Edited by: Jessica Merritt
& Stella Shon
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My wife and I recently flew international first class for the first time. And it wasn’t just any first class. It was a true unicorn in the points and miles space: We used Virgin Atlantic Flying Club points to snag ANA’s new first class “The Suite” from Tokyo (HND) to San Francisco (SFO) — and did so before the recent devaluation. We were beyond excited.
Unfortunately, it fell well below our expectations. This has us reconsidering the common question: Is flying first class worth it?
The promise of extra space and extra luxury makes first class appealing. However, it comes at a cost. You’ll obviously pay more miles for the redemption, which adds up quickly if you’re redeeming for a couple — and especially fast for a family. Then, the taxes and fees tend to get higher the further you move into the front of the plane. The cash component of our ticket wasn’t cheap (around $450 each), which makes the letdown experience all the more disappointing.
Let’s look at the parts of our trip where we felt underwhelmed.
When we arrived at the dedicated check-in line at Tokyo Haneda Airport, there was only 1 person in front of us. We loved the red carpet on the ground welcoming us.
Unfortunately, our first interaction with staff wasn’t great once it was our turn. Rather than calling us to the counter, she stepped out from the counter to tell us this line was for “first class only” — implying that we were clearly in the wrong place. After telling her we were flying in first class, her attitude changed. She was friendly and efficient, but the employee started on the wrong foot with us. There are much better, service-oriented methods to ask if a customer is in the correct line.
As Stella Shon recently reviewed this lounge and the same flight we took, I won’t provide an in-depth review. Instead, I’ll highlight the experiences that left us reconsidering whether flying first class is worth it.
When we arrived in the lounge, friendly staff greeted us at the counter and welcomed us inside. Once we entered, my wife and I remarked, “This is it?” Seating was sparse, and we circled for a while before 2 seats together became available.
Given our experiences at business class lounges across multiple airlines and airports, we expected comfortable seating and a roomy layout — at least what you get when flying in business class. We found neither, and the lighting was quite dim.
While there was a menu with multiple hot dishes you could order, we found the number of options deceptive. Many were variations of the same dish, so it’s more accurate to say there were 3 dishes to choose from, then you could customize them.
There were finger sandwiches and mini desserts available, as well.
Alcohol was available self-serve, as were water and sodas from nearby machines.
None of this seemed better than what’s available at a standard airport lounge, though.
Staff were friendly and did a good job keeping the lines moving, despite the crowds. However, the lounge needed more seating. I’d ask for more comfortable seating options, but that’s a secondary issue to having enough seats for all the airline’s first class passengers.
While in the lounge, I messaged friends who’d previously flown ANA first class and asked what they thought about the lounge. The general consensus was “underwhelming,” which is pretty strange for such a premium product.
During check-in, we were told we could board at any time using the priority lane at our gate. We arrived at the gate at the tail end of boarding for business class when economy boarding was about to begin.
We went to the priority boarding lane and were immediately intercepted by 2 employees telling us there was a line and that we couldn’t simply bypass everyone waiting. We presented our boarding passes and said we were in first class. We were told first class had already boarded and responded by pointing out that we should be able to board any time. Only then did the employees move out of our path and allow us to board.
It felt very much like the airline expected us to board first or get in line with everyone else — despite offering a priority boarding lane and telling us we could board whenever we wanted. We were very confused by what happened here.
This started off as a 10/10 and ended around 5/10. We were welcomed warmly into the aircraft and planned to put the airport experiences behind us to simply enjoy the flight.
“We’re finally on board to fly first class. It’s going to be great,” we told each other.
The seat certainly looked impressive. Tons of space, a ginormous TV, and one of the most interesting amenity kits I’ve ever received.
And it had a really nice remote that I liked for controlling the giant monitor.
While getting acquainted with our seats and putting our backpacks in the overhead bins, flight attendants came to greet us by name. My wife and I had the 2 middle seats in the cabin (in row 2). These offer a divider to close for privacy or open if you’re traveling with the person next to you. However, we had different flight attendants because different aisles provided access to our seats.
The flight attendant on my side was much chattier than the attendant on my wife’s side. She saw us taking a selfie and asked if we wanted a picture together. Of course! You don’t fly first class for the first time every day.
We got welcome drinks, an orientation of our seats, and indications on where to find the lavatory to change into our pajamas.
The flight attendant on my wife’s side mostly disappeared at this point, but my flight attendant came back to offer a menu and confirm that I had requested a special meal. We also asked her to check on my wife’s meal since her flight attendant was elsewhere, and we got confirmation that the food was on board.
My flight attendant came with a large basket of amenities, offering wet wipes, eye masks, and a wide selection of toiletries. She happily explained unfamiliar items. She also gave us our complimentary Wi-Fi passes for the flight (a perk in first class).
Then, we took off. And service fell apart. It was odd for 2 flight attendants managing 7 passengers (in a cabin of 8 seats).
Flight attendants approached some passengers, asking if they planned to sleep. If so, the flight attendants offered to make the bed for them. However, not all passengers received this offer. We had to ring our call buttons to request bed service and blankets.
Our need to ring the bell continued during meal service. My wife got her dinner quickly, served at the same time as the other passengers. When every passenger had finished eating, and plates had been cleared, I was still waiting. Thus, I rang the button and asked about dinner. “Oops,” was the response.
In a cabin with just 8 seats, it’s hard to overlook a passenger. It’s even less understandable when this is the airline’s premium-of-premium cabin.
Service disappeared once we were airborne. We had to flag down the flight attendants to ask for drinks, blankets, and even my meal. We weren’t asking for extras that burdened the flight crew. Service was erratic and required us to make regular efforts to get basic items.
The next time we saw our flight attendants was when they came to check our seatbelts before landing. And they were all smiles at the aircraft door as passengers disembarked, so they did very well on the ground before and after the flight. During the flight, they could have improved.
I can’t describe how excited I was when my ExpertFlyer notification popped and I booked ANA’s new first class to fly home from Japan. My wife and I gushed over YouTube videos reviewing the product in the days leading up to our trip.
Unfortunately, our experience was sub-par. We’ve flown business class on probably a dozen airlines, and I would rank nearly all of those experiences as better than our experience in ANA first class. Yes, it’s always possible to get a bad flight crew or have a bad trip, but that’s hardly justifiable in international first class where cash tickets cost $10,000 or more per passenger. Not providing basics at that ticket price doesn’t make sense.
For us, the excitement and ensuing letdown stung for sure. It’s made us think the extra cost in miles plus extra cash for taxes and fees wasn’t worth it for this flight. Could it be different if we tried again? Possibly. And maybe another airline would impress. However, the more likely path going forward is that we’ll stick to business class because it keeps more miles and cash in our pockets, and we’ll feel disappointments to a lesser degree if we have a bad flight in the future. Everyone has to decide whether flying first class is worth it; our first experience provided a “no” answer.
You do not need to tip flight attendants, not even in first class. Services provided by flight attendants are included with your ticket.
Etihad’s The Residence from New York-JFK to Dubai has cost over $60,000 for a suite that comes with a private bathroom and butler. This suite is available only on Airbus 380 aircraft, located on the upper deck, which is not currently in operation on this route.
When flying first class, you’ll receive a roomier seat, better food (typically with a menu including multiple options), better alcohol (which may not be available in economy class), and a better ratio of flight attendants to passengers. There are also fewer passengers per restroom, which can mean less waiting.
While first class can offer a more premium product, business class can offer a similar experience for fewer miles, taxes, and fees.
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Ryan has been on a quest to visit every country in the world and plans to hit his final country in 2023. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publications including AwardWallet, The Points Guy, USA Today Blueprint, CNBC Select, Tripadvisor, and Forbes Advisor.
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