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- I used Amex Membership Rewards points, transferred to Aeroplan, to book Etihad first class for my girlfriend and me.
- The flight was top-notch from beginning to end, and would have cost $8,000 apiece if we paid cash.
- By far the best aspect was the food — it was better than on any other airline I’ve reviewed.
- Read Insider’s guide to the best travel rewards credit cards.
I’ve always been fascinated by Etihad Airways, which looks downright audacious compared to its gulf neighbors (Emirates and Qatar). Despite having a much smaller fleet size and route network, Etihad has pushed the boundaries of premium travel with its famed first-class “Apartments” and ultra-luxurious three-room “The Residence,” both of which were only available on the now-retired double-decker A380.
While Emirates and Qatar have grown into global behemoths, Etihad was struggling financially even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, deferring and canceling orders for new aircraft, and downsizing its premium cabin footprint wherever possible. Even today, it’s unclear whether Etihad will be offering a first-class product at all two or three years down the road.
Read more: I used credit card rewards to book Emirates first-class flights worth $15,000, and the same strategy works whether you have points from Amex, Citi, or other major banks
I was lucky enough to get the chance to fly Etihad’s apartments on the A380 shortly before the pandemic began, and I was quite curious to see how the experience would compare to flying first class onboard Etihad’s 787-9 Dreamliner. While the smaller cabin on the Dreamliner limits what any airline can do (read: no onboard bar and shower), I was thoroughly impressed with this experience.
Here’s how I booked Etihad first class using credit card rewards, and what the trip was like from start to finish.
How I used points to book Etihad first class
Good to Excellent
3 free nights (each valued up to 50,000 points) after qualifying purchases and 10x total points on eligible purchases in select categories
Good to Excellent
1.5% cash back in addition to regular earning on everything you buy up to $20,000 spent in the first year (worth up to $300 cash back)
Good to Excellent
Etihad is not a member of one of the major global alliances (Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld), so unless you’re using Etihad Guest miles, you can only book Etihad awards through a limited selection of partners.
For travelers based in North America, the two most compelling options are American Airlines AAdvantage miles or Air Canada Aeroplan miles, which are what I used. Here’s a comparison of what a one-way first-class award from Abu Dhabi (AUH) to Washington, DC (IAD) would cost using these three programs:
- American Airlines AAdvantage: 115,000 miles
- Air Canada Aeroplan: 120,000 points
- Etihad Guest: 136,250 miles
I ended up paying 130,000 Aeroplan points per person for my girlfriend and me since our ticket was booked from Malé to DC via Abu Dhabi, even though the Malé to Abu Dhabi leg was in economy.
Read more: How to earn, redeem, and maximize Amex Membership Rewards points
I transferred those points from Amex Membership Rewards, though you can also now transfer from Chase and Capital One. Alternately, you can earn points directly with Aeroplan by spending on the exciting new Aeroplan® Credit Card. Here’s Insider’s Aeroplan credit card review.
At the time of booking these tickets were selling for a bit over $8,000 each, and I was very happy to get a redemption value of 6.25 cents apiece from my Amex Membership Rewards points.
Ground experience in Abu Dhabi
Our flight from Malé landed in Abu Dhabi a bit after midnight, and after taking a mandatory PCR test on arrival (a beautifully streamlined process that took no more than 10 minutes), we were on our way to an airport hotel to rest up before the long flight home.
Returning to the airport the next morning, we made our way to terminal 3 where Etihad has dedicated entrances for first- and business-class passengers. The first-class wing was closed (due to much lower passenger volume owing to a combination of the pandemic and the retirement of Etihad’s 10 A380s) so we were directed to use the business-class entrance instead.
We had checked our bags through to DC and had received our boarding passes in Malé, so we walked right past the well-staffed business class check-in counters and made our way through security.
While the Abu Dhabi airport isn’t large, Etihad gets major props for placing the first-class lounge immediately after the premium security line, maximizing convenience.
We were escorted upstairs to the lounge, and informed that the spa portion is currently and unsurprisingly closed due to the pandemic. Previously, first-class passengers could receive a complimentary 15-minute massage in the lounge before departure.
The lounge was spacious and beautifully designed, but mostly empty. In the time we were there I counted a total of two other passengers.
Knowing that there would be a feast waiting for us on board we opted for a quick, light breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, granola, and coffee. The food was brought out quickly and was clean and simple, exactly what we were looking for.
While I didn’t want a drink at 9 a.m. I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful honeycomb pattern behind the bar.
Although it means less time to spend in the lounge, one great feature of flying out of Abu Dhabi is that the airport has a US customs pre-clearance facility, complete with Global Entry kiosks. By clearing customs before departure, you’re able to walk off a 14-hour flight and straight out of the airport just like you would on a domestic arrival.
There was no line for customs when we arrived, but Etihad still had a designated line for premium cabin passengers.
And while it wasn’t open when we were passing by, there was also a premium lounge for US-bound passengers located after the preclearance facility.
Etihad first class cabin and seat
Preboarding began at 9:50 a.m. with no announcement from the gate agents, and then at 10 a.m. first and business class passengers were invited to board. Given how excited I was for this flight my girlfriend and I were the first ones down the jetway. We were greeted at the door by a friendly flight attendant and shown to our seats.
We turned left and after passing through a two-row mini cabin of business class, we found ourselves in the eight-seat first-class cabin.
Etihad is one of the only airlines that’s chosen to install a first-class cabin on its 787 Dreamliners, along with British Airways and Gulf Air. While Etihad has 39 Boeing 787s in its fleet, only five of the 787-9s feature a first-class cabin, representing the first five that Etihad took delivery of back in 2014 and 2015.
In order to accommodate the narrower fuselage of the 787, the first-class seats alternate between being forward-facing and rear-facing. In row 1, the window seats face backward while the middle pair (which I had selected for our trip) face forward. Meanwhile, in row 2, the window seats face forward and the middle pair faces backward.
Each seat had a colorful pillow on it that matches the tail pattern of Etihad’s fleet. The center seats had a large privacy divider separating them in case you find yourself traveling next to a stranger, but when retracted my girlfriend and I could see and chat with each other very easily.
To the right of my seat was a small mini-bar, which a few bottles of water and some sodas. While it’s a cute gimmick, it doesn’t make much sense when you can order any drink you want, in a proper glass, with ice, at any time during the flight. I personally would’ve been happier with an extra storage compartment.
Meanwhile on the outside of my seat, closer to the aisle, was a reading light, entertainment controller, seat controllers, a storage compartment, and oh so importantly, an individual air nozzle.
The most first-world problem I’ve ever encountered is that it can get really hot trying to sleep under a plush blanket in first class, so having an individual air nozzle at each seat goes a very long way.
Speaking of plush blankets, there was one waiting on the massively oversized ottoman when we boarded. This was just for lounging as another blanket was brought out when it was time to sleep, but if Etihad ever decides to sell these in a store I will be the first customer.
When it came time to sleep, the flight attendants turned our private suite into a fully flat bed complete with a mattress pad, blanket, and extra pillows.
I was worried that the narrower cabin on the 787 would make the bed feel a bit cramped, but I was shocked at just how spacious it felt, especially with the doors closed. In fact, it felt more spacious than many beds I’ve had on 777s which have a noticeably wider cabin.
Amenities and inflight entertainment (IFE)
Amenity kits featuring Acqua Di Parma products, including body lotion, cologne, and lip balm were waiting at our seats when we boarded. These are some of my favorite products and I was happy to restock!
We also got an Etihad “Traveling Well Together” kit with extra masks and hand sanitizer in it.
Before takeoff a flight attendant came around with pajamas designed by a local Emirati brand A Friend of Mine. Drawing inspiration from traditional Emirati dress, I found these pajamas to be incredibly soft and comfortable, easily my favorite pair of airline pajamas I’ve ever received.
There were two lavatories for the first-class cabin, and I went to go change into my pajamas shortly after takeoff. While the bathrooms had a beautiful design to them and were kept very clean throughout the flight, they were rather bare. When flying in a long-haul premium cabin on most airlines, you’ll find mouthwash, extra toothbrushes, lotion, or some other branded products, while Etihad just had a generic soap dispenser.
Also waiting at our seats upon boarding was a code for free Wi-Fi, though rather than a full-flight pass, Etihad caps the amount of data that’s given out for free. I spent half my cap trying to get connected, but the service was incredibly spotty throughout our flight and I wasn’t able to get online with any consistency.
I’d browsed through the inflight entertainment selection on our flight in from Malé the previous night, and this is one area where Etihad could stand to improve. There was a very decent selection of movies and TV shows, including new releases, classics, and some regional content, but Etihad’s gulf rivals (Emirates and Qatar) offer perhaps the two best IFE programs of any airline in the sky, and Etihad is just not on that level.
Only five of the eight first-class seats were taken on this flight, and my girlfriend and I had row 1 completely to ourselves, so I spent a lot of time enjoying the free entertainment from the empty window seat next to me.
Etihad first class food and beverage
Menus and wine lists for the flight were waiting at our seat when we boarded, and we got to work browsing right away. Once we settled in we were quickly offered a pre-departure beverage, and both opted for a glass of champagne.
Etihad was serving Charles Heidsieck 2006, both Brut and Rosé, on this flight. The flight attendant brought out a tray with an empty glass (and a bowl of dates), presented the label to us, and then poured at our seats. We were delayed on the ground for roughly half an hour waiting for them to finish loading cargo, but to the crew’s credit, we were offered multiple refills before our scheduled departure time.
Shortly after takeoff flight attendants came through the cabin with another round of drinks, this time accompanied by mixed nuts, olives, and some onions and peppers.
Twenty minutes later the appetizers were served. I started with a caviar course while my girlfriend had the traditional arabic mezze.
Next up I had the carrot and sweet potato soup, which was so irresistibly good that my girlfriend ended up mopping up half of it with the leftover pita from her mezze.
After that, we were served a refreshing lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser before the main course. I had the black cod with cauliflower, eggplant, and salsa verde, and my girlfriend had the chicken breast with mushroom sauce.
This was better than most fish that I’ve had prepared on the ground, and my girlfriend was equally pleased with her chicken, immediately agreeing that this was the best meal we’d ever had on a plane.
For dessert, I opted for the passion fruit bavarois while my girlfriend had the date and fig pudding, a perfect end to a perfect meal.
The meal service was done about 1 hour and 45 minutes after takeoff, a great pace. Our dishes were cleared quickly, but courses were also spaced out just enough to give us a moment to breathe. And most importantly, our champagne never made it below the halfway line before a refill was offered.
While we didn’t take advantage of it on this flight, one great signature of Etihad’s first-class menu is the grill section. Rather than have a preset dish off the menu, the crew will work to customize the meal to your preferences as much as possible. You can pick a meat, side(s), and sauce, and tailor the dish your way.
We were stuffed after lunch and didn’t need anything until breakfast 10 hours later, save for a constant supply of water and a few cups of Moroccan mint tea. We opted to have breakfast about three hours before landing, a bit earlier than normal but the crew was happy to oblige.
The breakfast menu wasn’t nearly as extensive as the lunch menu, but it was every bit as delicious. To start, we were served a small pastry basket, a fruit platter, and a “rejuvenate” juice.
Then for the main course, we were served a tomato and mushroom omelet with beef sausage, asparagus rosti, mushrooms, and tomatoes. The eggs were fresh and delicious and the hearty breakfast held us over well since we had a two-hour drive home from Dulles that night.
From the moment we boarded until we touched down in DC, the flight attendants working the first-class cabin were hustling non-stop to provide an amazing experience. Etihad’s service flow is very proper and formal, and the crew was on top of all of the little details, from the silver tray used to serve drinks to the way the napkins were folded to always kneeling at our seats to take orders.
Read more: 6 powerhouse credit cards I used to earn enough points to get a $20,000 flight for (almost) free
Etihad’s first-class footprint has been shrinking rapidly, and I’m incredibly thankful we got the chance to try out this product when we did. I think Etihad did a phenomenal job adapting the hard product to fit on the narrower Dreamliner cabin without feeling or looking cramped.
I’m also still in awe at the quality of the meal we were served, which blows every other airline I’ve reviewed out of the water. The few areas where I think they missed the mark — namely not offering any amenities in the bathroom and having a good but not great IFE selection — aren’t enough for me to even think twice about booking them again, should the opportunity present itself.