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If you’ve never flown international first class before, it’s hard to explain exactly what sets it apart from business class. Sure, the seats are bigger and the champagne is pricier, but I’m just 5’7″ and honestly not sure I could taste the difference if you blindfolded me. Yet I still keep coughing up those extra miles to sit in the pointy end of the plane, and a large part of this behavior stems from the high quality of service I consistently receive.
If you check into a fancy hotel in a big city (like the Park Hyatt New York or Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, for example), you can expect a concierge to move heaven and earth to satisfy any request you make. Need a specific vintage of your favorite wine for an important dinner tomorrow? Consider it done. Forgot your favorite sunglasses at home? We’ll send a pair up to your room, right away. But once the aircraft doors are closed, flight attendants are limited to the items loaded for that flight. And the things they still manage to do have blown me away every time I’ve flown in first class.
Here are five examples (one for each time I’ve flown up front) of the type of incredible service you can expect to get in first class.
1. Lufthansa and the Perfect Rose
Your first time flying in first class is both exhilarating and stressful as your worries about how to correctly eat caviar quickly fade into a nice champagne warmth. I got absolutely spoiled on my first venture into first class on a Lufthansa A380 from Frankfurt (FRA) to Delhi (DEL). I had an incredible flight attendant looking after me, and as we got to chatting she mentioned that it was her first time back working first class after maternity leave. For the rest of the flight we joked that we had to learn the ropes together, and she made sure I was just about as pampered as I could be.
Of course, over the nine hours we spent in the air I mentioned that I was on my way to India to visit my girlfriend who was studying abroad there. When I woke up from my nap I found two plush Lufthansa stuffed planes next to my bed, one for each of us:
But the thoughtfulness didn’t stop there.
One of the signature features of Lufthansa first class, no matter what plane you’re flying, is the fresh rose at every seat. When we landed in Delhi at 2am, the flight attendant curtained off the entire business class cabin and stopped them from deplaning as she frantically ran around the first class cabin. I had no idea what was going on until she quietly presented me with a perfect rose and insisted that I bring it to my girlfriend. What’s more, I was greeted at the jetway by a Lufthansa representative to take my bags and escort me through customs, so I even had someone to carry the rose for me all the way until I got in a taxi.
This above-and-beyond service made my initial foray into first class an incredible one.
For more details on what to expect and how to book these flights with miles, check out our Ultimate Guide to Lufthansa First Class.
2. Birthday Wishes From Cathay Pacific
I’ve never been a fan of having a summer birthday. In high school, it meant friends were always away at camp when I wanted to celebrate, while in college it meant I was one of the few people left on campus doing summer research. On my 21st birthday, I spent the day alone in lab all day, because I was leaving for Thailand later that week and had to get my work done first.
When I finally boarded my Cathay Pacific flight, I was over the moon and immediately asked for a glass of champagne as I settled into my oversized seat. The flight attendant (half-jokingly) asked how old I was, and I proudly showed him my passport and mentioned that my birthday was just two days ago. And I thought that was the end of it — he happily popped a bottle of Krug for me, and my own (personal) celebration kicked off in earnest.
Fast forward 15 hours and we’re getting ready to start our descent into Hong Kong (HKG). I’ve just finished up breakfast and am starting to stow my tray table when Raf, one of the best flight attendants I’ve ever had, comes running over and insists that I leave the table out just a moment longer. He brings out a birthday card, signed by the pilots and the entire flight crew, a box of Cathay Pacific branded chocolates (which made a great gift for our Airbnb hosts in Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui) and a specially prepared berries & cream dessert. I’d mentioned my birthday as an off-handed comment, not expecting anything to happen, but his desire to provide exceptional service clearly shone through and made this one of my most memorable flights.
For more details on what to expect and how to book these flights with miles, check out our Ultimate Guide to Cathay Pacific First Class.
3. My Own Personal Emirates Photoshoot
The Polaroid camera that Emirates stocks on board its long-haul flights isn’t exactly a secret, so when I started my 36-hour Emirates first class extravaganza from Hong Kong to Dubai (DXB) to Washington-Dulles (IAD), I expected to get at least one souvenir photo to take home. When I asked the flight attendant about this halfway through our flight, she seemed genuinely thrilled at the idea and said she’d be right back with the camera.
She ended up recruiting two other crew-members, and giving me an hour long photo shoot all across the plane. I had Polaroids taken at my suite, at the walk-up bar in front of the first class cabin, and while standing behind the main bar at the back of the plane. They easily took 30+ pictures, and one of the flight attendants was even following me around with her phone flashlight to make sure the lighting was perfect. Sure the pictures are a great souvenir (and Polaroid film is not cheap!), but the flight attendants were so happy to help me make memories, and their good spirits were contagious.
For more details on how to book these flights with miles, check out our guide on the best ways to book Emirates first class.
4. Souvenir Shopping With Japan Airlines
My recent JAL first class flight from Tokyo-Haneda (HND) to New York-JFK was stellar for a few reasons. The seat was incredibly comfortable, the food was delicious and despite an expected language barrier, the crew was phenomenal. I normally prefer espresso drinks both on the ground and in the air, but JAL has a great coffee menu, so I ordered a french press after lunch. The mug it was served in was absolutely stunning, with the giant gold “F” that JAL uses for their first class branding.
I asked the flight attendant if it was possible to buy these mugs anywhere — my dad is a coffee fanatic, and I thought it would make a great gift. Unfortunately, she said they were only available on-board, and so I went back to enjoying my meal. As we were descending into New York-JFK, she came around to thank me for flying with JAL and, after quickly checking that no one was watching, handed me a wrapped gift with with (you guessed it) a mug inside. My dad was thrilled with the gift, which now sits right next to his Lufthansa first class rubber duck.
For more information on what to expect with JAL first class, check out Eric Rosen’s review of his first class flight from Tokyo-Narita to Los Angeles.
5. Going Off Menu With ANA
Perhaps one of the most comically divisive topics in the award travel world is the importance of caviar to the first class experience. There are those who think that a carrier doesn’t offer a “true” first class product if it opts to skip the caviar course (and the proper spoon to accompany it, no less). Then there are those who think that this obsession with salty fish eggs is rather silly and the epitome of #firstworldproblems.
Personally I fall in the middle — caviar is an acquired taste, and after a handful of first class flights, it’s something I’ve come to enjoy, especially since I’ll never pay the outrageous prices to eat it on the ground. That being said, it certainly doesn’t make or break my first class travel experience. When it’s there, I gladly take it, but you won’t see me going out of my way to fly a certain airline just to get my caviar fix.
One notable carrier that doesn’t offer a full caviar course in the first class cabin is ANA. However, the menu on my recent flight from Washington-Dulles to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) included an appetizer described as “scallop and lobster with caviar and fruit sauce.” Flying first class is still a rare treat for me, something I only get to do once or twice a year, and so if there was any chance of getting more than just a sprinkling of caviar … well, you probably know where this is going. An innocent question to the flight attendant about whether there was a separate caviar course or just this dish caused a full tin of Calvisius caviar to appear alongside my appetizer. I had a little trouble opening the tin by myself and when I asked an FA for help, I got not one but two bowing apologies! Talk about great service.
A coffee mug and birthday card aren’t expensive items, and in most other circumstances they would have been nice gifts but not over-the-top. That all changes when things like this happen on a plane at 36,000 feet. In each of the above instances, I was impressed by the service I received, not just because it was high-quality but because it was so proactive. I didn’t board my JAL flight (as an example) and demand a coffee mug to take home; the flight attendant simply saw an opportunity to put a smile on my face and jumped all over it.
It’s that level of service (and the sublime champagne, if we’re being honest) that keeps me flying in first class, even if it means burning a few more miles.
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