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In July 2012 Singapore Airlines had a glitch that released business and first class availability on all of their flights to partners like United. I had long wanted to fly on the all-business class flight from Newark to Singapore which was the longest flight in the world, a whopping 19 hours. With the glitch, I was able to use just 60K miles to fly from Cleveland to the Maldives via Newark and Singapore. I booked the W and stayed there for 2 nights. The overwater villa with a private pool was indescribably magical. Gazing at the stunning sunsets and and the star filled nights creates an amazing sense of serenity.
It wasn’t a matter of if, but when I’d be back.
That opportunity came when DDF member beastieb discovered that you could book a $2,500/night overwater villa at the soon to open S. Regis Maldives for just 32.5K Starpoints per night or 26K Starpoints per night for a 5 night stay. After giving DDF members a day to make their bookings I posted it here and called it one of the best SPG redemptions possible. (You can still earn the highest Starpoint bonus ever on the 2 SPG AMEX cards until tomorrow afternoon)
Within a week many other blogs picked up the story and rates went up to 90K Starpoints per night or 72K Starpoints per night with a 5 night stay.
But not before I made 16 bookings of 5 night stays for myself. I tied up over 2 million of my Starpoints, but I was determined to find some dates that worked with the right flights.
Even after burning 2.5 million miles last year I was still sitting on 8 figures of miles thanks to years of work building up my mileage balances. So once I’m flying somewhere internationally it’s going to be in a premium cabin.
I’ve flown international first class on most American, European, and Asian airlines with my miles. I’d say that my favorite service on a flight has been from ANA and Singapore, their flight attendants are in another league and tend to your every need. My favorite first class bed and seat is on Cathay Pacific, though they are the only airline known to refuse to warm up your own kosher meal and their service isn’t quite as good as other Asian carriers. Lufthansa and Swiss have great first class lounges and ground services. Qantas‘ first class lounges are amazing as well. My favorite cabin was on TAM, where I was able to book the entire first class cabin/living room for my family with miles. And flying Singapore’s couples suites is pretty amazing as well.
But until now I’ve never been able to take a shower on a plane. The only 2 airlines to offer that are Dubai based Emirates and Abu Dhabi based Etihad. Rival UAE cities and rival airlines, that’s what strong competition along with government backing will create. Their A380 first class cabins are affectionately known as shower class.
From North America you can fly nonstop on an Emirates A380 from JFK, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, or Washington DC to Dubai. You can also fly from JFK to Milan on an Emirates A380.
The best way to redeem for an Emirates award is with JAL miles. A round-trip shower class award from JFK to Milan is 100K miles. A round-trip from JFK to Dubai is 135K miles. And a round-trip from JFK to the Maldives via Dubai is 155K miles. There are no fuel surcharges. You need to call JAL to book this award, but you can search award space on ExpertFlyer.com or AlaskaAir.com.
Thanks to Starwood’s 25% transfer bonus you can book a round-trip in Emirates shower class from the US for just 80,000 Starpoints round-trip. You’ll have more points than that after opening and meeting the spend threshold on 2 SPG cards. A paid Emirates shower class ticket to Milan runs $10,000 and to Dubai or the Maldives is $26,000, so those are some incredible values per Starpoint.
If you find yourself down under you can book a round-trip shower class award from Sydney to Auckland on Emirates for just 65K JAL miles.
You can also use miles from other airlines like Alaska or Korean to fly on Emirates, but those options are pricier than JAL.
The only Etihad A380 service from North American is from JFK to Abu Dhabi. You can use 115K American miles to fly one-way on Etihad from JFK to Abu Dhabi or the Maldives via Abu Dhabi for an Etihad “Apartment.” You need to call American to book Etihad awards and you may have better luck when calling American’s Australia or New Zealand call centers. You can search Etihad award space by searching for GuestSeats on their website.
You can also use miles from other airlines like ANA or Korean to fly on Etihad.
I’ve long wanted to try out and compare Emirates and Etihad shower class and was able to find availability for Mimi and myself for a 5 night stay to the Maldives flying Emirates outbound and Etihad on the return. It’s definitely cheaper to fly Emirates round-trip with JAL miles, but with Emirates it would have meant having to overnight in NYC in order to get back to Cleveland. Plus I have a ton of Alaska miles from the good old days of 12BM and 24BMs for the Alaska card, so I didn’t mind redeeming Alaska miles for the one-way Emirates flight and American miles for the one-way Etihad flight.
Of course being a kosher observant traveler means bringing along our food. Kosher Private Chef is based in Miami and I had heard great things about their food. They provided double wrapped meals for trip and sent them via 2nd day air, the meals arrived in Cleveland rock solid. Spoiler alert: The meals were awesome!
Many observant Jews limit their trips to places with kosher restaurants. That leaves 99% of the planet off-limits. With the help of a Polar Bear cooler suitcase you can keep food frozen for days and travel anywhere your heart desires.
I used Google’s Project Fi phone service, which charges a flat $10 per GB of 4G LTE data worldwide. In the US calls and texting are free, but I keep the service paused when I’m in the US so that I’m not charged anything. When abroad you can easily make high quality, free phone calls over the data network or you can make regular phone calls for 20 cents per minute. It’s an awesome service.
Putting together the perfect itinerary wasn’t the easiest thing in the world though. I used ExpertFlyer to search for Emirates award space. However, Alaska’s site and agents only saw Emirates coach availability from Dubai to the Maldives while ExpertFlyer continued to insist that there was business class space.
It took 3 HUCAs, but eventually an Alaska agent was able to force the business class segment into the award.
The Etihad awards were trickier. Those can be searched by looking for “GuestSeats” on Etihad’s website and booked by calling American. American’s US call center wasn’t seeing any of the award space I was finding, but I was able to get it booked by calling American’s New Zealand call center via Google Voice (+64-9-308-4014)
At the time, I booked the award on an Etihad 2 class A320 that was scheduled to operate the Maldives-Abu Dhabi flight. Later on I noticed that they switched the flight to an A330 with 3 classes of service. I jumped onto Etihad’s site and confirmed that there were 2 saver award seats on the flight so I called American to grab them. I called the US call center, I called the Australia (+61-2-9101-1948) and the New Zealand call centers. All for naught, nobody was able to get the flight switched to first class as it was only available to be booked separately but not married on the same itinerary as the flight from Abu Dhabi to JFK.
In fact Etihad wouldn’t even sell a first class flight for cash from the Maldives to JFK via Abu Dhabi, though they were willing to sell the first class flights separately. I asked an award booking guru for advice and he advised me to give up, but I’m nothing if not persistent. I won’t admit how many HUCAs it took, but eventually an AA agent in the Australia call center successfully added the first class flight to the itinerary. It took 4 days for it to go from requested to ticketed, but it worked!
Unfortunately in the end Mimi wasn’t able to come along. I figured that I’d cancel the trip, but my aishes chayil insisted that I go and one of my 5 brothers happily jumped at the chance to come along.
At this point though it was just 2 days before the trip and without the need to limit the time of the trip to something that could potentially be handled by a babysitter we had the option of going with the following 2 itineraries. The first would allow for a day in Milan and a day in Dubai while the 2nd would allow for 2 days in Dubai:
Su 3/19 CLE-LGA UA3770 1:25pm-3:05pm, E145, Coach7:15 connection in NYC10:05 connection in Milan27:15 connection in Dubai, 1 night at the Fairmont Palm5 nights in S. Regis Maldives3:40 connection in Abu Dhabi4:46 connection in NYC
Su 3/19 CLE-IAD UA6237 6:05am-7:18am C700, First3:53 connection in DC49:30 connection in Dubai, 2 nights at the Fairmont Palm5 nights in S. Regis Maldives3:40 connection in Abu Dhabi4:46 connection in NYC
With a hurry-up offense there was probably time to grab a bite to eat in Milan, ride the funicular above Lake Como, and either drive or take a boat on Lake Como, but it would have been tight. It also would have meant 2 relatively short red-eyes in a row versus a longer red-eye to Dubai.
After some quick deliberation we decided to go with the latter itinerary to have more time in Dubai and to have time to go to Abu Dhabi as well.
Finally, we had to find a hotel in Dubai that would be willing to store our frozen food and heat up our meals as well.
I have free nights at Fairmont hotels, but the Fairmont Palm said that they weren’t willing to store or heat up our meals. The Park Hyatt Dubai however was more than happy to store and warm up our meals. However with 2 expiring Fairmont nights I sent the Fairmont Palm’s general manager a quick note asking if he could help store and warm up our meals and he said it would not be a problem.
Of course man plans and G-d laughs. When traveling I’m always ready to roll with the inevitable punches and before retiring on Saturday night I got a notification from Emirates that our flight to Dubai would be delayed from 11am to 4pm.
I called United and got them to switch our 6am flight from Cleveland to DC to a 10am flight and went to bed ready for our adventure.
In Cleveland, United tried to interline our bags so that they would go to Dubai rather than having to pick them up in DC, however the system rejected the interline as it wasn’t able to recognize that our DC-Dubai flight was delayed by 5 hours.
Dulles airport is a behemoth. We took the Dulles mobile lounge to get from the United terminal to baggage claim and then went to the Emirates counters to check our bags. However the Emirates counters weren’t open due to the delay, so we decided to order some lunch and food for the plane from Char Bar. They don’t deliver to Dulles, so I hired an Uber to bring the food from the restaurant to Dulles and had the restaurant bring the food out to the Uber driver when he arrived.
All of the food was very good.
We got a Texas Toast with pulled beef ($17):
Chicken tenders tempura ($12):
Steak sub ($22):
Onion rings ($6):
In the meantime the checkin desk opened so we checked in and headed through security again.
Emirates and Etihad do participate in Pre-Check, but the metal detector gave a beep as I went through.
They didn’t bother wanding me down, but they did swab all of my electronics for explosives.
Emirates has no lounge in DC, they contract with the Air France Priority Pass lounge there. I figured I’d give the lounge some revenue with the Sapphire Reserve’s Priority Pass, but it turned out that Emirates first class passengers get access to a special section of the lounge with better drink offerings and more space to stretch out.
Air France first class self-service bar:
The main part of the lounge itself had plenty of seating and nice food and drink offerings as well:
At about 3:30pm it was time to board, but this being Dulles, you need to go onto a mobile lounge to be brought to the plane. There’s nothing lounge-like about this thing, they eventually packed it full like a can of sardines before it drove to the plane.
And there we sat. And sat. Emirates had never communicated what the reason for the delay was. The incoming flight had arrived on time, but as we sat in the mobile lounge they still didn’t tell us what was going on.
The mobile lounge assistant started banging on the plane door to get an update:
I was about to tweet Emirates this picture asking for a status update after sitting in the lounge for well over an hour when they finally opened the door:
The A380s grand staircase:
Once onboard the plane the pilots mentioned a water issue and cautioned not to use the toilets at the gate. All I was thinking was that they better have enough water for the shower 😀
The flight didn’t wind up taking off until after 6pm, some 7 hours after it’s originally scheduled departure time. The pilot was very apologetic on the plane, but Emirates really needs to do a better job communicating on the ground.
The crew itself was made up of 20 different nationalities, similar to the cosmopolitan makeup of Dubai. Most of the passengers in business and first class appeared to be Americans on business.
Emirates first class is unabashedly blinged out in gold. It fits Dubai to a T.
Emirates only operates 777s and A380s.
The A380 has 14 seats in first class in a 1-2-1 configuration. Only 3 first class seats were occupied on our flight.
The suite features an amenity filled vanity and a minibar:
Some people note that the seat is a bit narrow for first class, but I found it to be perfectly comfortable:
The flight attendant offered to store my carry-on in one of the empty suites:
You can set the suites to do not disturb in order to rest without interruption.
I took a few Facebook live videos of the experience as well. My 2 cell phones are both several years old and the videos taken are raw and unedited. But it was fun to give people a glimpse of the travel as it was happening and to answer live comments as well.
The flight attendant loved that I was taking video and pictures of the experience and provided great service throughout the flight. It wasn’t quite at the level of the Asian carriers, but it was much better than I was expecting.
The suite itself nails the small details with several air nozzles and lights:
I did some nice damage to the Glenfiddich 21 year old that was kept filled throughout the flight:
Emirates ICE entertainment system features an impressively deep library of shows to watch. You can also call other seats on the plans and take in great views of the flight:
Emirates includes 10MB of Wi-Fi for free. $1 buys another 600MB of data, which was more than enough for the flight. The Wi-Fi was very fast and I was even able to stream Facebook live without too much interruption.
The kosher meals were sourced from Emuna in Los Angeles under RCC kosher supervision. The food was the typical mediocre kosher meal, but the Costco hummus was a nice touch:
Bland chicken and rice:
Of course I was fully expecting the mediocre kosher meal, so I had ordered a Western Burger ($17) loaded with grilled pastrami, sauteed mushrooms, and caramelized onions and a hickory burger ($17) topped with onion rings and pulled brisket. I split the burgers with my brother and double wrapped each of them. The flight attendant was more than happy to warm it up and it was phenomenal.
An airline kosher meal is known as a KSML in industry speak. On DDF we call bringing your own kosher meal BYOK, as in bring your own kosher meal to be warmed up on the plane. It’s the best hot kosher food you’ll ever have on a plane.
There is a generously sized desk for work and eating:
There is an open bar for first class passengers:
In business class there is a full service bar. They only had 15 year old Glenfiddich here, but they offered to bring drinks from first class to the business class bar.
Business class bar seating:
Relaxing in my Emirates supplied first class pajamas:
The flight attendant offered to make up a 3rd suite as a bed for the night. I found it perfectly spacious for sleeping. It’s no Cathay Pacific bed or bedding, but it made for a great sleep:
The ceiling and floor turn into a starry night:
It’s not every day you pass by Baghdad and Tehran on the map:
Breakfast had some decent granola and a halfway cinnamon bun along with a rubber egg:
And then with an hour left to the flight it was time for a shower. I had long wondered if it was a gimmick. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The 2 shower spas on the plane are extremely spacious and best of all, they have heated floors. There’s plenty of room to change clothes and freshen up without feeling cramped.
You are allotted 30 minutes of time in the shower spa and you have 5 minutes of running water. That may sound like a short time in the shower, but there is an easy start and stop button for the water in the shower that allows you to lather and rinse your hair.
There was plenty of time to wash up with time to spare. The shower had hot water instantly and the pressure was great. This was no gimmick, it was truly enjoyable to have a great shower after a good night’s rest. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of landing and being totally refreshed and ready to go.
There’s a bench and bar in the shower in case of turbulence:
The timer changes color as your water time goes down. It smartly stops when there’s a minute left and you can restart it knowing that you need to finish up:
Luxury toiletries in the shower spa:
Flight map in the shower spa:
Overall the flight was extremely enjoyable. The WiFi was fast and inexpensive, the seat was comfortable, the service was excellent, and the shower spa was phenomenal. There are better seats, beds, and service on some of the Asian first class cabins, but each has their own drawbacks and none feature a shower onboard. If not for the 7 hour delay and lack of communication about it, this flight would have been pretty darn close to perfect.
Finally it was time to land in Dubai. But not before we had to circle around for a while due to sandstorms.
Clearly we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
To be continued…