Emirates is a Dubai-based airline which is a major player in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Oceania while connecting Europe and the Americas to Asia and environs via their massive hub in Dubai.
We used Emirates as our long-haul carrier during our six-month family trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2010. The traveling party included two adults and two children aged four and nine, all with quite a lot of previous experience of flying, but with relatively little long-haul experience apart from a ThomasCook flight to Canada from the UK. This meant our comparison was mostly with European short-haul scheduled and budget airlines.
We flew from Glasgow to Brisbane via Dubai (with a refueling stop in Singapore), then from Sydney to Christchurch and then from Christchurch to Glasgow (with refuelling stops in Sydney and Bangkok and a change of planes in Dubai). Our longest individual flight was nine hours (Sydney to Bangkok), the longest journey took circa 30 hours (of which 27 were in the air).
We chose Emirates purely and simply on price: we were going for a long enough period to not too worry to much about other aspects: whatever horrors we undertook while getting there, they would have been long forgotten by the time we were due to come back.
The price was good, and possibly the best we could find. We flew out in June (which is, obviously, the low season in Australia) and we came back in September. The total cost of the initial flights, with all the stopovers, taxes and charges, for the family of four, was around 3,200 GBP. We rebooked our return flights and this cost us (using the terms of our cheapest fare class) 75 GBP per person, so the total cost was 3,500 GBP which is pretty good for a what was initially to be an six-leg journey. One of the advantages of buying with Emirates for families is that they don't technically have fuel surcharges, this is added to the ticket prices and thus any child discounts apply to that as much as to the main portion of the fare.
We booked our flights on-line as to do it over the phone would have been 200 GBP more expensive. The Emirates website is reasonably (though by no means fantastically) usable and the process was doable while you got the hang of it. You cannot, however, change your reservation online – you have to phone the Emirates call centre. I did it several times while we were researching the trip and prior to final rebooking of the return tickets and the staff members I spoke to every time were unfailingly polite, but they varied extremely as to their competence. Some didn't know what they were doing, literally, and gave me wrong price information; some knew the system and understood my needs better than I did. The call centre numbers I phoned every time were in English-speaking countries, but the people on the phone were not always native speakers – and occasionally it showed – though the most competent person I spoke to was a non-native speaker, so it's a question of training and experience rather than nationality.
All flights we took were on time, and there was no problems with check-in, seats or lost luggage. Emirates allow 30kg luggage in economy class, but as we didn't need anywhere near that much, it wasn't an issue for us. The cabin luggage (as to size and weight) restrictions didn't seem to be enforced very strictly and for somebody used to being told that you are allowed only one bag (and it has to fit in the basket) by Ryanair and the like, the amount of stuff people take on board Emirates seemed mind-boggling.
It's the on-board experience that matters most when flying long-haul, and assuming most reputable airlines are much of a muchness as far as safety and the like goes, the choice (if you are not going simply on price) should be made based on that.
And the Emirates experience is, to say fairly, mixed.
The planes were all large 777s, with the 3+4+3 set-up in the economy class. The seats were cloth covered, recliner, with an adjustable head rest. It was possible to raise the arm rest between the seats, and it didn't extend all the way to the seat surface (in some seats the arm rest is fixed, though). This feature is a good thing for people travelling together, but obviously a very bad thing if you end up seating next to an extremely fat person who "spills" into your seat. While on the subject, the width of the Emirates' seat in the B 777-300s, in the economy class is pretty appalling 17 inches – the lowest it goes among the airlines. By comparison, Singapore Airlines offer a 3+3+3 configuration in the same type of plane and the result is seats with as much as 19 inches of width. Bear in mind that 17 inches is not just uncomfortable for a big-bottomed travellers like yours truly. My husband who is pretty normal in bum-width department also found the seats cramped. The only saving grace is the arm-rest you can raise, but if you are a fat (or even normal sized) person travelling on your own, it's worth thinking about it. The seats in the side rows (by the wall) seemed a bit better.
The legroom was better, but not outstanding. Most women will find the legroom in the Emirates B 777-300s sufficient, and most men would probably feel they could do with more.
The recline of the seats is 105 degrees, which is also on a mean side (Qantas have even less, but their seats are bigger).
All in all, on the space available for an economy class traveler, Emirates are not great. It's sufficient – just about – for a flight of up to about 10 hours, but for the true long-haul you would want, if possible, more (unless you are short and thin).
In addition to all the above woes, the seats in Emirates 777-300s have no footrests, which is not a huge deal as you can make one of a bag or a pair of boots, but it's worth mentioning, especially for shorter people.
What was very good on our Emirates flights was the state-of-the-art entertainment system. Called ICE for information, communication, entertainment, it is totally user-controlled and offers touch-of-the button and individually customisable access to hundreds if not thousands of films,including hundred or so recent releases including some that were still in cinemas when we arrived, what seems like a whole back catalogue of Disney and a selection of Arabic, Chinese, Philippine and other Asian films too. European offerings were limited to two (!) French productions, but otherwise the choice was staggering. The music range was excellent to, from opera and jazz to play lists of iconic artists, UK number 1s for the last 50 years and much more. I believe there was also a massive selection of TV programmes and quite a few video games available. Nose and belly mounted cameras provided live view of the outside and the flight info was accurate and up to date too. All in all, excellent entertainment system and if you have teenagers or children to travel with for a very long time, a huge advantage. Incidentally, the printed entertainment was surprisingly bad, the in-flight mag way below standards of European airlines be it Ryanair or BA.
The food was good (as far as airline food goes), especially the adult dishes and especially the rice & pasta ones, but obviously it was still the air-plane food.
The cabin staff were polite and willing to help, although neither particularly friendly nor going out of their way to help. The ground staff we met were much better on this score.
Each child got a special pack (and on each leg of the flight, so we came back with a collection of cuddly-toy glove puppets from five continents and a selection of little backpacks and toiletries cases, Dr Seuss books and similar stuff). This, particularly the puppets, were actually rather good quality and made great gifts for lesser friends & relatives on return.
Would I fly with Emirates again? I would if the price was right, and especially if flying medium-haul (up to 10 hours' journey), going away for longer and travelling with children. For the very long haul flights (i.e. going UK-Australia or UK-New Zealand) I would seriously contemplate other options though, as the amount of space and recline of the seats (and the way passengers are packed ten in a row) makes for a bit claustrophobic journey.