What it’s like flying 2 of the world’s best airlines during the pandemic
A flight to Thailand is a long journey in economy. I’ve done it before — twice actually— but on my most recent trip, I was curious about life at the front of the plane.
I recently visited the Southeast Asia country through the nation’s “Phuket Sandbox” initiative, which allows vaccinated international travelers to visit without quarantine. Booking a hotel was fairly straightforward, but my flight reservations required a bit more research to comply with Thailand’s testing and entry requirements.
There’s been much said during the pandemic about whether flying business class is still worth it right now. Airlines, struggling to balance the budget, cut amenities travelers had grown to love and scaled back service. While I’ve flown international business class previously, I've never experienced business class upfront on Emirates Airlines or Etihad Airways. I was curious how two of the world’s best airlines stacked up during the pandemic — and whether the experience was truly worth the points and cash cost.
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Emirates business class from New York to Dubai
Booking the flight
There were a few options to get me from New York (JFK) to Phuket (HKT), but ultimately I landed on Emirates with a layover in Dubai (DXB). I'd heard fantastic things about the airline and was excited to fly it.
TPG transferred 131,250 American Express Membership Rewards points to Emirates Skywards and paid $267 in taxes to book the flight. Amex points transfer to Emirates at a 1:1 ratio, meaning that for every Amex point you transfer, you’ll get 1 Emirates Skywards mile. According to our valuations, the points we transferred were worth $2,625 — a far cry from the $4,000 price tag this flight cost in cash. If you’re low on Amex points, The Platinum Card® from American Express is a solid card to add to your wallet if you’re interested in booking this flight.
My first time flying business class to the Middle East
Emirates business class is an excellent product. On the Airbus A380, I would have access to the famous bar area -- which swayed my choice to book it over Etihad, Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways. When you think about Emirates, you think of luxury. But during the pandemic, would the product feel exclusive? Here’s what I found.
The cabin is gorgeous — but dated
If you like gold, you’ll love Emirates ... seriously.
Everything. Is. Gold. The cabin wall is golden burled wood. The business-class seats are decked out in gold. Even the toilet seat is gold-hued.
It feels like a cabin designed in the early-to-mid-2000s when outward displays of wealth were at an all-time high. While the cabin was luxurious, I personally found it a little gaudy and not my taste.
Try to snag a seat in the smaller cabin
This three-class A380 had 76 seats in business class, separated into two cabins on the upper deck. The seats were arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, and I’d estimate business class was about half-full on the flight to Dubai.
I was seated in the smaller cabin, and if you’re traveling solo, I’d highly recommend it. It felt like its own business class and didn’t get too noisy even with the bar positioned directly behind the cabin.
Some of the seats offer more privacy than others, while others are better for passengers traveling as a couple. If you’re traveling alone, try to get an A or K seat over a B or J seat. My seat, 23K, was flush against the cabin wall and a bulkhead, which added even more privacy. It almost felt like a suite.
The B and J seats have their tables and minibars closer to the window, which means the seats themselves are closer to the aisle. If you’re traveling with a companion, the E and F seats are pushed together.
The first thing I noticed when I sat down was how roomy the seating area was. I had more than enough room for my 5-foot-8-inch frame to spread out.
The footwell offered more than enough space and fit my feet and backpack comfortably.
There were two large storage compartments next to the window. Storage is important considering the sheer amount of complimentary amenities you get while flying long-haul business class. I was able to store my amenity kit, sweatshirt and headphones without fear of losing them. The side table also served as a barrier between the aisle and seat, offering ample privacy.
The “minibar” was stocked with water and soda, which was a nice touch.
The seat itself was starting to show its age but was extremely comfortable in both the bed and lounge modes. Business-class travelers are given a mattress pad, blanket and an incredibly comfortable pillow. I typically don’t sleep much on long flights; even when flying business class, I’m lucky if I manage to snag three hours of shut-eye. However, I was out cold for at least six hours of this 12-hour flight. But keep in mind that face masks are still required, even when sleeping.
The food and drink didn’t disappoint
Several people told me to save my appetite for the flight, and I’m glad they did.
I received a pre-departure Champagne — Veuve Cliquot, if you’re curious — and realized it might’ve been the first time I’d had real Champagne (not sparkling wine) on a plane. Clearly, things were off to a good start. Emirates offers a great drink menu, featuring cocktails (I recommend the Kir royale), beer, wine and liquor.
Dinner was served all at once (appetizer, main course and dessert), which is a change I hope sticks around post-pandemic. I ordered the cream of spinach soup, which was surprisingly filling, and the rack of lamb, which was a delicious choice. I chose the chocolate and hazelnut tart for dessert, which was just the sugar rush I needed.
For breakfast, I opted for French toast, a fruit plate and a refreshing mimosa. I was impressed with the food and its variety, but the options can feel a little heavy on such a long-haul flight.
Midway through the flight, I decided to search for a snack and — wait, is that a bar on an airplane? Yes, it was.
The bar also had snacks, but there was something incredibly satisfying about ordering a cocktail (or three) 38,000 feet in the air — even more so considering that just seven months ago, I wasn’t even ordering drinks at a bar at home in New York — let alone in the sky.
The bar had a pretty spacious additional seating area and flat-screen television if you get bored watching TV from your main seat.
Inflight entertainment and amenities
I’m not a movie or TV buff, but with 12 hours to kill, there’s not much else to do. Emirates offered a pretty solid in-flight entertainment system in business class, complete with a 23-inch touch screen.
The screen itself is enormous and can be controlled in three ways — via the touch screen, a small handset in the armrest or a small tablet (which can also display content). I settled in with season two of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which is offered on HBO Max.
The amenity kit was from Bulgari and included the standard toothpaste, hand lotion and comb. It was a little bulky, so I opted not to take it with me after the flight.
Wi-Fi was strong throughout the flight. I paid an appropriate $20 for access, which covered the entire flight.
It was clear from the first “hello” at the boarding door that Emirates believes in excellent service, and this flight didn’t disappoint.
The flight crew was more than happy to take photos of me to send to my family — they couldn’t believe there was a bar on an airplane either — and were warm and friendly throughout the flight.
Part of the pre-flight announcement from the cockpit included the fact that the cabin crew spoke nearly two dozen languages, which was neat.
Dubai lounge made up for disappointing JFK lounge
Virtually every airline has made adjustments to service due to the pandemic — and that even includes the world’s top airlines. For Emirates, it seemed like one adjustment was at its JFK business-class lounge.
I’d gotten to JFK Airport’s Terminal 4 almost four hours early since I was taking an international flight and wanted enough time to confirm my travel documents and clear security. This meant I had enough time to check out the Emirates business-class lounge.
The lounge stayed mostly empty, a sign that global demand still hasn’t completely recovered from the pandemic.
The food at the lounge was just all right, and the service was acceptable but not particularly friendly. I settled in at a window seat with a steak that was far too tough with carrots and a glass of Champagne. Ultimately, I wanted to save my appetite for the food and beverage in the air and only visited the lounge to wrap up some work before the 12-hour flight. But next time, I would probably skip the food altogether in favor of spending time at the American Express Centurion Lounge (also in Terminal 4).
One cool feature, however, is getting to board directly from the airline’s lounge.
The lounge at Dubai’s airport, on the other hand, was unlike any other I’d experienced before.
For starters, it’s massive — taking up an entire floor. I had an eight-hour connection, and I spent much of that time simply checking out different areas. I highly suggest you do the same.
Food in the lounge ranged from Western to Middle Eastern, and employees served passengers instead of a true buffet style due to the pandemic. There were multiple places to grab a bite to eat or order drinks. I wasn’t particularly hungry, so I opted to order a coffee (and later, a mimosa). There was also a cute ice cream station serving vanilla, strawberry and chocolate flavors.
After the long flight, I was eager to take a shower — which was a great amenity in itself but not particularly noteworthy.
There were ample places to sit — really, there were seats everywhere — which made social distancing easy. Showered and full, I decided to get in a quick cat nap on one of the lounge chairs just before it was time to board the flight to Phuket.
Emirates business class from Dubai to Phuket
After an excellent flight and connection in Dubai, I was eager to check out the last leg of my Emirates business-class experience — this time onboard Emirates’ Boeing 777-300ER.
Little privacy on the 777
Emirates chose a 2-3-2 configuration for business class on this 777. That means you may end up in a middle seat and (if the cabin is full) it's guaranteed that you’ll have a neighbor. This differed from the ultra-private A380, where it felt like I was in a private suite.
There were two cabins of business-class seats: a smaller forward cabin that held 14 seats and a larger rear cabin that held 28. My seat was in the smaller business-class cabin, located directly behind the first-class cabin (which I got to check out as well).
I picked a window bulkhead seat that offered ample foot room but little privacy or space. If you want either, I’d avoid a bulkhead seat. The seats, while comfortable upright, were angle-flat instead of a true lie-flat, which made for an awkward nap.
The service was fantastic, which was to be expected, but the breakfast (some sort of meat and rice) was pretty underwhelming. It was a perfectly fine product for a six-hour flight (which I slept most of) but certainly not revolutionary.
Etihad business class from Phuket to New York
Unlike Emirates, I’ve flown Etihad before. I was one of the lucky travelers who managed to snag one of the unreal $200 mistake fares to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, back in 2014. However, this was my first time in business class. I was at the back of the plane in 2014, but I remember distinctly how excellent the service was, even in economy. This time, I was excited to try out the product at the front of the cabin.
My journey back to New York started at a practically empty Phuket Airport. Phuket relies on tourism, and even with the 11:50 p.m. flight time, the airport was almost empty. Because of the late flight time, I slept most of the flight to Abu Dhabi, so I’ll only review the leg to New York on Etihad’s 787-9 Dreamliner.
Booking the flight
Etihad Guest is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One and Citi ThankYou. Transferring miles from these credit cards is the easiest way for American travelers to earn Etihad Guest miles quickly. However, the one-way ticket from Phuket (HKT) to New York (JFK) cost a whopping 209,000 Etihad miles.
We value Etihad miles at 1.4 cents each, meaning that the ticket, had we used miles, would have cost nearly $3,000. That didn’t seem like the best way to use Etihad miles, which meant we needed to find another option.
Cash deals in business class are still possible -- if you know where to look. After scanning Google Flights, we managed to score a great deal two weeks from departure for just $1,600. Other options included Qatar’s QSuite or Singapore Airlines’ business class on the world’s longest flight.
A much more muted cabin than Emirates
Etihad is well known for its posh business-class product — with an emphasis on the word posh. The cabin feels like a hotel with muted, soft colors. It was a welcome change from Emirates’ more garish color scheme.
Pick your seat wisely
There are four distinct seating options to choose from, and like Emirates, Etihad’s business class is in a staggered layout. I originally had an aisle seat, but I noticed seat 10K, a window-facing window seat, was open just before check-in. With a 13-hour flight, privacy was essential, so I rushed to grab it.
If available, try and book an even-numbered seat, which is closer to the fuselage. If you can’t get seat 10K, similar seats at 6A, 6K, 8A, 8K and 10A are the most private options on the plane. Window seats in odd-numbered rows face the aisle, so they’re considerably less private.
There are also two center-seat arrangements to choose from. Even-row seats have significant separation, which isn’t a bad idea if you’re traveling solo. The odd-row center seats are much closer together, making them ideal for two passengers traveling together.
Etihad’s business-class seat felt spacious and airy, and there was plenty of room to stretch and move around.
The seat itself was comfortable, though not as plush as on Emirates, even after adjusting the firmness. There was also no mattress pad like on Emirates, but the blanket and pillow were extremely comfortable.
There were plenty of places to store my stuff, and the armrest included a hidden cubby for me to stash my shoes and headphones. I kept my backpack in the footwell but still had enough room — even while lying in bed mode.
The reading light was a nice touch and could be adjusted depending on what bed mode you’re in.
Best Bellini of my life
Service started with a complimentary pre-departure beverage, and I chose Champagne (Moet this time).
After takeoff, it was time for meal service, and I ordered the beef tenderloin, medium-rare, served with mushroom sauce and a side of carrots and potato gratin. It was delicious. Dessert was a rose milk cake, which was refreshing. It was, perhaps, the best meal I’ve ever had on an airplane.
"Breakfast" was served before landing and included a smoked turkey parmesan ciabatta sandwich, bread and a delicious chocolate mousse.
While Etihad doesn’t offer a bar like Emirates, the drinks were the star of the show. Not everyone can make a good Bellini (a cocktail made with prosecco and peach puree), but I will go on record that the cabin crew on Flight EY 101 made the best Bellini I’ve ever had. I ordered several during the flight, and each one was better than the previous one. Cheers!
Inflight entertainment and amenities
I didn’t watch any movies during the flight (opting to sleep instead), but Etihad offered a robust inflight entertainment system with both new and classic titles. The flight tracker was great for tracking the flight to New York.
The amenity kit from Acqua di Parma was gorgeous and included the staples like toothpaste and hand lotion. It felt more high-end than Emirates’ Bulgari kit.
Where Etihad dropped the ball was the internet service. For starters, it’s pricey — $30 for 24 hours — and virtually unusable. I was able to text and send Slack messages, but that was it. I wasn’t able to scroll through Instagram or Twitter, send emails or do anything else involving data. For a 13-hour journey, this was the low point of the flight.
Etihad really shone in its service and attention to detail.
A flight attendant showed me to my seat and served me a pre-departure drink of my choice. Multiple flight attendants introduced themselves, and there wasn’t a moment that I went without anything — whether it was water, a snack or even conversation.
I had a great conversation with Pratish, the flight attendant who took care of my row. We talked about pandemic travel and exploring New York City, and he was extremely warm and friendly.
During the flight, everyone I spoke to seemed to really love the airline and wanted to show off the best of their hospitality.
Etihad business-class lounge in Abu Dhabi
After an overnight flight, I landed in Abu Dhabi around 3 a.m. After clearing security, I headed straight to Etihad’s business-class lounge. It’s a gorgeous, sleek lounge with a bar and ample seating. There wasn’t much to do given how early it was, and most people in the lounge opted to sleep.
Breakfast started around 5:30 a.m. and included staples like pancakes and fruit.
I was hoping to get a quick shower before the long flight to New York, but it looked like the shower was closed.
Abu Dhabi is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Preclearance facility, meaning that travelers clear customs in the United Arab Emirates and land in the U.S. as domestic passengers. There is a priority security line for business- and first-class passengers. There’s a second Etihad lounge post-security, but it was unfortunately closed.
The pandemic has caused airlines to rethink elements of the onboard and ground experience ... or cut them altogether. But while some things felt different, the essentials — Emirates’ bar and Etihad’s soft product, for example — remain the same.
Even though it’s clear that certain perks have become pandemic casualties, Emirates' and Etihad’s business-class products remain among the best ways to fly to the Middle East and beyond.