Flying overseas in first class with U.S. legacy companies such as United Continental (NASDAQ:UAL) and American Airlines Group (NASDAQ:AAL) is a luxurious but pricey affair -- unless you're a road warrior who can get elite status upgrades. To reward their best customers, United and American offer special lounges, turn-down service, and (in some cases) semi-private "suites" in first class. If you're paying full price, these tickets could cost more than $10,000 round-trip!
However, this is nothing compared with the luxury a few international carriers provide on their long-haul flights. From onboard showers to fully private suites to gourmet delicacies, these airlines have designed their service so that passengers are in no rush to land.
Not surprisingly, the prices for this kind of service can be astronomical. Here are three particularly extravagant examples.
The new gold standard
In the past decade or so, Emirates has quickly risen through the ranks to become the largest airline in the world in terms of international traffic. It has also developed a well-deserved reputation for luxury. The price matches the service; a round-trip first-class ticket from New York to Dubai for early March costs just over $22,000.
For that price, pampering begins long before you get on board. Emirates offers a complimentary "chauffeur drive" service to first- and business-class customers in most of the cities it serves. You don't have to worry about arranging a car service to get to the airport: Emirates will pick you up in a Mercedes.
First class passengers get "fast-track" vouchers to speed up the check-in and security process at the airport. After clearing security, first class passengers have access to the Emirates Lounge, which has a gourmet buffet, open bar, TVs, Wi-Fi, and even showers.
Emirates flies the massive Airbus A380 for flights from New York to Dubai, and it uses the extra space well. First class passengers have fully private individual suites on Emirates' A380s, with seats that convert into a mattress for sleeping. At mealtimes, Emirates offers a seven-course gourmet lunch/dinner. However, first-class passengers can also order a multi-course meal at any time during the flight.
If you get "cabin fever," Emirates has lounges on board where you can get a drink and socialize with other passengers. Lastly, Emirates even has two showers that you can use before landing so you can hit the ground running upon arrival.
An Emirates first-class ticket is perhaps the most expensive thing in the air short of a private jet -- but you do get a lot for the money.
The business traveler's dream
While Emirates is rising fast in the aviation world, Singapore Airlines has also developed a great reputation for its premium services. It's comparatively affordable, too! Singapore Airlines no longer offers nonstop flights to the U.S., but its one-stop service from New York to Singapore costs just about $13,000 round-trip. (The plane makes a stop in Frankfurt along the way.)
Check-in for passengers departing from Singapore is especially luxurious. First-class passengers are directed to a dedicated check-in lounge where a Passenger Relations Officer handles the check-in process.
Singapore Airlines also uses the A380 for flights to New York. Like Emirates, it has used the extra space to offer private "suites" -- with leather and wood trim -- for first-class customers. A unique feature is that the suites feature standalone beds that fold down from the wall; first-class passengers don't have to sleep on a converted seat .
Singapore Airlines has impressive dining options, too. The airline offers gourmet cuisine from a variety of the countries it serves. It also has a unique "Book the Cook" feature that allows you to pre-order your main course from a wider selection of entrees 24 hours before the flight. The service may not match Emirates in every respect, but it's pretty close.
Cathay Pacific has been flying from Hong Kong since shortly after the end of World War II, and over a long period of time it has built a reputation for high-quality service. It flies to a variety of U.S. cities. A round-trip first-class ticket from Los Angeles to Hong Kong for early March would you set back almost $16,000.
As a member of the Oneworld airline alliance, first-class Cathay Pacific customers have access to airport lounges in most major cities across the world. In Los Angeles, the Oneworld lounge has hot and cold buffets, a bar, and shower facilities. In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific operates several lounges with different premium amenities.
Onboard Cathay's Boeing (NYSE: BA) 777-300ER aircraft, each first-class passenger has a semi-private suite. Not surprisingly, the seats convert to flat beds, and passengers are supplied with 500-thread-count linens for sleeping. Many Cathay Pacific customers swear by the carrier's flat-bed seats as the most comfortable in the industry.
Cathay Pacific offers meal service for first-class customers whenever they want to eat, and it has toasters, skillets, and rice cookers in its galleys so that food can be made to order. Other first-class amenities include organic cotton pajamas and his-and-hers toiletry kits. Cathay Pacific may not be as flashy as Emirates or Singapore Airlines, but it's comfy. The service is attentive, too, with two flight attendants assigned to the six-seat first-class cabin.
Foolish bottom line
Unless you're a multi-millionaire, flying first class on Emirates, Singapore Airlines, or Cathay Pacific is out of reach. Even multi-millionaires might think twice about dropping $22,000 on a round trip from New York to Dubai!
Still, for these prices, first-class fliers do get plenty of perks. Whether it's an onboard shower with Emirates, a real bed on Singapore Airlines, or Cathay Pacific's gourmet cuisine, first class means real luxury on these international airlines. U.S. carriers like United and American do their best to offer an attractive first-class product, but at this point, they're not in the same league with some of their global rivals.