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I recently wrote a post summing up two recent flights I had on Etihad’s First Class product onboard their 787-9, along with my thoughts on the overall experience. If you haven’t read it yet – the bottom line is that I’m a big fan. The top-notch catering, ability to dine with a companion, excellent cabin crews and a very comfortable hard product make this a top pick of mine. Sash has written a post on how to book Lufthansa First Class which many, including myself, found very useful – so I figured it’s only right given my high praise for Etihad, to write a similar piece on how to book Etihad First Class.
Without repeating a couple of general points from the Lufthansa post that will surely apply here as well (good tips for backup flights, flexibility, positioning etc.), I’ll touch upon Etihad’s First Class footprint, redemption rates, my favourite search tools and then end it with some recent observations on availability patterns that I have seen in recent months.
Etihad First Class Routes & Aircrafts
At the time of writing, Etihad operates a First Class cabin between its home base of Abu Dhabi (“AUH”) and Washington DC (“IAD”), London (“LHR”), Geneva (“GVA”) and Casablanca (“CMN”; seasonally from April-October recently).
The routes operating between IAD, GVA and CMN are on a 787-9 and feature the product I reviewed, though their older 777 does make an occasional appearance. The real treat, though, is that Etihad’s famed First Class Apartments are again scheduled to start flying as of July 2023 on the Abu Dhabi-London route.
Following the onset of the pandemic, Etihad had put all its A380s into storage, resulting in First Class only being offered on a select few of its 787-9’s. Despite rumours that Etihad was planning on permanently retiring its A380 fleet, the airline surprised many in 2022 by announcing that they were reactivating four A30s and putting them into service on its premium Abu Dhabi-London route starting July 2023.
Initially only one of the 4x daily frequencies on this route will be operated by an A380, gradually growing to 2x starting in July and then 3x as of November 2023. This development is so exciting because while First Class on the 787-9 is a good product, the First Class Apartments on the A380 can rival any other First Class product currently offered in commercial aviation. Here’s hoping that the new leadership at Etihad has given this plane a new lease of life.
Etihad Reward Partners & Rates
For most people, using Air Canada’s Aeroplan, American Airlines AAdvantage program, or Etihad’s Etihad Guest program will be the most straightforward option, depending on individual circumstances. I prefer Aeroplan or AAdvantage, depending on the desired routing you wish to book, with Etihad Guest being the last option primarily because of the much higher redemption rates.
Below are the redemption rates across the three programs for all four of the routes currently operating a First Class product on EY:
As the table shows, Aeroplan and AAdvantage are priced quite competitively relative to each other, with Aeroplan costing modestly more under their Standard pricing. Both programs have some unique benefits over the other, and a few of the key ones are:
- AAdvantage awards are priced based on region, whereas Aeroplan is based on total distance on a one-way bound, meaning the more flights and distance added to either side of your Etihad flight could theoretically bump the pricing over into a higher distance band with Aeroplan, thereby costing significantly more points.
- AAdvantage allows you to cancel bookings for free, so in situations with highly speculative plans, I would be leaning towards AA if my points stash were to allow it. Aeroplan charges a not-insignificant fee for award cancellations when booked in their Standard fare bucket; however, it allows for free changes if booking a costlier Flex fare.
- AAdvantage allows award bookings to be put on hold for up to 5 days.
- Aeroplan points are much easier to accumulate with co-branded credit cards issued in Canada and the US, as well as being transfer partners with American Express, Chase, Citi, Capital One and Bilt. In contrast, the only transfer partners to AAdvantage are RBC’s Avion points currency (not the most favourable conversion rate) and the US-based program Bilt.
- Both programs waive fuel surcharges, allowing you to combine flights among partners with certain limitations. Aeroplan probably has the upper hand in this respect as it has an extensive network of alliance and non-alliance partners.
In contrast to the other two programs, Etihad Guest’s two biggest disadvantages are the higher redemption rates along with the imposition of hefty fuel charges that come up to ~ USD 275-513 for the above routings, making it a poor option when compared to Aeroplan and AAdvantage. These two factors alone erode a lot of value on award redemption.
Putting that aside, though – if you are someone who organically earns a lot of Etihad Guest miles or lives in the UAE where you have the option of earning miles via Amex transfers or a co-brand card – then the pricing on the AUH-LHR routing does not seem too outrageous – especially for a 7.5-hour flight on the A380 apartments. The value proposition becomes more palatable if Etihad or a bank partner runs a transfer bonus, which they have occasionally done. The most recent transfer bonus was for 30% in April 2023 – which would result in the AUH-LHR flight requiring ~108,000 points – not much more than Aeroplan would charge on a transatlantic First Class flight.
For me, as will be the case with most readers, I’m more likely to redeem with Aeroplan or AAdvantage nearly every single time with the type of trip (multi-city stops vs a simple point-to-point) and my relative points balances in both currencies, being the two main considerations in deciding.
Searching for Etihad Availability
I’ve listed below the 4 ways I’ve relied on to search for and confirm EY availability. It’s important to note, though, that lately, some funny things have been happening with Etihad award space (read on below) that I don’t fully understand and which have impacted the usefulness of some of these tools – however, I’ll still cover them in the hope that they do become useful again.
American Airlines website:
As of May 2023, award space has been viewable and bookable on AA’s website. With this functionality in place and some issues I’ve lately been having finding EY premium cabin award space on Aeroplan, this is my first port of call when wanting to view Etihad award space. Search for award space by following these steps:
- Go to AA’s website and populate the search fields to include origin, destination, and dates. Make sure to select the “Redeem Miles” box
- Once results come up, switch to the calendar view, select ‘nonstop,’ and pick your class (in this case, First Class).
- You can think, click on the monthly view, and browse the calendar. Any results coming up should be only for the EY-operated flights.
Verdict: My current preferred choice for searching Etihad award space
Aeroplan’s website is pretty intuitive and easy to use, with the most limiting feature being that the search will have to be done on a day-by-day basis. Note: In the past, you could use SeatSpy to help narrow the search dates, but as you’ll read below, that’s not necessarily the case now.
- Go to Aeroplan’s website and navigate to the booking screen
- Populate the search fields to include origin, destination, and dates and then make sure the “Book with points” box is selected
- If available, the Etihad seat option will be visible online in the search results
Verdict: Currently seems that for some reason, premium cabins are not available on Aeroplan despite AAdvantage having access. Hoping this gets fixed in the not-so-distant future.
This is a really handy method I first came across from Greg on FrequentMiler. It was a great way of scanning the entire calendar for saver level (award space that is most likely also available to book via partner programs). However, I say “was” because lately, the results have not been matching up to Aeroplan nor AAdvantage space (read on below)
- Login to SeatSpy (you need a subscription to view premium cabin searches) and select Etihad
- Pick Abu Dhabi to London as the route to search.
- Once the calendar of results appears, filter the slider down to just over 140,000 and unselect the “Economy” and “Business” options. All dates showing availability should, theoretically, be award space bookable with AAdvantage or Aeroplan.
Verdict: Limited utility as of now, though it was very useful in the past. Please read below for current issues with SeatSpy.
For now, only the AUH-IAD route is supported, and you can search for availability in either the “Explore” section or the “Search” section of the site. I walk through the steps to look up space using the “Search” feature.
- Login to Seat. aero and select “Search” across the top menu bar
- Input IAD & AUH in either of the origin/destination airports as desired and then select “Add +/- 7 days” to expand the search results to 2 weeks. I also click the “Show individual flights” option
- Next, click on advanced filters (available via a pro subscription) and select “Only direct flights,” the number of seats and for the operating carrier, enter “EY”
- Next, the search results will show availability across both Aeroplan and AAdvantage.
Verdict: Almost as useful as using AA’s website, though seats.aero requires a subscription for the full suite of features.
Recent award space observations
Since Etihad became partners with Aeroplan in 2020, for the most part, Etihad First Class award space was relatively easy to find if you diligently checked for it. In addition, space on Aeroplan would predictably open up at the end of the calendar, usually anywhere from 1-2 First Class seats opening up depending on the route you were searching. This made Aeroplan the most painless way of booking as space was searchable and bookable online. During this same period, you could not search for space on AAdvantage’s site, and to book an award required calling in once you had found award space available (potentially use SeatSpy or Etihad’s website, for example).
Fast forward to early 2023 when Etihad started to release award space on the A380 product between AUH-LHR. During this time, there were large dumps of inventory on these routes, with at times 6+ seats being made available to Aeroplan (and bookable). While some of the space was available on AAdvantage, it seemed to be only a subset of the space available to Aeroplan, making Aeroplan the best option to book despite its slightly higher award pricing.
During all this time, using a combination of SeatSpy and Aeroplan’s websites for searching worked extremely effectively. In recent weeks, however, I’ve noticed a disconnect across all three of SeatSpy, Aeroplan and AAdvantage.
Recent searches on Aeroplan point to premium cabin space on Etihad for the aforementioned 4 routes, which are almost non-existent – both on the website or via the call center. Because economy awards are readily available to book discounts, the two programs have a technical issue. Rather it seems to be that one of the parties is restricting it. This is evident even in the above screenshot of seats.aero results showing both Aeroplan and AAdvantage results side by side.
At the same time, I’ve been seeing premium cabin space on the above routes via AAdvantage and confirmed that it’s also bookable despite being inexplicably absent from Aeroplan. This is a pretty remarkable turnaround from a few months back.
Finally, muddying the waters a little more – SeatSpy is now showing Etihad Guest award space at the filtered minimum levels that don’t correspond to actual Etihad Guest website availability. I hope this is because the EY functionality is still in Beta, though who knows? In the example below, SeatSpy shows 6 seats available on this day in First Class at the 140,006 point level, whereas for the same date, only 2 seats are available on 2 different flights.
Despite the limited utility currently, I still wanted to mention SeatSpy here in the hopes that it becomes useful again for searching Etihad award space.
Earning Miles in Canada
While there is plenty of coverage on earning AAdvantage and Aeroplan points in the US, I did want to take some time to go through some options Canadians have at their disposal.
Firstly RBC’s in-house Avion currency is a transfer partner to American Airlines AAdvantage at a 1: 0.7 ratio, meaning a First Class flight between London to Abu Dhabi would cost approximately 89,000 Avion points. RBC frequently runs promotions on new card signups on their Avion portfolio, with a recent promotion offering 55,000 points on a sign-up alone. Taking advantage of offers like these and pooling points across RBC’s Avion and Ion+ cards can certainly give you a jump start in your journey to earning enough points to make a redemption like this.
On the other hand, Canadians have plenty of choices for earning Aeroplan points from products offered across American Express, TD and CIBC’s portfolio of co-branded cards. Head over to PMB’s Amex landing page for a full rundown of offers.
Despite some puzzling recent developments of Etihad availability on Aeroplan, booking Etihad First Class in recent years has been very much attainable. With a bit of luck and a lot of persistence – I’ve seen plenty of award space become available via one of the programs discussed above – and on many occasions, I have seen 2+ seats as well – which is where things get exciting for me! Here’s hoping Aeroplan fixes its issues so consumers can have two solid options to book this wonderful flying experience.