The ultimate guide to Cathay Pacific first class
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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.
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Cathay’s international fleet today is composed of a mix of A330s, A350s and 777s, but you’ll find a first-class cabin only on select 777-300ER aircraft. Many 777s feature 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, with 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? That would be exactly three windows for each of the two rows in first class.
Cathay Pacific is trimming back routes which offer first class to the U.S. After June 1, 2020, Chicago will see flights to Hong Kong operated by the A350-1000, which doesn’t offer a first-class cabin. And starting Oct. 25, 2020, Cathay will reduce its capacity between New York-JFK and Hong Kong by more than half, significantly reducing first-class award opportunities between the two cities.
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.
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.
As of now, you can experience Cathay Pacific first class on flights between Hong Kong (HKG) and the following destinations:
- Boston (BOS)
- New York-JFK (schedule reduced after Oct. 25, 2020)
- Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) – ending June 1, 2020
- Vancouver (YVR) – ending March 28th, 2020
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- London-Heathrow (LHR)
- Frankfurt (FRA)
- Paris (CDG)
- Milan (MXP)
- Zurich (ZRH)
- 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! Unfortunately, the ongoing protests in Hong Kong have put a huge dent in Cathay Pacific’s revenue over the last few months. The airline has responded by reducing frequencies on several of these routes, making those elusive first-class awards just a little bit harder to find.
Cabin layout and 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 (Singapore Airlines also has four first class seats on some of its 777s). 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 for the first time, 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, some award search engines will not display Cathay Pacific award space. It used to be that Oneworld partner American Airlines didn’t show any Cathay Pacific award space, but as of September 2019 it’s now possible to search for and book Cathay Pacific awards directly with American. Note that this award availability only is appearing on the old American Airlines award searching tool. So, you’ll want to start your award search here.
Your next best option 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 with deep pockets), 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.
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 U..S 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 is offering a bonus of 40,000 miles after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 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.
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 cobranded credit cards. Here are some of the best current offers:
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®: Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
- CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard®: 65,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® bonus miles after spending $4,000 in purchases within the first 4 months of account opening.
The AAdvantage program also partners with Marriott Bonvoy, 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 U.S.-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 miles one-way.
That being said, Asia Miles are relatively easy to earn, as the program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One and Citi ThankYou Rewards (along with Marriott Bonvoy). 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.
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 photo by Bruno Geiger Airplane Pictures/Flickr.
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