How To Maximize International First Class Travel

I’ve flown well over a hundred segments in international first class, so I figured I’d share some general tips for maximizing the enjoyment of longhaul premium cabin travel. These thoughts are totally scattered and perhaps mostly quite obvious, so take them with a grain of salt. I’d certainly love to hear what thoughts you guys have in the comments section below.

Know what you want to get out of the flight — sleep or fun? So in theory the greatest thing about premium cabin travel is being able to arrive at your destination well rested. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I find that when I fly business class I actually arrive more well rested than when flying first class. And that’s despite first class having more personal space, much better bedding, and more privacy.

That’s because in first class you sometimes feel like you don’t want to “miss out” on the service and experience, while a great business class flight is simply one where you arrive well rested, in my opinion.

So decide beforehand what you want to get out of the flight. Do you want to have a blast and have a memorable flight, or arrive so well rested that you won’t even remember the flight happened?

Singapore Airlines A380 Suites Class

Neither approach is wrong, and it obviously varies based on what you have going on at the destination and the type of flight. For example, on a transpacific flight there’s usually plenty of time to do both. However, on a flight from New York to London you really don’t have that luxury. Either you can go straight to sleep and get at least some rest, or you can stay up and enjoy the flight.

From New York to London I don’t have a problem enjoying the flight and then napping for a couple of hours upon landing, which for me is more effective than a few hours of airplane sleep.

Know what amenities your airline offers first class passengers. This comes in two parts.

There are the obvious amenities you should know about, like:

Cathay Pacific “Wing” First Class Lounge Cabana

And then there are the less obvious amenities available, which you may or may not value:

Qatar Airways Premium Terminal Doha hot tub

Ultimately the best way to know about these is to read trip reports/reviews of the products you’re flying, so you know what you can expect.

Trust me, it’s easy to forget to take advantage of some of these amenities — even I do it. When I recently flew Korean Air A380 First Class from Seoul Incheon to Los Angeles, I forgot to have a luggage tag made in the Korean Air First Class Lounge Seoul Incheon.

Don’t eat in the lounge… most of the time. This is something I struggle with when flying. Say you’re flying Cathay Pacific First Class from Chicago to Hong Kong. You don’t eat during the day since you’re anticipating the great meal service on the flight. But then you’re sitting in the SAS Lounge Chicago before boarding and realize you’re actually really hungry, because you’ve been saving your appetite for aboard. And then you realize even if boarding is about to start, it’s going to be another 90 minutes or so before you’re actually eating.

And then you raid the snack cart in the lounge, and eat all the crap you didn’t want to, from packaged finger sandwiches to chips.

No food before the flight!

That never ends well. So in general while you can “save your appetite” for aboard, don’t overdo it.

For the most part totally avoid the food and drinks in the lounge, since you’ll surely do better aboard.

There are a few exceptions, however:

Air France Paris First Class Lounge restaurant pan-seared scallops

Try to work out and drink lots of water before the flight. This might sound obvious, but it really makes a huge difference, in my experience. If you drink plenty of water and work out before a flight you’ll be much better positioned to do whatever you want to do after takeoff, whether it’s going straight to sleep or staying up and having fun.

Drink lots of water during the flight. So after my Lufthansa First Class flight from Vancouver to Frankfurt, I feel like I should make this point. I don’t drink much when on the ground, but when I fly I can down quite a bit of champagne. I almost never have a hangover, though. That’s because I usually drink a ton of water with it. On my Vancouver to Frankfurt flight I decided for whatever reason to just drink champagne, and no water. Even though I had less champagne than I’ve had on many previous flights, I walked off the plane feeling like I got hit by a bus. Don’t let it happen to you.

Lufthansa First Class champagne & caviar

Don’t get bogged down with the entertainment system. Last year I took a trip to Europe with my dad in Lufthansa first class, and even though I was trying to show him “the ways” of Lufthansa first class, he unintentionally taught me something. I kept trying to get him to watch the TV or something on the entertainment system, and he simply said (cue thick German accent) “I don’t vant to watch za TV, I just vant to sit here and enjoy za ambiance.”

In the past I’d always force myself to watch something on the entertainment system during the meal, no matter what it is. On several of my most recent flights, though, I’ve just skipped the entertainment system altogether. I wouldn’t watch a movie while eating dinner at home, so I’m not sure why I felt like I should on a plane.

And I actually have found I’ve enjoyed my flights more since I’ve stopped always using the entertainment system. I’d rather listen to music, read 50 Shades Of Grey a book, or heck, watch my own entertainment on my iPad so I can watch something I actually want to see.

Skip the inflight movie and read quality literature!

But if anything I find the meal service itself is more enjoyable if you’re not distracted with the entertainment. You can interact with the crew more and actually enjoy the food, rather than trying to shovel down caviar between scenes of a movie. Or ideally if you’re traveling with someone it’s nice to enjoy their company vs. both watching movies.

Don’t be afraid to admit it’s your first time. Perhaps this is just general life advice which applies to more than just premium cabin travel, but don’t be afraid to admit it’s your first time. Heck, I’ve flown international premium cabins literally hundreds of times, but since I’m writing reviews I often try to snap pictures during boarding. Once in a while a crew member will ask me if it’s my first time in business (or first) class, and I’ll simply smile and say “yes.”

It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and if anything, the crew will be even more excited to serve you. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, it’s fun to serve enthusiastic people, and this is no exception.

Should you bring gifts for the crew? I often get asked whether it’s appropriate to bring gifts for the crew if it’s a special occasion. Ultimately it isn’t expected in the least, but it also can’t hurt assuming you’re not expecting anything out of it. That being said, culturally I think different airlines would view them differently. For example, in the US chocolates are considered acceptable, while if you brought a European crew chocolates you’d probably get a blank stare from them.

So if I’ve had an exceptional flight with a British Airways crew, for example, and they’re a fun bunch, I’ll buy them a bottle or two of alcohol from duty free for their layover. It always gives them a chuckle, and unlike chocolate (which they find plain weird), it’s something they appreciate and get use out of.

Bottom line

There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy international first class, though there are certainly some steps you can take to make sure you maximize your enjoyment, no matter what you’re hoping to get out of the flight.

Does anyone have any other tips for maximizing premium cabin travel?

I’ll try to write a follow up post with specific amenities/things to be aware of by airline.

Filed Under: Advice
  1. I must disagree with you on many points. I find that I arrive much better rested in First Class than Business Class simply because the foot traffic and service routines in Business Class rarely permit proper rest. In fact, I even prefer Economy Class to Business Class for getting rest as the service routines tend to be shorter there, so there is more time with the cabin lights dimmed and less with the meal carts banging into your elbows as they negotiate the aisles. Also crews in Economy Class are less likely to wake you up to offer a meal service that you don’t want, while in Business Class I find that I am invariably shaken awake just to decline a meal even though I have DND stickers posted and told the crew I wouldn’t be eating.

    I am probably in the tiny minority of your readership in that I usually find both First and Business Class to be a tremendous waste of either points or miles. I don’t drink alcohol on flights, I rarely eat anything on flights under 8 hours in whatever cabin and I can sleep sitting up without an issue. As long as I have priority services like pre-boarding, priority luggage claim, lounge access, etc.. that elite status accords me, the Economy Class travel experience is perfectly adequate. And last I checked, all parts of the plane get to the destination at the same time.

  2. Cathay Pacific flight attendants don’t walk the aisles to check on you in First. They’re standing by waiting for you to press the call button and will instantly be at your side to help you. It’s not bad by any means, as it keeps aisle traffic down to a minimum, I just wish I had known it before my flight.

    At one point the inflight service manager came by to make sure I was having a good flight (since I hadn’t asked them to do anything).

  3. As usual a nice, well written informative post. Hopefully without sounding lame… You are the king of in my opinion Ben. Long may you continue.

  4. So, I’ve been doing it all wrong? 🙂 I think it all boils down to what you are trying to get out of it. I don’t travel all that much. But I do spend a few weeks in Asia each year. So that long 12-16 hours in the air does afford plenty of time in the product.

    Personally I couldn’t care less about the food. And I don’t drink alcohol. But I like F class because it’s much less stressful and you have more room to spread out and at least a chance to get some sleep. I typically do not sleep well on planes under any circumstances. But I did manage a few hours uninterrupted on SQ in the A380 suite. Between the actual mattress and the enclosed space I had a better experience sleeping.

    Depending on the flight time I will usually eat in the lounge to maximize resting time on the plane. SQ has pretty good food in the F lounge at SIN.

    And I appreciate a good (easy to operate) IFE system. Some are needlessly complicated. And some have too many commercials (I’m lookin’ at you CX).

    I like having less competition for the lavatory as well.

    For a short hop to Europe I think business class makes more sense…as long as it’s a fully horizontal seat and preferably a layout that allows everyone direct aisle access.

    While the plane does arrive with all pax at the same time, being up front can give you an advantage in getting to immigration ahead of the masses. Which can be a real time saver…provided the luggage doesn’t take forever to get delivered.

  5. for me, it’s more about learning to be flexible

    it’s great to depart out of the primary hub (lounge, catering, ground services etc), but i find it SOOO much easier to find F award seats going INTO the hub from a foreign port.

    call me a minority, but I find NH F to be superior to CX F

  6. Lucky,

    Good post. I will say that for my flights over to London, I find I want to sleep ASAP, so I skip food. If I fly Virgin, then I arrive early and eat a full meal before take off, and then go to sleep. Last time I ate a meal in flight when going to London, I was so full I could hardly sleep. Yes, it is a good problem to have!


  7. When I want to maximize first class travel, I initiate a kickstart campaign. 😉

    By the way, we need to “kickstart” the campaign for the sky apartment. Or we need to prevail upon Etihad to match it!

  8. An exception to the Don’t eat in the lounge rule would be when departing MEL on CX. The QF F lounge food is superb as is the service.

  9. Good points. I think everyone has their own take on such travel. I do think I’ll skip the Ramen noodles at the Cathay lounge that way they can save like 25 cents 🙂 and I won’t be full.
    I agree on the alcohol and water intake. You have to be very careful. I remember a flight back from Rome not long ago where the FA’s loaded us up with sparkling Italian wine. Although it’s fairly low alcohol content it was like a hammer about half way through the flight. Why? because I didn’t drink enough water.

  10. My personal opinion, I like to enjoy the complete experience so I wouldn’t waste points for 1st class on an overnight flight that is under 8 hours. If you take your meal in first on the plane, by the time they are finished you realistically have only 4-5 hours to get sleep. I have no problem getting that short sleep time in business class. I prefer to use my points for the really long flights to Asia where I can dine and fully sleep in comfortable style, enjoying the complete ambiance, ideally leaving time for ground experiences if they are available.

  11. Great article Ben. I’ve planned my around the world trip near the end of the year and never have flown international first class. We are taking Singapore, Cathay and Lufthansa first class and the excitement of flying has me befuddled on how to enjoy the experience.

    What I do enjoy most from your travels are the conversations you have with the crew. It’s so refreshing to hear their stories since they part of the equation to make an enjoyable flight. I would like to hear how they got there, what is waiting for them at home, etc… It would be pretty neat to interview them during an empty flight when they aren’t so busy.

  12. I’m very excited to be flying LH F, FRA -> BOS on a 744 this summer (will be my first time flying international F). Surprised to hear catering out of FRA is poor. I built in a long layover so I can maximize my time in the FCL (also thinking of doing one of the 911 rentals). Should I really fill up completely in the lounge and pass on the in flight meal?

  13. @ Nat — If you have a really long layover it can’t hurt to have a meal in the lounge and then enjoy the caviar and appetizers aboard. Don’t get me wrong, the food aboard isn’t horrible, but I do think the lounge food is a bit better than what you’ll get aboard.

  14. Having flown 7 F longhauls in the last month on a bunch of different airlines, I’ve narrowed down what is really important to me – it’s really the added privacy, space and less stressful experience (e.g. knowing my bags will be out first, that I’ll have time and space to work, etc.)

    I like having a wide bed as I like to stretch out and roll around when I sleep.

    I really think that food itself has moved to near the bottom of my priority list – the best F meal still pales in comparison to what I can get on the ground for a reasonable price. I do still appreciate dining in the lounge – the SQ TPR and QF F lounge had amazing food, while I found my last visit to the FCT rather disappointing (my main wasn’t a third as good as the one I had in January.)

  15. What I think is most important for those of us who aren’t experienced traveling in first class is to read trip reports to get a feel for how service is done. I’ve been lucky now to have a couple FC flights on both Cathay and Emirates, and one on British Airways. Understanding that you need to ring the bell for Cathay makes the experience less stressful for those of us who don’t want to bother/ask for things. I wish I knew this about Emirates. Luckily I’m flying Emirates next month and understand that they sometimes don’t even do the Cathay thing of coming at least once to take your order. Maybe I had a really bad crew, but now I’m ready to be proactive. The most proactive service I’ve had on a plane was actually Singapore business class.

  16. Agreed on the water! On our BCN-PHL flight a few weeks ago, my BF drank pretty much all the sparkling bev on board, but didn’t hydrate. I had several glasses of wine and some port, but I also drank 2 liter bottles of water. I was fine, he had a daytime hangover and was useless for several hours after we got home.

  17. What I find extremely helpful from blogs like this is that you provide a smorgasbord of information on aspirational travel that goes a long way to educate each of us in what “we choose” to aspire for………a grand buffet you do provide……..and I never try to consume the entire buffet in one seating……….

  18. Hi, Lucky! I’m flying LH2271 in F in a couple of months from MUC to YVR. I’m wondering what perks/amenities I can expect on this segment. Will they also fetch me from the F lounge and drive me in a private car to board the plane? if you have trip report for this kind of flight, I’d appreciate it. Thanks!

  19. In my( very limited) experience, business class simply isn’t business class. What I mean by that is that airlines that have both first and business class, have a different service level in business class, as opposed to those airlines that only have business class.

    Example: Lufthansa business class isn’t as exciting or great, as compared to SAS business class, though their seats are similar (old business at LH, that is)

    Since Lufty has another service cabin above business class, their service to C pax is “turned down” in a way.

    I’m not sure if you’ve noticed too?

  20. @ Cecilie — It’s not specific to those airlines, but in general I definitely agree. If I do fly business class, I do so on airlines without a first class, as I do find the service to be a bit better in general.

  21. @ airgypsy — You’ll have access to the First Class Lounge, and if you are connecting from elsewhere and arrive at a remote stand they’ll pick you up. That being said, if your flight to Vancouver leaves from the terminal (as opposed to a remote stand) then you’ll be on your own to get to the gate.

    Enjoy the trip!

  22. I agree that being prepared by reading trip reports is very helpful, especially since airline sites usually don’t offer a great detailed overview.

    Actually, searching for a trip report – SQ F on IAH-DME – is how I found this blog and, frankly, I still find it amazing just how many airlines/routes/products Lucky has managed to view!

  23. re: gifts to crew – I tend to give them my magazines (InStyle US is a popular one on international flights) and books once finished. Great tip for BA crew as I fly them most – I didn’t think of the duty free alcohol option.
    As for water on flights, I also bring my own too – never too much water

  24. I went to college in Germany and am “shocked” that such an awesome, smart and funny GERMAN guy would think 50 shades is “Quality literature” XD 😀 ;D

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