A traveler's inside look at an ultra-luxurious first class cabin
Travel writer and business owner Sam Huang runs the website Top Miles, which publishes budget travel guides.
Sam has been traveling since 2008 – around the time of the Beijing Olympics. He has previously kept a journal but only started publishing his stories last year.
Among these, he has been sharing how he has traveled on luxurious flights for a fraction of the cost, using frequent flyer miles. He says that he heard about this while studying in college abroad.
"I met a guy in Europe and he told me he flew to Europe for free. Of course, I didn't really believe him. After graduating college, I remembered his advice and so I started digging around," he told Rappler via email.
He developed a method revolving around frequent flyer miles and credit card rewards. He summed it up: "In a nutshell, I would say apply for the right credit cards and make purchases using those credit cards."
"I know banks are stricter here [in the Philippines] than the US, but its still very possible to fly at least in coach with minimal spending per month. If you are a very big spender, my awards are quite attainable."
He added, "With the reward points from those credit cards you can transfer them to the airline miles program. Using those miles, you can then book your flight!"
On one of his travels to Maldives, he took a connecting first class trip from Sydney to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airlines with just a penny for a dollar: $108 and 60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles.
He was originally booked for Etihad Airlines' First Apartment, its first class section; however, he wanted to see for himself Etihad's The Residence, a 3-room suite on the aircraft.
"I wanted to see the holy grail of luxury commercial flying for myself, the Etihad Residence," he wrote.
Luckily, the Residence was vacant on his flight, and he got a tour and was able to spend some time in it, thanks to the gracious crew.
Below, he narrates his experience – from the airport to the aircraft – where he got the ultimate, opulent experience high up in the skies:
This piece was originally published on Top Miles. All photos are by Sam Huang.
When the new Etihad A380 was announced two years ago, the aviation world was turned upside down.
Instead of cutting costs, Etihad Airways went to the drawing board and created two new innovative products: Etihad Apartment & Etihad Residence.
The traditional convertible seats in first class pale in comparison to the Etihad Apartment, which featured the world's first separate seat and convertible sofa for sleeping.
Each apartment is equipped with a full sized vanity mirror and a swivel 27 inch LCD TV, innovations that have never been seen in any luxury commercial flight before. The Etihad Apartment is so big that Etihad had to remove one aisle in order to fit two apartments side by side across the upper deck of an A380.
While the First Apartment is already a noteworthy innovation, Etihad took it even one step further and launched The Residence. This features not one, but three separate areas for guests, including the world's first truly private room with a full sized double bed.
Innovative luxury travel doesn't come cheap. For a one way flight from Sydney to Dubai, The Residence retails at around $23,000 (approximately P1.06 million) one way, while the First Apartment retails at a more reasonable $6,500 (approximately P300,000).
I have always been intrigued by the Etihad Apartment and since I was in Sydney for the New Year's Eve fireworks, this was the perfect chance for me to finally try out the best first class products in the sky.
How did I manage to book this trip?
I redeemed 60,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles + $108 (approximately P4,900) for a first class ticket between Sydney to the Maldives, with the flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi onboard the Etihad A380 apartment.
You can learn how to book your own Etihad first class trip here.
While the apartment is an amazing product, I wanted to see the holy grail of luxury commercial flying for myself, the Etihad Residence.
However, to take a look at the Residence you have to email Etihad in advance and pray to the airline gods that they allow you to take glimpse of the world's most expensive and private seat in the sky.
With my fingers crossed, I contacted Etihad and to my surprise, they agreed to give me a tour if the Residence was unoccupied during my flight. Upon boarding, Etihad staff informed me that The Residence was empty, and therefore, they would allow me a brief tour.
Getting a tour was already amazing enough, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, I was able to experience The Residence in private! It was like my birthday came early and for a few minutes, I got a feel of what it's like to fly in the world's most expensive and innovative seat!
The Etihad First Apartment Experience
On the day of my flight, I quickly checked in and headed to the relatively new Etihad lounge.
Upon arrival, I was warmly greeted by the lounge attendant. She immediately took my carry on and stored it in one of the luggage lockers.
We then headed down an elevator and entered the lounge. The lounge is separated into two distinct sections, one for dining and one for lounging.
The lounging area is beautifully furnished with classy white and brown leather chairs.
I especially liked the wooden bookshelf, which gave the area a bit of a home-away-from-home feeling.
The buffet area had a self-serve buffet and an a la carte menu featuring numerous small dishes.
There were only two showers in the lounge, so I decided to first take a shower before the lounge got busy. The shower room was well-designed and had a large rain shower head.
After my shower, I decided to eat dinner. A waiter introduced himself and informed me that I can order as many dishes as I want from the a la carte menu.
I started my meal with the seared scallops.
The scallops were perfectly cooked, with just the right amount of moisture squeezing out with each bite.
I then had the pan-fried halloumi, an Arabian dish with baba ganoush (roasted eggplant). Like the scallops, the dish was delicious.
After half an hour, the waiter served my lamb rump. Unfortunately, the rump was too well done and a bit tough.
Finally, I finished with a piece of chicken leg, which was also a bit too dry, but still much better than your typical American lounge food.
Overall, I'd recommend sticking with the appetizers and having something light, to leave room for the feast waiting for you onboard the plane.
The service levels offered at this lounge was world class. Although it's a satellite lounge serving only a few flights a day, each lounge attendant impressed me with their thorough attention to detail. For business class passengers, this lounge is miles ahead of any other Sydney lounge.
Soon enough, it was time to board. Since I was planning on having a brief tour of the Residence, Etihad rolled out its Residence boarding experience for me, so I was able to board before everyone else, including other first class passengers.
An attendant escorted me to the boarding gate and introduced to the cabin manager who walked with me all the way to the plane.
Upon boarding, I was greeted by the first class butler and shown to my seat. My mouth was wide open in amazement as I saw my apartment for the very first time.
The Apartment was huge, with enough space for a lounging area with a convertible sofa and a separate reclining chair. Length wise I'd say the Apartment is equivalent to at least 4 economy seats side by side. The Apartment seats are so big that only one seat can fit on each side of the plane.
Adjacent to the seat and across from the bench is a vanity mirror area where you can find an amenity kit and other hygienic items.
Unlike the small mirrors found on Emirates, the one in the Etihad Apartment is as big as the ones found in your typical bathroom. Except this is not your ordinary mirror, as this one is fit with automatic lights that turn on whenever you open the closet, making you look like a million bucks.
Underneath the vanity mirror is a mini-bar filled with soft drinks and bottled water. Adjacent to the mirror is a small closet where you can hang your clothes.
Like in Emirates, the overhead storage has been removed to give the space a more airy feeling. Storage of baggage is located under the bench instead.
However, since my carry on bag couldn't quite fit in the storage, the butler quickly took my bag and stored it for me.
Two flight attendants cater to the passengers on the First Apartments, with additional service from the butler that usually serves The Residence. That means even though my flight was nearly full with 6 out of 8 seats occupied, service was excellent throughout the flight.
The butler introduced himself and asked if I would like something to drink, so naturally, I asked for some champagne.
Because Etihad takes service very seriously for its first class passengers, its butlers are trained at the world-famous Savoy Hotel. Attention to detail is paramount, and I was thoroughly impressed by my butler's attentiveness and professionalism throughout the flight.
My champagne arrived promptly, along with a hot towel, dates, and a welcome letter from the cabin manager.
Etihad doesn't serve Dom Pérignon or Krug and instead serves Bollinger Grande Annee 2005, which retails around $100 (approximately P4600) a bottle.
After a while, the plane was ready for take-off and left the gate for the runway.
One neat innovation Etihad has done is the layout of the First Apartment. In order to fit the apartments side by side, half the seats are positioned "backwards," which means that on odd numbered rows, you are seated facing the rear of the plane.
Since the seating area is wider than the lounging area, this allows the rows of the First Apartment to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, which I found to be very clever. A side benefit of this arrangement is the wall between adjacent seats can be partially lowered, perfect for traveling couples who want to sleep with their heads next to each other.
My seat was 3K, a rear facing seat, so during take-off I was being pulled upwards, sort of like going backwards while on a roller coaster. I enjoyed the experience, but if you are prone to motion sickness, I'd recommend sitting in the even numbered rows instead.
Shortly after take-off I was offered another glass of champagne, along with nuts and olives.
The onboard chef then came by, introduced himself to each first class passenger, and personally took our orders. This kind of personalized service can make in flight dining a really pleasurable experience.
Unfortunately, Etihad doesn't serve caviar in first class, and instead offers an amuse bouche starter.
I was then served chili crusted king prawns, which was absolutely delicious. The prawns were firm, yet juicy.
I then had an Arabian soup. The presentation was superb, and I enjoyed watching the butler pouring soup from the serving bowl into the actual soup bowl filled with vegetables. For a moment I forgot that I was on a flight and not in a 5-star restaurant.
Since I was flying on a Middle Eastern airline, I decided to also try the Arabian mezze (small dishes).
Afterwards I was given a sorbet palate cleanser before my main course was to be served.
I wanted to be surprised and earlier told the on board chef to make whatever dish he could come up with. The chef then personally delivered the dish, which was a mixture of different types of grilled meat. I was extremely amazed on how tender the meat was. This definitely tasted better than any of the dishes I had on the ground.
At this point, I was completely stuffed and had to decline dessert. After dinner, I decided to change into something more comfortable. Etihad provides complimentary cotton pajamas for first class passengers.
Etihad has 2 bathrooms for its First Class Apartment passengers: one has a shower, while the other one located at the tip of the nose is a bit longer and more spacious.
One thing I noticed during the flight was the use of patterned light throughout the plane, highlighting Etihad's signature geometric pattern which was inspired by the modern architecture in Abu Dhabi. They even put a light fixture in each of the bathrooms, adding a very classy touch.
After changing into my comfortable PJs, the lights were dimmed and I decided to play around with the entertainment system, which features a 24-inch LCD TV and a touch screen remote that can actually play video, so if you can't decide what to watch, there's always the option to watch two different videos at once.
The flat panel TV swivels up to 90 degrees, which means you can have the perfect viewing angle whether you're lying down in bed or sprawled on your seat.
At this point we were flying into some heavy turbulence and since it was getting quite choppy, I decided to grab another glass of champagne to calm my nerves.
After a few minutes, the turbulence subsided and the butler knocked on my apartment door and asked me if I would like to take a look at The Residence.
I noticed he had changed into a completely new outfit, complete with a trench coat and white gloves, which is the uniform butlers wear when Residence passengers are on board the aircraft.
Each uniform is personally tailored to fit each butler, and it was by far the most elegant airline uniform I've ever seen.
The butler then guided me over to The Residence and what followed was the most amazing 30 minutes of flight in my life.
The Etihad Residence
The Etihad Residence is made up of 3 separate spaces: the living room, an in-suite bathroom, and a private bedroom.
The living room is where guests can lounge around, have a meal, and enjoy the view from the windows. It's around the same size as a standard apartment seat. Stretched across the entire length of the living room is a sofa that can comfortably seat at least 2 people.
On the opposite side is an equally long ottoman, which functions both as a footrest and as storage for your bags, since there are no overhead compartments in first class.
For good measure, Etihad decided to put a mini-bar inside the ottoman, although I doubt that you would ever need to use it since a butler is just a call away.
The main showpiece is the entertainment system's huge 32-inch LCD screen, currently the largest in the sky.
The sofa has pop-out footrests, and you can partially recline the seat so you can lounge comfortably during your flight.
Since the Residence is designed for 2 people, there is a pair of foldable tables that guests can use to dine on. Also, each side of the sofa has controls for the entertainment system and the seat itself.
After a brief overview of the living room, the butler unlocked the door and we walked into the private area of The Residence.
If I thought the apartment was incredible, the private area of The Residence was simply epic. Every detail, big and small, just blended together like musical instruments in a world-class orchestra to give off a luxurious, five-star feel. Everything about the space is simply brilliant.
Instead of having a sofa that converts into a bed, The Residence is furnished with an actual full double sized bed. This is a first among all airlines.
Unlike Emirates, which has a lot more "bling", Etihad keeps it much more traditional, with geometric patterns lining the exterior wall on one side, and an almost wall to wall mirror on the interior side. Behind the bed are two LED reading lamps that you can manually adjust.
To add to the sheer opulence, Etihad has not two, but four feather pillows and another two smaller side pillows for good measure.
While passengers can lock the door from the inside, the butler does have the ability to open it from the outside in the event of an emergency. Still, this is as private as it gets and you really do feel like a sultan in the sky.
The private bathroom features a shower and full sized products from Acqua di Parma.
In keeping up with Etihad's geometric theme, multicolored tiles line the floor and parts of the bathroom wall, complementing the signature Etihad light pattern on the bathroom wall.
The Residence bathroom is very similar to the one for First Class Apartment guests, except that it's your own private shower.
After touring the bathroom, I asked the butler if he could take a few pictures of me sitting on the bed.
As we were taking a couple of pictures, the plane suddenly hit a huge pocket of air and the cabin started shaking quite vigorously. The butler quickly went outside to check with the cabin crew and came back with grim face, saying that we were going through some rough turbulence, and he would have to leave for the next couple minutes due to safety procedures. He then quickly shut the door and all of sudden I was alone in the world's most private room in the sky.
I first decided to test the bed. The mattress was neither too firm nor plush, and it seems like Etihad found the perfect balance of firmness. The bed is covered with Italian bed linen, which was extremely smooth and comfortable. I initially felt that having six pillows on your bed was a bit excessive, but the end result was that no matter which way you sleep, you'd still be comfortable.
The double sized bed was big enough for two people to sleep comfortably, and is easily the most spacious bed on a plane I have ever tried to sleep on.
While I was lying down on the bed, I noticed my reflection on the wall mirror. It was a bit awkward seeing yourself in bed reflected in the mirror, although I'm sure couples wouldn't mind at all.
There is also a 27 inch TV at the end of the bed so you can lie down comfortably while watching your favorite entertainment program.
One of the things that really impressed me was the extremely innovative and state-of-the-art lighting system of The Residence.
Through a control panel you can regulate all sorts of lighting options for the floor, ceiling, and wall.
Not only that, The Etihad Residence is equipped with dimmable lights, which allow you to adjust how bright you want the room to be.
Having had a few champagne glasses too many, I couldn't help but fulfill a childhood wish to dive into the bed like Nicole Kidman. Needless to say, my clumsy self looked quite ridiculous on camera!
And since I was feeling like I'm on the top of the world, I just had to take a selfie. After all, it's not every day you get to fly in The Residence!
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The butler came back to let me know that the turbulence had subsided and I was free to go back to my apartment.
As I left the room, I took one last look at The Residence, thankful for the opportunity to experience a truly revolutionary flight product in the world, even just for a brief moment.
After my brief but amazing experience on The Etihad Residence, I asked the butler to prepare my bed. While I got ready, the butler converted the apartment couch into a flat bed.
Unlike the bed in The Residence, the beds in the Etihad Apartment are essentially converted sofa seats with mattress cushioning on top, similar to other airlines' first class products. However, compared to the usual first class seat that has more cushion, The Apartment's sofa is naturally quite firm. This results in a relatively hard sleeping surface.
Since I am a deep sleeper who can fall asleep even on long-haul economy flights, this isn't an issue; however, those who have back problems might have trouble falling asleep.
We soon began experiencing mild turbulence, and I quickly fell asleep as the aircraft rocked back and forth. I woke up 6 hours later, feeling refreshed and well rested.
At this point, the butler was taking a well-deserved nap, so I was attended to by a lovely flight attendant from India. It turns out she was one of the youngest first class flight attendants on Etihad!
I asked if it would be possible to take a shower. After a few minutes, the flight attendant came back and let me know that my shower was ready.
Etihad is currently one of two airlines with an onboard shower, the other being its UAE rival, Emirates. Unlike Emirates, Etihad doesn't have any shower attendants or a first class bar on board. However, I'm not one to complain since it was still a shower at 40,000 feet, which is an incredible feat.
Each apartment guest is allowed five minutes of hot water, with a lit-up shower dial that indicates how much water you have left.
Just like my first Emirates shower, I spent the first half of my allotted time basking in the ridiculousness of having a shower at 40,000 feet, and then the second half playing catch up to make sure I rinse off before running out of water.
As I dried off, I couldn't help but notice that Etihad adorned its shower bathroom with lots of mirrors, which I found quite interesting. I also found that the ceiling was once again designed with Etihad's geometrical light pattern.
After my amazing shower, I headed to the Etihad onboard lounge to order breakfast, which is essentially anything in the a la carte menu.
The onboard lounge is a place where restless business and first class passengers can go to socialize. Unlike in Qatar and Emirates, there is no onboard bar here, although you can easily grab the attention of a flight attendant to order anything you want.
Unfortunately, at this point, we were hitting some extremely strong turbulence, so I had to head back to my seat. I ordered some hot tea while I waited for my food to be prepared.
Soon after, the onboard chef served me breakfast, complete with his chef's special consisting of mostly lamb and a freshly made egg. It was absolutely delicious and just as good as the mixed meat platter I had for dinner.
I followed with an order of various small desert bites.
After watching a few TV episodes, the captain informed us that we were set to arrive in Abu Dhabi. Since we were flying against turbulence almost the whole time, the flight time ended up being around 15 hours, which was more than enough time to enjoy the Etihad Apartment.
After we landed, I stayed behind and asked to take a picture with the amazing first class crew, to which they gladly obliged.
As I walked down the jet bridge, the lights behind me were turned off. I was the first onto the plane, and the last one off. Deep inside, I didn't want this amazing flight experience to end.
I would have to say this was easily the best 60,000 miles I've ever spent, and even with the recent AA (American Airlines) devaluation, using miles is definitely still worth it to experience exceptional airline innovation.
In conclusion, I am extremely grateful and fortunate to have finally gotten to experience the holy grail of all airline seats. I felt like a true Arab sheikh, if only for a fleeting moment. – Rappler.com
Sam Huang's biography from Top Miles:
"I'm a small business owner who loves to travel. Over the past 3 years, I've gone from a complete newbie to a miles expert. I've been to over 60 countries and counting, from Chile to Norway. In my spare time, I like to go swimming and watch college basketball."
*$1 = P46.09 as of April 1, 2016