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Although it’s evolved slightly through the years, Cathay Pacific’s simple yet elegant livery has been featured in some of the most classic aviation photos of all time, including the anxiety-inducing images of 747 jumbo jets winding their way through high-rise apartment buildings on final approach into Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport.

While you won’t find those harrowing flight paths or even 747s today, Cathay Pacific is still known around the world for the luxurious first-class experience it offers. Today we’ll take an in-depth look at a flight on many award travelers’ bucket lists, including how to go about redeeming miles for it.

KOWLOON, HONG KONG - 1994/01/01: A Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 lands at Kai Tak airport in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The approach over highly-populated areas is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. (Photo by Gerhard Joren/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-300 lands at Kai Tak airport in 1994 (Photo by Gerhard Joren/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Routes

Cathay’s international fleet today is composed of a mix of A330s, A350s and 777s, but you’ll only find a first-class cabin on select 777-300ER aircraft. Many 777s feature either a regional business class configuration, while others are limited to three classes: lie-flat international business class, a solid premium economy class and regular economy (but no first class). If you’re ever taxiing in Hong Kong and getting bored looking out the window, there’s an easy way to tell if you’re staring at a 777 with or without a first-class cabin. See the six windows at the front of the plane below (and in the featured image)? That would be exactly three windows for each of the two rows in first class.

I checked out my plane on the way to the lounge.

Compare that to this Cathay 777 which doesn’t have the six windows separated at the front, meaning the best this plane can offer is business class.

Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR - December 30, 2012: Cathay 777Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300 taxing in Hong Kong. Cathay pacific is a Hong Kong based airline. It currently operates 136 aircraft and has firm orders for another 96. (Photo by Frogman1484/Getty Images)
Photo by Frogman1484 via Getty Images

Cathay flies its 777-300ERs with first-class cabins on routes all over the world, and they’ll even make appearances within Asia. However, the carrier is notorious for last-minute aircraft swaps on these intra-Asia routes, so if you’re initially booked on a plane with a first-class cabin, don’t be surprised if you’re switched out or if you see one suddenly pop up on a new Asian route. I should also note that first class on these shorter routes isn’t the full experience (i.e. no caviar or pajamas), but the massive seat alone is worth experiencing if you can.

Image from GCmap.com

 

As of now, you can experience Cathay Pacific first class on flights between Hong Kong (HKG) and the following destinations:

North America:

  • Boston (BOS)
  • New York-JFK
  • Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)
  • Vancouver (YVR)
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • San Francisco (SFO)

Europe:

  • London-Heathrow (LHR)
  • Frankfurt (FRA)
  • Paris (CDG)
  • Milan (MXP)
  • Zurich (ZRH)

Asia:

  • Taipei (TPE)
  • Beijing (PEK)
  • Tokyo-Haneda (HND)
  • Manila (MNL)
  • Seoul (ICN)
  • Bangkok (BKK)

Hong Kong’s geographical location makes all of these long-haul routes to North America and Europe ideal to get the full premium experience, as many of these flights are in the 15-hour range. That’s plenty of time to eat, drink, sleep and do it all again!

Cabin Layout & Seat Selection

Cathay Pacific’s first-class cabin features only six seats laid out in a spacious and private 1-1-1 configuration. The only airline I can think of with a sparser 777 first class cabin would be Air France’s La Premiere which only has four seats. On Cathay, each seat is a full 36 inches wide and offers 81 inches of pitch.

It’s hard to overstate just how wide these seats are. When I flew Cathay Pacific first class last year, my initial thought upon boarding was something along the lines of, “Wow, you could fit three of me in this seat!”

While there’s no such thing as a bad seat in this cabin, there is one small quirk to be aware of. It’s a little hard to tell just by looking at the seat map, but the middle seats (1D and 2D) are open to the right side of the plane and have a wall to the left.

 

This means that seats on the the left side (1A and 2A) have an aisle to themselves. While Cathay doesn’t offer fully enclosed suites with closing doors like some of its competitors, this configuration offers plenty of privacy. Here’s the view from my time in seat 1A, and I swear I didn’t see another passenger for the entire 15-hour flight.

Each seat has a TV that pops out of the seat back and can be adjusted as you’d like. And see the seatbelt on the ottoman? If you’re traveling with a companion, Cathay will let you dine together at one seat and have a date (or business meeting) at 35,000 feet.

The area behind the TV contains a storage closet for carry-ons, which easily fit my Osprey Porter 46 backpack.

When it’s time to sleep, the flight attendants will turn your three-foot-wide seat into one of the plushest beds in the sky, complete with a mattress pad, comforter and several pillows. This was easily the best sleep I’ve ever gotten on a flight.

And of course, it wouldn’t be complete without caviar and champagne. Caviar snobs enthusiasts will be happy to know that Cathay provides proper mother-of-pearl spoons as well as a welcome card signed by the flight crew to accompany your dinner (you can just see it peeking out behind the champagne!).

How to Book

Before we discuss the best loyalty programs to use to book these awards, let’s talk about how to find them in the first place. While Cathay Pacific is a member of the Oneworld alliance and has a number of other individual partnerships, most award search engines will not display Cathay Pacific award space. Your best option here is to use the clunky British Airways website to search for space and then call your booking partner of choice with the exact flight number(s) and date(s). If you’re trying to travel beyond Hong Kong, you should search segment by segment to get British Airways to show you the space. For example, if you’re trying to fly from Chicago to Hong Kong and then connect to Bangkok (BKK), search for the Chicago to Hong Kong leg and do a separate search for Hong Kong to Bangkok. You can also use the Qantas website, which is sometimes better at showing complete itineraries on Cathay. For more details on this search process, be sure to review Richard Kerr’s post on the Best Websites for Searching Oneworld Alliance Availability.

Generally speaking, Cathay will release one first-class award seat when the schedule first opens and occasionally release one or two more closer to departure. It is very rare to see two or more first-class award seats available on the same flight, which can be tough if you’re trying to travel with a companion. One strategy to overcome this obstacle is to book one first-class award and one business award and then hope that a second seat opens up in first closer to departure. Of course, there’s no guarantee of this happening, so I suggest you have “the talk” about who gets the first class seat as early as possible to avoid any hurt feelings.

If you’re booking a round-trip first-class flight, the paid prices rarely fall below $10,000 and can easily be double or even triple that amount. One-ways also fall into extreme pricing. Between Hong Kong’s geographic positioning and role as a global financial hub (read: revenue customers), Cathay Pacific first-class fares can be off-the-charts expensive.

This means that it’s easy to get incredible value for your miles, but you should still think carefully about which program to use for these awards. From my perspective, there are three main options you should consider: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, American Airlines AAdvantage, and Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program.

Alaska Airlines

Once you’ve found Cathay Pacific first-class award space on the British Airways or Qantas websites, Alaska Airlines is one of the best programs to use. Cathay award flights between the US and Asia cost 70,000 miles in first class, and you can include a free stopover in Hong Kong, even on a one-way ticket. Add in low taxes (in the ~$25 range) and a competent call center and it’s hard to ask for anything more. TPG values Alaska miles at 1.8 cents each, so the 70,000 miles you’d use are worth $1,260. This means that you’d be “paying” significantly less than face value to get this ticket.

While Alaska frequently runs promotions to buy miles (which can drop your purchase price to as low as 2 cents apiece), the carrier unfortunately doesn’t partner with any of the major transferable programs. However, you can transfer Marriott points to Alaska at a 3:1 ratio, and you’ll receive a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer. This means that it would cost 180,000 Marriott points for a one-way first-class award, and you’d end up with 5,000 Alaska miles left over (an unfortunate necessity because of the transfer bonus).

If you’re looking for a way to jump start your earnings toward this goal, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card is a great choice along these lines. It normally offers a bonus of 30,000 miles after you make $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of account opening, but many people (especially on the West Coast) are being targeted for a 40,000-mile sign-up bonus, though the elevated offer does require you to make $2,000 or more in purchases within the fist 90 days of account opening. This could get you at least halfway to first class paradise with just one credit card, and you could consider using Marriott points to top up your account with the remaining miles you need.

Just remember that there are a couple of important restrictions when booking with Alaska miles. First, Alaska doesn’t allow you to combine partner airlines on award tickets, which can be tricky if you don’t live in one of the gateways above. As a result, you’d either need to include an Alaska-operated flight to a Cathay Pacific departure city on your award ticket or book a separate ticket on another airline to get there. In addition, Alaska doesn’t publish an award chart for every region, so even if Cathay operates flights on a route (e.g. Europe to Australia via Hong Kong), you can’t redeem miles if it isn’t part of Alaska’s charts.

However, these are relatively minor in the grand scheme of snagging luxury seats in the sky.

American Airlines

While the AAdvantage award chart isn’t as attractive as it once was after the significant devaluation from March 2016, Cathay Pacific is one of those things for which it’s worth paying. AA will charge you 110,000 miles for a one-way first class flight to Asia, and while that’s obviously a higher quantity than Alaska requires, it’s not too different when considering TPG’s valuation of AA miles at 1.4 cents. The “cost” of booking a Cathay Pacific first class ticket is thus $1,540 worth of American miles, only ~$300 more than the “cost” through Alaska. Again, not a bad deal at all for a redemption that’s likely to net you well over 10 cents a point.

It’s also a lot easier to rack up American miles, especially through the carrier’s co-branded credit cards. Here are some of the best current offers:

The AAdvantage program also partners with Marriott Rewards, giving you the same ratio and bonus outlined above for Alaska.

Cathay Pacific Asia Miles

Asia Miles uses a distance-based award chart, which makes things very expensive for US-based travelers:

Cathay’s West Coast routes from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver fall under the “Long — Type 2” pricing, meaning a one-way first class award costs 110,000 miles. Flights to Chicago and the East Coast classify as “Ultra-Long” and cost 125,000 one-way.

That being said, Asia Miles are relatively easy to earn, as the program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards (along with Marriott Rewards). Amex even runs transfer bonuses from time to time, which can really sweeten the deal. The most recent bonus was targeted, with people reporting anywhere from 10% to 30% bonuses. A 30% transfer bonus would drop the cost of a West Coast flight down to ~85,000 Membership Rewards points, which is not a bad deal at all.

Bottom Line

Cathay Pacific’s first-class product may not the best in any one area: Air France offers a better seat, Japan Airlines typically serves better food, Emirates has the bling factor (plus a shower on the A380!) and Lufthansa generally wins on ground services. However, Cathay first offers one of the most consistent, all-around excellent flight experiences out there. The seat is enormous, the carrier’s lounges are terrific and the service onboard is fantastic. In fact, I found my flight attendants to be so warm and personable that I wished my 15 hours in the air never ended (and other TPGers feel the same). Even though award space is generally scarce, if you’re patient and flexible it’s possible to book a nearly $20,000 ticket at laughably low rates.

Featured image by Bruno Geiger Airplane Pictures via Flickr

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