamas to sleep in.
The airline has employed a “Culinary Panel” of international celebrity chefs, and first-class passengers can pre-order any of around 60 or so dishes prior to their flight, or take their chances with the dishes planned for their specific flight. Offerings depend on routes and regions. The wine list is skewed toward famous French labels, while Champagnes include Krug and Dom Pérignon.
As for award information, I’ll start with the bad news: Singapore only releases first-class awards to its own KrisFlyer members, so you need to have these miles to book a seat. The good news is that KrisFlyer participates in the four major transferable points programs; it’s a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards, as well as Amex Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. So you don’t even have to fly Singapore or its partners to earn those KrisFlyer miles, as long as you have the right combination of credit cards.
Also be aware that if you book a Singapore Airlines award online through KrisFlyer, you’ll get a 15% mileage discount. For example, here’s an award from LAX to NRT for just 74,375 miles and about $113:
If you’re not set on flying the suites, but want to experience Singapore’s regular first class — which is still pretty awesome, and which TPG flew a few months ago — know that the airline flies from SFO to both ICN and Hong Kong (HKG) using 777-300ERs, and award availability is pretty good.
Here’s a sample available award from SFO to ICN later this month:
And the actual price:
And here’s a sample available award from HKG to SFO (which is actually cheaper, though a slightly longer flight!):
And the final price, including the 15% mileage discount:
So while award availability for the suites on the LAX-NRT and NRT-SIN routes can be extremely tough to come by, you still have other great options for using Singapore’s miles for its own flights to Asia in 777-300ER first class, instead.
For more on Singapore’s first-class service and how to book it as an award, check out these posts:
- Flight Review: Singapore Airlines A380 First Class Frankfurt-New York JFK
- How to Fly Singapore Airlines First Class for (Almost!) Free
- How to Book Singapore Airlines First Class Awards
- 8 Reasons Why I Love Singapore Airlines First Class
- How to Waitlist for a Cheaper Singapore Award
What other first class cabins are you dying to fly? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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