Pursuing Perfection: Emirates First Class on the A380 From New York to Dubai
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The Points Guy is introducing a brand new review format that includes numerical scores for each section of the experience. These scores were used to determine the winners at the 2018 TPG Awards, where Emirates First Class on the A380 was named the Best International First Class of the year.
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="93" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="25" amens-ife="13" food-bev="23" service="25" pros="Opulent suites, flawless service, top-tier food and beverage options" cons="Underwhelming lounge at JFK and frustratingly slow Wi-Fi" /]
2018 has been a year of firsts — in the most literal sense. This fall, I was lucky enough to attend my first PeaceJam conference with the TPG team, which also meant my first time to South Africa. To get there? First class, naturally. This first-class trip would also mark my first time flying with Emirates — and my first time on an Airbus A380.
I thought my life had peaked a few months earlier, when I got the chance to fly Lufthansa first between Chicago (ORD) and Madrid (MAD) via Frankfurt (FRA), but lo and behold, just a few months later, I was boarding — directly from the airline's lounge at JFK's Terminal 4 — a beautiful Airbus A380 and taking my seat (in the first row, of course) bound for Johannesburg (JNB), with the requisite stop at the carrier's home hub in Dubai (DXB).
Needless to say, I was just a little bit excited. Emirates first is one of the holy grails of travel (I don't even know if that's a real thing, but it is to me). After reading about TPG's first-class trips to the other side of the world on board an Emirates jet, I knew I'd be in for a treat.
Emirates did not disappoint.
After Alaska Airlines devalued Emirates redemptions, there was no silver bullet for getting a fantastic redemption on an EK flight in a premium class. Fortunately, we had time on our side and began researching a few months in advance. We stumbled across an award ticket in business through Emirates' own Skywards program that cost us 131,250 Skywards miles. We booked that, transferring the required points at a 1:1 ratio from American Express Membership Rewards, knowing there was a chance that space in first would open up and we could use more points to upgrade at least one leg of the journey.
And that's exactly what happened. A few weeks before departure, we noticed that another seat in first on the JFK-DXB leg opened up, so we quickly transferred another 54,000 points from Amex and upgraded the first leg to first class.
All in, we spent 185,250 miles and $820 for the two flights, with the leg from DXB to JNB in business. We paid the taxes with the Platinum Card® from American Express in order to earn 5x points on the purchase, thanks to the card's bonus category for airfare booked directly with the airline. We earned a total of 4,100 Membership Rewards points for the purchase, worth about $78, according to TPG's valuations.
It was certainly no small amount to shell out, but considering the one-way price for a first-class ticket just between New York and Dubai was consistently around $19,000, I'd say we still got a helluva deal. And it's easy to accumulate a nice stash of Amex points, especially when you can earn a 60,000-point welcome bonus after spending $5,000 within the first three months after opening a Platinum Card account. For even more ways to book Emirates premium awards, see this post.
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The Emirates ground experience began as soon as I booked my flight. Since I'd booked a first-class ticket, I was eligible for the airline's chauffeur-drive service, which it offers in most markets for business- and first-class passengers. Setting it up was easy: I requested a 7am pickup from my apartment in Brooklyn, as I wanted to have plenty of time to enjoy the experience and didn't want New York's infamous rush-hour traffic to ruin my morning.
A few days before my flight, I received a text message from Addison Lee, the company that Emirates used in New York to arrange my ride, confirming that everything was still a go. This happened again the day before departure, and I appreciated the thoroughness of the process — Emirates was ensuring that nothing would fall through the cracks. It all felt very first class to me.
The morning of the flight, I received another text message at exactly 6:40am telling me that my driver was outside and waiting for me. I definitely liked this process a whole lot more than playing the timing game with an Uber or Lyft. I was ready to go at about five minutes to 7am, and excitedly threw open the front door to my building to find my chauffeur waiting in a tuxedo-black ... Chrysler 300.
I was a little deflated.
This may sound entitled, but I was expecting something a bit more glamorous than the 300, as Emirates first class feels more aligned with a Mercedes-Benz or BMW than a Chrysler. But it got me there all the same, and there was practically no traffic. I'll take it!
I arrived at JFK's Terminal 4 just after 7:30am and headed straight to the Emirates first-class check-in booth, away from the business-class and economy check-in areas. I bade my too-large suitcase adieu, collected my boarding passes and was on my way. It was still quite early, so the TSA PreCheck line was short and I was on the other side in just a few minutes.
After what felt like a very long walk (JFK T4 is exceedingly long), I made it to Emirates' recently reopened lounge above gates A5 and A6, which is where the carrier's three daily flights departed from: two nonstops to DXB and one fifth-freedom route via Milan-MXP.
The lounge was essentially one giant open space. It measured 13,000 square feet in total and featured a variety of seating options, but it was all more or less the same, save for the dining area.
I knew I would be eating enough for a small family on board the aircraft, but I'd arrived so early (and woken up so early that morning) that I was already hungry — a meal was definitely in order. There was plenty to choose from, as the spread ranged from pastries and cold cuts to hot dishes and everything in between.
I went for an apple danish and a single egg Benedict, both of which were top-notch.
The lounge also featured two self-serve bars. I'm a fan of a self-serve bar, and the ones in the EK lounge were pretty great and came with a good variety of beers, wines and spirits. Veuve Clicquot Champagne was served in the lounge (and on the ground aboard the aircraft), but you had to wait until after takeoff for the Dom to start flowing.
All in all, I had mixed feelings about the lounge, at least as a first-class passenger. If I'd been flying in business, I would have been more than happy with the lounge. There was no question that it was a nice, luxurious space stocked with high-quality food, drinks and furniture. And, perhaps the best feature of all, you boarded the aircraft directly from the lounge (another first for me, by the way). That was undeniably a cool experience and definitely felt more luxe than the norm.
But there was no separate space for first-class passengers, and I don't think the lounge was as good as the top offerings from American (Flagship Lounge) and United (Polaris Lounge). Granted, JFK was not Emirates' home, and I didn't get to experience the first-class lounge in Dubai, but the JFK lounge experience fell a little short of expectations.
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Any shred of disappointment from the lounge slipped away as soon as I boarded the Airbus A380. As I mentioned above, we boarded directly from the lounge and directly onto the upper deck, so there was no stair-climbing involved.
I had originally selected Seat Suite 1K in order to be at the window, but a flight attendant promptly informed me that the inflight entertainment wasn't working there and asked if it would be OK if I took 1F instead. As an AvGeek, I was disappointed I wouldn't have a window seat (actually, there were three windows at each) for my flight, but I happily obliged.
My suite was outfitted with all the expected bling, a signature for Emirates. Note that the A380 didn't yet have the new suites — those are currently being rolled out on the airline's Boeing 777s.
Anyway, back to the A380. Each suite was phenomenally private. Even with the sliding doors open, the seat was set so far back that it was pretty hard to see anyone without really making an effort.
With so much space, there was plenty of room for Emirates to splurge on its first-class passengers. Take, for example, the "minibar" within the seat. It came stocked with pretty much any soft drink you could conceivably want on your 12ish-hour flight to Dubai. (It's not refrigerated, though.)
Or the slide-out drawer with a leather-bound notebook and high-quality ink pen.
You can't forget the personal vanity stocked with Byredo amenities, either.
When it was fully flat, the bed measured in at just about 6 feet, 7 inches — more than enough space for me, at 5 feet, 10 inches, and just enough for TPG, who stands 6 feet, 7 inches. There were absolutely no concerns with cramped footwells here — I was able to spread out and toss and turn as much as I pleased.
The door to each suite was serious business, too. There were two panels to the door, and they shut with only the smallest of a gap between the two. Once the door was closed, no one would be seeing you at all unless they peered over the top of your suite.
When the cabin lights were dimmed, the ceiling lit up as if to mimic the night sky, with LED stars dotting the top of the whole cabin. I tried in vain to sleep, but instead I just stargazed for a couple of hours before returning the seat to a lounging position and watching movies and attempting to work.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="13" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="32" live-tv="Yes" tailcam="Yes" wifi="0.17" wifi-2="0.09" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
When I arrived at my seat, I discovered a complete array of amenities and accoutrements awaiting me. As I mentioned above, there was a full "minibar" at my suite, which contained still and sparkling water, soft drinks and juice.
Behind the seat itself were a large, rolled-up mattress pad and full-size pillow, and under the IFE screen was an Emirates-branded bag that included a set of pajamas, slippers and the amenity kit.
The kit itself was made of attractive, gray leather — quite a contrast to everything else at the seat that was full Emirates bling. Inside were various Bulgari amenities as well as a shaving kit, tissues, toothbrush, toothpaste and lip balm.
Emirates provided a Bowers and Wilkins noise-canceling headphone set, and they were phenomenal. They blocked a ton of ambient noise and let me drift off into my own world while I was watching a program.
In terms of an IFE system, I'm not sure any airline can come close to Emirates. The sheer amount of content loaded in the system was mind-boggling. According to the airline, there was over 4,300 hours of programming, enough to keep someone occupied for 554 flights between Dubai and London.
It was controlled either by touch on the main screen or via a tablet built into the seat.
You could perform separate tasks on the tablet while something else was being displayed on the main screen. I mainly used this to check the flight map while watching movies.
I found plenty to keep me entertained while I wasn't working or trying to sleep. I picked "Ocean's 8" for my first flick, as I have been a longtime fan of the franchise. (Though this particular film was pretty subpar, in my opinion.)
The system included much more than just movies. There were hundreds of TV shows on offer, plus tons of live TV content, including sports and news programs.
One area which could certainly have been improved upon was the Wi-Fi. The first strike was completely my fault. I hadn't realized that Emirates offered free Wi-Fi in first class to its Skywards members (I am one). However, when I made my reservation, I neglected to input my Skywards number, since it was an award ticket and I figured that I couldn't earn miles for the trip, so what was the point of adding my number? Lesson learned: Always put your frequent-flyer number in when you make reservations, even if you're traveling on an award ticket.
The flight attendant assigned to my suite explained that this could easily be remedied if I could sign into my Skywards account and connect to the Wi-Fi through there. But the connection was so poor that I wasn't able to sign into my account — strike two. Mildly frustrated, I bit the bullet and paid the $30 for Wi-Fi for the duration of the flight.
Strike three: The Wi-Fi just barely functioned. I was able to send and receive a few messages on Slack, but couldn't load any webpages or emails. After about an hour of trying to reconnect, I gave up and turned my attention to the IFE system. I guess a lack of Wi-Fi isn't all bad ....
It was particularly fun exploring the map functions, as the screen was huge. However, the tail camera functions weren't working in my suite, which was a bummer.
After exploring all there was to explore in and around my suite, it was time to explore the aircraft a little more, as there were two standout amenities that really completed the experience. One, the onboard bar: It was on the upper deck at the back of the business-class cabin, and was fully stocked and staffed with bartenders! I'd heard so much about this magical place from other TPGers who have flown with Emirates in either business or first, and was elated to have the chance to check it out for myself.
It was clearly the place to be on the aircraft. Each time I went back there, it was pretty crowded, with passengers eager to take pictures from behind the bar (don't worry, I got one of myself) and of the bar itself.
TPG and I spent quite a bit of time hanging out in the bar and talking with Emirates' famously worldly flight crew. They were all eager for us to enjoy the space to its fullest, and offered to make drinks for us to try or clear the area so we could take photos.
In addition to the full bar at the back of business class was a smaller self-serve bar at the front of the first-class cabin, right at the top of the stairs and between the two lavatories. This bar didn't just have water and Coca-Cola, either. It was fully stocked with high-end booze, including the Dom Perignon.
It remained a bar for most of the flight, but once we got closer to landing, it was turned into a spa-like space where tea was served.
But perhaps the most famous and over-the-top amenity of all is the onboard shower available to Emirates first-class passengers. Yep, onboard showers.
It's one thing to take a shower in an airline lounge before or after a flight, but it's another thing entirely to take a shower on the plane. My FA explained to me that I would be able to take a shower when we were getting close to landing, and that I had to reserve a spot, as each passenger was entitled to 30 minutes of time in the (enormous) shower-equipped lavatories.
I reserved a time slot about 90 minutes before landing so I'd have enough time to utilize the shower and then get back to my seat to have a small snack and pack up all my belongings before landing. Once it was time, my FA brought me to the lavatory, where another attendant was waiting to explain to me how it all worked. She pointed out the features of the lavatory, including where the toiletries were, and then moved on to explain that I'd have five minutes of shower time, and that most people turn the water off and on as they're showering so as to not run out.
The shower itself was definitely small, but I fit just fine. The water pressure was surprisingly strong, and the water heated up to a comfortable temperature. Since I hadn't slept at all on the flight, this immediately helped me feel more refreshed and ready to take on the next day. Not to mention the fact that showering on an airplane is quite possibly the coolest thing I've ever done.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" champagne="Veuve Clicquot/Dom Perignon" dine-on-demand="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
It's really amazing when you sit down and think about the fact that you can eat better at 35,000 feet than on the ground. I can't recall any meals that I've had recently that were as decadent as the ones I consumed on this flight.
The indulgence began as soon as I got on board. The flight attendant assigned to my suite came up to me right away and offered me a glass of Champagne, which I accepted with gusto. I'd been waiting for this. We'd have to wait for takeoff for the Dom to start flowing, but I will not complain about two glasses of Veuve Clicquot extra brut while settling in.
Also brought to my seat was a basket filled with a variety of goodies including salty snacks, chocolates and dried fruits. No peanuts or pretzels here.
As soon as the mighty A380 leveled off after its ascent, the FA assigned to me promptly showed up at my seat with the main attraction: the Dom Perignon vintage 2009, which retails for ~$180 on the ground. I accepted the Dom with even more gusto and sipped away while I was still exploring all my suite had to offer.
He also explained to me how dining works in Emirates first class. Basically, I was allowed to order anything I wanted whenever I wanted it. Was this heaven? I did my due diligence with the leather-bound menu, making sure that I devoted enough time to deciding what I'd eat.
To put it simply, Emirates offered its first-class passengers a ton of options for food and drink. On the liquid side of things, I could pick from five different flavors of juice, five mocktails, eight soft drinks, five flavors of hot tea and five types of coffee. And that's just the stuff without alcohol. Listed in the menu were 12 cocktail choices: bloody Mary; classic Champagne cocktail; Aperol spritz; kir royale; cosmopolitan; Manhattan; classic martini; breakfast martini; espresso martini; mojito; old fashioned and negroni.
We're just getting started — in addition to the suggested cocktail list, passengers could have their pick from aperitifs and digestifs including Campari, Cointreau, Drambuie, Amarula Cream and Tia Maria. In terms of spirits, the following were offered: Chivas Regal Royal Salute 21-year-old scotch, Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch, The Dalmore King Alexander III single-malt scotch, Woodford Reserve bourbon, Hennessy Paradis, Tesseron Lot 29 XO Exception cognac, Ron Zacapa XO rum, Bacardi Superior rum, Russian Standard Imperia vodka, Belvedere vodka, Star of Bombay gin and Sipsmith gin.
White wine included: Paul Jaboulet Ainé, Chevalier de Sterimberg Hermitage blanc 2014 from Northern Rhône, France; Paul Hobbs Edward James chardonnay 2013 from Russian River Valley, USA; Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc 2017 from Marlborough, New Zealand; and Antinori Family Antica chardonnay 2016 from Napa Valley.
And for the reds, there were the following: Clos du Marquis 2005 from Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, France; PharaohMoans syrah 2015 from Paso Robles, California; Luce Della Vite 2013 from Tuscany, Italy; Chateau Balestard la Tonnelle 2007 from St. Emilion, Bordeaux; and Grgich Hills cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley.
Also on offer were a Chateau Suduiraut 2007 dessert wine from Sauternes, France; Graham's Colheita 1963 tawny port from Portugal's Douro Valley; and, of course, the Dom Perignon 2009 Champagne.
As I explained earlier, dining was fully on demand, so my FA told me that whenever I was ready to eat, I could order whatever I wanted from the menu, which offered dishes for breakfast, canapés, appetizers, main courses, desserts and light bites.
For breakfast, there were five options: eggs Florentine; courgette-and-goat-cheese frittata with sauteed mushrooms and red-onion chutney; waffles with cherry compote and maple syrup; a continental cold plate of sliced pastrami, grilled chicken, goat cheese, camembert, Monterey Jack and crudites; and a choice of either cornflakes or muesli. All breakfast options were served with fresh bread, toast, pastries, fruit and yogurt.
I'd already had breakfast in the lounge, so my mind went immediately to the appetizer section, which had caviar served with all the traditional fixings listed as the first selection. In addition, there were the following choices: yellow-pepper-and-lemongrass soup served with herb croutons; beef consommé with braised oxtail and herb pancake julienne; antipasti of hummus, feta with mint, grilled vegetables, cured duck on Waldorf salad, black-olive tapenade and smoked trout with horseradish; smoked duck with carrot and celery kimchi and raspberry-truffle vinaigrette; seared prawns on wakame salad with pepper chèvre; and a seasonal salad.
I chose the caviar — it's kind of a thing here at TPG when any of us fly in first class. As mentioned above, the caviar itself was served with all the traditional accoutrements, including onion, grated egg, sour cream, lemon, melba toast and blinis.
I've said this before regarding caviar and I'll say it again here: I don't think I'd go out of my way to have it on the ground in a normal dining setting, but there's something oh-so-special about it in the air. Emirates presented it beautifully, and it really was delicious.
It wasn't all glamorous though (and this is entirely my fault). As I was ordering my caviar, the FA asked me if I'd like it served with the traditional shot of vodka, to which I replied (apparently without thinking), "Sure, why not!" I then got up to go to the bathroom and then waited a few minutes for the caviar to be served after I'd returned.
As I was happily consuming the caviar, I'd forgotten that the vodka was, in fact, vodka and very innocently began drinking it as if it were a small glass of sparkling water that you'd get with a cappuccino in some coffeeshops.
It was definitely vodka, and I was totally caught off guard, even though he'd asked me if I wanted it and I'd said yes. Just when you think you're getting the hang of this whole first-class thing .... Luckily, thanks to the superb privacy of my suite, nobody saw me convulsing after I choked down the vodka, and all returned to normal after I had a few more sips of my Aperol spritz.
While my caviar course was being cleared, I told the FA that I wanted to place my order for my main course, and he explained that it'd take about a half hour to arrive, which was totally fine by me. I had the choice of pan-fried beef filet served with thyme jus, gnocchi and grilled vegetables; miso-glazed cod with edamame and steamed Chinese broccoli; Bangalore chicken with basmati rice and green vegetable curry; spinach and polenta crespelle with tomato and Parmesan sauce; and grilled lamb chop and braised lamb shank served with rosemary jus, celeriac mousse and chargrilled root vegetables.
I was debating between the beef filet and the Bangalore chicken but ultimately decided on the beef, which was a tad overdone but tasted excellent, thanks to the wonderful sauce it was served with. It was a wholly enjoyable meal — just look at that gnocchi.
I was extremely full after my meal and not a big fan of dessert in any case, so I skipped the afters, knowing that I'd be ordering light bites later. If I had wanted dessert though, I could have chosen from a lemon cake with sugared pistachios; a fudge brownie served with salted-caramel profiteroles and caramel sauce; seasonal fruit; and a cheese board.
Sure enough, just a couple short hours later, I was feeling peckish again. I picked the menu back up and began browsing once again. The light bites section (which, by the way, had plenty of not-at-all-light bites) offered both cold and hot options. Cold snacks included a spicy tuna-salad sandwich; chicken-tikka-with-labneh sandwich; and a cheddar-and-sundried-tomato sandwich with olive chutney. The hot options included lobster mac and cheese; a beef pie with onion chutney; and lemon-and-ricotta ravioli with cherry tomato ragout and Parmesan.
As soon as my eyes passed over the lobster mac and cheese, I knew it had to happen. I pressed the call button, and my FA appeared just a few seconds later. I asked for the lobster mac and a diet Coke, which was served to me not even 10 minutes later. It was the ultimate comfort food, with perfectly al dente penne and plenty of tender chunks of lobster, all topped with a creamy cheese sauce. I can't think of anything better to go along with watching a movie at 35,000 feet.
After that meal, I was really, truly, actually stuffed, so I refrained from eating for just about the entirety of the rest of the flight, though I did ask for a small plate of fruit and a cup of green tea about an hour before landing, which was a perfect way to end the flight, given that it was still very early in the morning in Dubai.
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Other airlines may be able to compete with Emirates when it comes to the hard product, food and amenities, but where EK really excels is service. The crew, in a word, was superb. Service at my seat was personalized, also thanks to the fact that there were just 14 seats in the cabin. Every interaction I had was positive, and the flight attendants went above and beyond to make sure everything was perfect. Not only were they professional, but they were fun, too. In the bar, they were joking around with passengers and genuinely interested in everyone's story.
On my way back from the bar to my seat, one FA stopped me and asked if I wanted to try a "special" Hennessy. At first I was hesitant, as the last thing I needed was another drink. But she persisted, and I relented. She pulled down a heavy box containing a bottle of Hennessy Paradis Impérial and poured me a glass. This was the really good stuff, and it was so refreshing to see a crew with so much pride in their product that they pulled out all the stops to impress me.
If I needed anything, a FA was there within just a few moments, every single time. And, perhaps best of all, they enjoyed that I was enjoying the flight — they encouraged me to take as many pictures I wanted of every possible thing, and even brought out a special Polaroid camera to take pictures of me in my suite that I could take home with me and always have as a memento of this special flight.
Emirates in first class is perhaps the strongest evidence in existence that we are currently in the golden age of travel. It's about as close to perfect as it gets. Though the lounge experience in New York was a tad underwhelming and the Wi-Fi didn't really work in the air, I had an almost flawless flight. From the food and drinks to the impeccable service to the onboard shower, this very well may be the pinnacle of commercial flying. It doesn't even seem real that I actually had the chance to fly this bucket-list product. One thing I know for certain, though, is that I'm forever ruined. I don't know how I'll ever be able to fly coach again.