As soon as I sat down in the business class cabin on Air New Zealand's direct flight from Auckland to Chicago I was offered a glass of champagne.
This treatment is not something I was used to, having only ever travelled in economy until that point. And it continued well into the flight, with regular offers of drinks and snacks. The service was better than in some fancy restaurants and I barely needed to think about wanting another drink before cabin manager David appeared with one in his hand.
Air NZ resumed direct flights between Auckland Airport and Chicago's O'Hare in late 2022 after the route was first launched in 2018 but halted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The flight is 15-ish hours on the way to the US and about 16 hours on the way back.
The airline flies it three times per week, departing each Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
I was onboard NZ26 to Chicago earlier this month in business class, then NZ27 for the ORD-AKL return flight a week later in premium economy. Here are my thoughts on how the different services compared to each other and economy.
Firstly, there is the price difference to consider and while this varies there is obviously a significant difference between the classes.
Standard economy fares on the route start from $840, premium economy from $2697, and business class starts from $6402. These can go up or down depending on the day and the direction of the flight - or if there's a sale on - but those rates should give a fair idea.
Now for the fun stuff!
Access to the Koru lounge is complimentary for business class customers and it's a spacious and comfortable place to relax before your flight. There is a wide variety of seating options and plenty of drinks and food on hand, with meals ranging from pulled pork and chicken to salads and cheese and crackers.
I tend to get to the airport as early as possible which normally means hours of tedious waiting on uncomfortable airport seats. In Koru I barely noticed the time passing - it flew by as I sipped a wine and read my book.
Boarding for both business class and premium economy was a walk in the park. With business class we went straight from the lounge and onto the plane where I was immediately offered a glass of bubbles.
Premium economy took slightly longer, just as we waited for the business class passengers to board. While we weren't immediately offered a drink in premium economy, it came shortly after taking off.
The business class seat on the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner features a lie flat bed which was in a seated position when I boarded. I am fairly average height and had plenty of room to stretch my legs out to the ottoman in front of me.
The onboard entertainment screen unit is fixed on a mount that can be easily moved around for optimal viewing, unlike those fixed in the seat in front of you in economy.
When you're ready for bed, the flight attendants come and make it up for you, which involves putting the seat into a flat position and getting a mattress and bedding all laid out nicely.
I am lucky enough to basically be able to sleep in any situation, but I am a terrible flier. Normally on flights I relate the most to screaming babies. For me, air travel normally involves feeling horrendously motion sick and miserable for long stretches of time.
But lying down in the business class bed with leg room to spare and tucked in between the walls separating me from my neighbours, I dozed off almost immediately. While I don't have particularly long legs, a taller fellow next to me did and was able to stretch out with his feet only slightly falling over the edge of the mattress. Even that isn't really an issue as all seats in the cabin are arranged so your feet point toward the aisle.
My trip back in premium economy was in a large lounger chair. After being so spoiled with the bed in business, I was worried sleep would be difficult; but the seat was spacious, had a footrest and reclined a decent amount.
I did find it slightly harder to get to sleep in premium economy, but once I did I was out like a light and slept well. It was so comfy in fact I kept falling back asleep when I was trying to wake myself up for breakfast.
The game changer in premium economy was the headrest which could be adjusted to serve as a neck pillow. Once I had that sorted, I was much more comfortable.
You're provided one pillow in premium economy, compared with two in business, but given I couldn't lie down I didn't end up using it much. The couple in front of me used theirs to lean against each other which was a genius solution. I didn't know the lovely gentleman next to me well enough to give it a go but the headrest did just fine.
The business class amenities pack included a harakeke seed oil and manuka honey hand and body cream as well as a kawkawa balm by New Zealand company Aotea. The kawakwa balm specifically was a lifesaver not only during the flight but also when I was in Chicago, helping heal my chapped lips. I held onto it after the flight and am still using it, and am already planning to buy some more when it runs out.
The packs also included a bamboo toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, a pen, ear plugs and some striped socks.
Premium economy came with all the same things apart from the kawakawa balm. The earplugs also weren't quite as good but they did the job.
Over-the-ear headphones were provided in both classes.
Free Wi-Fi was also thankfully available for everyone on the flight which meant I could catch up on some work and mindlessly scroll TikTok for several hours before I went to sleep - just like at home.
This was the absolute highlight of the flight for me. It really is a great touch in business class to be welcomed with a glass of Laurent Perrier.
All the flight attendants were incredibly attentive, but not in an always hovering, overbearing way. They seemed to have a knack for appearing right as I was thinking I needed something and, even after 10 hours in the air, were always like a breath of fresh air.
The business class service was better than most cafes or restaurants and made parts of the trip feel more like a fine dining experience than a flight.
In premium economy, I found the flight attendants were just as lovely and available as in business.
Food and drink
Airplane food is not known for being amazing so I wasn't expecting much from the meals onboard. But the business class meals were nothing like airplane food and I would have been happy being served them at a restaurant.
When I boarded I was given a small bowl of nuts with my wine. This was followed by a salmon tartare with tomato, cucumber and dill.
Then came some garlic bread, prosciutto and a few other small bites. For dinner, I had a chicken and quinoa salad with pumpkin, spinach and edamame beans which was the perfect combination of refreshing and filling. I had cheesecake for dessert followed by more wine and a cup of chamomile tea.
Breakfast included a bowl of fresh fruits and a selection of bakery items - I chose a croissant. Then I had a bacon breakfast sandwich and some juice.
But the real highlight of my breakfast was real espresso coffee. Airplane coffee is my greatest nemesis, but I had resigned myself to drinking it out of necessity. Thankfully David seemed to sense my horror at the idea of plunger coffee and informed me I could in fact have a proper espresso if I wanted. He then proceeded to happily bring me two more before we landed.
The food in premium economy was also surprisingly good, although I was more aware I was eating on an airplane.
The starters there included prosciutto, cheese, crackers and a selection of bakery items. There was a pork, chicken and fish dinner option on my flight but unfortunately only the cod was left when I ordered. The flight attendant offered to wait and see if there was anything left over from business class but I decided to try the cod. While I would have never chosen it, it was nice, and the cheesecake for dessert was divine.
Breakfast also included a bowl of fresh fruit and bakery items in premium economy. I chose a croissant, and scrambled eggs with bacon for my main meal which was very nice.
As well as the free Wi-Fi, there were several movies, TV shows and games available, as well as music. Between being fed, sleeping and checking out the movie options, I found I wasn't actually bored once - which is a small miracle for me given I normally struggle to sit still during movies, let alone 16 hours.
I did use my flight to Chicago to finally watch Succession and along with reading Stephen King's new book I was well and truly entertained.
On the way back I watched Guy Ritchie's The Covenant and then fell asleep less than five minutes into the next film.
As previously mentioned, I am not a good flier and the idea of a 16 hour flight filled me with dread. I was expecting the flights to be a mental exercise in grinning and bearing it, honestly prepared for them to put a dampener on the whole trip.
But in both premium economy and business class it was far from it. Earlier in the year I flew from Auckland to Rarotonga in economy and that flight honestly felt longer than this one. Business felt like an extended dining experience with a nap in the middle, while premium economy was comfortable enough that I was basically either eating or sleeping.
Overall I was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable both were but the real surprise was premium economy. Business Premier is obviously luxurious, but its asking price is well out of my budget and I am extremely unlikely to book it for my next holiday.
But premium economy, while still pricier than economy, is much more realistic and made a world of difference in the comfort and enjoyment of my flight. I will be seriously considering it for my next holiday.
Newshub travelled to Chicago courtesy of Air New Zealand and was hosted in Chicago by Air New Zealand and Choose Chicago.