Which is the better airline Emirates v Etihad?

One of our frequent flying questions we get living in the Middle East is “should we fly Emirates or Etihad?”.

There is no one right answer to this as it really depends what you want from your airline; what part of the plane will you be flying in? How important is earning airline points to you? Do you like to stop and get out of the airport? And of course the obvious factors such as onboard service, route connections and cost.

We are a frequent-flying family that has lived in the UAE nearly seven years and flown both airlines on numerous occasions in every cabin.

In this post we will take a detailed look at:

  • Who exactly are the two UAE airlines and where are they based
  • Know before you fly Emirates & Etihad
    • The fleets – aircraft used
    • Baggage Allowances
    • Seat size & preferred seating options
  • Economy Class comparison on board
    • Entertainment systems
    • Family services
    • Meals
  • Airline Networks & Airline Awards
  • Emirates Skywards v Etihad Guest Loyalty Programs
  • DXB v Abu Dhabi airports
  • Dubai v Emirates as stopover cities

This post is part of our flying with kids and airline review series


What is the difference between Emirates and Etihad?

In might be easier to discuss their similarities first and then put them on a map!

Both airlines are carriers belonging to the United Arab Emirates – a Muslim country located in the Arabian Gulf. Emirates was established in 1985 as the carrier for the Emirate of Dubai from DXB airport.

Etihad followed in 2003. It is ultimately owned by the Governement of Abu Dhabi and operates from Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH). The two cities are some 160kms apart.

Note there is no direct public transport connection between the two airports, nor do any flights operate between the two. You can learn more about how to get between Dubai and Abu Dhabi at ground level here.

Don’t know your Dubai from your Abu Dhabi, or even where to find them on a map? Don’t worry, you are not alone! There’s a detailed guide here explaining what exactly is Dubai and the UAE


Before you fly – Emirates v Etihad

Whilst on quality and brand reputation they may come across quite similar, Emirates is a far larger airline group than Etihad. Its fleet of 268 Airbus A380’s and Boeing 777 jets (as of March 2019) is roughly three times as big as Etihad’s.

Emirates currently serves over 140 destinations in destinations in 85 countries, making it one of the best connected airlines in the world. You Can explore their full route map here.

Etihad serves 74 destinations (at their peak they served over 110), using a variety of aircraft including A380’s, Boeing 777, Boeing 787, and a range of A340, A330 and A320 aircraft. You can check excatly which aircraft serves which route on SeatGuru.

In our review today we are going to focus on Economy Class offerings for both airlines.

Baggage Allowances – Emirates v Etihad

Emirates did a big shake-up on their baggage allowances in February 2019 (if you booked your ticket prior to the change please check direct with Emirates as different rules will apply). As of the time of publishing, this is the two airlines side by side in the baggage stakes:

These are frequently changing, so please check with the indiviudal airlines, this is correct as at March 2019

Emirates Baggage Policy

  • Economy Special 15kg
  • Economy Saver 25kg
  • Economy Flex 30kg
  • Economy Flex plus 35kg
  • Business Class 40kg
  • First Class 50kg

See Emirates Baggage Rules

Emirates also runs a piece concept on some routes.

Etihad Baggage Policy*

  • Economy Deal 23kg
  • Economy Saver 30kg
  • Economy Flex 35kg
  • Business Class 40kg
  • First Class 50kg

See Etihad Baggage Rules

*Several exceptions apply where the piece concept is applied and different weight limits. Some Economy Deal tickets have no checked luggage.

There’s really not much separating them when it comes to baggage. Both are incredibly generous with their standard Economy Class fares. Both have fairly recently introduced cheaper ticket categories with reduced weight allowances encouraging carry-on only.

Addtional Infant Baggage Allowances

Emirates Infant Policy

  • Infants US routes 23kg Bag
  • Infants all other routes +10kg

One carry-cot or one fully collapsible stroller as carry-on if cabin space is available, or check them at no extra cost

Etihad Infant Policy

  • Infants US routes 23kg Bag
  • Infants all other routes +10kg

Guests up to 11 years may check in one stroller, pushchair, carrycot or car seat per child.

Both airlines from our experience have been very generous at allowing more than one item per child. We have flown with multiple car seats and strollers and not been turned away or asked to pay extra.

We have much more on kiddy services and dealing with infants on board below.


Emirates v Etihad: Economy Seats

This all depends on which exact aircraft you have, but I am sure you’ll agree every inch matters when you’re travelling long haul (and let’s be frank, nothing about flying economy is really comfortable, just tolerable).

Emirates economy seats measure in with a seat pitch of 32″ to 34″ and width of 17″ – 18″, whilst Etihad vary from 31.5″ to 33″ and 31″ pitch on the A380 and a width of 17.5″ (though they are currently upgrading the number of extra space seats on their A380 fleet which will give a whopping 36″ pitch).

It’s too close to call on their standard economy seats as there are so many variables by aircraft. We do love the flexible headrest and U-shaped pillows on Etihad though, I think this gives their economy seating the edge.

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When looking at flight timing, also look at the aircraft that serves that slot as this can make a bit of difference to you comfort.

Inside an Emirates A380.
Interior of an A380 Emirates cabin

Paying for preferred seats

Both airlines have now brought in preferred seating fees that most passengers on economy tickets will need to pay to guarantee the seat of their choice. After years of not charging for this service, it was inevitably going to happen….

Emirates has quite a complex tiered structure for paid seat selection that apply to preferred seats, twin seats and extra legroom seats. As you move up the airline’s loyalty program these fees are removed. Seat selection opens up to all 48 hours before the flight.

On Etihad, since July 2018, if you are travelling on an Economy Deal, Saver or Classic fare, you can reserve your seat in advance for a fee. Otherwise, seating opens up to all passengers 24 hours beforehand. You can also upgrade for a larger fee to an “economy space” seat which will get you those extra few inches in seat pitch.

Both airlines have a good reputation for seating family groups together, though the only way to guarantee this now is with preferred seating.


What to expect on board Emirates & Etihad

Both airlines have relatively new fleets, so expect in most cases you will have a good quality aircraft, and you SHOULD be getting top of their class service crews but we all know this can be a huge variable with any given crew on any given day.

Emirates and Etihad both rank in the top 10 airlines for safety according to JACDEC.

Service on board Emirates & Etihad

I’ll be honest. I most often fly internationally with 3 kids on my own; nothing can really make that less painful! It’s gotten easier over the years as they have grown, but I can think of very few occasions where a member of staff has actually made a massive difference to my flying experience.

What has helped is my own confidence in flying and loyalty. Repeated routine helps all of us as we’re familiar with the airports and procedures. You can read more of our flying with kids tips here.

Emirates A380 flight to Perth
Nothing really makes 11 hours on board an aircraft with 3 kids alone much more bearable but both Emirates & Etihad try.

Loyalty matters

The only real difference has come through holding an Etihad Gold Card. I’ve been able to skip queues lining up in business class while flying economy and when possible, they allocate an extra seat next to you. On several occasions flying with a lap baby + 2 kids, I was able to get a spare seat enabling me to have a whole row of 4 with the 3 kids. Those perks make a massive difference to the solo flying experiences but I’m well aware they come from airline status, not standard passenger service.

Amentity kits for comfort

Both airlines include personal amenity kits for long-haul flights including toothbrush, eyeshade, socks and ear plugs. You will also be offered a blanket, pillows and headphones on boarding for your comfort. Etihad’s pillows wrap around your neck and have that little extra comfort factor!

On board Entertainment

Both offer excellent onboard entertainment systems, but Emirates ICE systems (Information Communication Entertainment) is just unsurpassable. Over 4000 channels can be found and you can even sync your playlist ready before you fly with the Emirates app!

The seat back screen’s in both Emirates’ A380 and 777 aircraft come in at an industry-leading 13.3″ in Economy.

Comparatively, Etihad advertises on their E-box system over 350 TV Shows and 180 movies, 16 radio stations and 60 games. It’s a decent selection but obviously not a fraction of the Emirates catalogue. Take more than a couple of long-hauls in a month and the menu starts to look sparse. Screen size varies between aircraft, expect around 11″.

A huge frustration we have found with E-box is that it does not start until well after you are in the air and is turned off what feels like an exceptionally long time before you land. You may want a smartphone / tablet / book up your sleeve for entertainment too.

Irconically, given our assessment, Etihad actually one the Best In Flight Entertainment World Travel Awards 2018 (and has done so for 14 years).

Kids Entertainment

Each airline gives out kids entertainment packs on long haul flights. Recently Etihad has made attempts to refresh their range of “Explorer” packs but they’re really not a touch on the Emirates Fly with Me animals and activity packs.

Child playing wtih toys on Emirates Flight

Emirates Fly with Me animals convert into colourful kids blankets (that my kids still take with them everywhere!) and special kids headphones are also issued. The ICE System includes 50 classic Disney movies and over 90 dedicated kids channels.

E-box has a dedicated kids section too but it is much more limited and not always intuitive for kids to use independently. It does come with parental controls if there are shows or games you’d rather they not watch.

The Etihad Flying Nanny

Now you may have heard of the mysterious Etihad Nanny. The existence of the orange-aproned lady on every flight we’ve taken can be confirmed. However, after 20+ flights, I can tell you of only one instance where in the last hour of the flight the Nanny attempted to “entertain” my children for me.

You can read my full thoughts on the Etihad Nanny here. I will sum it up in one word for you though; gimmick.

That one time Miss Z got something special when she told staff it was her half birthday

A note on kids leg pillows

This is a big differentiator that has recently developed that concerns some families. Emirates categorically will not allow the likes of Bed Box or flying pillows to extend children’s seats to make a bed.

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Etihad, on the other hand, is still allowing them – or at least no where do they explicitly ban their use. We have used the Bed Box several times on Etihad, and one of our readers also tested the Kooshy Kids Kooshion without issue.

We have a full comparison of which airlines allow these products to be used, as well as plane sleeping tips for kids here.

Kooshy Kids Kooshion in use on Etihad
Child using the Kooshy Kids Kooshion in Etihad Business Class

Baby Bassinets

Both airlines offer baby bassinets that attach in the bulkhead row of economy cabins. These seats need to be requested in advance but cannot be guaranteed. They are free to reserve without needing to pay for a preferred seat (see our seating section above).

  • The Emirates bassinet is 75 x 33 x 22cm (29.5 x 13 x 8.8 inches) and can hold babies weighing up to 11kg (24.2lbs).
  • The Etihad Bassinets are suitable for babies weighing up to 11kgs but no size dimensions are given.

Parents are given priority for the bulkhead seats when they share a PNR (Booking reference) with an infant.

You can learn more about how baby bassinets work on airlines here.


Emirates v Etihad: Meals

Economy class, what can you say? A plane meal is a plane meal. Perhaps better than many airlines, I can’t recall having any real shockers but they will definitely keep you satisfied.

Both airlines give you the option to order kids meals at least 24 hours in advance. You can also order a huge range of special diet meals on both airlines as well, from gluten-free to low sodium, you name it!

The frequency and timing of meals varies completely by route.

What to expect from a snack for kids on board Etihad

Both airlines offer alcoholic drink service trolleys too. It seems to entirely depend on the route and the crew on the day how efficiently these trolley services come around. Certainly, on the ultra long-hauls, we’ve never had issues getting water or juice when we need, though you may need to go to the galley to get it. You will be served in those tiny plastic cups, so best take your own water bottle on board when possible after security (this can’t be done for Australian bound flights with strict liquid rules).


Emirates & Etihad Airline Networks

Both airlines have stayed independent of the “big 3” airline alliances – Star Alliance, One World & Sky Team. They do have individual airline partnerships and codeshare arrangements, however, as follows:

Emirates Airline Partners

  • Air Mauritius
  • Alaska Airlines
  • EasyJet
  • GOL Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes
  • Japan Airlines
  • JetBlue
  • JetStar
  • Korean Air
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qantas
  • S7 Airlines
  • South African Airways
  • TAP Portugal

Etihad Airline Partners

  • Air New Zealand
  • Air Serbia
  • Air Europa
  • Air Seychelles
  • Alitalia
  • All Air Nippon
  • American Airlines
  • Asiana Airlines
  • Bangkok Airways
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Czech Airlines
  • GOL Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes
  • Guaruda Indonesia
  • Hainan Airlines
  • Jet Airways
  • Korean Air
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Oman AIr
  • Philippine Airlines
  • Royal Air Maroc
  • Scandinavian
  • SriLankan Airlines
  • Virgin Australia

If you are frequently flying with any of these network airlines and have an interest in collecting points, then these may make a difference to your decision.

Emirates A380 in flight

Awards & Industry Accolades

Now remember for all we are looking at the nitty gritty, on the worldwide scales, these two airlines are considered excellent on the world scale. In the last 12 months, here are just some of the awards we’ve identified:

Emirates Awards

  • Best Airline Worldwide, Airline with the Best Business Class, Best First Class Airport Lounge in the Middle East and Airline with the Best Cabin Crew – Business Traveller Middle East Awards 2018
  • Airline of the Year – 2018 Air Transport Awards
  • Favourite Middle East Airline Premium Cabin – Conde Nast Middle East Reader’s Choice Awards

Etihad Awards

  • World’s leading airlines First Class -World Travel Awards (along with a slew of other First Class mentions)
  • World’s leading airline in flight entertainment – Skytrax World Airline Awards

Frequent Flyer Programs

Customer loyalty is important to these airlines. Both offer their entry level frequent flyer programs for free, but we believe it is easier to accumulate rewards with Etihad due to their generous family and friends policies. Here’s an overview of what to expect with both airlines:

Emirates Skywards

Emirates Skywards allows you to earn miles on both Emirates and FlyDubai. Entry level blue is for new joiners, then move up the tiers to Silver, Gold & Platinum through miles flown and tier miles. Silver membership onwards gets you priority check-in, extra baggage and lounge access perks.

Children can be joined up to their Skywards Skysurfers from 2 years old, and family members can now be connected under one account. Any old miles they had previously earned on their individual accounts can be transferred to your family account at cost.

Etihad Guest

Very similar on the surface; Entry level is Etihad Guest, then move to Silver Gold & Platinum through tier miles and tier segments. Silver membership onwards gets you priority check-in, extra baggage and lounge access perks.

Etihad Guest has long run a points pooling system where each family member has their own Guest account but these can be pooled to accumulate points faster. The points can then be used to book anyone’s ticket. Family members do not need to be living together.

Inside Etihad First Class Cabin | OurGlobetrotters Family Airline review of Etihad
Enjoying a double upgrade to first class thanks to being an Etihad Guest Gold member on an overbooked flight

Flight routes and costing difference

Let’s be honest, at the end of the day it comes down to whether the route and the fare fit, right? 

We have been loyal Etihad flyers for years, both Hubby and I sitting on Gold status, but purely from the personal view of an expat family living in the UAE, Emirates is coming up trumps for us every time of late both in terms of pricing of flights and available routes.

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Since Etihad went through a large financial and organisational restructure they have significantly cut routes. We can no longer fly direct to our “home” airport, and even taking multi-city stopovers, they are coming out vastly more expensive with a lack of flexibility. Mr Globetroter is equally finding he cannot make all the connections he needs on his work tickets to make round trips so it has become increasingly difficult to remain loyal. Sorry Etihad.

Price difference between Emirates & Etihad

So how do they stack up in the all-important price comparison test? Plug your dates in here and give them a try:

(Note if you use the code XNB you get Etihad flights that originate from Dubai using a coach connection. Or use ZVJ to see Emirates flights that coach connect from Abu Dhabi – sneaky I know, you’re welcome!)


DXB v AUH Airport Terminals

Dubai has the far bigger terminal with more facilities, restaurants, entertainment and sleeping options. Until the new Abu Dhabi International Airport opens (currently queued for Q4 2019 but this is a creeping deadline) there is really no comparison between the two.

Abu Dhabi is easier to navigate as it’s smaller. Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 where most flights leave from are about a 10-minute walk apart. A large proportion of flights out of AUH leave from the tarmac, not via jet bridges so you need to factor this in when moving between flights.

Waiting to board Etihad flight from AUH

Dubai Airport has a transit service between terminals, again leave plenty of time between flights if you have connections due to the size of the airport. It does mean if you have a layover you shouldn’t get bored for a few hours – check out our extensive list of DXB layover ideas here.

Both airports offer complimentary strollers for families to use, though we have had difficulty locating these strollers at both airports when we’ve really needed them so don’t take these as a given. If you have a longer layover I would play it safe and bring your own compact stroller on board.

Sleeping at the airport DXB v AUH

Another one that you really have to hand to Emirates and DXB over Etihad and AUH if you want comfort and convenience.

AUH – Abu Dhabi International Airport has Aerotel Sleep Pods in Terminal 3, and Aerotel Hotel Rooms in Terminal 1 if you want to stay airside. Immediately adjacent to the airport is a Premier Inn. Otherwise, your choices are to drive to several hotels about 10 minutes away, all of which involve clearing customs and passport control and checking back in.

DXB – Dubai International Airport meanwhile has Dubai International Hotel airside, a good quality 5 star offering without leaving the Terminal. You can also use SnoozeCubes in Terminal 1 or Sleep n’Fly at Terminal 3.

There are several hotels within a few minutes drive of DXB that run free shuttles to and from the hotel (that involve passing customs and passport control).


Getting out of the airport

Distance to city & city sightseeing options

Both airports have good access back to their city centres.  Dubai by its size is the larger and more challenging city to navigate if you are in a hurry but also has the Metro public transport system which aids visitors being able to self navigate out of the airport at minimal cost.

We have a full guide on what to see and do outside of Dubai Airport here.

It is comparatively quite straight forward to get a taxi to Abu Dhabi’s most famous site the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in about 15 minutes, or all the way to the Corniche beachfront in under 40 minutes and under $40USD.

Dubai overall is a city more built for tourism. Abu Dhabi has less tourist attractions per se, but is arguably the more elegant and pretty city. Cost-wise for meals, hotels, entertainment for tourists, they are much the same.

Either city makes a fabulous short stop over destination and we would highly encourage you to get out at both to explore.

Related Reading: Our complete guide on where to stay and best hotels in Abu Dhabi


If all things were 100% equal, in terms of route & cost and you are flying Economy, I would give a tiny edge to Emirates. But as we know there are all the other variables we’ve mentioned here to consider.


Further reading and reviews on Emirates & Etihad

We have taken a much more in depth look at each of the airlines, as well as what is in offer in each of the cities as a stopover destiantion in these detailed blog posts:

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Etihad plane and Emirates interior, asking which airline would you choose

Have you flown with both Emirates & Etihad? Do you have a preference or anything about either service that really stood out? 


Disclosures: This post is in no way sponsored by either of the airlines mentioned. We are, however, an affiliate for both of the airlines. Should you make a booking with either of these airlines after clicking on one of our links we may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. Our full disclosures and terms of use can be found here.

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2 Comments

  • I have read several customer reviews for both airlines…Emirates verses Etihad, on travelocity,TripAdvisor & others, and the comments regarding their experience on board the Etihad flights were terrible. Comments came up several time regarding that the staff were very rude & disgruntled . The food had no flavor & was only a meager helping like a kids portion. If you had a seat anywhere the toilets the stench was sickening The overseas flights have been paired down with less comfortable seating, tighter seating, cutting back on beverages & all the rest.
    We have booked a vacation to Oman. Dubai & Abu Dhabi in Jan. The fights from New York City are with Etihad, which I’m very concerned about flying with this Airlines verses on Emirates.
    I would appreciate any comments you have with my situation, as I’m ready to cancel the trip.

    • I would not be concerned enough to change my trip based on peoples online reviews. I have had literally dozens of flights on Etihad, and whilst they may not have bent over backwards for me travelling alone with my kids, I have never experienced the extremes you mention. They are still a quality airline and whilst they have cut back in costs in some areas, I still believe they offer a good long haul experience. A lot can simply come down to the crew on any given day.

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