Maybe one day I’ll be one of those people that get invited to review an airlines’ First Class experience but that day has yet to come. For now, it’s just me and my AMEX.
My husband and I are in constant debate over how to use our Avios (BA speak for Airmiles), where we receive 1.5 Avios for every £1 we spend on our British Airways American Express card. I rather use the points for £20-£300 off the price of my flight, especially handy for all the short-haul travel we do, whereas my hubby prefers to use them for cabin upgrades.
So when it came down to planning our Hawaii honeymoon, he was adamant that we use our points to fly First Class. Though the pragmatic Norwegian half of me was uncomfortable with this extravagance, so the “compromise” was business on the way there and First on the way back.
We made our booking using a BA companion voucher and Avios, which means we only paid the taxes with money. If you don’t have a BA Amex card yet and want to get one, click this referral link, where you’ll receive a 6,000 point bonus if you sign up. We used the voucher to fly from London to Tokyo in order to spend two nights there on the way back. From Tokyo, we flew with Delta Airlines to Honolulu.
Is that the best way to get to Hawaii? Not at all. The fastest route would have been via Vancouver (17 hours 35 minutes), Seattle (18 hours 35 minutes), Las Vegas or LA (19 hours 35 minutes). But instead, we travelled for 30+ hours because that’s just how much we love Japan. It was 12 hours from London to Tokyo with an 8-hour stopover and another 7 hours to reach Honolulu. Take into account that Tokyo is 9 hours ahead of London and 19 hours ahead of Honolulu, which loosely translates into jet lag, jet lag, and a lot of jet lag, cured only by beers and Karaoke!
After pulling a near all-nighter in Tokyo, jet-lagged and now also hungover, this is how hubby and I showed up to the First Class lounge in Narita Airport. Normally, the lack of sleep and electrolytes would make us cranky. But we were still glowing from our two weeks in Hawaii, which felt like the equivalent of a decade in therapy.
Arriving at Narita airport check-in desk, we realised it was actually a major missed opportunity to only be flying First on the way back and not on the way out. This is because BA only has special First check-in desks and their own fancy lounge called the Concorde Lounge in select airports like London and New York. Apparently, since I didn’t get to go, these are a bit like a luxury all-inclusive hotel, with a complimentary a la carte menu and select spa treatments.
In Narita, we had access to a more general First class lounge. Still, I noticed it was much less crowded than the BA business lounge and much better. For starters, the full body massage chair is an epic invention and the perfect way to spend your time waiting for your gate to open. The chair will press and squeeze your arms and legs while little roller balls massage your back from your buttocks to your neck and even your feet. It was heavenly even for my post-Hawaii stress-free body.
Second, the food is also far superior, and if in Tokyo, you have to try the live sushi bar. Because free sushi. Pate crostini, squid nigiri and a cheese platter may not be a winning combination but in my effort to eat one of everything I can confirm that I enjoyed the food thoroughly. I even tried all three of their soups…
Turning left instead of right as I got on the plane felt like being invited backstage at a concert. While on a high akin to discovering you are the Chosen One, I sobered right up after no-one came to help as I hoisted my carryon up and into the overhead cabin all by myself. It seemed like very unnecessary physical exertion for someone flying First.
My husband and I took the two seats in the middle both facing the same way but with a large divider between us. The divider is great for offering privacy if seated next to a stranger but for honeymooners, my husband felt too far away and I would have preferred to have him closer.
The seating area is, of course, larger than business and there are many nice touches such as plenty of storage space, handy controls and a large TV. I particularly loved the vanity cabinet with mirror, allowing me to check on my face and sleep-filled eyes at my seat rather than in the bathroom.
We also each found a gender-specific Liberty toiletry pack and pyjamas on our seat, which we most definitely slipped into and yes, took them home and sometimes prance around in to see if they still contain any remnants of that special First magic. Although I admit now the novelty has worn off.
The 12-hour flight back to London went by without a hiccup. I was comfortable, entertained, and wanted for nothing. I’d heard that the service in First can be a bit overbearing, although this was not my experience. It was, in fact, the opposite, they left us alone, which I appreciated.
But here’s the thing. I’m no stranger to long-haul flights and I’m the type of person who will happily fly 14 hours straight whether in First or Economy. I find that the time passes by really quickly as I bring food, books, work, TV shows and movies: plenty to entertain myself when I’m not sleeping.
Of course, the 180-degree flat bed you get in First makes things a lot more comfortable, in addition to all the personal space, but flying economy is a minuscule sacrifice for reaching some of the world’s most incredible destinations.
Pros and cons
There are many perks to flying First, from the space to the service to the amenities. One of the biggest pros, which was also a total surprise to me, is that they don’t do fixed meal service times. In First, you eat whenever you want to eat! The drinks are also higher quality, with an emphasis on champagne and wine pairings, where it would be a shame to only ask for water.
The food, however, was a letdown. After being told that the sukiyaki beef I ordered had “come out a mess” and could not be served, I opted for the tikka masala, which was terrible. I love aeroplane curry, but this was watery and plain bad (I was too annoyed to take any photos). By contrast, I’ve had some really delicious meals in economy and premium economy lately that very confusingly have tasted better than the food I’ve eaten in business.
BA are notoriously not the most luxurious First Class in the skies. Asian airlines in particular, from what I hear, hold that crown. But, and this is very important but, my companion voucher is with BA, not Emirates. Using my miles to fly First was a choice and an opportunity cost, but didn’t cost me any additional pounds.
Flying First is an experience, a curiosity, a luxury. Like most things, it comes down to what you can afford comfortably and what you value. As a value-for-money conscious consumer, my favourite cabin is Premium Economy because I value the extra space and better food for the £150 extra average upgrade fee.
Although I also enjoy Business, particularly for peace and privacy on longer flights, I still see flying as getting from A to B. While I’m young enough to be able to fall asleep in a seated position, I prefer to save the extra £500 to spend while I’m there.
First Class, on the other hand, is entirely a luxury. It’s wonderful for that special occasion, like a honeymoon or anniversary. But more than any major tangible differences between Business and First, it’s how you feel about it. It’s about the little details and that it just feels special.
Lara Olivia is a Norwegian and Portuguese writer sharing all she knows about the good life on her blog, MissPortmanteau.com. Follow her @miss.portmanteau on Instagram.