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As sad as it is to admit, first-class cabins are becoming harder to find. This year alone we’ve seen Asiana give up entirely on first class and Korean Air scale it back significantly. A true long-haul, first-class flight is one of the most enjoyable experiences when it comes to luxury travel, and you often need the full 15 hours to experience everything the airline has to offer. However, with fewer and fewer options available to book first class, you might find that your only chance to try out some of the world’s best airlines and in-flight products is on shorter flights.
However, is this actually worth it?
That’s exactly the question I faced when I started planning a trip from Shanghai (PVG) to Singapore (SIN). I knew I wanted to experience Singapore’s new Suites — which appears on one of the daily frequencies on that route — but I wasn’t sure I could justify spending a lot of miles on a five-hour flight. Ultimate I decided to go for it, and I don’t regret the decision for a minute.
Here are the factors I considered, which will hopefully help if you face the same decision.
Award Availability Trends
One important factor to consider is the ease in which you can find (and book) awards. A big reason that I zeroed in on this short, intra-Asia flight to fly Suites was the fact that Singapore devalued its award chart earlier this year, driving up the cost of premium cabin awards on most routes to and from the US. Even the short, fifth-freedom route from New York-JFK to Frankfurt (FRA) now costs 86,000 miles each way in Suites class, but that’s not all. As part of the move to the new Suites layout, Singapore is halving the size of the cabin — from 12 seats to six. This means fewer seats available for award bookings, especially at the saver level.
Not every airline is this stingy, though. Cathay Pacific occasionally flies first-class-equipped planes on intra-Asia routes, but if you’re flexible, it’s easy to find award space on the carrier’s ultra-long-haul flights to the US. Put another way, if the airline with which you want to fly is generally good at releasing award inventory on longer flights in first class, there’s no reason to settle for a shorter one.
Are You Getting the Full Experience?
Another key factor is what you’ll actually enjoy onboard these shorter flights. To many award travelers, the only reason to pay a (sometimes significant) premium in miles for first class over business class is for the experience — namely improvements in food, drink, amenities and even the seat itself. It would be incredibly disappointing to board a flight expecting a multi-course meal only to be served a light snack instead. To ensure you aren’t surprised, do your research before booking — on both the carrier’s website and other online resources — so you know what to expect.
So how did my Singapore Suites flight stack up?
Our morning started at the dedicated first-class check-in space at Singapore Changi Airport’s Terminal 3. The seamless and private process took no more than a few minutes, at which point we were handed our invitations to The Private Room. This exclusive lounge is available only to first/Suites class passengers on Singapore Airlines. The lounge itself is located inside the general first-class lounge, which itself is located within the SilverKris business-class lounge.
We were escorted into the inner sanctum of The Private Room and led directly to a table in the dining area for breakfast. We enjoyed a few Dom Perignon mimosas and some eggs, making sure to save room for the feast on board. At this point, our experience was indistinguishable from that of the guests around us traveling on true long-haul flights.
I selected seats 1K and 2K so that my girlfriend and I could lower the divider and connect our suites. As usual, I was shocked at the speed and efficiency at which Singapore Airlines can board an A380, but there were some key differences in our boarding experience from that of a longer flight. While we were offered a pre-departure beverage (including a choice between Dom Perignon 2009 and Krug 2004), there were no amenity kits or pajamas on this short daytime flight. That’s a perfectly logical decision on Singapore’s part, but if you’re someone who likes to take home as many goodies as possible when you travel in a premium cabin, this is something to note.
The next test was the meal service, which began shortly after takeoff. Despite the flight time only being five hours, we were still allowed to dine on demand, and we ended up asking for a break in between our appetizer/soup/salad and main/dessert, essentially splitting the flight up into two dining services.
On shorter flights, Singapore offers a satay service to start, while longer flights begin with a caviar course.
However, the main meal service was indistinguishable from that of a long-haul flight. I took advantage of the “book the cook option” to pre-order the famous lobster thermidor, and it was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had on a plane. The portion size was generous, and everything — from the lobster to the rice and veggies — was perfectly cooked.
We finished our meal with the mango cheesecake, which was much lighter than the name suggests. Again, the flavors and presentation were perfect, and the lime sorbet complemented the dish quite well.
I didn’t notice a snack menu on this flight (not that you’d need one after a meal like this), and there was only one scheduled meal service, but this was the best meal I’ve ever had on a plane, despite the comparatively short flight.
Of course, not every airline is going to be this thorough. Many airlines cater lighter meals for shorter flights, and many will also downgrade the beverage options or remove other (more expensive) parts of the service — like caviar. At the end of the day, only you can decide how much that matters, which is why it helps to read as many flight reviews as possible before making a final decision.
How Much Time Is Enough?
So, did we get to do everything we wanted on our Suites flight? Not exactly. We didn’t expect (or want) to nap on this 9:45am departure, so we didn’t get to experience the double bed to which our adjacent suites could’ve converted. And this is representative of the problem with booking such a comparatively short flight: the 50-square-foot suites were mostly wasted on us. It was incredible to fly in what is largely considered the best seat available in commercial aviation (outside of The Residence on Etihad), but we didn’t come close to making use of all the space.
As an airline geek, I would have loved to try out the bed, even if I didn’t plan on sleeping, but there are other things to factor in as well. A five-hour, first-class flight on Emirates might not give you enough time to try out the onboard shower, one of the key parts of what makes Emirates stand out from other airlines.
Flight time isn’t the only factor; time of day matters as well. I’m flying Etihad’s A380 first apartments from Seoul (ICN) to Abu Dhabi (AUH) in February, and the flight is almost twice as long. However, it’s a 1am departure that arrives in Abu Dhabi at 6am local time, and I’m already “worried” that I’m going to sleep the entire experience away.
When all’s said and done, the question posed in this article is wholly a first-world problem. Whichever way you decide to use your points and miles for first class, you really can’t go wrong — even if it’s a flight covering just a few hours. Many award travellers collect these loyalty program currencies to enjoy experiences they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. When you combine the rate at which first class is disappearing from major airlines and the ongoing stream of devaluations and restrictions that make it harder to use miles for the remaining seats, you may just jump at the opportunity to experience a bucket-list, premium-class product on a shorter flight.
I went for it, and while I would have been happy to stay in the air for another 10 hours or so, this still goes down as one of the best flights I’ve ever taken.
Featured photo by Ethan Steinberg / TPG
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