There’s nothing quite as humbling as being crammed into the middle seat on a fully-booked flight between two complete strangers with whom you’re competing for the same armrests and limited leg room. And perhaps the worst part? On many of these flights, you’re forced to shell out a small fortune on a beverage just to take the edge off. But if you’ve ever spied on first class while boarding on your way to economy, you know that not all in-flight experiences are created equal.
In fact, not all upgraded seats are created equal: a first or business class ticket may provide anything from a free glass of Champagne upon boarding to unlimited caviar and Dom Pérignon mid-flight depending on the airline. So if you’re looking to unwind in style with your favorite tipple, consider flying on one of these airlines for the most luxe in-flight drinking available.
When it comes to drinking 30,000 feet in the air, no airline does it like Emirates. Serving 158 destinations in 85 countries, Emirates is synonymous with luxury for all travelers on board, but especially for those flying in first or business class cabins. While those in economy are granted unlimited alcoholic beverages, guests in premium cabins have access to the plane’s on-board cocktail bar and lounge. These bars, located at the back of the upper deck on the airline’s A380 planes, are equipped with a full beer, wine, and spirits selection that on-board bartenders can use to whip up drinks for thirsty flyers. The in-flight cocktail menu includes classics like the Kir Royale, the Cosmopolitan, the Manhattan, and the Bloody Mary, and the like.
For Emirates flyers, the party doesn’t stop at the cocktail bar. In August of last year, the airline announced a $2 billion overhaul of their in-flight dining experience, including the introduction of the Champagne and Caviar Experience, an unlimited caviar and Dom Pérignon Champagne pairing available for first class passengers. The amenity marks the first time an airline has exclusively partnered with a Champagne house for service onboard. The 14 passengers filling first class seats on every Emirates A380 flight also have access to personally stocked mini bars located in their cabin-suites. And after imbibing, these travelers can freshen up with complementary goodie bags including Byredo toiletries, noise-canceling headphones, and Bulgari amenity kits.
The only caveat? A first class ticket will run you just about $10,000, with business class tickets costing between $3,500 and $5,000.
Regardless of status, all passengers embarking on a journey on Qatar Airways will be welcomed with free beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. But while economy flyers are only granted with complimentary beverages during meal service and when the beverage cart passes, business and first class travelers are free to roam in the open bar behind the business cabin. And while most of the plane’s alcoholic selections are limited to red wine, white wine, beer, and some spirits, the menu is expanded for first and business classes with the addition of rosé, a fully stocked back-bar, and even Krug Champagne. Those in first class seats can also request classic cocktails, wine, and beer to be brought to their seats directly if they don’t want to belly up to the bar.
For those who don’t wish to imbibe while mid-flight, Qatar offers a number of premium non-alcoholic drinks that have received just as much (if not more) attention than their alcoholic selection. The menu offers a variety of coffee and teas, as well as mocktails, specialty Karak chai, and the airline’s beloved lemon mint juice. Predictably, flights on Qatar airways don’t come cheap, with long-haul first class tickets starting around $13,000 and business tickets sitting at a pretty $4,000 per round trip.
While Air France planes may not come tricked out with fully-stocked bars for passengers to pass the time, the airline does have the right to claim they are the only airline to greet every single passenger — economy to first class — with a glass of Champagne on international flights. “Champagne is […] a part of Air France’s DNA,” says Ghislaine Van Branteghem, the catering product manager for Air France’s long-haul operations. “As long as we can remember, Champagne has been a part of the economy class offer.” Even more democratic: economy passengers and those in premium cabins are provided with the same beverage lists. That said, those with more premium seats are able to request a cocktail during meal service rather than wine, and are able to receive a digestif post-meal if they so choose.
Being the national airline for one of the world’s top producing wine countries, it’s no surprise that Air France offers an expansive selection of excellent French wines. The airline’s sommelier, Paolo Basso, is highly-awarded and has earned the titles of Best Sommelier of Switzerland (1997), Best Sommelier in Europe (2010), and Best Sommelier in the World (2013). While the carrier rotates their wine and Champagne selections every two months, past offerings have included Champagne Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2007, Bordeaux Saint-Julien Château Léoville Poyferré 2014, and 2013 Louis Jadot Domaine des Heritiers Les Bressandes.
South African Airways
While South African Airways may be a smaller airline than rest on this list — their routes serve just 35 locations— the drinking experience afforded to those on SAA should not be overlooked. Around 40 years ago, the airline implemented a diligent process for determining exactly which South African wines would be featured on board for passengers to enjoy.
Each October, a competition is held in which wineries from across the country submit their bottles to be blind-tasted by a panel of eight to 12 judges, all of whom are professionals in the wine industry. Beyond receiving a numbered glass and general knowledge regarding the type of wine they are being served, the judges are given no information about the wine’s producer or where in the country the wine is made. After scoring each wine, the judges pass a narrowed-down list to the airline before a final selection is made. Of the hundreds of bottles received each year, just 24 reds, 24 whites, and a handful of sparkling wines are selected to be featured on SAA’s in-flight and airport lounge menus. Each wine is then allocated to be spotlighted on the menu for a set amount of time in each cabin class.
Though known as a low-cost domestic airline, South African Airways is committed to bringing the tastes of South African wine to the world. Kim Thipe, head of marketing for the airline, told Global Traveler USA that the wine program is “fundamental to [their] passengers’ flying experience,” and “is an important aspect of marketing product offerings to passengers worldwide.”
Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, is known for providing one of the most luxurious in-flight drinking experiences in the world. While all its flights don’t offer a fully-tended bar, those flying business or first class aboard Etihad planes are welcome to take up residence in “The Lobby,” a lounge room stocked with wine, beer, and Champagne for self-serving. Alcoholic beverages are granted to all economy passengers during meal service, and business class passengers are greeted shortly after boarding with a warm towel and a glass of Champagne. Just after take off, flight attendants will provide travelers with their drinks of choice from a menu including Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Chilean and French reds, Chivas Regal 18YO and many, many more.
Etihad goes above and beyond for their first class passengers, greeting them in their suites — a.k.a. 39 square-foot apartments — with snacks, Champagne, and coffee. Shortly after take-off, passengers are able to choose from a selection of cocktails to enjoy during their meals, which can be ordered à la carte any time they wish. If nothing from the main menu suits their fancy, Etihad first class flyers can make selections from their personal mini bars.
Every passenger aboard every Singapore Airlines flight is offered complimentary beer, wine, and spirits — even those sitting in economy class can choose from a selection of brandy, whiskey, vodka, gin, and rum. In fact, flight attendants are able to whip up a number of delicious cocktails including Singapore Slings, Bloody Marys and Screwdrivers for any passenger who asks. Those traveling in business class are provided with a more extensive wine list that includes red, white, and sparkling wines as well as an expanded selection of cocktails including the Manhattan and the Gin Fizz.
Singapore Airlines really shines in its offerings for first class passengers: it’s the only commercial airline to offer both Krug Grande Cuvée and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs for premium passengers. Last year, Singapore Airlines was awarded with five gold awards, four silver awards, and two bronze awards at the Business Traveller’s Cellars in the Sky Awards. It’s no wonder why: the airline goes as far as using a pressurized room during blind tastings to determine the effect cabin pressure may have on the taste of prospective in-flight beverages.
*Photo retrieved from Arno Senoner via Unsplash.com.