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How to fly the best first-class seats for less: Tips and hacks on Emirates, Air France, more

With a little points savvy, experience these seats for pennies on the dollar. 

At Etihad Airways, the first-class suites feature on-demand

At Etihad Airways, the first-class suites feature on-demand dining, thanks to a dedicated on-board chef. Photo Credit: Etihad Airways

Airline industry experts have been proclaiming the death of first class for years. While some airlines have done away with it altogether, others are doubling down with palatial suite-style seats, lavish amenities and services that pamper, both on the ground and in the air.

What's ensued is a golden age of flying — for those who can afford it.

Here's what the airlines don't want you to figure out: All it takes is a little points savvy to experience these seats for pennies on the dollar. And thanks to powerful credit cards such as Chase Sapphire Reserve and American Express Platinum, loyal flying may not be necessary. Here are the hacks that will get you into the five best cabins in the skies today.

Emirates first-class suites

Why you want to fly it: Each suite has 40 square feet of completely enclosed personal space — a first for any airline — with stitched-leather seating created in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz. The seats also have in-suite minibars, personal temperature zones and mood lighting, and a privacy hatch for meal service. For now, they're available only on certain flights from Dubai to Brussels, Geneva, Munich, and London Stansted. 

How to book it for less than coach: Emirates may not partner with the large airline alliances, but it does offer valuable points partnerships that are easy to leverage. That includes American Express Membership Rewards, whose points can be applied toward an award booking through the Emirates website. A first-class ticket between Dubai and Europe costs 85,000 miles each way.

The caveats: Taxes and surcharges on award tickets can run you more than $1,000, and award space in Emirates' new first-class suites is virtually nonexistent — at least for now. As more planes with the new suites go into service, that should change.

Singapore Airlines first-class suites

Why you want to fly it: Singapore Airlines' first-class improvements include all-new suites with closing doors on the upper deck of its flagship Airbus A380 jumbo jets, which fly from Singapore to Sydney, Hong Kong, Zurich, Shanghai and London Heathrow. The distinguishing features? Swiveling Poltrona Frau leather armchairs that recline to 135 degrees, plus separate, stowable beds made up with Lalique linens. 

How to book it for less than coach: The only miles currency that Singapore Airlines accepts for first-class bookings is its own KrisFlyer miles — a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Even a new KrisFlyer member can score the 75,000 miles it takes to fly one way in a suite from Singapore to Sydney by rolling over the same number of points from one of these partner programs.

The caveat: Limited availability. Review frequent-flyer boards such as FlyerTalk (flyertalk.com) and the blogs of Boarding Area (boardingarea.com) to stay up to date as availability loosens up.

Air France la Première

Why you want to fly it: Air France's la Première first class is one of the most exclusive experiences in the skies. It debuted in 2014 and got broader accessibility on Boeing 777-300ERs from a few U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington.

There are only four such seats per plane, each with wraparound curtains for privacy. The details set this experience apart: Givenchy pajamas, Sofitel MyBed linens and colorful cashmere throws on the beds, and Daniel Boulud-designed menus served on Limoges china with Christofle cutlery.

How to book it for less than coach: The airline doesn't make it easy. You can use only Air France's Flying Blue miles — and solely if you have elite status with the airline. The good news is you need only a basic level of elite status to be eligible, so frequent flyers can credit a few weeks or months of travel to Flying Blue and they will be set. Flying Blue also transfer partners with American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards.

The caveat: Brace yourself for high redemption rates. Flights between Paris and the United States will cost approximately 200,000 miles each way. Taxes and fees in either direction can also cost several hundred dollars.

Cathay Pacific First Class

Why you want to fly it: Cathay Pacific's excellent first-class cabins offer the full package experience, with everything from preflight spa treatments to Champagne and caviar service on board. The seats are extra wide (at 36 inches) and extra long (the bed stretches almost seven feet) and can be found on some of the carrier's Boeing 777-300ERs — including many of the planes it flies from its Hong Kong hub to Boston Logan, Chicago O'Hare, LAX and JFK.

How to book it for less than coach: Cathay is a member of the Oneworld airline alliance, along with American Airlines, so you can use AAdvantage miles for award tickets. That costs 110,000 miles each way from the airline's hub in Hong Kong to the continental United States. Have Alaska Airlines miles? It costs only 70,000 Alaska miles for a one-way, first-class ticket between Asia and the United States or Europe. 

The caveat: Booking via partners requires a workaround, as Cathay Pacific awards can't be found on Alaska or American's websites. Simply pinpoint the award seat you want, using British Airways' award search engine (another Oneworld partner), and then call Alaska or American's mileage desks with your desired flights.

Etihad First-Class Apartment

Why you want to fly it: What makes Eithad Airways' suites so special? Access to some of the world's best lounges, on-demand dining, private minibars and in-flight showers. They have Poltrona Frau reclining chairs and separate twin beds. You'll find all this aboard Etihad's A380s on routes to London Heathrow, New York JFK, Sydney and Paris.

How to book it for less than coach: Transfer agreements with American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards make it feasible to book the Apartment as an award ticket. All you have to do is shuffle points into an Etihad Guest account and redeem directly through the airline's website. Redemption rates vary by destination, but a one-way award ticket from JFK to Abu Dhabi costs roughly 136,500 Guest miles, plus $275 in taxes and fees.

Prefer to use AAdvantage miles? You can do that, too. A first-class award between Abu Dhabi and the United States costs 115,000 miles each way.

The caveat: Domestic customer support at American Airlines is wonky about redeeming flights on Etihad. As a result, you'll have to call one of American's international call centers, such as the one in Australia, to book with AAdvantage miles.

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