First Class Duel: Emirates v. Etihad


Having enjoyed first class cabins on A380s of both Emirates and Etihad, I can attest that both products are absolutely fantastic. I’m in no rush to travel right now, but I can’t help feeling the urge to get back on a flight with these two carriers. It was just so much fun!

Since my hop to the Maldives, many of you have been asking which was better: Emirates or Etihad. I’m going to walk through the pros and cons of each, to try to definitely determine which is a better product.

1. The Suite

Emirates fits fourteen suites into its first class cabin on the top deck of the A380. Each suite is essentially a large chair, surrounded by everything blitz imaginable. The trims are gold with polished wood. It’s over the top, which adds to the fun of the experience.

Because of the 1-2-1 arrangement on the top deck, each suite is not particularly wide or spacious, certainly less so than on Asiana’s A380, where First Class is on the (wider) lower deck.

Our seats for 12 hours.

Etihad, on the other hand, takes cabin design to a fully different level. There is only a single aisle down the center of the cabin, and suites to the right and left. Etihad is the only airline with a single aisle in a wide body aircraft.

The results are fantastic – rather than a suite, on Etihad you have your own apartment, with both a large lounging chair and a bench which unfolds into a bed. You have enough space to walk around. The finishes are comfortable, but not over the top.

Etihad A380 First Class Apartment 4K

Winner: Clearly Etihad

2. The Bed

Emirates’ chair turns down into a bed, which flight attendants make up with a mattress pad, duvet and pillow for you. While I never like being able to feel the folds of the seat I’m sleeping in, overall the bedding is soft and the bed underneath extremely comfortable.

Emirates bed. Good night!

To Etihad’s benefit is the fact that there’s no chair creases underneath you – you actually get the closest thing to a flat mattress available in the sky. But, unfortunately, the bench is extremely firm, and the bedding does nothing to alleviate this. While Etihad’s bed looks fantastic, Emirates’ is more comfortable and easy to sleep in.

Etihad Apartments Double Bed

Winner: Slight edge to Emirates.

3. Food/Drink

Emirates and Etihad both have an on-demand dining setup, meaning you can order what you want, when you want it. Emirates’ menu is extensive. The airline features a delicious caviar service (which my wife was able to order twice!). The drink selection, too, is fantastic. I was super excited to try out a cognac that retails for $1,000 a bottle on the ground.

Damage done.

Etihad one-ups Emirates with an onboard chef, who spoke with each passenger to carefully plan their selections and preferences. Most of the dishes I tried on Etihad were a step above Emirates, though, sadly, Etihad does not serve caviar. Overall, I found Etihad’s food service to be more refined. Also of note: the china that Etihad uses is spectacular.

Winner: Slight edge to Etihad

4. Entertainment

Both suites feature large television screens with so much entertainment – movies, television and more – that it’s absolutely impossible to get bored during your flight. Both planes have WiFi onboard. Emirates’ Wifi is immensely cheaper than Etihad, offering the first 10 MB for free and the next 500 MB for only $1 . On the other hand, Etihad also offers live television.

Pointed Out on Etihad!

Winner: Tie

5. Onboard

Emirates’ A380s feature two shower spas at the front of the first class cabin. These lavatories are huge, plush and amazing. The shower experience is incredible – I giggled like a child for five minutes of bathing. There’s even a water fountain outside of the shower spas to continue the relaxation vibes.

Emirates A380 Shower Suite

At the back of the plane is an onboard bar, which is a fun place to hang out, enjoy a drink and snack, and talk with fellow passengers and crew. Emirates will be updating its onboard bars soon on new A380s too.

My single complaint about Emirates is that I found the vibe on board to be so high-energy that it was difficult to relax on board. My mind was running a mile a second the whole flight. The ample bright, fluorescent lights throughout the cabin make matters even worse. The relaxing vibe that Emirates creates through its spa and finishing touches is partially offset by the harsh lighting.

Etihad also has a shower on board, though it’s much smaller, and in a very modestly-sized lavatory. While Etihad does not have an onboard bar, it does have the Lobby, a lounge area between First and Business class with seating to lounge in and enjoy a drink or snacks.

Etihad A380 Lobby

Ultimately, what was most appealing about Etihad’s A380 was that with all the finishing touches and specially designed lighting, it didn’t feel like we were on an airplane at all. The cabin was kept much darker than Emirates’ throughout the flight, making the experience much more calming, despite the lack of a shower spa.

Etihad First Class Lavatory

In this category, each airline excels at the things with which the other struggles. Both have done much to fundamentally refine the flying experience. Their cabins are beautiful, albeit very different.

Winner: Tie

And the Winner Is…

Flying First Class on Emirates and on Etihad is an out-of-this-world experience, something I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to enjoy, especially as I did so for free! Both airlines make flying a joy, not a chore, with comfortable cabins and beds, delicious food and drink, and ample entertainment. The service is extraordinary, and there is almost nothing that the crew won’t do to make you comfortable and happy.

Etihad takes a slight edge in my book over Emirates; its apartments are revolutionary, its food more refined. I liked Etihad’s overall vibe better. But let’s be clear – this is akin to a contest between a Four Seasons and a Ritz Carlton. Both are incredible.

Fortunately, Etihad awards are now the easier of the two to book. Etihad apartments can be booked with American Aadvantage miles; an award between New York and Abu Dhabi costs 115,000 miles. While Emirates used to be a fantastic redemption of 90,000 Alaska Airlines miles, the cost was nearly doubled overnight last year. The best way now to redeem for first class on Emirates is with miles transferred from SPG to JAL, but those are not nearly as easy to come by.

Have you flown Emirates or Etihad First Class? Which did you prefer?