Let me start by saying I will go several hours out of my way to take Emirates flights (they are that good!), and my recent trip to Greece was no exception. Rather than take a longer direct flight from Seattle to somewhere in Europe and then connect on to Athens International Airport, I decided to break my trip up in the United States and fly from Seattle to Newark on United Airlines so that I could catch an Emirates fifth freedom flight. My route? Emirates first class from Newark to Athens.
What is a fifth freedom route? Airlines typically cannot fly a route that does not start or end in the country in which they are headquartered. The exception is called a fifth freedom flight, which is allowed when the route continues on to the airline’s country of origin (or started in the country of origin). For Emirates, which is based in UAE, there are two fifth freedom routes from the United States – from Newark Liberty International Airport to Athens (continuing on to Dubai International Airport), and from New York City (JFK) to Milan (continuing on to Dubai).
On my recent trip to Greece, I was so committed to flying Emirates first class that I nearly flew 5 hours out of my way from Athens to Dubai in the Middle East before catching the DXB to SEA flight on Emirates. In the end, I changed routing to go through London (which was a huge mistake, with everyone on the London to Seattle flight missing our connection due to a British Airways mistake, but…I digress).
Booking Emirates Flights
There is usually solid business class award availability on Emirates Airlines flights, but I consider award availability on the first class suites to be a unicorn. It is one of the best deals you can get, when you consider that a first class ticket in cash often costs $11,000 or more. Even at the upgrade price that I paid of 126,000 miles for my flight, that comes out to 8.7 cents per mile, which is an insane deal. Most airline programs are valued at less than 2 cents per mile.
In my experience, Emirates typically offers one seat in the first class cabin on each of the flights I have flown as award seats. That is how I originally planned my flight home from Greece – I got the one first class seat on miles from Dubai to Seattle (see my review of Emirates first class from Seattle to Dubai here). On this east coast flight, however, I never did see first class award availability, and I ended up being the only first class passenger…so they definitely did not open up any availability on this flight.
If you don’t see award space in first class, you can roll the dice and attempt to upgrade. This is how I got into the first class cabin from EWR to ATH and I was thrilled! I booked business class seats on the flight and then used the “automatic upgrade” feature on the Emirates website, which is available after booking.
If you have enough Skywards miles available in your account, you can opt to automatically upgrade to first class if availability opens up. I paid 87,000 Skywards miles for my one-way flight in business class, and the upgrade fee to first was 39,000 miles. That’s more than the one-way ticket would have cost in first class to book it directly, but that wasn’t an option. My husband has used this trick before and said it’s possible to call Emirates and ask them to cancel your ticket and rebook you in miles in first for the price of the first class ticket, which will get you a refund of the extra miles you paid. However, there’s always a chance that someone else could be searching and booking that ticket before your transaction goes through…so it really depends on how risky you’re willing to be.
If you opt not to do the auto-upgrade, you can also sometimes upgrade at check in, at the gate, and even as you’re boarding the flight. The upgrade prices vary widely, and you can sometimes get a great deal. My husband once upgraded from Emirates business class to first last minute for $1000, which was for sure the best way to upgrade a long-haul flight.
Emirates is one of several frequent flyer programs that is a transfer partner with major US credit card companies, so you can move points from Chase, American Express, HSBC, Citi, Capital One, and Brex in case you don’t have enough Skywards miles on your own. To earn miles for first class awards, you can fly cash fares or earn miles using the Emirates credit card from Barclays.
Lounge Experience at EWR
I had a few hours on the ground in Newark and planned to spend most of it in the lounge. I had been unable to get a boarding pass in Seattle for my Emirates flight in the Emirates app due to the passport check requirement and the Emirates counter being closed when I arrived (the counter is open 4 hours before a flight, and there weren’t any Emirates flights leaving Seattle for quite some time). That meant that I needed to visit a gate agent or customer service in Newark. A friendly agent was willing to help me but unable to do so until she retrieved some equipment from the gate next door, which was in the middle of boarding their flight. I ended up waiting around the gate for about 45 minutes to get my boarding pass, after which I was able to enter the lounge.
Emirates partners with SAS for lounge access in Newark. It was a fine, basic airport lounge, but nothing like Emirates’ own first class lounge in Dubai and other hubs. Those lounges are so nice you may want to miss your flight. This lounge was not that.
There was a large salad bar, soup, snacks, and a self-serve drink station with soft drinks, an espresso machine, juices, and water. In addition, there is a self-serve bar, offering Cupcake Cellars wine, Absolut vodka, Tanqueray gin, Johnny Walker red, and Jack Daniels, among other liquors. There are 2 beers on tap. Seating was a mix of communal tables, workspaces, and lounge chairs, with plentiful outlets for charging devices and several screens showing flight statuses. The lounge was crowded during my visit but not entirely full. The lounge was a 1 minute walk to my gate.
On Board Emirates Flight EK 210
I was the only first class passenger on this flight! As I boarded, I was met by a flight attendant who enthusiastically greeted me by name and enlisted a colleague to escort me to my seat. Boarding on this Emirates Boeing 777-300ER was done in the middle of business class. Turning left took me through one section of business class and up further to the first class seats. The purser and another flight attendant came to greet me as I got settled into seat 2A. Though I have flown Emirates first before when there was only one other person, this was the first time there were no other first class passengers with me. I had super prompt and attentive service throughout the 9 hour flight.
While on the ground, I was offered a glass of Veuve Clicquot, which I happily accepted. Emirates doesn’t serve Dom Perignon while on the ground in the US due to tax rules, but they promised to come around as soon as it was safe after take off to offer me the Dom.
In addition to the Veuve, I was offered Turkish coffee and dates. I turned it down because the Newark to Athens flight departs at just about midnight eastern time, and I wanted to sleep shortly after take-off. I did, however, take one of each of the flavors of dates – plain, candied orange, and almond-stuffed. These became a little treat for my husband, who adores dates.
Prior to take off, I was offered a hot towel to refresh my hands and face.
First Class Emirates Seats
Let’s talk about about the seats. This was one of Emirates’ older planes, and I was not that excited about being in business class on this flight because this is one of the planes where the business class lie-flat seats are not exactly flat – they are more angled-flat. So, I was super excited about getting that upgrade!
The first class experience on Emirates is superb, and this flight was no exception. The leather seats are wide and comfortable. The suite has a door that closes and enough room to buckle in your carry on without ever getting close to crowding you. The decor with wood grain, gold, and cream is over the top in all the right ways.
The plane I was on is showing its age a bit, and you could tell that even the first class seats, which are the least-used on the plane, were showing some wear and tear. Nothing major, but some scuffing and chipping of the leather around the corners, and some fraying threads. Later on in my flight, I couldn’t get my suite door to close, though it was not yet disabled for landing. It’s still an amazing experience, but this plane will need a refresh in the coming years.
Each seat comes with its own mini bar (not refrigerated, but I’m happy to report that the mini bars in your suite on the new Boeing 777s are refrigerated and omg…I can’t believe I haven’t written about that experience because it is without a doubt the best way to fly, period.) The mini bar has 2 bottles of still water, 2 bottles of sparkling water, a glass, and packaged snacks – mine had wasabi peas and white chocolate-covered dates.
In addition to your mini bar, you have a large, deep storage compartment that can keep a Kindle, phone, headphones, and much more in easy access during the flight.
Each seat has one power outlet and 2 additional USB ports.
In front of the seat is the entertainment console and desk/vanity area, with a lighted, mirrored compartment holding a facial toner, pillow mist, eye cream, a towelette, and sleep oil. The vanity also has a slide-out compartment holding a notebook and pen. All these items are for your use and you can take them with you after the flight.
Finally, first class passengers get a Bulgari amenity kit and pajamas for use on the plane. On this flight, my pajamas came in an Emirates-branded burlap bag, which I absolutely took with me and which made for a great beach bag during the rest of the trip.
The amenity kits contain a toothbrush and toothpaste, lip balm, Bulgari perfume or cologne, hand lotion, facial moisturizer, a pocket mirror, a facial cleansing wipe, deodorant, facial tissues, and a hair brush. The Emirates amenity kits are some of the best in the game, and I was sad that I ended up having to leave a bunch of the liquids behind when I left Athens due to carry-on restrictions. They really provide the good stuff on these flights!
Emirates EK 210 Newark to Athens First Class Service
In addition to having the best seats I have flown on a commercial airline (I still have some bucket-list experiences like Singapore Suites and La Premiere on Air France to try), Emirates provides consistently great service. My flight attendants were friendly, conscientious, and very willing to help with whatever I needed. A quick ring of my flight attendant button had someone at my seat, happy to make up the bed at the suite next to mine. When there are that many open seats on the flight, you can have a suite for dining and another for sleeping!
They checked on me several times during my meal to ensure that my drinks were refilled and that I didn’t need anything.
What was perhaps the nicest touch of the service came at the end of the flight, when my flight attendant swiftly, kindly, and adeptly escorted me to be the first off the plane. This required her to navigate me through the forward business class cabin as the business class passengers were entering the aisle and gathering their belongings. I appreciated this little touch, which saved me at least 5 minutes of waiting as the two sections of business class merged and exited the plane. A small thing, but a meaningful commitment to great service to end an amazing flight.
Food and Drinks
I’ve already covered the Dom Perignon, but what is an Emirates first class flight without caviar to pair it with? A wasted opportunity, I say! Naturally, I ordered the caviar as my starter course, and though I fully intended to try more than one main course during my flight, they served me so much caviar (at least two tins) that I was full after it!
Before my caviar was served, I was offered warm, mixed olives, which I happily accepted, and an amuse bouche of shrimp on a horseradish cream sauce and a feta cheese, pistachio, and melon salad with honey and mint. Both were delicious, but I preferred the shrimp because I don’t love melon.
Next up was an absolutely enormous portion of caviar, served with all the accompaniments and as much champagne as I could handle. I did my best, but there are limits to how much caviar even I can eat.
I intended to try so many more foods, but the bottom line is that I skipped straight to dessert – a warm chocolate fondant served with caramel sauce and whipped cashew cream. It too was decadent and delicious, but heavy. For drinks, I enjoyed the French white wine option. I researched the wines ahead of time and found that the French offerings – both red and white – were the highest rated and most expensive options. If you’re looking to maximize your value, I’d recommend the French options. The Sauterne, a dessert wine, is exceptional.
Unlike on the Airbus A 380s that Emirates also flies, the Boeing planes don’t have showers or an onboard bar, but they do keep a stash of snacks and drinks available for access during the flight, or flight attendants will bring you whatever you desire.
Sleeping on Long-Haul Flights
The Emirates seats are large, wide, and recline fully flat, which makes for excellent sleeping on overnight flights. I usually try to get on the local time during the flight if possible, but with this flight departing New Jersey at midnight, I knew I needed at least a few hours of sleep or else I would crash when I arrived in Athens. That said, the flight landed at 4 pm the next day, and I didn’t want to have slept so much that I wouldn’t be tired again a few hours after landing.
The flight attendants happily made up my bed for me, with a mattress pad, a blanket, and a large, comfortable pillow. They dimmed the lights and enabled one of my favorite features on the Emirates Boeing planes – a ceiling that looks like the starry night. It felt cozy, whimsical, and gave great ambience. I closed the suite door and slept for several hours before moving to my other suite across the aisle to watch TV shows for the remainder of the flight.
Flying from Seattle to Newark and then on to Athens on EK210 wasn’t the most convenient way to get to Athens, but it was a great way to enjoy one of the best premium flying experiences available. The older Boeing 777 is starting to show its age, but the service, lavish amenities, and food and beverage offerings put it head and shoulders above my other options for getting to Athens.
My only regret is the timing of this flight, which is both somewhat short (9 hours 10 minutes) and in the middle of the night US-time. Having been on the longer Dubai to Seattle routes in the past, I had some FOMO on this flight that I wouldn’t have time to enjoy all of the sleeping, eating, and watching opportunities on the flight. I had to sort of force myself to eat because of what time it was, but that did help me get on Athens time more easily.
Bottom line: if you have the chance to fly an Emirates fifth freedom flight from the US to Europe, run don’t walk!