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Earlier this month, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig took his family on a trip to Asia, including stops in Hong Kong, Bali and Tokyo. Here’s a review of the first leg of his trip, from New York to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class.
I travel quite a bit, but most trips are with my incredibly patient and flexible girlfriend, so for this rare family adventure I wanted to plan something extraordinary, yet simple. In other words, we wouldn’t be flying all the way to Sydney just to route via Etihad’s A380 Apartment. And, naturally, I didn’t want to pay cash for my flights. Considering neither my mom nor sister had flown first class on an international carrier before, and I had more than enough AAdvantage miles to cover a premium-cabin Oneworld redemption thanks to enormous sign-up bonuses from my two Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCards, I quickly settled on Cathay Pacific for the outbound segment.
As one of the world’s longest flights, the trip from New York to Hong Kong gave us more than 15 hours to enjoy Cathay Pacific first, with a nonstop routing over the North Pole.
Cathay Pacific operates a whopping five daily flights from the New York area to Hong Kong, four from JFK and one from Newark (without a first-class cabin). One of the JFK flights stops in Vancouver, so that was out — we settled on the 10am departure that arrived at 2pm the following day, with my mom booked in first class and my sister and me in the business mini-cabin just behind. Ultimately, luck was on our side, and we all ended up in first class just a couple days before the flight.
Booking Cathay Pacific First Class
A flight in Cathay Pacific’s first-class cabin will run you north of $28,000 round-trip, though we were traveling just one way, which would have brought the fare to more than $17,000. At just 67,500 American AAdvantage miles each way, CX’s nonstop flight from New York is the ultimate award redemption, representing more than 25 cents per mile in value!
I used British Airways’ site to find available flights. Typically, Cathay Pacific releases at most one first-class seat per flight, and when I booked late last year, that was the case for CX841. I initially booked my mom in first and my sister and I in business, but fortunately a second first-class seat opened up several days before departure, at which point I moved my sister up, with a third seat becoming available (which I grabbed) just two days before the flight.
Because American allows you to “upgrade” to a higher cabin without paying a fee, I was able to move each of us up for just 12,500 miles each. Additionally, because AA redeposits the original miles and pulls the entire amount from your account when you change cabins, I was eligible to receive an instant 10% refund (up to 10,000 total miles per year) thanks to my new Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, bringing the additional miles required to just 2,500 for my sister’s ticket (her new total was 120,000 miles, including the 10,000-mile refund and 62,500 miles for the first-class flight back from Japan).
Ultimately, this allowed the three of us to grab half of the first-class seats on our flight, representing a whopping $51,000 in value just for the one-way flight.
Check-In and Lounge
Having flown Cathay Pacific first class before, I knew what to expect on the ground — which is to say, not very much. The dedicated first-class counter ended up being occupied, so we checked in at the business-class line. That process was complete in just a couple of minutes, with our bags checked all the way through to Bali, our ultimate destination after a 20-hour stop in HKG.
The premium check-in area at JFK is located to the far left side of the small terminal, where there’s a small seating area and a dedicated premium security checkpoint (which was closed when we arrived).
A few minutes later, we were in the British Airways Galleries lounge, which Cathay uses for first-class passengers. Oneworld Emeralds also have access, so the small lounge can become a bit crowded, especially once BA flights begin in the afternoon. It’s an entirely self-serve affair — I even had to remove dirty dishes several times, with staff only coming by once or twice to restock.
It was early morning, but BA still had a decent beverage spread available, including a small selection of wine and Champagne.
You can also help yourself to a variety of top-shelf liquors, with ice and proper glasses available. I sampled a few of the offerings, including Pimm’s on the rocks (which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend).
The very modest cold breakfast spread included some supermarket-quality pastries, yogurt and granola.
There were also several varieties of instant ramen available, which at least one of the lounge guests actually seemed to enjoy.
First-class passengers also have access to the much larger (and nicer, in my opinion) business-class section of the Galleries lounge, which even has an Elemis spa with free treatments. Unfortunately the spa is closed in the morning, though free treatments are only available for BA passengers, anyway.
I took a few minutes to catch up on the morning’s emails before heading to the gate. While Cathay Pacific otherwise operates a very modern fleet, there isn’t any Wi-Fi available on board, so you may need to wrap up any work in the lounge.
We headed over to the gate about 40 minutes prior to the departure time. With limited space in the terminal, the gate area is typically quite crowded at JFK’s Terminal 7, and this flight was no exception. After I identified us as first-class passengers to a gate agent we were brought to the front of the premium line to await boarding.
Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER First-Class Cabin
The environment on the plane seemed especially tranquil after boarding through an overwhelmingly crowded gate. We were greeted with a smile at the door, with a flight attendant taking my mom and sister to seats 1A and 2A, and another bringing me to seat 1K on the other side of the cabin.
With just six first-class seats, Cathay’s 777 cabin feels especially peaceful and private. While we were the first to board, eventually three more passengers appeared. With a wall separating the rest of the cabin from seats 1A and 2A, my family didn’t even notice the other passengers, so if you’re traveling with just one other person, those are the seats to pick. Interestingly, my seat was highlighted in yellow on Seatguru because it was near the galley, though light and noise were never an issue.
In fact, the only time I ever made eye contact with another passenger was when I was waiting for the lavatory. Unfortunately one of the two lavs was broken on our flight, so the six of us shared one (rather compact) bathroom. Whenever it was occupied, I simply walked a few feet back to business, though, so it wasn’t an issue.
Cathay Pacific’s first-class seat is enormous. As you can see in the picture above, the seat includes two sections, though you likely won’t be sitting on the more narrow portion, which really only becomes usable when the seat is converted into a bed.
The seats on each side have three windows, giving you plenty of light when you want it. Everybody lowered their shades shortly after departure, however.
My sister was shocked at how large the seat was. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy!
Of course, each seat has its own touchscreen in-flight entertainment system, which I’ll discuss in more detail just below. You can’t release the TV until after takeoff, though it’s positioned in such a way that you can start watching content right away.
A couple of years ago Cathay Pacific began refreshing its first-class cabin (see TPG’s review of the previous product here), though the changes were modest. One improvement is the seat control, which now includes a touch-enabled display. It’s intuitive and responsive. There’s also a power outlet and USB port available for charging your gadgets during the flight.
Each seat has a small closet (large enough for a rolling carry-on) plus a storage compartment under the ottoman. There was plenty of space for my large backpack.
On a 15-hour redeye flight, of course, bed comfort is especially important. Cathay’s is quite possibly my favorite in the sky, with a comfy, large pillow, a mattress pad and a plush comforter. Fortunately, the cabin was kept relatively cool on this flight, so I didn’t have any problem sleeping.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
In an industry where 23- and even 32-inch TVs are becoming the norm in premium cabins, Cathay’s 15.4-inch screen looks relatively puny. It’s sharp and responsive, though, and mounted on an adjustable arm so you can position the screen as you wish.
There are plenty of new release movies and recent TV shows to choose from, so don’t worry about bringing your own content. Annoyingly, Cathay plays FIVE MINUTES of ads before each program, though you can skip ahead using the remote.
Cathay has a run-of-the-mill IFE remote. You can also tap the screen to navigate content. Fortunately, the airline offers Bose noise-canceling headphones, and unlike on American, you can keep using them until it’s time to land.
First-class passengers receive an amenity kit and a set of pajamas (which you can keep). The flight attendant brought me a size large, which ended up being a bit too big (I usually wear large-size clothing).
The pajamas and eye mask are incredibly well-made and comfortable. You probably won’t want to leave them behind.
The amenity kits contain Aesop products, and while they’re relatively basic for first class, they do have all of the essentials. Pictured above is the male amenity kit.
CX also offers a female kit, which is pink and includes slightly different contents, such as a small hair brush.
Food and Beverage
Any proper first-class flight should begin with a glass of top-shelf Champagne, and Cathay is no exception. While some airlines choose not to serve the good stuff on the ground in the US, due to high taxes, CX pops a bottle of Krug before pushback.
My Champagne was served with a small amuse bouche. It’s just the right size to get you thinking about the enormous meal to follow.
After takeoff, I decided to head over to my mom’s suite for the main meal. We were each served our choice of beverage along with some warm nuts. I finished mine quickly, and it was refilled within a minute.
Somewhat unique to Cathay Pacific is the extended dining table, which flight attendants can install if you’d like to have a meal with a companion. The ottoman includes a seatbelt of its own, so you can stay there even if there’s turbulence.
Lunch began with a large bread basket followed by caviar, which is served in a proper tin with potato blinis, egg and creme fraiche. It was perfect.
The truffle potato leek soup was so good that my mom decided to order a bowl of her own.
Next, I had a delicious salad, which included mesclun greens, king crab meat, mango and avocado in a vinaigrette dressing.
I had a glass of 2012 Cornas Chante Perdrix, which I really enjoyed. The wine is part of CX’s Rhone Valley promotion and retails for about $30 on the ground.
For my entree, I ordered the steak, which was served with cheddar-cheese gnocchi, prawn and asparagus. The steak was definitely cooked well-done and the sauce was overpowering, but overall it was a decent dish. It was definitely the low point of the meal, though.
My mom ordered the Chilean sea bass, which was served with a saffron fennel mash, spinach and a gazpacho sauce. Like my steak, it tasted fine, but it wasn’t fantastic.
Interestingly, which the flight attendant made no mention of the Chinese meal to my mother and I, he basically insisted that my sister order that, so she did. Apparently they were out of steak at that point, so perhaps he wanted to avoid disappointing her. She barely touched her meal, though, which consisted of stir-fried prawn, veggies and steamed rice. I tried some myself, and while it tasted alright, it was hardly a special dish.
Fortunately, Cathay redeemed itself with a delicious cheese spread.
I usually skip the cheese course, though I’m very glad I didn’t here. Choices included Stilton Blue, Manchego, Camembert and Taleggio.
Finally, I finished the meal with the blueberry and butter bread pudding, which was served with caramel ice cream. Fantastic!
A few hours later, I decided to order the fish ball noodle soup. I would have preferred wontons, but I managed to get plenty of those during my 20-hour layover.
For my second dessert I had a small Haagen-Dazs ice cream (served in the container) and a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue, which retails for over $200 a bottle on the ground.
Then, shortly before landing it was time for the second full meal, which began with another bread basket and a selection of fresh fruit.
For my entree, I selected Chicken Supreme, which was served with grilled vegetables and pappardelle pasta. Again, the sauce was a bit on the heavy side. Other entree options included stir-friend beef or mushroom ravioli.
For dessert (my THIRD of the flight!), I had a pear and chocolate mousse cake, which tasted much lighter than it appeared.
Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER Business-Class Cabin
Since I had more than 15 hours to kill on board, I headed back to the business-class cabin a few times during the flight to
geek out get some exercise. The purser said there were a dozen or so empty seats, but I counted more than 20! There are a total of 53 seats between the two business cabins, and award availability tends to be fantastic, particularly for last-minute bookings. Cathay’s business cabin is nearly identical to American’s on its own 777-300ER, with the obvious benefit of not being staffed by American flight attendants. Seats are quite private and roomy, in a 1-2-1 configuration.
The middle seats would definitely be my preference if traveling with a companion. There’s still plenty of privacy, so it wouldn’t be awkward sharing with a stranger, but they’re definitely your best bet for conversing with a friend.
Otherwise, the window seats should be your first pick. Each seat includes two windows, with the exception of 15A.
You get the same remote as you do in first class, along with power and USB ports, a small light and simple seat controls.
It’s hard to complain about an award flight in Cathay Pacific first class. While the journey was more than 15 hours long, I truly didn’t want it to end. The seat was fantastic, the flight attendants were consistently excellent and the catering was solid (though not quite flawless). And, at just 67,500 American AAdvantage miles, it really is a steal. I only hope the rumors about Cathay Pacific restricting first-class awards in the future don’t turn out to be true. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you. Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.
Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you. Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.