A tale of two cabins: A review of Emirates first class and economy from New York to Mauritius
I’ve never felt -- or been treated -- like royalty while traveling.
Look, I’m an average person. I fly at the back of the plane, enjoy budget travel and don’t shy away from low-cost carriers or basic economy. But on a recent trip to Mauritius -- perhaps the longest distance I’ve ever flown -- I was able to upgrade my flying experience on half of the journey, booking Emirates first class from New York-JFK to Dubai (DXB) before continuing to Mauritius (MRU) in economy.
Although Emirates' economy is still probably a cut above most carriers' coach service, it would still feel like a massive downgrade. I was up for the challenge, though. In fact, I was excited about it.
Does Emirates still have one of the best first-class products out there? And could I make an economy experience feel as premium as first class?
Here’s how my flights from New York City to Mauritius on Emirates in first class and then economy -- two vastly different flying experiences -- went.
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Due to some timing constraints, my itinerary was booked as two separate legs -- New York-JFK to Dubai in Emirates first, and Dubai to Mauritius in economy -- about a week and a half before departure. Although it was very close to departure, finding award availability wasn’t a problem, even on one of Emirates’ flagship routes.
TPG redeemed 136,250 Emirates Skywards miles for the first-class leg, transferred from American Express Membership Rewards directly to the airline's frequent flyer program, plus $181 in taxes. TPG values Skywards miles at 1.2 cents each, making the first-class leg worth $1,635. To say that’s a steal is a massive understatement. Emirates first-class tickets routinely price at nearly $10,000 between New York and Dubai, even on one-way bookings.
We paid $790 in cash for an economy flight between Dubai and Mauritius for the second leg. I earned 2,625 Skywards miles for that journey, worth $32, according to our valuations.
We recommend booking through the Emirates Skywards program if you're paying in miles, as the airline cut first-class award availability with several partners. Emirates’ own Skywards program used to be overlooked because the airline tacked massive fuel surcharges onto premium cabin awards, but those have since been significantly reduced.
Don't have Amex points? Luckily, Emirates Skywards is a transfer partner with several other currencies. You can currently transfer points from all the major credit card currencies at the following rates:
- Chase Ultimate Rewards – 1:1.
- Amex Membership Rewards – 1:1.
- Citi ThankYou Rewards – 1:1.
- Capital One Venture miles – 2:1.
- Marriott Bonvoy – 3:1 with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred.
New York to Dubai
When I found out I’d be flying Emirates first class, one of the first things I got excited about was the chance to catch a chauffeured ride from my New York City home to JFK Airport for my 10:20 p.m. flight.
But my colleague, TPG senior writer Zach Griff, who’s something of an Emirates guru, quickly doused my excitement with cold water. He informed me that the service was no longer available on award tickets (or flights upgraded from economy class or the airline’s stripped-down "special" business-class fares.)
I was a little bummed, but to make up for it, I booked an Uber Black ride to the airport, which (sort of) felt like a luxury ride.
Emirates utilizes JFK’s Terminal 4, one of the busiest active air terminals in the region.
And busy it was indeed. Upon entering, I had one thought -- travel is back! The terminal was thronged with hordes of families hustling to security screening and workers herding lost-looking passengers to their gates.
As a premium passenger, I had access to the first-class line to check in and get my boarding documents. There was nobody else in line, so the process was efficient. Remember that we’re still very much in a global pandemic, so you need to give yourself (and the ticket agent) ample time to go through your travel documentation.
Since I was traveling to Mauritius, the agent checked my PCR test, COVID-19 vaccination record and proof of insurance before printing my boarding pass. She explained that I could use the Emirates Lounge, which I was familiar with from a previous flight.
Security screening at Terminal 4 is often chaotic, and this day was no different. After going through security, I immediately made my way over to the Emirates business-class lounge, which was just as unremarkable as the last time I’d visited. I had a couple of hours until my flight, so I settled in with a glass of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
I made a small plate, which consisted of lamb and rice but didn’t look that appealing -- and ended up saving my appetite for the flight.
There are three single shower suites complete with a sink and toilet. They aren't the nicest -- and if you're flying first, you'll want to shower onboard anyway -- but they'll do the job.
The lounge itself is a nice respite from the busy terminal one floor down, but it's not particularly memorable. Had it been a little closer, I would have skipped the Emirates lounge entirely in favor of the Amex Centurion Lounge, also located post-security in Terminal 4.
However, one incredible perk about flying in business or first with Emirates is the ability to board directly from the airline's lounge, which I did on a previous Emirates flight last summer. Being able to skip the hectic boarding gate and head straight to your seat on an A380 jumbo jet is a much-valued perk.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t an option, so all passengers -- first-class included -- boarded from the main terminal instead of the lounge. I noticed travelers getting up to leave (several Emirates flights were departing that night) but didn't actually hear the garbled announcement over the speaker. It wasn't until I asked an attendant about boarding that I'd learned that my flight was boarding -- as there was only a single announcement. I grabbed my backpack and suitcase and headed downstairs to find that most of the flight had already boarded.
Not getting to board from the lounge was a bit of a bummer, but I quickly shook it off as I was excited to spend the next 12 hours flying one of the most exclusive premium cabins in the sky.
Cabin and seat
I thought I couldn’t be more impressed by Emirates’ Airbus A380 business class, which I flew from New York to Dubai last summer. From the food and drinks to the service (and the inflight bar), I figured there was no way Emirates first class could blow me away even further.
I was wrong.
Emirates offers two very distinct first-class flying experiences: the Airbus A380, which I flew, and a handful of Boeing 777s, which feature game-changing, fully enclosed suites. The 777 -- which several of my colleagues flew on last year -- is gorgeous, but unfortunately, it doesn’t have the bar or shower onboard, both of which I wanted to experience. So I was grateful to be flying the A380, even if it didn’t feature the new suite.
The first-class cabin aboard Emirates' A380 is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, with 14 first-class seats (or suites) situated on the top deck of the plane near the nose.
The A380 suite is so exclusive it felt like I was flying on a private jet. Seriously, I didn’t hear any other passengers during the entire flight, and the cabin was nearly full. Privacy is a luxury these days, especially during a pandemic when people want to remain at least feel 6 feet apart from others. Emirates does a stellar job on the cabin feeling peaceful and quiet.
A few days before departure, I managed to snag seat 1A, putting me closer to the lavatory than my original seat, which was 3K. I had two massive windows all to myself, and the window shade operated electronically, which I preferred over having to draw the shade closed myself.
One suite in the cabin remained empty, so a helpful flight attendant offered to store my suitcase as there was no overhead compartment in first. Even with my backpack taking up part of the floor, I still didn’t feel cramped.
As for the seat itself, I only have one word: phenomenal. The seat had a whopping 86 inches of pitch and was 23 inches wide, perfect if you toss in your sleep as I do.
The seat measured 78 inches long in bed mode, and I had more than enough room to stretch out my lanky frame. Both in recliner and bed mode, the seat was immensely comfortable, with leather upholstery similar to what you’d find in Emirates business class on the A380.
When I arrived at my suite, I found a large, rolled-up mattress pad and full-size pillow behind it, and I found both to be incredibly plush and comfortable.
There was a single universal power outlet located in a concealable compartment under the desk lamp -- but you may have to look hard for it. There was another USB outlet close to the minibar.
Perhaps one of the best features of Emirates first was the privacy component and the ability to shut the door to my suite. You can configure your suite to “do not disturb” if you want privacy during the flight by pressing a button either on the door outside of your suite or on the armrest of your chair.
There were two panels to the door, and once closed, it was nearly impossible to see the suite’s occupant unless someone peered in over the top.
After the cabin lights were dimmed for the night, the ceiling lit up with twinkling stars dotting the top of the roof, which I found to be a nice touch.
Emirates first was chock-full of goodies for AvGeeks. I mean, there was a minibar! I raved about it in my Emirates business-class review a while back, but this one was way cooler.
The minibar was stocked with still and sparkling water, Pepsi and 7Up.
To open the minibar, you simply pressed a button, and your drinks would come out of the side console. Unfortunately, the minibar wasn't chilled, but you can have ice for your drinks in under two minutes after pressing the call button.
There was ample lighting, with two adjustable reading lights and a small night light. As this was a night flight, I didn’t bother much with the lights and opted to keep them dimmed.
A small vanity held face and eye cream and a pillow mist spray with a pleasant chamomile scent from Byredo, which was soothing.
If you needed to write something, for whatever reason, the suite featured a slide-out drawer with a leather-bound notebook and high-quality ink pen.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
There’s no way around it: Emirates first is an expensive product whether you’re paying in cash or points. So, to really sell the experience, the airline had to go all-out, especially with other Middle Eastern carriers jockeying for premium passengers on long routes from the U.S.
I never had a chance to fly Etihad’s Apartment before it became a casualty of the pandemic, nor have I flown Qatar’s Qsuite, which is a business-class product, but they’ll have a hard time impressing me as much as Emirates first did.
I noted in an earlier review that I’m not much of a movie or TV fan, so I didn’t watch much TV on this overnight flight. However, the inflight entertainment system was stocked with old and new programming. Like last time, I settled in with “A Black Lady Sketch Show” from HBO for a few hours before catching some shut-eye.
The system included a 32-inch monitor, along with a separate tablet where you could perform separate tasks, along with yet another handheld device. If you’re concerned about being connected, you’ll have no worries here.
I didn’t run an official test on the Wi-Fi but found it to be pretty solid for checking emails, Slack messages and Twitter.
The airline showed off with its amenity kits, too, which were from Bulgari.
I wasn’t impressed with the Emirates business-class amenity kit, but the airline more than made up for it with the first-class offering. It featured the standard things like toothpaste, a toothbrush, a comb and woodsy-smelling lotion, all packaged in a handsome bag. I’ll be swapping out my current travel amenity bag with this one.
First-class passengers also receive a pair of pajamas -- which Emirates calls "hydra-active sleepwear" (retailing for $55 on the ground) -- and slippers to use after takeoff. They were designed exclusively for Emirates first-class passengers and are available in various sizes for both men and women (I was wearing a small in the photo). They were incredibly comfy and, like the amenity kit, I’ll be adding these to my travel collection.
Did I mention the A380 featured a bar? After my experience in Emirates business class, the bar was all I could talk about for weeks. So this time, around midflight, I wandered down the length of the plane's upper deck to the bar at the aft of the aircraft, searching for a snack and a Kir Royale cocktail. The bar had a spacious seating area with a flat-screen television and was stocked with alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks.
If you’re flying first class, note that you’ll have to walk through the entire length of the business-class cabin to get there. I didn’t spend much time at the bar this time, but it was just as fantastic as I’d remembered.
There were only a few other passengers at the bar when I arrived, and several were catching up on work on laptops or noshing on chocolate or fruit.
While these perks are excellent, I saved the best for last: the inflight shower. Yes, that’s right -- it’s not a typo. In what is perhaps the most famous amenity for all commercial flights, Emirates first-class passengers have access to one of two onboard showers.
Many airport lounges boast showers -- I use them regularly myself -- but Emirates is the only commercial airline currently to feature an onboard shower (Etihad’s A380s had onboard showers, but that fleet was grounded due to the pandemic.)
My flight attendant explained that I could choose to shower either after dinner or before breakfast, and I opted to take mine before breakfast.
A helpful attendant explained how to operate the shower and where the toiletries were located.
If you’re showering, you have five minutes and have the option to turn the water on and off to conserve time. Keep in mind that the water intermittently turns on and off during the last minute of the shower.
I’ve had many impressive travel experiences in my life, but there was something unreal about showering at 39,000 (I checked) feet. I was expecting a lukewarm shower because the idea of a hot shower seemed unfathomable on an airplane, but it was just as hot as my shower at home.
The lavatory itself was perhaps twice the size of the bathroom in my New York apartment. And you don't have to bring your own shower products as the lavatory was stocked with a brush, comb and shaving kit, as well as shampoo, soap and moisturizer from Voya.
Food and beverage
I avoided eating a heavy meal during the day and at the lounge on the ground to ensure I would be hungry enough to try as much as possible from the first-class menu.
And I ate ... everything. It’s so bizarre that my dining experience thousands of feet in the sky was better than some fine dining I’d experienced previously on the ground.
Shortly after I settled into my seat, the flight attendant came by and poured me a glass of Veuve Clicquot, and I also had a glass of Dom Perignon (about $160 retail) later on, which is a personal favorite.
First-class passengers get a cute basket stocked full of salty and sweet snacks like dark chocolate, potato chips and popcorn to munch on during the flight.
Shortly before takeoff, flight attendants came around with Arabic coffee and dates, which were tasty. My extremely friendly flight attendant explained that, as a first-class passenger, I could order whatever I wanted. Really? Whatever I wanted?
Service started about an hour into the flight. I began with the "canape" -- a small-bite plate of poached prawn and guacamole, before shifting over to the cream of spinach soup. Both were delicious dishes, but the soup was a little heavy, and I wanted to pace myself for the 12-hour journey.
I decided to have the grilled lamb rack, which was served with rosemary jus, ratatouille and mint chutney for the main course. It was savory but a little dry. Dessert was a warm chocolate fondant, served with salted caramel sauce and torched marshmallows, which paired well with the Dom I was drinking.
About an hour and a half before landing, I put in my breakfast order. The flight attendant suggested I take my shower before breakfast, so I slipped away to the lavatory. Within minutes of arriving back at my suite, my French toast with strawberry compote arrived. I'm a bit of a breakfast snob and a lover of sweets, and I found the French toast to be fluffy and juicy. The compote, which included fresh strawberries, was a nice touch over a side like syrup.
Airlines cut a lot of perks during the pandemic, with glassware and tableware being the most noticeable. During the pandemic, I've flown premium cabins and have found plastic silverware and cups to cheapen the experience, so I'm glad little has changed onboard Emirates.
Emirates shone virtually everywhere on this flight, but the service, in particular, was superb. Service remains on-demand, and travelers experience the same level of luxury associated with Emirates first, with an added COVID-19-friendly touch.
Whenever I rang the call button, a flight attendant was at my suite within minutes, and sometimes seconds, if I needed anything. I didn’t want for anything during the 12-hour journey.
I enjoyed seeing the crew having fun doing their jobs, which came through during the flight, too. Of course, the flight attendants were more than happy to serve but were also excited to just chat. Before bed, I had the chance to talk with the flight attendant working on my row about how excited I was to travel to Mauritius.
I had never been on a flight where I was sad to land, but all good things must come to an end. I thanked the excellent cabin crew for what was perhaps the best 12 hours of my life and deplaned for the connection hall in Dubai.
I knew my next leg, an economy flight, wouldn’t compare to first, but I was still eager to see what economy would look like on one of the world’s best airlines.
Dubai to Mauritius
Could an economy experience feel as premium as first class? From the moment I entered Dubai’s hectic terminal for my connecting flight, I knew it wasn’t meant to be.
I was still on a high from my amazing 12-hour flight between New York and Dubai, but the journey wasn’t over. I had another seven-hour flight to Mauritius, this time in Emirates’ economy class.
After such a fantastic, premium flying experience, I figured I’d get a similar (albeit significantly scaled-down) experience on my economy leg from Dubai to Mauritius.
After disembarking and clearing security, I headed off in search of a place to print my boarding pass, as I couldn’t get it in New York due to travel verification reasons.
As I was still (technically) on a first-class ticket, an employee allowed me to utilize the premium line for document verification.
This is where things began to go downhill.
Even though the terminal was packed, there was just one employee, and the line was beginning to grow. After I had waited for roughly 30 minutes, the agent waved me over to the counter, and I handed over my passport and documentation, some of which was on my phone.
As I came to find out, Mauritius requires printed-out copies of your PCR test results -- and this counter didn’t have a printer, so I needed to find one. Already, things weren’t going so well. Discouraged, tired and slightly irritated, I figured I’d stop in the first-class lounge in Dubai Airport's Concourse B to print off my boarding pass as well as to grab a shower and a hot meal for my seven-hour layover. Unfortunately, this wasn't the Concourse A lounge, which spans the entire length of that concourse, but this was the one closest to check-in and my departure gate.
The first-class section looked essentially the same as the business-class section but was significantly smaller.
Because I wasn't departing in first class, I had to pay for access -- about $300 -- so that I could enjoy (another) shower and a hot meal.
I'd heard great things about the Emirates' first fresh sushi bar, so I made that my first stop of the night. The sushi was fresh and tasty and was almost as good as sushi I'd eaten a few years back in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the food was the highlight of the lounge, so the $300 price tag didn't make much sense.
I had seven hours of downtime, so I settled into a table with views overlooking the terminal below to work. Many folks who use the lounge are traveling on business, so strong Wi-Fi is a must, and I found no issues communicating with my colleagues back in New York.
I loved the business-class lounge when I flew through Dubai last summer, so if you have to pay, I’d recommend simply sticking with it over the first-class lounge.
After getting my fill of sushi in the first lounge, I walked across the hall to the business lounge. First-class passengers also have access to the business-class lounge, and I was eager to visit this lounge because it was where the Moet & Chandon Champagne lounge was located.
It was pretty challenging to locate, but that was part of the fun as there were only two other travelers in the section the entire time I was there. Even after paying hundreds of dollars for first-class lounge access, I spent most of my layover in the business lounge solely for the Moet experience. I was offered complimentary tastings of four types of Champagne -- Imperial, Nectar Imperial, Rose and Grand Vintage 2012.
The overall lounge experience didn't feel much different from pre-pandemic times, other than staffers wore masks and served guests instead of a buffet situation. I know some travelers like buffets, but I find them a little gross, and I'm grateful some lounges seem to be moving away from the practice.
When it was time to leave, I was equally happy and disappointed. When you fly to certain parts of the world, be prepared for lengthy layovers. Even the best lounges, like in Dubai, can get stale after a while, and I was eager to continue my journey. So, full of sushi and Champagne, I was ready to board my 2:25 a.m. flight to Mauritius.
Cabin and Seat
It’s been years since I flew a Middle Eastern airline’s economy product, but I remembered being pretty impressed with Etihad back in the day.
Emirates impressed me this time as well. The 18-inch-wide seats were pretty comfortable and offered 32 inches of pitch, which is about standard for long-haul economy-class products.
Like my last flight, this was an A380. This behemoth boasts a whopping 429 economy-class seats, which occupied the entire lower deck from nose to tail, arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration. With few flights operating to Mauritius, this one was completely sold-out. I noticed passports from around the globe: Australians, Mauritians headed home and plenty of Brits.
I opted to sleep for much of this late flight and had chosen a window seat for that purpose.
There was a large gap between the seats and the curved fuselage, making it incredibly difficult to sleep at a comfortable angle. This might make the seat more comfortable on a daytime flight, however, giving you a little extra space for your head and shoulders.
I ended up just resting my head on the tray table for much of the flight. I'm not really tall, but I found the cabin to be very spacious and not at all claustrophobic. There was enough overhead space during boarding that I didn't feel like I had to hunch over.
Speaking of the tray table, the seat had a twofold tray table, roughly 11 inches by 16 inches large, suitable for eating and drinking but not much else. I opted against working on this overnight flight, but the limited surface area would have made it pretty difficult anyway.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
Emirates boasts a great inflight entertainment system, known as ICE.
As it was a (very) early morning flight, and most passengers opted to sleep, I didn’t bother much with the IFE myself. However, I immediately noted the 13.3-inch display, which I found to be clear. In addition to the large display, each IFE system featured a touchscreen remote. There was also a USB plug for your phone and device (but note that it charged pretty slowly, so come with a fully charged battery) and a headphone jack.
When you arrive at your seat, you’ll find a headphone set, blanket, pillow and, in pandemic times, an extra mask and hand sanitizer. The headphones were pretty flimsy, so I didn’t use them. But the blanket and pillow were comfy for this early morning flight, and I wish I could have kept them.
Food and beverage
Emirates really disappointed in terms of catering, especially considering I’ve had some decent meals in long-haul economy.
Our flight left in the middle of the night, and the meal service started about 45 minutes after takeoff. The meal consisted of some sort of sandwich and water. I say “some sort” because I had no clue what it was -- and neither did the other passengers in my row -- so I decided not to eat it.
Roughly an hour and a half before landing, the crew came around to take breakfast orders. Breakfast was slightly better, with beans and eggs (not two foods I’d typically want to eat in the air), a fruit cup and a croissant.
Luckily, I wasn’t that hungry as I’d decided to fill up in the lounge. Still, Emirates can do a better job with its economy meal options, especially in comparison to its other Middle Eastern rivals.
I’ve found that, at least in the air, Emirates impresses in its service regardless of the cabin. This was a pretty late flight, so most passengers, including myself, chose to sleep, but the service was still punctual and on point.
Even in a pandemic, it felt like a solid "economy-class" flying experience, and I found virtually no difference between this flight and previous long-haul flights, except that staff all donned masks and gloves.
However, as I mentioned above, Emirates could use some work on its service on the ground, similar to what I experienced when trying to get my new boarding ticket. There was virtually no organization when it was time to board the flight to Mauritius, as hundreds of passengers streamed toward the gate. Boarding groups went entirely out the window as whoever felt like boarding simply walked up and showed their ticket.
Several families with small children and some seniors were toward the back and couldn’t preboard, which I can imagine was inconvenient for them.
While starting to look a little dated, Emirates’ A380 first class is one of the best products in the skies and a stellar way to fly if you’re traveling to or from the Middle East. From takeoff to landing, the entire experience was nothing short of perfect for me.
However, Emirates could stand to improve its ground experience in Dubai, a busy airport. As most passengers are economy passengers -- not premium -- its onboard economy meals could also be refreshed to better compete with Qatar and Etihad. But overall, I wouldn't hesitate to fly either cabin (especially first) in the future.
All photos by Victoria Walker/The Points Guy.