Monday, July 23, 2018

My First Class Flight Experience at Etihad Airways

Wazzup Pilipinas!

PART 1: How I Booked It

In May 2018 I fulfilled one of my wildest travel goals of flying in First Class. Not Premium Economy; not Business; but FIRST and for FREE. 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!)

So 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.)

PART 2: The First Class Experience - Even Before the Actual Flight

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. 

When I entered the First Class Check-In terminal, 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. :)

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.

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.

There is a 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. The 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 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'll continue the story on Part 2 of my Etihad Airways flight experience so watch out for the remaining but more exciting story ...soon!

Contributed by Kevin Tsai of the TravelGuyShops

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