Airline class comparison: Flying to Europe and back in every airline class

As a seasoned travel journalist I've been privileged to fly across the world dozens of times and in a variety of classes, including one memorable year in which I road-tested first class on seven different airlines.

Going back to cattle class after that was immensely difficult but once I had kids and the financial reality of paying for multiple tickets set in, I soon got used to it again.

There is no doubt though that for most travellers, a first-class seat is like the grapes in the myth of the Greek god Tantalus, in sight but beyond reach. On the other hand, many people with money wont countenance paying for first or business class. Sure, it guarantees extra comfort, some trimmings and perhaps sleep but they'd prefer to spend the money while on holiday.

In the past few years, however, many airlines have been developing ever more glitzy premium cabins, led by the cash-rich Middle Eastern carriers. Etihad have recently launched their lavish first apartments – featuring a leather upholstered Ottoman that opens up into an 81-inch long bed – and Emirates now offers private suites with a capacious shower spa in the cabin.

So, on this return journey to Europe, I've decided to invest my Qantas Frequent Flyer points, and some cash to investigate all four available classes across several airlines, to gauge how much difference flying at the pointy end makes on the long haul to Europe.

Leg one: Economy Sydney to Singapore on Singapore Airlines

I begin my journey by getting the economy flight out of the way. However, when that economy leg is with Singapore Airlines and the journey time is reduced by half-an-hour (to 7 hours 50 minutes) by favourable conditions, it's not a hardship. I'm also fortunate to snag 44A, an emergency exit seat, thanks to my Gold status in Virgin Australia's Velocity program, which has partner benefits with Singapore Airlines.

The window seat gives me ample legroom but does have fixed arms, making it a little narrow and the cabin is hot throughout the flight. But those grumbles and a poor pasta salad entree, aside, this is as smooth a sail in economy as I've experienced recently.

Pluses include the smiley, welcoming staff who maintain Singapore's tradition of great service, warm towelettes doled out both after departure and before arrival, the Krisworld entertainment system with 294 movies, and the liberal provision of drinks.

Cost: One-way economy via Virgin Australia website $556.72.
See also: Flight test: Singapore Airlines economy


Leg two: Business class Singapore to Dubai on Emirates

Breaking the journey at Singapore's Changi Airport is also a relative pleasure, especially when the few hours on the ground are spent in the Emirates Lounge, where I shower in a spacious, well-equipped bathroom and graze on a variety of hot and cold food.

On first sight the Emirates business cabin appears clinical in style, due to its neutral colours and shiny paneling. But once I'm in my seat, there is such a feeling of space all around me that I immediately relax. There is a small nook in which to slide my feet, a mini-bar of soft drinks and much storage and shelf space, not to mention a huge entertainment screen featuring the 2000-channel ice system. The whole seat is designed for maximum comfort and is only let down by its 18.5 inch (47cm) width, smaller than that in Singapore Airlines' Economy.

Overall this flight has cabin staff from 21 countries, speaking 20 languages and those in business class are a glamorous lot, courteous and helpful, if a little serious.

Given the staff to passenger ratio in business, however, it takes a long time for food and drinks to arrive and there are disappointments in the gastronomic offerings. A tandoori chicken roulade starter is tough and sinewy and there are only two choices of red and white wine. But a tasty Cantonese-style duck with hoisin sauce makes up for that. Then, after extending the flat-bed and ogling the entertainment system from a prone position, the seven-hour flight passes quickly and pleasurably.

See also: Flight test: Emirates A380 business class

Leg three: Business class Dubai to London on Qantas

To be fair to Qantas, the purveyors of my third flight to London, from Dubai, my judgment on its business cabin is clouded by the one thing you don't want when flying, a delay of over two hours, especially with an original departure time of 2.55am. Operational problems in Sydney are to blame. But whiling away time at Dubai, even in the Emirates lounge, when you are bleary-eyed with tiredness almost counteracts the benefit of flying business.

Having said that, once on board the A380-800, there is much to like about the London-based crew and the Qantas business class pod. While I know the Q entertainment system is one of the best and easiest to navigate, tonight (or this morning) I have nothing on my mind but sleep. Soon after take-off I ask for the turn-down service and staff quickly fit a mattress and doona to my Marc Newson-designed skybed.

It's only after several hours sleep that I take in my spacious surrounds, including bounteous storage space, and try the massage functions on my seat. I'm impressed too that having opted to miss breakfast to sleep, cabin staff respond well when I wake and change my mind. An excellent scrambled egg with smoked salmon and a sizeable hunk of fresh avocado soon arrives along with a proper strong flat white, making the early morning arrival into London bearable.

Combined cost: Business Class Singapore to London on Qantas Frequent Flyer points 96,000 points plus $514 Singapore dollars ($494) taxes.
See also: Flight test: Qantas business class

Leg four: First class London to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific

After several weeks working in Europe, I'm hotly anticipating the first-class leg of my journey, booked using Qantas Frequent Flyer points three months before. At 134,000 points plus over $400 in taxes, it's a pretty big investment but much smaller than the $9000-odd quoted on Cathay Pacific's website.

Cathay Pacific don't offer a chauffeur service even in first class so I make my way via public transport to Heathrow. But once there I begin to feel special, checking in 40-kilos of luggage at an exclusive, queue-less desk, enjoying fast-track passage through security and finding myself sipping champagne in the first-class lounge within 20 minutes of arriving. Hey, it might be only 10.45am but it's not every day you fly first.

Once on board, I'm greeted by two dedicated staff, looking after six first-class seats.

"Welcome back," they chime like I'm a regular, pouring me a glass of Krug Grande Cuvee. My open suite is like a combination of the best leather-upholstered lazy-boy armchair, an interactive Smart TV with hundreds of options, a fine-dining restaurant, the attentive service in a top hotel and a supremely comfortable bed. A snazzy blue organic sleep suit rounds off the luxurious feel.

For next two hours I indulge in the best meal I've yet eaten in the sky, from an amuse-bouche of crab in citrus dressing through a large tin of caviar to my main of stir-fried lobster, and revel in the space. Then, I sleep the sleep of angels, disappointed only by the reduced flight time of 11 hours and 5 minutes, due to good flying conditions.

Cost: First class on Cathay Pacific 134,000 Qantas Frequent Flyer points plus $400 taxes.

Leg five: Premium economy Hong Kong to Sydney on Qantas

For the final leg, home, it's back to Qantas and the brisk friendliness of an Aussie crew. I'm flying on an economy ticket but with a space available upgrade in the system. So I have a nervous wait at Hong Kong airport until it comes through at the gate.

I'm allocated 38B, a good aisle seat, but informed that the in-seat entertainment system isn't working, Since this a nine-hour night flight, I'm more worried about catching a few zzzs than the latest blockbuster, so the 18-centimetres of extra legroom and the noticeably larger seat width are what matter. But this is nearly ruined by a breakfast wake-up call, two hours before landing, at 4.45am Sydney time, an unholy 2.45am for those on Hong Kong body-clocks.

Cost: Economy ticket Hong Kong to Sydney $872 via Qantas website.
See also: Flight test: Qantas premium economy

With my journey to Europe complete, I'm still visited by jet lag in Australia but having flown first class and premium economy certainly leaves me in better shape than had I travelled the whole distance in economy. But on the way out Singapore Airlines in economy, especially in that coveted emergency exit seat, proves more than bearable and while Emirates's business class is a spacious haven, not even Qantas's luxurious pods make up for hanging around Dubai airport in the early hours due to delays.

The sky-high five

The five flights judged on comfort, entertainment, service and gastronomic offerings and value-for-expenditure:

1. Cathay Pacific First Class

2. Singapore Airlines Economy

3. Emirates Business

4. Qantas Business

5. Qantas Premium Economy

The writer flew using Frequent Flyer points, with additional costs paid by Visit Britain, Tourism Ireland and Austrian National Tourist Office and upgrade provided by Qantas.

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