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Business Class vs First Class: What’s the Difference?

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First class gets there faster. Kidding. Everyone lands simultaneously, no matter where you sit–in front of the one-percenters or the back next to the lavatories. So maybe it just feels as if business class vs first class arrives sooner. The fast answer is that the difference lies in where you sit on the plane and the amenities.

But those differences are important, and we can make other more subtle comparisons. We will also examine why and when you should opt for one class over the other. Another obvious difference between business class and first class is the price you’ll pay for the ticket.

You should check Skyscanner for airfares and compare which airlines have the best rates. Then, when you find the best flight, protect it with travel insurance like the policies you’ll find at World Nomads.

What is First Class?

First-class cabin interior on Delta Air Lines with blue leather seats and the airline's logo visible, reflecting the upscale ambiance on a domestic flight.
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

First-class passengers pay for and enjoy a luxury class of service as they fly. The first-class section of the plane has less seating and is more comfortable. Some airplanes have private suites for their first-class passengers and showers available.

Passengers also get more attention from dedicated flight attendants. First-class passengers get to board before other passengers, and they get to deplane first. Before other passengers board, first-class flight attendants have already taken drink orders.

That’s how first-class passengers drink champagne and other refreshing beverages while the other classes shuffle down the aisle toward the plane’s rear end and avoid eye contact.

I much prefer being the champagne sipper and eye contact avoider, but mostly, I’m a shuffler, smug in my knowledge that everyone lands simultaneously, and I didn’t pay as much for my seat.

So, there. But back to the paradise that is first class. First-class passengers have way more legroom and can recline without infringing on the personal space of those behind them. The number of first-class seats is a fraction of what’s in economy class. If a plane’s economy class passengers have to sit in rows of ten, the first-class passengers are probably sitting in rows of four.

It’s quiet and peaceful. Rolls Royce vs. Chevy Spark. A flying buttery-leathered, burled wood oasis with fine wines and cheeses, and a flight attendant who speaks softly, smiles, and brushes your hair (I made that last part up, but they are very nice).

International first class passengers may have access to private limo service to and from the airport, an escort through customs and immigration, and a private lounge for waiting. And in that private lounge, no one calls your name unintelligibly into a microphone. Someone comes to your private lounge seat and whispers your flight is ready to board.

On long-haul international flights in first class, you’ll receive a nice hot meal service with linen napkins, china plates, silverware, and little tiny salt and pepper shakers. Some international carriers are known for their delicious inflight food prepared by chefs. These are also the flights where first class passengers have a private suite with showers and lie-flat seats.

What is Business Class?

Luxury bar inside Emirates A380 with elegant decor and premium drinks.
Heorshe – stock.adobe.com

Between premium economy class passengers and first-class passengers are the business class seats. You also get upgraded flight service amenities, seating, and service level here. There’s a reason why upgrades are available for economy-class passengers.

The economy class can be crowded, loud, and sometimes downright unpleasant. Still, it’s affordable and often the only way to fly to your destination. So, why splurge a thousand or more dollars on a seat in the front? On international flights, business class may be the only upgradeable option.

Some carriers are phasing out first class. But on those long hauls, you may find an upgrade to business class will only cost you points you may have earned with your daily credit card use.

It’s well worth looking into if you know you’ll be sitting on a plane for longer than five or six hours, especially if you’re a taller, larger person. The business class will make it more special if you’re on your honeymoon or celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary.

Or if you’re presenting at an international meeting or need to be your well-rested best instead of bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, then the business class is a lifesaver.

On the flip side, if you’re perfectly capable of finding comfort in the economy class and packing your snacks, and if it doesn’t matter how you feel when you land, save your money and settle back in…the back. After all, any turbulence you feel in economy class, they’ll feel in business class.

And you may know you’ll be jet-lagged no matter where you sit. But if you’re looking for a bit extra in food service and comfort in wider seats, consider what business class offers. On international flights, some of those seats are lie-flat, too.

Business-class passengers get to board before economy-class passengers. On international flights, there’s a nice lounge to wait in. Once onboard, you’ll be offered a plush blanket, pillow, and toiletries bag. You’ll also get beverage service before economy class passengers get to board.

En route, you’ll enjoy a delicious hot meal and extra entertainment options. Best of all, your bags will be handled before the economy class ticket bags.

How Are They Different?

KLM Business Class Review
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

So far, both classes seem to offer the same upgraded levels of amenities and comfort. But what’s the real difference between first and business class?

Depending on the airline and the route, first-class tickets can be as much as double the cost of business-class tickets. This is important because you can often get many of the same amenities sitting with the folk in business class without paying first-class passengers’ prices. Do you need to shower in the middle of your flight?

But another difference you may see is in your treatment before you board. First-class passengers, especially non-U.S. carriers, are treated like royalty. First-class ticket holders often receive the highest levels of customer service, including concierge service, personal assistance, and valet parking. The Air France La Premiere Lounge in Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport has a fine dining restaurant with a menu curated by Chef Alain Ducasse.

It also offers La Premiere Sisley Beauty Institute for spa and body treatments. In the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, first class ticket holders enjoy using beds and showers. The First Class Terminal also features fine dining with dishes prepared by Michelin-starred chefs, a bar with 130 varieties of whisky, and office space.

When your plane is ready for boarding, you’ll be driven over in a Mercedes or a Porsche. Meanwhile, the business class Joes get a nice, quiet lounge with some eats, usually buffet style, bar, and wi-fi.

What about business class vs. first class seats? Again, it depends on the plane and the route. Check the airline webpage for the configuration of each cabin. Most flights offer business class, but not all have first class. If they do, it’s international first class with very few seats in inventory (read: very exclusive).

See which seats lie flat, how close together they are, and if they are contained in little suites. In first class, seats are often angled for privacy. The amenity kits with pajamas and slippers are more luxurious for international first-class flights than for business class.

The biggest difference between business class and first class is in the food and drink service. Business-class food is good, but first-class passengers often get dining prepared by or selected by famous chefs. Wines are carefully paired with each course. You all, it’s fancy. Some business class cabins do offer flyers and an onboard cocktail lounge.

How Are They Similar?

Many things are the same whether you have a first class or business class seat. Both lounges will offer bar services, wi-fi, and office equipment with desks.

Both business class and first class seats are wider and offer more legroom than in economy or premium economy. The cabins have fewer seats and offer more privacy. The seats have more room for reclining, and some are lie-flat style.

Both business class and first class ticket flyers receive amenities for long-haul international routes. For either class ticket, your food is a huge upgrade over the economy, and you’re served on fine china with crystal. You’re also offered wine and cocktails. Both business class and first class will have dedicated check-in. And both are way more expensive than the economy class.

How is a First Class Seat Better?

You’ll find having a first-class seat for international travel a five-star, luxury experience that starts at your door and doesn’t end until you’re at the door in your destination. Your first-class flight ticket is all-inclusive. Everything is included for first-class flyers, even bags, so there are no fees for choosing seats, food and beverage packages, in-flight entertainment, carry-on bags, checking bags, breathing air, etc., like for some airlines.

You buy first-class seats, and you get everything–free checked bags, too. Flying first-class means getting a fine dining experience before and during your flight with excellent wines and a curated whisky selection. In the first-class cabin, expect a full meal service. First-class lounges may provide spa treatments, showers, and private rooms for sleep and work. You’re welcome to bring guests and your pet with you.

Flying first class also gets you pre-boarding first class service, including valet parking with curb-side bag service, a concierge to check you in, and a personal assistant. You’ll be whisked through security. There are no lines to wait in, except maybe at the caviar bar in the first-class lounges. You’ll receive priority boarding and be served your cocktail and blanket before anyone else begins boarding.

Your first-class flight seat will be the widest with the most legroom in the entire plane. Your seat and those of the precious few around you in the first-class cabin may be angled so you can fly in privacy.

Dedicated flight attendants in the first-class cabin will ensure your every need is accommodated before takeoff and en route. Luxury bedding, first-class amenities, slippers, and pajamas will make your stayer, long-haul flights as comfortable as possible.

When you book and take a first-class flight, you are a VIP, and everyone will know it. If you’re flying long-haul international flights, first-class cabins will make those hours a pampering experience. When you deplane after first-class seating, you’ll feel like you’ve just stepped out of a resort instead of sitting ten hours in a metal tube at 37,000 feet. Yeah, that’s how first-class cabins are better.

See Related: Can You Bring Alcohol on a Plane?

How is a Business Class Seat Better?

But before you turn your nose up at a business class flight, let’s look at how that class ticket may be better. In business class vs first class, the steep price of the first class automatically makes the business class more attractive. Business-class is a little more standardized across carriers and routes. In first class, you should research what you’re paying for exactly.

Also, many domestic business class flights are labeled “first class.” If you’re flying across the country, a business class seat is best.

Because even if you’re on a plane with truly first class and business-class cabins, you’ll never justify the cost of your first class seat because you wouldn’t be able to use all the perks. But if you’d like a bit more room, a nice meal, and full beverage service, business class for a few hours is a divine experience.

As for flying international business class vs first class, a few carriers, like Delta Air Lines, have almost created equal luxury in both classes. Delta One Suites offer fully enclosed business class “rooms,” and they are the only big U.S. carrier to do so.

The suites are found on Airbus 350s and A330-900neos on select European and Asian routes. But sometimes you’ll see them available on domestic hauls. The suites are private with 18-inch high res screens for watching inflight entertainment, USB ports, power outlets, and flat spaces all around you. You can book one of these heavenly suites with your awards through Delta Skymiles or their Virgin Atlantic Flying Club partnership

Who Should Fly First Class and Why?

Emirates priority boarding sign with airport backdrop
uskarp2 – stock.adobe.com

First class is always luxurious, relaxing, and pampering. There are some good arguments for splurging on this upgrade.

First Class Perks

First class passengers breeze through security while you stand in a line wondering how much of your clothing you’ll have to remove before you’re allowed to walk to the gate.

They also magically pass through mystery doors and wait in lounges stocked with food and drinks while you find a place to sit on a dirty floor and have people walk over you.

And by the time you pass them on the plane as you haul your carry-on toward the back, they are sipping on fruity drinks and pretending to read the Wall Street Journal. First class passengers will always have overhead luggage space. As an economy flyer, you are charged for every extra, like the privilege of bringing on a bag or having a bite to eat.

First-class passengers are never presented with the dreaded credit card slider to pay for a tiny bag of pretzels and a can of Coke. They are wined and dined throughout the flight. In first class, you don’t necessarily have to drink all the wine and cocktails offered, but it’s nice to know a spritzer is always available if you want it.

If people in first-class look like they are headed to the office, you probably aren’t wrong. If you’re in first class, you can get some work done. You’ll have the space and privacy to work on your computer because spending ten hours in the air can reduce productivity.

You may even meet another businessperson with interesting connections. You might get stuck talking to shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith in the economy.

On long-haul international flights, first-class flyers sleep in beds with blankies and pillows. A dedicated flight attendant ensures you have everything you need to arrive at your destination fresh and energized.

First Class Cost

It’s a much more comfortable, civilized way to spend a day or night in the air. So, with all the first-class perks, it’s worthwhile to check on the upgrade costs of your flight.

When you factor in your luggage, any extras like a snack, and your patience limits, an upgrade may be worth the cost. Check your credit card awards, as they can often upgrade you for free.

It’s a little controversial, but you may get upgraded for free if you’re polite, friendly, and dressed nicely. This has happened to me twice on overbooked flights.

No one will upgrade you if you show up at the gate in a bikini with your toothbrush tucked in the top while wearing flip-flops. It will never happen. Sorry, life is unfair.

See Related: Best Skyscanner Alternatives to Book Flights

Who Should Fly Business Class and Why?

Girl Drinking Champagne on a First Class Flight

First-class is ideal for long-haul flights and international routes. But if you’re flying from one coast to the other in the U.S. or to a somewhat closer destination, business class will deliver all the comforts of first-class without the huge price difference.

Business Class Perks

Spacious business class cabin with lie-flat seats and modern entertainment on airplane.
Tamme – stock.adobe.com

A major perk, especially for average-sized or larger people, is the extra legroom and reclining space in the business class cabin. Some seats are lie-flat, which is great for getting some sleep.

You’ll get separate check-in and security checks, so you’ll be at the gate quicker with less stress. You can also check for an extra bag. You can wait for your flight in the luxurious privacy of a business class lounge with wi-fi, food, and drinks.

Seabass in KLM Business Class
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Don’t worry about finding enough overhead bin room when you are gently beckoned to board. Business class has plenty of space there. Your inflight entertainment screen is large enough to see it, and you’ll have noise-canceling headphones to hear it.

Marvelous! Depending on the flight, you may get an extra-nice amenity bag with a toothbrush and toothpaste, lip balm, moisturizer, socks, eye mask, and more.

The food is much better than what’s served in the economy class, and beverages are included. Upon landing, your luggage will be at baggage claim before economy luggage.

Business Class Cost

Lufthansa A340-600 luxury flat suite with champagne glass and welcome screen.
Tamme – stock.adobe.com

Expect to find business class fares around ten times the cost of an economy ticket. But if you do some checking and strategizing, you may score a seat that’s not so expensive. Here are our pro tips:

  • The more competitive the route, the more likely you’ll find that precious upgrade. Check search engines like Skyscanner and sign up for Going.
  • Many airline websites and flight search engines let you use a calendar feature to find the best deals if your dates are flexible. Check the European carriers’ rates if you’re flying between Europe and the U.S.. Air France is usually the most competitive.
  • Research how to earn and redeem your frequent flyer miles or credit card awards. Apply for credit cards that give you huge sign-on bonuses. As you approach your departure date, check if business class upgrade prices have dropped. It’s always possible that the airline has seats to fill.
  • Finally, put on your Sunday clothes and a smile and politely ask for an upgrade at the gate. You won’t get it if you don’t ask. But if you get it, you’ll be set for some amazing pampering and relaxation for the next few hours.

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