Each year, I look forward to planning a ‘big’ points trip, which is a trip that checks-off multiple wishes from my points bucket list. Whether it’s a far-away destination, an unbelievable resort, or an ultra-luxe flying experience - ‘big’ for me hits every category. Last year, it was a mega trip to the Maldives and Dubai. The year prior, I visited Bali and Singapore, and flew around the world. And prior to that, it was Japan.
As I plan my big trip for 2020, in spite of current events, I wanted to look back to 2019 and a first-time visit to the Maldives, which included an extra long flight in Emirates First Class.
I had big dreams for my flights, as after all, this was my big trip of the year. Since the Maldives was the star destination and an easy hop from Dubai, all signs were pointing to a super luxurious Emirates First Class flight. The itinerary came together nicely, which meant I could start looking for points options.
Redemptions for Emirates First Class are limited - and outright expensive. While there are generally 3 options, I decided to redeem 150,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles for a few reasons. First, as an Alaska Airlines Elite member, I’m able to make changes to my itinerary at no cost which helped ensure the best possible routing. I initially booked a flight departing Washington DC but then found nonstop availability out of San Francisco days before departure, which I was able to change for free. Second, Alaska redemptions allow 1 complimentary stopover which allowed me to combine both Dubai and the Maldives under a single itinerary for the same miles. For reference, the other two options to fly Emirates are to book direct, or through a niche program with Japan Airlines, both in my opinion far more complicated.
In the end, my itinerary for 150,000 Alaska miles looked like this:
EK226 San Francisco to Dubai, departing 4:45PM arriving 7:25PM First Class
EK652 Dubai to Male, departing 9:50AM arriving 3:00PM First Class
EK652 Male to Colombo, departing 4:30PM arriving 6:30PM First Class
Below is Alaska’s Award Chart for redeeming on Emirates to the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia in all classes of service.
Airline: Emirates (EK)
Route: San Francisco (SFO) - Dubai (DXB)
Aircraft: Airbus A380
Duration: 14h 50m
Service: First Class
On the day of departure, I arrived at San Francisco’s International Terminal at 2:30PM for a 4:45PM departure, providing ample time to check-in and enjoy the dedicated Emirates Lounge. The Terminal had a slight afternoon buzz but it was far from the morning international rush. Emirates shares the counter space with JetBlue, which were both empty when I arrived. I checked-in with no issues, collected my boarding pass along with a few extra First Class branded bag tags, and was on my way.
After a quick breeze through security, I made my way to the Emirates Lounge located halfway down Terminal A across from the British Airways Lounge.
The Lounge operates just 3 hours each day to serve the airline’s one daily flight, which is rare for an airline. Perhaps Emirates anticipates an increase in flying or SFO’s contract Lounges weren’t sub-par, either way, this is a major investment to operate a dedicated Lounge for just one flight. I'll share a more in-depth review of my Lounge experience for another time, though for now I'll leave a few pictures below.
After spending an hour in the Lounge, I decided to wrap-up some work and head to the gate for early-boarding. The Boarding I arrived at Gate A9 10 minutes before scheduled boarding at 3:45PM. The gate was empty, so I expected a quick boarding. No queues were forming yet so I took the liberty of starting a line. 10 minutes pass with no announcements. Another 5 minutes and still no word. It appeared to be a casual boarding process, which eventually began at 4:00PM with pre-boarding followed by First Class. I don’t understand how an airline makes limited announcements 15 minutes after scheduled boarding, which would naturally worry passengers.
The Aircraft The flight was operated with one of Emirates’ flagship A380 aircraft, which features two full decks, 4 mega engines, and seating for nearly 500 passengers. Simply put, the plane was huge. I was particularly excited to fly this aircraft as the airline does rotate their smaller Boeing 777-300ER on the route which features less bells and whistles like onboard showers and a bar. If given a choice, I will always select the A380 for a much cushier ride.
The Welcome The First Class cabin on the A380 is located towards the front of the aircraft on the second floor. I ascended the unique third jet bridge and was greeted by the 4-person Flight Attendant team working First Class. I knew from the immediate warm welcome that this was going to be a great crew.
I was escorted to Suite 3A and asked if I had flown Emirates First Class before. I said this was my first time, so the Flight Attendant proceeded to give me a tour of the Suite, which by the way, was stunning. She showed me the handheld device which controlled the mechanics like the seat, doors, and entertainment system. She pointed out the service button, vanity, and magical mini bar.
Next began the parade of gifts and inflight treats, starting with PJ’s. She asked for my size which was brought out in a beach tote with a bottle of water. Then came the snack basket, followed by dates and Arabic coffee, and lastly, newspapers and magazines.
The Captain made his welcome announcement at 4:29PM, about 30 minutes after boarding, advising the flight time would reach 14 hours and 50 minutes. He also added the flight’s Cabin Crew represented 21 countries and spoke 17 languages, which I found very impressive. The Cabin + Seat The Emirates A380 First Class cabin is both stunning and, well, overstimulating. There are so many details to appreciate at every level of this bedazzled 16-seat luxury cabin. Some great, some not so great, but all very intentional.
Entering the cabin, I was immersed into what I would describe as Donald Trump’s bathroom meets a sultan's palace. As extravagant as the cabin was, the design schematic and color palette worked nicely. Most would call the decor gaudy, but in person, the space is so much warmer. The cabin's base color is a warm gray with lots of shiny gold accents and wood veneer panels. The front of the cabin is branded with a large Emirates logo. Surrounding the cabin is mood light with setting for nearly any time of the day. Spread across 4-rows, between Doors 1 and 2 on the Upper Deck, the Emirates First Class cabin is anything but boring.
I assigned myself Suite 3A which was located on the Captain’s side along the window. While the spacious seat and large private cabin was luxury enough in my books, it’s the unthinkable and creative details that you don’t want to miss. To my left housed the seat controls and storage bins. Above that was the "magical" and fully-stocked minibar with soft drinks and water which would appear by the touch of a button. I found this to be my favorite in-Suite feature. In front was the extra large HD TV with a built in vanity mirror and a stationary drawer on the console. Each drawer and compartment was fully-stocked with toiletries, pens, and a notebook.
I had an absolute blast taking cabin photos from every angle. The Departure Boarding ended at 4:30PM and the trio of jet bridges retracted. The safety video began a few minutes later, and the flight pushed back on-time at 4:45PM. At this point the snack basket was collected, the minibar stowed , and the vanity mirror closed.
The queue for take-off wrapped around the airport due to rain and low visibility. Our flight was 10th in line for take-off behind a British Airways 747, multiple United 777’s and 787’s. It was a great line-up and the incoming traffic was eventful with a British Airways A380 touching down besides us.
Our flight took off at 5:19PM, roughly 30 minutes after pushback. The climb-out was a bit choppy but we managed to break through the clouds and level off 10 minutes later at 19,000 feet. The Meals Moments later, the inflight crew sprung into action in preparation for the first meal service. During this time, the purser introduced herself and added her welcome. She explained the dine-on-demand program and encouraged me to eat as much as I wanted, and whenever. The menu was extensive with a range of dishes, flavors, and varying levels of light and larger meal options . I knew I made the right choice of snacking in the Lounge and saving my appetite for the feast ahead. The purser returned with my drink order which consisted of a glass of Dom Pérignon and water, served promptly with warm nuts. I also placed an order of canapés which she advised would take about 10 minutes to prepare. The Dom Pérignon was poured table-side and I noticed the bottle was already half empty - which left me curious how often open bottles are re-corked.
The canapés - which consisted of duck confit with curried pineapple, a poached prawn and guacamole tartlet, and parmesan truffle arancini - arrived warm and tasty. My favorite was the parmesan truffle arancini.
My table was beautifully set 20 minutes later for the main meal service, which came with a new glass of Dom Pérignon.
First came the serving of caviar which arrived on a single plate with traditional sides. While the serving was on the smaller side, it certainly did not disappoint. I asked for a second helping which was served minutes later.
Next came the Traditional Arabic mezze course or a collection of hummus dips, spreads, cheeses with pita and raw vegetable. I enjoyed the soft cheeses and lamb kibbeh, and meatballs.
For my last appetizer (because everyone traveling First Class needs 3 appetizers), I ordered the seared scallops, which was served cold. While the presentation was lovely, I found the dish underwhelming and not flavorful. I seldom waste food, but I did not come close to finishing this dish.
My main entrée consisted of braised veal cheeks, roasted sweet potatoes, and creamed celeriac. I also added a side of creamed spinach to the dish. While the presentation was nice, I thought the dish had too much sauce which masked all the flavors. This dish was also on the underwhelming side.
At the recommendation of the Purser, I paired the dish with a 2005 French Chateau Montrose, which retails for $300 a bottle. The wine was served with an aerator, which I loved!
The entire meal service concluded 1.5 hours after leveling off, which was a great pace. I decided to take a breather before dessert by visiting the onboard bar behind Business Class. The purser offered to walk me and ensure I found my way through the aircraft. I returned back to my seat after an hour at the Bar to finish my meal service, or have dessert. I ordered the freshly cut fruit, bread pudding, and paired it with a glass of Hennessy Paradis. A fun fact: the Hennessy Paradis retails for $1,000 a bottle, which may be the most expensive liquor served onboard a commercial liner. Very smooth drink, though I'm far from being a whiskey connoisseur.
Oh, and the bread pudding might have been the best dessert I’ve had on any flight.
As it was an on-demand program, I asked for breakfast to begin 3.5 hours before arrival. The crew advised the dishes would be ready in about 25 minutes. I selected fresh fruit to start and a fresh bread basket.
This was followed by freshly scrambled eggs with cheese, sweet potato hash, and grilled veal sausage. I asked for a third helping of caviar on the side, which was the perfect savory pairing to a delicious breakfast.
After the eggs, I ordered the freshly made Apple and raisin compote Crepes, which was served with cinnamon butter and vanilla cream. The dish smelled amazing, though sadly, the Crepe wasn’t very good.
I added a banana and vanilla smoothie to top off the meal.
The Bar When Emirates sets out to reimagine flying, they certainly stretch their imagination as far as they can. In addition to onboard showers, the plane is set-up with a gorgeous bar which is open the entire duration of the flight to First and Business Class passengers.
Located in the back of the Upper Deck is the onboard Bar, which was large enough to comfortably seat 10-15 guests. The bar was staffed with 1-2 crew members assigned to take drink orders and offer any assistance. I learned one crew member was from Thailand but lives in Los Angeles. Another was from Argentina but lives in Spain. All the crew was so friendly and talkative.
It was here that I had a Polaroid photo taken of me donning an Emirates uniform hat behind the bar. You'll find the cheeky photo of me in The Takeaway section below. Not to mention, I ordered a solid Gin Cucumber Gimlet.
The entire bar experience was such fun, I could have easily lingered longer. The Entertainment + WiFi At first use, I loved Emirates’ ICE or Information Communication Entertainment system. I gave it high marks for the interface, which was very well-designed and connected. The content selection, on the other hand, came across random and oddly curated. The latest movies offered were still a year old, so either the system wasn’t pre-loaded with the newest hits, or Emirates content selection just misses the mark.
Speaking of missing the mark, the Wi-Fi on Emirates may have been the worst ever. Not only was the connectivity disappointingly slow, First Class passengers were not offered an internet pass. Below is a screenshot of the Wi-Fi menu and price.
The Shower Holy toledo, I showered on an airplane, and I don’t think the novelty will ever wear off. One of the most lavish experiences Emirates offers is their onboard shower which is available on their flagship A380. The aircraft offers two “spa” rooms which are located on the second floor, towards the front, and on each side of the main stairway. I asked for the shower to be prepared shortly after my final bite of bread pudding. As many have previously shared, Emirates flies a shower attendant assigned exclusively to ensure the restrooms are immaculate - and it was always pristine.
I stood there, on the heated floor, in complete awe. I wanted to take in every little detail of this space. As I explored, I immediately noticed the heated floors, 2 different sets of shower gels and body washes, a large warm towel, a walk-in shower with a bench, cups for water, neatly rolled towels, and a hair dryer. The experience was all too surreal.
Now some of the fixed variables of this experience. The main one being the shower is timed at 5 minutes as the aircraft is not carrying an unlimited supply of freshwater. There’s a visible light-up timer which will countdown as you’re inside. If you were nervous and actively watching the timer, like me, then you wind up with 2 whole minutes left to stand there and relax.
After you’ve enjoyed your shower, the “spa” treatment continues with a special relaxation treatment with fruit and honey. I was over the moon impressed by the whole experience. After resting and having a light breakfast, the crew insisted I enjoy the shower again for the full spa experience. What’s different is the waterfall display that is set-up at the top of the staircase. This self-service bar area is transformed into a gorgeous foyer with self-service tea, candles, and fruit. Why wasn’t this display available sooner? The full spa set-up is normally offered towards the end of the flight when passengers are preparing for arrival and in-need of freshening up. The crew was so excited for me to see the waterfall display. The second shower was not as pleasant as the first one. I decided to try the other restroom and found the shower head to be loose and unable to stay upright. So I spent the duration of my shower trying to keep the shower head still. It was very annoying. Otherwise, as I descended from the shower, the crew had both a pineapple and guava aloe vera juices placed on the counter outside the restroom.
The Rest The purser offered to make my bed in Suite 2E, a neighboring middle seat. I loved the bed! It was so comfortable thanks to the fluffy mattress pad, thick duvet, and plush pillows. As I drifted to sleep, the cabin’s ceiling stars were lit, which made for a great mood.
I woke with 4 hours left in the flight feeling very refreshed, and ready to eat again. What made the rest so nice was the placement of the air nozzles, which ensured a much cooler cabin than what you might normally find during the middle of the flight. The negative feedback was the size of the mattress pad, which was much smaller than the seat. I found myself adjusting the pad very often. The Arrival As all good things come to an end, the crew began preparing for arrival an hour before landing. The rest of the time I decided to watch the exterior cameras as we descended into a sandy and beige below. We touched down into Dubai at 7:08PM local time as the sun was setting, casting a beautiful orange hue across the desert colored city. We taxied for a few moments before arriving into Gate F21.
The Takeaway As part of my 2019 once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Maldives, I set my sights on a 14-hour Emirates First Class flight from San Francisco to Dubai. This was the single highest number of points I’ve used to redeem for an award ticket, and I’m happy I had this opportunity.
It’s incredible to see how far commercial aviation has evolved. I imagine Emirates First Class to be a creative dream for the team responsible with creating the unthinkable. For there to be an onboard shower, vibrant bar, enclosed cabins, magical mini bar, and a long list of bells and whistles can only be described as the new golden age of air travel. The product represents the very best of modern-day commercial aviation. Product aside, I also want to recognize the wonderful service delivered. The cabin crew was warm, thoughtful, and polished the duration of the flight. While the service level may have been slightly better on account to an empty cabin, I found it was also incredibly genuine and the crew took pride in their job. This makes me believe the service would be consistent, even on a full flight.
The single downside of the experience or an area worth noting was the food quality, which I found mediocre at best. After high marks for the canapés, caviar, and mezze platter, I found the scallop appetizer and the main dish lacked any flavor. Overall, this may have been my least favorite First Class meal to date.
Where Emirates lacked in food quality, I found they made up with an extensive spirits and wine list, which I think nicely represents Emirates' commitment to high-quality experiences. There's no other airline which serves Dom Pérignon, Hennessy Paradis, and a gorgeous 2005 French Chateau Montrose on a single flight - which has a combined retail value of $1,500.
This flight would normally retail for $15,000 one-way, or a whopping $1,000 per hour. Would I say it was worth every penny? Yes, the in-flight was absolutely spectacular, though the ground experience could be elevated and improved.