The World’s Best First-Class Airlines

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Flying looks to be firmly back on the agenda. In the 12 months to October 2023, more than half (54%) of consumers took at least one flight, according to the the latest consumer survey from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in a return to pre-pandemic levels.

However, only a tiny proportion (around 4% according to the CAA) of travellers ‘turn left’ to the first class cabin having boarded the aircraft. And a quick check of airfares online makes it easy to see why.

A return Economy ticket with British Airways from London to New York costs £489 in March 2024, compared with £6,798 for a first class ticket. That’s a difference of more than £6,300 to travel on the same flight to the same place.

But even first class travel comes in a range of varieties. We’ve pulled together our pick of the world’s most luxurious airlines for top-end tickets.

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World’s top airlines for travelling first class

Although there are dozens of airlines offering a premium first-class experience, we believe the ones we have listed below go a step further in the pursuit of comfort and luxury. From en suite showers to ‘pillow menus’, you’re near-guaranteed to have a sublime first-class experience on any of these carriers.

1. Emirates’ private suite with moisturising pyjamas

Seasoned travellers won’t be surprised to find Emirates tops our list. As showcased by its unrivaled 26-person onboard bar, the Dubai-based airline clearly aims to be the last word in luxury in the sky.

When you fly first class with Emirates on the Airbus A380, you’ll be treated to a private suite with electronically sliding doors, Bowers & Wilkins noise-cancelling headphones and pyjamas infused with vitamins and olive oil which moisturise as you sleep.

You can eat and drink on your own schedule, and when it’s time for a shower, you’ll grab your Bvlgari amenity kit and hit the onboard spa.

2. Lufthansa’s big screen with double bed

From this spring, German airline Lufthansa is fully refreshing all four of its cabin classes (First, Business, Premium and Economy) to follow a concept called Allegris.

The all-new Allegris First Class comes in two flavours. The first option is a First Class Suite equipped with a privacy door, a 32” 4K monitor, and ample storage for carry-ons and a change of clothes.

The second option – First Class Suite Plus – is essentially an extra-wide First Class Suite. Designed for couples (or solo travellers who like to spread out), First Class Suite Plus features a wider TV, wireless charging and two separately-controllable seats that can fold into a double bed.

Both options feature a large table “similar to a restaurant,” says Lufthansa, so you can enjoy your complimentary caviar without having to stow your laptop.

3. Etihad’s chauffeur ride

Like its UAE-based rival Emirates, Etihad is known for its high luxury. A first-class experience with Etihad includes a chauffeured ride to the airport, lounge access and a private suite onboard with a long list of wine-and-dine options. And if the Abu Dhabi heat has left you parched, you can simply reach over your shoulder and grab a chilled bottle from your private refreshments cabinet.

Source: Etihad First Class via Etihad.com

Unfortunately, Etihad’s first-class suites are neither fully enclosed nor soundproof, so you may want to bring ear plugs. But if you value privacy at any cost, you can always book The Residence instead.

Source: Etihad “The Residence”, via Etihad Airways on Facebook

Exclusive to the A380, The Residence is Etihad’s 100% private three-room suite, featuring a living room with leather seats, a bathroom with ensuite shower and a double bed draped in luxury sheets. Oh, and your dedicated team will happily bring you breakfast in bed.

3. Singapore Airlines’ condo in the sky

Similar to Etihad, Singapore Airlines offers a compelling first-class experience with the option to go a step beyond.

Source: First Class, via Singaporeair.com

Even its ‘standard’ first-class experience includes extra-wide, diamond-stitched leather seats, a 24” LCD with 1,800-plus entertainment options and Bang and Olufsen noise-cancelling headphones. You can also ‘Book the Cook’ and reserve your preferred main course up to 24 hours before you fly.

But if loose partitions don’t offer the privacy you need, you can always book a Single or Double Suite.

Source: Suites, via Singaporeair.com

Featuring single or double beds, Poltrona Frau recliners, private bathrooms and dining tables adorned with bone china, the Suites aboard Singapore Air are like tiny condos in the sky. They even feature a sit-down vanity counter, although you won’t have access to a private shower.

4. Cathay Pacific’s sustainable linens and ‘pillow menu’

As suggested by the serene and dreamy marketing image below, Cathay Pacific looks to compete with other first-class airlines by offering the ‘softest bed in the sky’.

Source: Cathay Pacific’s First class is back, via Cathaypacific.com

In 2019, the Hong Kong-based airline partnered with UK lifestyle brand Bamford to bring 600-thread-count, sustainably-sourced linens to each of its first class beds. You’ll also get cotton pyjamas, lavender-scented Bamford Pillow Mist and an eye mask from Hong Kong brand PYE.

Before you put your head down you’ll have your choice of pillow from Cathay Pacific’s ‘pillow menu’, with options ranging in firmness.

Naturally, first class also includes a generous array of gourmet food and drink, served by graduates of Cathay Pacific’s Premium Ambassador programme. And be sure to try a complimentary can of the airline’s very own craft beer designed by Hong Kong brewery Gweilo Beer.

5. Qantas’ Sommeliers in the Sky

Last but not least, Australian airline Qantas certainly deserves a place on any ‘best of first class’ list for its compelling ground-to-air experience.

For starters, you’ll be granted access to the First Lounge at your departing airport (where available) which features complimentary food and ‘wine pairings’ guided by one of Qantas’ Sommeliers in the Lounge, as well as a choice of spa treatments.

Source: First, via Qantas.com

In the air, you’ll find a versatile first class seat that can convert into a lounger, dining room for two or a memory foam bed. Your ticket also includes amenities kit made with sustainable materials, soft-cotton sleepwear and eye mask.

Once you’re feeling peckish, you can order from the menu designed by celebrity chef Neil Perry which includes a selection of plant-based options. And if you can’t recall what the sommelier on the ground recommended, you can always hail one of Qantas’ Sommeliers in the Sky for guidance.

The realities of travel (and the need for travel insurance)

Of course however, the vast majority of us will never experience luxury on this scale, nor anything remotely close to it. In fact, if you’re boarding a plane at all this year to head off on holiday, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Nevetheless, it’s a good idea to take out a travel insurance policy at the time of booking your trip. Travel cover pays out if you, or anyone listed on the policy, has to cancel the trip due to an emergency (such as illness or bereavement) or fall ill or become injured and require medical treatment.

A good policy will also cover a range of other mishaps such as the loss or theft of your baggage.

Different kinds of travel insurance policies are available according to the traveller profile, destination and type of trip. You can find out more and see our pick of the best deals at our travel insurance guide.

According to a recent Forbes Advisor study, 77% of Brits have purchased travel insurance in the past.

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Bottom line

From double beds to gourmet dining, privacy screens to pillow menus, there’s no question that you’re in for a treat if you fly first class on one of the above airlines.

But bear in mind some first-class suites offer more privacy than others, while only a tiny handful will allow you to enjoy a meal with your travel companion, for example.

And if your budget stretches to luxuries of such proportions, you can surely afford to be fussy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What’s the difference between first class and business class?

In most cases, first class is a step above business class for international long-haul flights. First class offers a lot more space and amenities.

Domestically, however, one airline’s first class may be inferior to another airline’s business class.

It’s wise to check the seat and amenities before making any assumptions.

Which airline has the best first class in the world?

Multi-room private suites aside, Emirates might offer the most luxurious first class in the world with full-height privacy doors, Bvlgari amenity kits, lotion-infused pyjamas and shower access.

If you do count special onboard suites as first class, The Residence on Etihad may narrowly take the prize from Singapore Airlines since it offers a private shower.

Is it worth upgrading to first class on international long-haul flights?

Very broadly speaking, the cost to fly economy overseas starts from around £600, while a first-class fare on the same flight might cost £7,000 or more.

For the vast majority of travellers the price difference will not be affordable (or if it is, it won’t be worth it).

You may be reduce your cost using points or miles or find an amazing deal.

Or you may simply want to spoil yourself or significant other with the trip of a lifetime.

Either way, flying first class overseas could well be worth it for the unforgettable experience.

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