With the advice of friends (thanks Randall), the determination of a born bargain-hunter (thanks Mom and Dad) and long experience of travel (that, I came into on my own), I discovered the crazy deal of a particular US airline that allows you to buy frequent flyer points and then trade them in on Star Alliance.
Not hard to google, but since we were all cursing the woman who wrote a story about it in one of Australia’s dailies (feeling that if everyone knows, maybe they’ll stop the deal).
This allowed us to buy first class return ticket to Europe for a little more than AUD 3000. As business class tickets are usually AUD 5000 or so, and I’ve heard first class tickets range from 10K to 15K (What?! Who can afford that?), we figured this was a deal.
In fact, as we organised this far in advance in order to get the dates we wanted, part of its pleasure, at least for me, was telling friends for nearly six months that I’d secured first class return tickets to Europe for AUD 3000!
Because of the routes chosen, Thai Airways was the one airline we flew on (co-shared with SAS for a handful of short flights). We were curious to try other airlines, having heard great things about Emirates, and even Turkish Airlines, but to fly ALL the way between Sydney and Stockholm first class we needed to choose Thai (well, nearly all the way, the Zurich-Stockholm leg on the way over, and the Stockholm-London leg on the way back were business class – note, business class seats on these short flights don’t seem much different than the economy seats except you get free coffee).
What would the First Class Experience be like? I really had no idea. Which was perhaps some of the fun. Now, having flown four different major legs in First Class has allowed me a few reflections.
Sydney-Bangkok: Our first leg introduced us to the ridiculously big seats in first class. The plane (an older 747-400) only had ONE pair of seats together, and we hadn’t managed to nab them so we sat one in front of the other. The first class experience started with Dom Perignon 2003. Delicious. The space really is striking. This huge chair that reclines and moves about in a dozen directions (I spent a lot of time playing with the controls); the footrest way in front of the seat where I could put all my stuff and spread out; I also spread out along the side on the ample side bench. The meal experience started right away. Truth be told, I found it a bit disappointing in terms of flavours, but they pull out the stops in terms of service and courses.
Each main meal includes a course of caviar with side stuff (Egg whites. Cucumber. Egg Yolks. A creamy sauce) and some other fancy starter, liver pate on one leg, lobster on another, smoked salmon on the last. Tons of bread. Seriously, who can eat a whole bread basket on ones own? A main course. A dessert. Fruit and cheese. Alcohol offered with each course (the descriptions of the French wine sounded great, but for some reason none of them struck me as particularly special). Breakfast had a similar number of courses. The service was attentive, but surprisingly, a bit awkward. One of the attendants looked terrified and was confused whenever we declined something.
The most amazing thing, I found on this leg, was the bed. The seat completely reclines into a flat bed. They make it up for you with a padded bottom sheet, and a comfortable doona. In my First Class pyjamas, I then fell asleep for a solid six hours. I found it interesting to wonder about each of the other passengers and how they managed to get into First Class.
Bangkok-Zurich: We had about 90 minutes I think before this next leg of the journey, and what’s amazing about the First Class experience with Thai is the attention BETWEEN the flights. We were escorted off the plane, got on a special trolley and were driven all the way to the First Class lounge (where we were offered more drinks and food). They booked us in for a complimentary Thai massage (no Thai money, we had to tip them in Australian dollars!). I was so relaxed after my 20 minute shoulder massage that I tripped on a step and… did a full side-plant on the floor, not even a partial recovery, completely sprawled on the floor. Ahem. A brief relaxation in the lounge and we did the reverse trip, accompanied all the way to our gate and ushered through control and onto the plane. It’s rock star service. Accordingly, some people look on with amusement, and the occasional person looks over with absolute contempt and jealousy.
During this leg, we were able to sit side by side, which was nice in this Airbus A340. The in-flight entertainment selection is pretty good these days, with big headphones and a decent screen. These days, I prefer to read and write on my laptop anyways. It’s during this leg that I question: how much can you eat, really? Since we’d had two large meals on the previous flight, you really need extra stomachs to try to digest another two big meals, which, being similar to the last two are not quite as exciting. Still, there are delights. The complimentary travel bag is a cool mini version of a suitcase by the company, Rimowa, and is filled with good stuff: Occitane body lotion, mouthwash, Neutrogena lip balm (how does one ever use up this much lip balm?). I declined to take the travel bag on the previous leg, thinking it would be same, and it’s not. Mental note, hoping that I can get it on the return flight (I do, it’s a slick black Tumi case).
On this flight, the service is top-notch, no awkwardness. In fact, by the end of the travel, retrospection shows it was only awkward on the first leg: which meant the constant improvement was a pleasure. The time flies by, and in Zurich airport we get the same rock star treatment to go the lounge. It really does make the travel fly by easily.
Zurich-Bangkok: Ah, we finally got a newer plane. The first class seats on this new 747-400 were really amazing. More built up and felt more closed in with a screen between us that we were able to lower. A nifty narrow pull-out hanger for clothes next to the footrest. Most of all, crazy excellent screens for the entertainment, not pulled out and extracted from the side but built into the wall above the footrest. A good size. Again, I had an excellent sleep.
Bangkok-Sydney: With a two night stopover in Bangkok, the most fun of this part was checking in. First class flyers have their own separate area in the Suvarnabhumi airport, and there are NO check-in desks. The attendants simply take away your passport, and go away and come back with the boarding pass, while you get a cold towel to refresh yourself. Whisked through customs, you then get to travel on the special car where you are driven all the way through the business class lounge and finally delivered to the first class lounge, where they come and present you with an iPad with a breakfast menu (if it’s time for breakfast). Ridiculous luxury and perfect service. If we’d had more time, we would have gotten another massage. The flight itself was the same as the first leg, in reverse, back to the older 747-400 but better service that made me realise that it was only the first leg that was a bit off.
So, my conclusions from my first experience of first class travel: I imagine it depends on the airlines. The airplanes with Thai Airways are a little old, but comfortable and the service is generally excellent. The food had the trappings of luxury – caviar, multiple courses, wine on tap, tablecloths – but I had higher expectations for the taste. The wine was OK but the Dom Perignon 2003 was fantastic. Also, a flight all the way from Australia to Europe means that by the second leg, you really can’t fit in any more significant amounts of food and drink.I didn’t take as much advantage of the in-flight entertainment, preferring to sleep and read, but the selections seemed good. I loved the free pyjamas and now have two different varieties (although one is x-large, all they had). I loved the toiletries bags. Perhaps I am easy to please. However, all in all, it seemed great value… and we’ll do it again if that particular airline keeps offering the same frequent flyer points plan!