(Giveaway below!) “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.” There is nothing wrong with aspiring for the finer things in life. So last month (May 2018), I fulfilled one of my wildest travel goals of flying in First Class. Not Premium Economy; not Business; but FIRST. However, I started to travel the way most people did – as an early twenty-something backpacker who just graduated college or on leave from our first job. But if there’s one thing that travel teaches us, it’s that it definitely changes our perspective.
Over time (and as we age), we might slowly find it unacceptable to arrive at the airport wearing a ridiculously full backpack and sandals to board a budget airline flight and make our way to the cheapest youth hostel we booked online to share a room that has as many as 6 bunk beds with 11 other backpackers. I certainly do, especially now that I’m 30. Slowly, but surely, my standards became higher and I climbed my way up starting from budget airlines, to economy class on legacy airlines and eventually business class. And now, here we are! But why pay for First Class (even if you can afford it), which in my opinion is impractical and downright reckless unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg or in similar leagues, when there are ways to fly for FREE?
How I Booked It
If you guessed that this was possible through credit cards and mileage programs, then you’re absolutely right. After all, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveler in the world to do it. (Fortunately, this won’t be the last time I fly First for free either.) But let me elaborate. As far as I know, there are no local (Philippine) credit card that lets you earn miles with Etihad Guest, which is Etihad’s frequent flyer program. On the other hand, nearly all local credit cards let you redeem points for Mabuhay Miles, the frequent flyer program of the country’s flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL). Fortunately, I became aware of the many partnerships Etihad has with various airlines – including PAL. In 2016 I learned it was possible to redeem Mabuhay Miles for Etihad as well as All Nippon Airways flights! View it here. I also realized that soon enough, I could potentially have enough miles to book a First Class flight with Etihad. Since then, I became consciously mindful of airline partnerships and how many miles I’ve been earning to accomplish my goal. I feel the need to somehow thank PAL for making this possible because of their existing partnership with Etihad. (In case you were wondering, I’ve been converting credit card points to airline miles since 2009. Yes, it’s been 10 years! I said it was possible; I never said it was easy. Nothing worth waiting for ever is!)
This year, I finally earned enough miles from different sources, not just credit cards, to book a First Class flight. And it’s not just any First Class cabin – it’s consistently considered one of the world’s best in its league: Etihad’s First Apartment on their Airbus A380, which is the largest aircraft in the world. Etihad flies their A380 to New York, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris and London. I had enough miles to fly to either Paris or London, and since I just went to Paris recently and I have never been to the UK where the Royal Wedding was taking place soon, the choice was clear.
After going through the tedious process of getting a UK visa, one day in March 2018 I went to the Philippine Airlines UE-Recto office to finally cash out my miles. At first, the staff were completely clueless about my request. I don’t blame them since I expect this rarely happens. After I explained how it was possible from their website and further verification on their end, they assisted me in my request. There was limited availability for award seats, and I ended up with May 15. Etihad flies three times daily to London, and I picked flight EY 17 that to me had the best schedule of departing at 1:55 PM from Abu Dhabi and arriving at 6:45 PM in Heathrow. I redeemed 84,000 miles in exchange for the “free” airfare and paid only PHP 10,000 (USD 200) in taxes and fees for what should have been a PHP 375,000 (USD 7,000 – yes, the price of a second-hand car) one-way flight. Not a bad deal right?? Shout-out to the PAL staff who were really helpful! (Soon after I also booked a flight to the UAE, Dubai to be exact, with Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong.)
Complimentary Limousine Pick-Up Service
On May 15, 2018 my first First Class journey began with the Etihad Mercedes Benz picking me up at my hotel in Dubai, the Grand Hotel Excelsior Deira (formerly Sheraton Deira), where I received a call in my room from the concierge in the morning. I booked this service around 2 weeks before my flight by calling the local Etihad hotline, but do note that sadly as of today First and Business Class redemption tickets (those using miles) are no longer eligible for the complimentary limo pick up service from anywhere in the UAE. This was one of the reasons, apart from being in London in time for the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, that I decided to use my miles when I did (before the free service was withdrawn or more cost-cutting measures were made.) I find it hard to believe that Etihad posts over a USD 1 billion loss year after year, even as they do cost cuts, while their biggest competitor Emirates is highly profitable.
Although there was room for improvement when it came to the driver’s service, the roomy vehicle did come with two complimentary bottles of mineral water and two wet towels. Finally, I arrived at the First Class check-in that was written in huge capital letters outside, and it really got me excited! This was really happening!
When I entered, it looked more like a hotel lobby due to the absence of traditional check-in counters. A ‘bellboy’ helped me with my suitcase and escorted me to the check-in seats while there was a waiting lounge across from it. Apparently, standing up and queueing is for poor people. Haha! I took my seat and handed over my passport. The staff remarked that I was early. Indeed, I made sure I was to have enough time to fully utilize the First Class lounge facilities. Checking in was quick, but I learned that taking photos in this area is prohibited because apparently it is forbidden to take photos of the local women. Outside of the airport, I never seemed to have this problem on this trip to the UAE as well as previous ones.
Immediately after this area was the First Class immigration and security and there was no one in line! As she was stamping my passport, the immigration lady who owns a Chanel handbag asked me: “Where is your job?” This is normally a question asked upon entering a country and not exiting it, so I think she was implying that it was odd that a Filipino like me could fly First Class (while an Emirati like her has/could not?) Yes, Filipinos are commonly customer service staff or laborers all over the world (because we are hardworking, hospitable and speak foreign languages really well – not just English!), but that doesn’t mean we should be generalized and/or underestimated. 🙂
(Better quality/enhanced versions of these photos can be found on my Instagram. Follow me at: www.instagram.com/thetravelguyshops)
Etihad Airways First Class Lounge and Spa
Right in front of security was the gateway to the uber exclusive Etihad First Class Lounge and Spa. The first floor was merely an entrance/boarding pass verfication to the lounge that was located on the second level. In my opinion, the lounge prior to your Business or First Class flight makes up a third or sometimes even half of your entire Business Class or First Class experience. After all, you do spend between 1-3 hours in here.
After going up the elevator, fresh orchids and ceiling ornaments welcome you into the lounge. A small snacks area can be found on the left side that serves different kinds of dates and Arabic coffee. As I looked around, one of the staff offered to assist serving me. All the dates seem to taste the same though.
There was a general reception area, and another one for the lounge itself. The spa area also had one of its own. Below you can see the directory of all the locations inside the lounge. I went inside all the rooms except for the cigar lounge, prayer rooms and smoking lounge because I had no business being there. Guests of The Residence, a level of First Class that is one notch above all other ‘regular’ First Class products that only Etihad and no other airline offers, have a private room to themselves the same way they have their own room and bathroom inside the aircraft.
The Play Room (above) is a wonderland for little travelers, while the Fitness Center (below) was fully equipped with three treadmills, free weights and its own washroom.
You know it’s a fancy washroom when they have rolled hand towels instead of paper towels. 🙂
This is the hallway that leads to the washrooms at the end of the hall with the spa entrance on the right. The first thing I did after doing a little exploring was to have the complimentary 15-minute spa treatment at the Six Senses Spa with several choices of massages and facials. Below is a photo of the massage room and while the ‘seat’ may not look comfortable, it most certainly was and did its purpose. The masseur was Filipino, as were two of the receptionists.
After a recharging massage session, I made my way to the huge lounge area where I was greeted by one of the wait staff with the menu and he asked me what I wanted to drink.
One of the rooms was called Relax and Recline, which allowed you to do exactly those. There were about eight recliners and LCD screens with captivating images.
I wasn’t in the mood to nap since I just woke up a few hours ago, so I spent my time exploring some more. On one corner of the lounge was the TV Room which had a couple of international news channels airing. The lounge itself, or at least the parts close to the windows, had plenty of natural light.
There was a fully-stocked self-service beverage fridge, espresso corner and some fruits. I don’t seem to recall seeing any of these when I visited the Etihad Business Class lounge six months prior; I only recall there being a bar and bartender too.
There were actually two bars in the First Class lounge. The smaller one (photo above) was near the kitchen. Tairpohe lounge had a huge dining area, which took up most of the space, although there were hardly any people inside the lounge. In fact, I think there were more staff than guests at that time that morning. Unlike the Business Class lounge of Etihad (or most airlines and airports for that matter), the setting wasn’t buffet-style but rather fine dining, which is the norm in most if not all airlines’ First Class lounges. Everything on the menu was cooked to order.
During breakfast time, each table came with a trio of fruit jam on a plate. I realized I hadn’t actually eaten any meal yet all day since I got picked up, probably due to the excitement. So, I began to order starting from breakfast. I learned that the course meals in the Etihad First Class lounge I read about in previous blog posts were no longer offered for months now. Anyway, first I had the hot chocolate and the Eggs Benedict, which looked as good as it tasted. Each slice of egg, yolk, cheese, spinach, ham and bread practically melted in my mouth! (You can view photos of the menus from the lounge and flight I uploaded on Google drive.)
Another savory item I had for breakfast was the Stuffed Paneer Cheese with lentils and mint yoghurt. It reminded of thin slices of Halloumi cheese, which similarly should be consumed as soon as it’s served because it starts to turn stale as it turns cold. Lastly, I’m so glad I was tempted into ordering the Pancakes with apple ragout on the menu, because it looked equally pretty as its texture was fluffy.
After consuming all that food, I was stuffed. I went back to exploring the rest of the lounge. I hung around next at the bigger bar, which was right beside the windows with a view of the airport runways, and its design was so chic and Instagrammable.
I was quite surprised to see a man do what homeless people do on the streets, despite there being a Relax and Recline room. But then again if you’re flying First Class I suppose it’s hard for the staff to tell you to stop whatever you’re doing. He probably couldn’t wait to lie on a completely flat bed.
I decided to pass the time by charging and being on my phone in the Relax and Recline room with some drinks which came served with mixed nuts. Soon enough it was lunchtime, which meant the menu had changed. I decided to try one final, light meal before leaving the lounge and boarding my flight, where I would be having even more food whenever I wanted. I ordered the Cream of Pea Soup. It had a striking light green color which both complemented and contrasted with the faint pink hue of my “rose petals” drink. Then I picked the Grilled Beef Tenderloin over the Salmon Fillet (because I assume there would be salmon on the flight like they always do), cooked medium well, and it was was very tender – but the hand-cut fries tasted remarkable on their own! – even without the honey mustard-Worcestershire sauce it paired perfectly with.
Even though it was my first time flying First Class, I had really high expectations of the service and food but they were all exceeded. The one concern I did have was the layout of the lounge. The one washroom was located on one end of the lounge which took some time to walk to if you were staying near the Relax and Recline room (the other end).
I left the lounge to board as early as possible and Gate 33 wasn’t too far from the First Class lounge, which I think is intended that way, and there was a small section with a special entrance allotted for First and Business Class guests (below). No one was above airport security, as some of us were still randomly selected for hand luggage inspection including myself. If my memory serves me right, there was a separate jet bridge that connected directly to the First Class section of the cabin.
When I arrived in my suite, I was in awe. It was exactly as I had expected, based on all the photos I’ve seen of the cabin from previous bloggers. I called the hotline a few weeks after I booked my ticket to reserve this seat (4A) out of the 9 available seats, since I didn’t want to end up with a rear-facing one. (The seats alternate forward and rear-facing, although some claim it makes no difference when in the air.) It seemed like the entire First Class cabin was fully booked, except for The Residence which was empty. I was greeted by cabin crew Imke who I learned was normally a butler for The Residence! She was very professional and had a youthful, humorous wit about her which I particularly adored. I thought I would be the youngest First Class passenger in the cabin, and I was almost right, but next to my suite was a late 20-something Dutch lawyer who I eventually became friends with. He and I were “class”-mates (pun intended.) Like me, he was also flying using miles, but unlike me he has been doing so years before I have. Soon after, a FA came with the welcome champagne, dates and wet towel. She also provided us First Class guests with complimentary wifi access good for 90 MB, which I completely forgot to use.
Moments later, she came back with some hors d’oeuvres consisting of mixed nuts, an olive, and what looked like a tomato with artichoke. At this point, just before the flight was about to take off, I took this opportunity to take one final Facebook live video to showcase the cabin interior, again courtesy of my complimentary pocket wifi from Big Sky Nation.
Naturally, First and Business cabins come with noise-cancelling headphones. The mini bar for First Class passengers was a pleasant surprise, as it reminds you of staying at a five-star hotel.
There were several controls on the seat and on a touchscreen panel to completely customize how exactly you want your window shades and how to relax in your seat.
After take off and the fasten seat belt sign was turned off, my first priority was to visit the in-flight lounge/bar. Usually found only on A380 aircraft, the bar is exclusive for upper deck passengers, and it was located between the First and Business class cabins together with the galley for the cabin crew, enclosed in curtains on both ends. The round table in the middle can actually be hidden downward during take off and landing. The seats come with outlets for when you want to charge your devices while lounging in an area more spacious than your own private suite.
Just before I left the bar, the FA asked me if I wanted to have anything to eat. I decided on some potato chips (they were probably Lays) to be brought into my suite.
First Class Pajamas
At this point, I decided to change into something more comfy. I didn’t get the chance to have pajamas to wear when I flew Etihad’s Business Class six months ago from Manila to Brussels and back, because Etihad offers pajamas exclusively to First Class passengers, which makes it one of the highlights on this flight. The matching all-black top and bottom together with the slippers were kept in a signature pouch. I was given the smallest size available for men, which was still loose for me. These were handed to me after I requested for them.
First Class Lavatory and Shower
Another thing that sets First Class apart from Business (at least for the cabins on the A380 on most airlines), and Etihad’s First Apartments from other airlines’ First Class products for that matter, is the existence of a shower on board. There is one *very spacious* lavatory and shower for the First Class cabin. Being able to take a hot shower above the clouds is probably one of the most lavish, luxurious experiences one can ever have – at least for 6 minutes which is how long until the water runs out. I scheduled to have mine right away with the FA, who let me know I could use it as soon as she set it up.
It works similar to a car’s fuel gauge, where it turns from green (full) to red (nearly empty). The shower comes with individual toiletry bottles from Hungarian luxury skincare brand Omorovicza, the same brand of the products in the First Class amenity kit. There are also dispensers with lotions and other creams in the lavatory.
Here is are some videos I took inside and uploaded on Youtube:
Back in my (First) Apartment
Now clad in pajama wear, I made my way back to my suite and kept my clothes in a side closet by the door. I took this chance to take a photo of my trusty and now favorite blue Coach leather (gym) hand carry bag I bought in Florence, Italy six months ago. (Full disclosure: I actually stuffed the rolled blanket into the bag so I could take a photo of it looking full. Just one of my #lifehacks) The in-flight entertainment had Black Panther (one of the best superhero movies ever, right next to Wonder Woman), which came out just three months prior.
The FA came by to hand me a Fast Track card for immigration. Just one of the perks of flying in First Class!
At some point in time (I forgot when since Etihad offers Dine on Demand, meaning you can order and have your meal anytime you want) I ordered my first meal of Eggs Cooked to Order (scrambled) with potato rosti and veal together with a Brass Monkey (vodka, rum, OJ.) The eggs, like in most airlines’ First Class cabins, are made fresh – but I can see why critics claim you should never order the eggs. Mine were scrambled, but it tasted funny because of the way it cooked. Then the potatoes quickly turned stale, most likely due to the cold cabin air. This is one dish I recommend Etihad to revise on their menu. Nonetheless, the plating was impressive.
Upon seeing myself in photos wearing the pajamas, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why did I remind myself of a kung fu or feng shui master?
For dessert I had the cookies and cream ice cream with biscotti and Amarula liqueur. A creamy way to end a meal!
(SNEAK PEAK OF THE RESIDENCE)
I took a photo of The Residence from above its door while going to and from the lavatory. Do note that The Residence is good for 2 passengers. These photos are of the first of its three rooms.
Inside the sliding door to the right of the TV is the main ‘bedroom’ with a queen-sized bed and a private bathroom with shower. Not having to share a bathroom – now *that’s* exclusive!
The First Class Amenity Kit
When I flew Etihad Business Class, their Business Class amenity kits (which were only available upon request on certain routes) were by Luxe and the toiletries were by UK brand Scaramouche + Fandango. For First Class this time around, the amenity kit kept was by French fashion designer Christian Lacroix and the toiletries were the same brand as the ones in the lavatory, Hungarian luxury skincare brand Omorovicza. They were all kept inside the dresser. In case you’re curious: yes, the toiletries in The Residence bathroom are even more exclusive. They’re from Italian brand Acqua di Parma. First Class amenity kits in most airlines usually come in his and hers. For Etihad, his comes in a black wash bag form that opens up to become a flat bag. Hers comes in a chic wine-red clutch.
The dresser comes with three mirrors, to make sure your hair and entire face is on fleek from all angles.
Upon closer inspection of the amenity kits, you’ll notice the white packaging they come in are crumpled which give off the impression they’re not new. Perhaps Etihad can consider changing their packaging into something that doesn’t crumple easily. Below is what the men’s amenity kit looks like when it’s not folded inward.
The amenity kit comes with some essential oils (right) to ensure you have a good night’s (or day’s) sleep.
The men’s and women’s amenity kits side by side the way I found them, with the tags still attached.
In this cabin by Etihad, you get a bed in addition to your seat! The bed is what used to be the “bench” / footrest in front of the seat, which took a lot of effort to make. I called for the FA to have the turn down service, which is basically the preparation of the bed. Normally the guest goes to the lavatory to freshen up first, but since I didn’t have to go I asked the FA if I could stay by the aisle and watch her do her magic. And boy, did she! The bed really took a lot of work to make, and she put layers upon layers of comforters and sheets and folded it neatly, just like housekeeping does in a hotel.
I didn’t plan on falling asleep at all, but I was surprised that I did! I have to admit: the bed was simply too comfy!
In addition to facing the recliner, the TV can slide outward so that you can watch some more just before you doze off.
Another Meal Service
Before I went to bed, I ordered a pre-landing meal and requested to be woken up with enough time to finish said meal. It started off with two kinds of bread the FA personally recommended, and I’m glad I listened! The pretzel-looking bread was so chewy.
For the main courses, I tried the Chicken Breast in butter sauce served with arancini (Italian fried rice balls) and the Ricotta Tortellini pasta with Parmesan. I liked the tangy tomato flavor of the arancini and the savory cheese of the tortellini. The chicken was not exactly impressive; in fact, it had a little rubbery consistency to it when sliced perhaps due to lack of defrosting. But again, the plating was satisfactory. (If I give off the impression that I’m too picky or critical, it’s because I have tried dining at Michelin restaurants and other airlines’ exceptional Business Class products.)
But I do give credit where credit is due. For dessert, I was really satisfied in picking the Vanilla Cheesecake with blueberry compote. It looks like an ordinary cheesecake, but it tasted better – perhaps due to the vanilla added to it. I was really full in the best way possible after finishing all that gourmet food. (Again, you can view photos of the menus from the lounge and flight I uploaded on Google drive.)
Prior to Landing
I spent the remainder of my time before landing to watch some Modern Family (being on a flight seems to be the only chance I get to watch this show I love for years now), when cabin crew Imke popped by one last time and offered her business card as part of their protocol toward the end of the flight.
Overall, my expectations were exceeded and I was most impressed with the service starting from the First Class lounge all the way until landing. Weeks later, I made sure to give Imke and her team a positive review through the email above. In the end, it’s really all about the service by the crew. These included the little things like me returning to my cabin and seeing how a FA arranged my stuff like my phone cable, even as I insisted she didn’t have to (I felt like a slob lol), but I saw how they treated their jobs seriously with so much dedication. After all, a lot of them were sent by Etihad to be trained at the Savoy Academy, a premier butler school. The crew’s service is why I can attest that Etihad’s First Class product is truly one of the world’s best.
Note: This is an independent and not a sponsored review.
(END OF REVIEW)
Landing at London Heathrow Airport: Here’s What Happened Next
Immediately after deplaning, guests were segregated into whites and non-whites by the UK immigration… Just kidding. Although in effect that’s pretty much what happened as you can see in the photo below, the acceptable manner of discriminating against people in modern times, usually by first world countries toward third world citizens, is no longer based on the color of your skin but rather on your passport/citizenship, even though you didn’t have any choice or control over both. Life’s unfair one way or the other to everyone. Anyway, the Fast Track card helped a little bit, but not a lot, since there were hordes of people in line. The immigration officer lady asked me a bunch of standard questions like how long I was staying in the UK and what I will be doing and eventually set me free.
At baggage claim, I realized I was obviously not used to flying premium because I waited such a long time for my bag to come out – only to remember that I *just* flew First Class. My bag had a Priority First tag on it and was already out of the conveyor belt the whole time I was waiting! lol. Finally, for some reason I felt tired (or rather, bloated from all that food) that I wanted to rest somewhere. Although this wasn’t Abu Dhabi Airport where Etihad had an Arrival Lounge, luckily I had my Citi Prestige card with me that comes with complimentary Priority Pass access which I used for some tea and wifi access at Heathrow’s Plaza Premium Lounge below.
Eventually I left the airport just before 9 PM, and was utterly shocked that the sun was only beginning to set. You learn something new everyday, and that day it was how long daytime was on this side of the world at this time of the year. 🙂
I want you, my dear readers, to also get the chance to easily have a PREMIUM experience! There will be a total of 6 lucky winners of these fabulous prizes:
- 2 winners will each win the Grand Prize of (1) Cathay Pacific PREMIUM Economy Ticket (one-way between Manila/Cebu/Clark from/to HONG KONG; ticket only excluding taxes; valued around P20,000; valid for booking until Dec 2018)
- 2 winners will each win PHP 1,000 worth of Travel Wi-Fi day pass, courtesy of the nice people over at Big Sky Nation – Skyroam Philippines. (Use my promo code THETRAVELGUYSHOPS to get 10% off!)
- 2 winners will each win one travel neck pillow, courtesy of the nice people over at Big Sky Nation – Skyroam Philippines.
Get the chance to win any of these prizes through 3 simple steps below:
- Follow me on Instagram (www.instagram.com/thetravelguyshops)
- Share this Facebook post (must be public!)
- Leave a comment OR question (or both) below on this blog post about any of the topics on this blog with your Instagram handle (that’s how I identify you!)
The 6 most creative comments or questions will win the prizes, including the Grand Prize of a ticket to/from Hong Kong (after verifying completion of the 3 steps above). Contest ends July 31, 2018. Winners will be chosen on the first week of August 2018. JOIN NOW!
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