The best first-class seats between the US and Asia
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we are still publishing reviews from trips taken just before the lockdown, and articles — like this one — based on review flights we’ve taken before the pandemic. Please note that if you fly during the coronavirus pandemic, you will encounter a very different experience, both on the ground and on board, from what was experienced during the review flights that formed the basis for this story. Some of the routes mentioned here are currently suspended.
A long-haul first-class flight can be a once-in-a-lifetime event, with months of anticipation followed by a flight that seems to pass in the blink of an eye. With the pandemic wreaking havoc on airline revenues, some have stopped offering a long-haul first class altogether, making a flight in the top class of service an even more rare and exciting occurrence.
If you want to give yourself as much time in the air as possible to truly maximize the experience, your best bet is to pick a flight from the U.S. to Asia, and that’s what we’ll be looking at today. Not only are these routes significantly longer than flights to Europe, but many of the world’s best first-class products are flown by airlines based in Asia. The only U.S.-based airline with a true long-haul first class, one step above business, is American Airlines, whose product does not quite measure up to the top offerings from Asian carriers.
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Let me begin by saying that I’ve flown every airline on this list (though my Singapore Suites flight was on a shorter inter-Asia route), so I draw on personal experience with these rankings. In addition, I zeroed in on the following factors to separate the great from the truly out of this world:
- Hard product: How good is the seat or suite, and does the airline include any other fixed onboard amenities like a bar or shower?
- Soft product: This catch-all category includes everything from food and beverage to amenity kits, pajamas and service, the intangible factor that can make or break a flight.
- Routes, aircraft and award availability/ease of booking: How easy a product is to book with points and miles counts for a lot. This is especially true for first, where cash fares are often prohibitive and a points booking is the way to go.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in. All of the airlines that make this list are world-class carriers, and you can’t go wrong flying any of them in first class.
Routes and aircraft: Singapore (SIN) to New York-JFK via Frankfurt (FRA) on an Airbus A380, Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) and San Francisco (SFO) to Hong Kong (HKG) on a Boeing 777-300ER
Highlights: Spacious and comfortable seats and suites, the best Champagne in the sky, Book the Cook and unmatched service.
Room for improvement: Limited U.S. routes with a first-class cabin; awards are expensive and hard to find and can only be booked through Singapore KrisFlyer (i.e., no partner programs except for Alaska Airlines).
Wow factor: Singapore Airlines earns the top spot on this and most lists, even though only one of its routes is currently served by an A380 featuring the carrier’s exclusive first-class Singapore Suites cabin. This route, Singapore to New York-JFK with a stop in Frankfurt in each direction, features the old suites design, with 12 fully enclosed suites on the lower deck of the A380 that resemble an old-fashioned train cabin with dark leather and wood accents. If you have your eyes set on the new suites configuration, which might be the single best first-class seat flying anywhere in the world, you’ll have to find it on flights within Asia as well as some routes to Europe and Australia.
All of Singapore’s U.S. routes with a first-class cabin (including the A380 flight to JFK) are fifth-freedom routes, meaning an airline is allowed to fly passengers from the U.S. to a third country before continuing on to its home nation. While you can book the ticket all the way to Singapore, you can also get off at the first stop — you can fly one of the world’s best airlines without ever setting foot in Singapore.
The only other current U.S. routes with a first-class cabin depart from the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita and from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Both flights are operated by 777-300ER aircraft featuring a single row of four first-class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration (though some of Singapore’s 777s have two rows for a total of eight seats).
No matter which plane you’re on, the food, drink, amenities and service on Singapore set a high bar that most other airlines simply can’t live up to.
The exquisite attention to detail begins when you board your flight, and the flight attendants ask whether you’d prefer a glass of Dom Perignon or Krug Champagne. Your crew will be happy to set up a taste test for you and then serve you your preference for the remainder of the flight.
The meal itself depends on the length of your flight and the departure time, but you can always take advantage of the Book the Cook feature to preorder your meal from an extensive list of options that aren’t normally loaded for the flight. You can’t go wrong with Singapore’s signature lobster Thermidor, a restaurant-quality dish that tastes as good in the air as it would on the ground.
My only real critique of the Singapore first-class experience is that the airline can be rather stingy with amenities. You won’t receive an amenity kit except on long-haul flights, and even some longer daytime flights aren’t enough to merit pajamas.
How to book: With the sole exception of Alaska Airlines, Singapore doesn’t release any first-class award space to partners, forcing you to book through its KrisFlyer program. Thankfully, KrisFlyer miles are among the easiest miles to earn, as they’re one of just two programs along with Air France-KLM Flying Blue to partner with all five transferable points currencies. This means you can transfer points at a 1:1 ratio from Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards or Citi ThankYou Points. Capital One miles transfer at a 2:1 ratio, and Marriott points transfer at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred.
Here are the one-way award prices for the three U.S. routes on which Singapore offers a first-class cabin:
|Singapore KrisFlyer||Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan|
|New York to Frankfurt||86,000 miles||N/A|
|Los Angeles to Tokyo||107,000 miles||110,000 miles|
|San Francisco to Hong Kong||104,000 miles||130,000 miles|
Routes and aircraft: ANA’s new 777 first class flies to New York-JFK from both Tokyo Narita and Haneda (HND), while the old first class (shown above) is available on the following routes: Washington, D.C. (IAD), to Tokyo Narita, Houston (IAH) to Tokyo Narita, Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to both Narita and Haneda, LAX to both Narita and Haneda, San Francisco to Narita,
Highlights: Unbelievably cheap award pricing through Virgin Atlantic, fine dining, well-stocked amenity kit.
Room for improvement: Frustratingly boxy seat on most aircraft
Wow factor: ANA rises to the second spot on this list primarily because of the new first- and business-class cabins it unveiled recently on a select number of 777 aircraft. The new cabin, dubbed The Suite, is currently only available on flights to and from New York, with all other routes getting the older, boxier first-class cabins shown in the picture above. The suite features sliding doors and dark tones, and ANA clearly listened to customer feedback by making sure the window seats in this configuration can actually see out the window without passengers straining their necks.
Like Singapore, ANA’s high ranking on this list is largely due to a product that isn’t available to most U.S. based passengers, but ANA still does a phenomenal job when it comes to soft product. In an example of Japan’s world-renowned service culture, I found the crew on my ANA first-class flight hustled twice as hard to overcome any potential language barriers and provide me with a top-notch experience. They even allowed me to go off menu and brought out a full tin of caviar instead of just sprinkling some on top of the lobster appetizer.
The multicourse feast continued with a sashimi course and a number of Japanese small dishes, a beautiful medley of flavors that were perfectly choreographed to take me on a culinary journey I could not have orchestrated on my own. The flight attendant even left a miniature bottle of Krug Champagne at my seat for me to enjoy at my leisure.
I’m also a huge fan of ANA’s hard-sided Samsonite amenity kits, which include a number of great skincare products from The Ginza, a high-end Japanese cosmetic brand. I’ve repurposed my kit and use it for chargers and cords when I travel now, unlike most of the pouches that I throw away shortly after getting home.
However, the area where ANA really stands out the most is the service. Every time I got up to use the bathroom, a flight attendant raced ahead of me to make sure it was open and then hold the door open for me. When I finished changing into my pajamas, she insisted on folding my clothes for me, and she even tucked me into bed when I was ready to go to sleep. With some airlines, that would feel forced or even creepy, but with this crew it genuinely felt like I was a guest in her home and she wanted to make sure I was comfortable.
It’s worth mentioning that while the bulk of ANA’s first-class-equipped fleet is made up of 777-300ER aircraft, ANA also has three Airbus A380s that it uses exclusively for flights between Tokyo and Honolulu (HNL). These so-called Flying Honu planes feature a first-class cabin that resembles the suite on the refurbished 777s flying to New York.
How to book: One of the best things about ANA first class is how easy it can be to book with points and miles. You have a number of U.S. gateways to choose from, and it features one of the best all-around award-chart sweet spots, if you’re able to find round-trip award space. Virgin Atlantic only charges 110,000 miles for round-trip first-class awards if you’re departing from the West Coast and 120,000 round-trip from the central U.S. or East Coast.
If you need to book a one-way ticket instead, you can do so for only 90,000 Avianca LifeMiles or 110,000 United MileagePlus miles.
Routes and aircraft: Cathay Pacific flies first-class-equipped 777-300ERs between Hong Kong and the following U.S. cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York-JFK and Boston.
Highlights: One of the widest seats in commercial aviation, great inflight entertainment and a recently refreshed soft product with a health-conscious menu.
Room for improvement: It’s nearly impossible to find first-class award space for two, and the TVs are old and not as crisp as recent models.
Wow factor: Cathay Pacific first class is one of the most expensive airline tickets out there, with flights between Hong Kong and New York, two of the world’s biggest financial hubs, routinely pricing out at over $20,000 one-way.
Much of Cathay Pacific’s first-class experience has remained nearly identical over the last decade. Despite a recent refresh to the amenity kit and bedding and a redesigned menu with healthier options, you still get the same signature handwritten note from the crew welcoming you on board, and a beautiful caviar course to start your meal.
The seat itself is quite impressive; at 36 inches wide, you’ll have no problem getting comfortable here. If you are traveling with a companion, the ottoman doubles as a buddy seat so you can dine together, and if you’re traveling solo, seats 1A and 2A offer an incredible amount of privacy. The six-seat cabin is laid out in a 1-1-1 configuration, but the A seats have a private aisle all to themselves, while the seats in the center of the cabin open up to the left side of the plane.
One additional thing I’ve found when flying with Cathay Pacific is that there’s less of a language barrier with the crew. English is much more prevalent in Hong Kong than in some other Asian cities, and I’ve always found Cathay crews to be not just the epitome of professionalism, but also able to easily communicate with me.
How to book: While not quite as big a steal as the ANA/Virgin Atlantic sweet spot, you can get a great deal using Alaska Airlines miles to book Cathay Pacific first class. For only 70,000 miles, you can fly between the U.S. and Asia and even include a free stopover in Hong Kong. Since Alaska miles are relatively hard to earn, though, many people might find it easier to pay 110,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles instead (which doesn’t earn you a free stopover).
Routes and aircraft: New York-JFK to both Tokyo Narita and Haneda, Chicago O’Hare to Narita, Los Angeles to Narita, San Francisco to Haneda. JAL offers first class only on its 777-300ERs
Highlights: Cristal Champagne and a multicourse dining extravaganza, very high-end amenity kits, choice of hard or soft mattress pad.
Room for improvement: Most U.S. routes don’t feature a first-class cabin, award space can be inconsistent.
Wow factor: JAL and ANA have many of the same things going for them: food, food and more food; top-notch Champagne; excellent service. But JAL’s biggest drawback is the limited number of U.S. routes on which it offers a first-class cabin. JAL has only 13 first-class-equipped planes in its fleet, meaning it can only serve four U.S. destinations between its two hubs in Tokyo Narita and Haneda.
Still, JAL first class is a real treat. The eight-seat cabin features an open layout with two rows of seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. The dark leather and cream colors give the cabin a relaxing feel day or night, and the seats offer a solid amount of privacy despite not being fully enclosed.
JAL first-class passengers get a fully stocked amenity kit designed by Etro, with different designs for men and women, as well as an additional set of high-end skincare products by Shiseido.
JAL currently serves Louis Roederer Cristal 2009, one of the more expensive beverages in the sky at about $250 a bottle.
Like on ANA, you can enjoy a multicourse Japanese meal or have a Western dining experience. Not many airlines can cook a steak as well as JAL, though I’d strongly suggest sticking to the Japanese menu.
JAL also has the same incredible service culture that blew me out of the water. As our flight was descending into New York (and I was on my third or fourth cappuccino), I remarked to the flight attendant how beautiful the JAL-branded mugs were, and asked if it were possible to buy them anywhere as a gift for my coffee-loving dad. She said they don’t sell them, but as we were taxiing to the gate, she came over beaming and handed me a gift-wrapped mug to take home to him. Now that’s incredible service!
Part of me is thankful that ANA introduced a new first-class cabin, but I really don’t know how I’d choose between ANA and JAL. Both do nearly everything right, from award-booking sweet spots to an incredible onboard experience, and even after flying both airlines in the span of two weeks I still struggle to pick a winner. The truth is that an especially good crew on one flight might be the deciding factor, but with both of these airlines you have a good chance of that happening.
How to book: As with Cathay Pacific, your best bet is to use Alaska Airlines miles. One-way first-class flights from the U.S. to Japan cost 70,000 miles (again, with a free stopover allowed in Tokyo), but if you’re continuing on to Southeast Asia it will cost you 75,000 miles. That’s still a pretty good deal, though given how hard it is to earn Alaska miles you might actually be better off booking through American Airlines AAdvantage, which charges 80,000 miles.
Routes and aircraft: Atlanta (ATL), New York-JFK and Honolulu to Seoul (ICN) on a 747-8. Other U.S. routes feature a mix of A380, 777-300ER and 787 aircraft, most of which feature first-class cabins.
Highlights: Six fully enclosed suites in the nose of a 747 make you feel like you’re flying private; and one of the best meals I’ve ever had in the air.
Room for improvement: Hard-to-earn Korean Air miles to book, and lackluster IFE.
Wow factor: Korean was one of only three airlines (along with Lufthansa and Air China) to purchase the next-generation 747-8 for passenger service, and it outfitted this plane with a custom first-class suite unlike anything else in its fleet.
High walls, closing doors and the way the seats hug the fuselage to create a wide aisle all make this cabin look more like a private jet than the 368-seat superjumbo it really is. The fact that I had the cabin (and therefore the crew) entirely to myself on the 15-hour flight from Atlanta to Seoul, save for a on off-duty pilot resting in one of the seats, only helped amplify my experience.
While I would’ve preferred to see a caviar course like Korean serves on some of its other routes, the appetizer of tuna tartare, avocado and seared scallops was one of the freshest and most flavorful dishes I’ve ever been served in the air.
The bibimbap, with a few extra helpings of spicy gochujang, let me so stuffed and satisfied I could barely muster an appetite for breakfast as were approaching Seoul.
I definitely noticed a minor language barrier with this crew, but it didn’t affect the inflight experience at all, as they were actively working to compensate for it. For example, I woke up midflight and pressed the call button to order water. The flight attendant asked me if I wanted sparkling or still, but she must not have understood my response. Instead of coming back to ask me again, she brought both from the galley so there would be no confusion or embarrassment on anyone’s part.
How to book: Korean Air used to be one of the easiest first-class products to book with points and miles, but that changed when Chase dropped Korean Air SkyPass as a transfer partner. Now you need to rack up a ton of Marriott points to transfer. Remember the 3:1 transfer ratio, but also the fact that you’ll get a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer. This means that for a one-way first-class award from the U.S. to Seoul and most of North Asia you need 80,000 SkyPass miles or 195,000 Marriott points.
Routes and aircraft: New York-JFK and San Francisco to Beijing (PEK).
Highlights: Better IFE than most Asian airlines, private seats, great Chinese catering and meal preorders.
Room for improvement: Limited Western food, mediocre amenities.
Wow factor: None, really.
I never thought I’d include a Chinese airline on a list of the world’s best, but after a surprisingly enjoyable flight from Beijing to New York in first class, Air China has earned this spot. I’m a sucker for a good 747, and while this cabin didn’t have any over-the-top amenities like a closing door or an onboard bar, the seat was very comfortable and private, and I ended up with more windows than I’d ever had on a plane before.
I was even quite impressed by the meal service. I preordered kung pao shrimp for dinner, and unlike my previous premium-cabin flights on mainland Chinese airlines, the rice and veggies were cooked perfectly and actually quite delicious.
Service was attentive if a bit impersonal throughout the long flight to New York, though I give the crew a lot of credit here, as it seemed like all six passengers in the cabin were on different sleeping and eating cycles. At the end of the day, I scored a great deal booking this award during a 10%-off sale on select routes from Avianca LifeMiles that dropped the cost from 90,000 to 81,000 miles.
How to book: As mentioned above, snagging this award on sale was a great deal, though after this flight I’d happily pay 90,000 LifeMiles to fly Air China first class again. That’s the best deal you’re going to get, as United, Aeroplan and Singapore KrisFlyer all charge more. Thankfully, LifeMiles are pretty easy to earn, as you can transfer to Avianca from Amex and Citi (1:1 ratio), Capital One (2:1.5) and Marriott (3:1 with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred).
You really can’t go wrong picking any airline on this list, as no matter which carrier or routing you choose, you’re going to be pampered for 10 or more hours and walk away with an unforgettable experience and jealousy-inducing photos for your friends.
Featured image by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.
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