What’s the difference between first class and business class?
Travelers ask me all the time, “What’s the difference between first class and business class?”
The short answer is: just about everything. An anonymous comment on DataLounge will get us started:
“The bathroom attendant in first class wiped my bottom for me.”
Sure, this may be slightly apocryphal (though I won’t say for sure), but it still raises a valid point: the service in first class is excellent. Gwyeth, also on DataLounge, puts it another way:
“The primary difference is that I wouldn’t be caught dead flying business class.”
In order to get to the bottom of it, I put my miles where my mouth is and got up into the air. And now that I’ve experienced both business class and first class – across multiple airlines, multiple routes, and on multiple types of aircraft – firsthand, my discoveries may not surprise you: just about every step of the process, from before you even step on the plane to after you land, is markedly different. This cartoon from Leo Cullum for The New Yorker sums it up nicely.
In Step One, I’ve broken the issue down into 4 categories: Lounges, Seats, Food & Drinks, and In-Flight Service & Amenities. We’ll look at each of them in-depth, and assess whether first class is really superior to business class.
And Step Two goes into exactly how you can get cheaper business class or first class tickets without shelling out thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on them.
I’ve also included two epic resources that will make collecting frequent flyer miles much, much simpler, and two more epic resources that show you exactly how to upgrade an existing cash ticket to business or first class at a fraction of the regular price.
NOT ALL AIRLINES ARE CREATED EQUAL
Before getting into specifics, it’s crucial to know that every first class experience is unique. Airlines have a strange (yet consistent) tendency to treat international passengers significantly better than domestic passengers, and this is only exacerbated when it comes to business class and first class flying, so one rule to keep in mind is…
International flights are always better.
But not only are international flights always better – some airlines are head-and-shoulders above others in the first class experience that they provide, making it extremely difficult to choose a single airline as the best first class airline. As a general rule, though, this is what the “Premium Flying Experience” aka business and first class hierarchy looks like:
Best: Asian and Middle Eastern airlines
Great: European and Australian airlines
Good: North American airlines
So not only does flying internationally matter, but a first class flight with Singapore Airlines or Emirates is a big step up from American Airlines or United. Checking an airline’s current Skytrax rating is a good way to get a feel for how good their business and first class product will be (case in point: all 9 of the 5-star rated airlines of 2016 are Asian or Middle Eastern).
All of this boils down to one thing: you need more information before you book. A domestic first class flight with Delta could very well be less of an experience than an international business class flight with Cathay Pacific, which completely defeats the point of flying first class.
So let’s start digging into the data.
Step 1: Digging Into The Data
CATEGORY 1: LOUNGES
For me, a nice lounge makes the biggest difference between a pleasant flying experience and a poor one. It’s not uncommon that I’ll go to the airport 6 or 8 hours before my flight – especially if it’s an early morning flight and I can go late the night before – and then just relax in the lounge for a while before I fly. Lounges generally follow the same hierarchy as airlines that I laid out above, with Asian and Middle Eastern lounges being the best, but you’ll find some hidden gems all over the world (one of my favourites is still the LAN Oneworld Lounge in Buenos Aires).
Business class lounges are well-known to many travelers, since a business class ticket, frequent flyer upper-tier status, or a lounge membership such as Priority Pass will get you in there.
First class lounges are significantly more exclusive. Generally the only way to get in is to have a first class ticket (though if you’re flying domestically, sometimes even that isn’t enough) or to have a Platinum-level status with the airline or one of its partners. Of course, if you’re flying with someone else with these benefits, they can often bring you in as a guest, though policies vary lounge to lounge (the same goes for business class lounges as well).
The food & drink selection can vary massively between business class lounges and first class lounges. In business class lounges, buffets are common, though their quality ranges from salad bars and dessert platters all the way up to ribs, smoked salmon, and a never-ending supply of Häagen-Dazs.
First class lounges take food to the next level. Before a recent Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to London, I stepped into The Wing First, Cathay’s first class lounge, and was blown away by the food selection. Not only was the buffet astounding, stocked with far more options than I could ever dream of trying, I was seated privately by a waitress, who gave me an additional full menu in case I wanted something that wasn’t available at the buffet. I chose to mix 2 of their dozen fruit juice options, and opted for some food off the menu as well as picking away at the buffet.
Before I even reached the restaurant in The Wing First, I was greeted by a waiter offering me three different types of champagne (I declined). Turning the corner, I came across a huge bar, ready to prepare absolutely any drink my heart could desire. Again, I opted against drinking, since I was going to be fasting on this particular flight to avoid jet lag, and drinking is definitely not a part of the fasting process. Still, I was impressed.
In the handful of business class lounges I’ve been to, drinks are usually self-serve (a dangerous notion on its own), which means you don’t quite have the full selection you do in the first class lounge, where the bartender will put together any cocktail or other concoction you want. And on top of that, I’ve never been greeted with multiple bottles of champagne in a business class lounge either.
For anyone who doesn’t spend much time in lounges, I’ll answer the question you’re all wondering: yes, all of the food and drinks are free.
Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky), one of the most well-respected frequent flyer bloggers on the Internet, put it well when he said:
“While there are some great business class lounges out there, like the Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Lounge Doha and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse London, I’ve never had a business class ground experience which I found to be truly personalized.”
Lucky is absolutely right – first class lounges are known for going the extra mile. Example: in Frankfurt, Lufthansa’s first class passengers skip the main terminal altogether in favour of their own first class terminal, which runs like a well-oiled machine. When your flight is ready to board, passengers are driven to their plane in a Mercedes or a Porsche. Air France also provides private car treatment for its first class passengers in Paris, plus a complimentary spa treatment and a meal at a Michelin star restaurant.
VERDICT: First class lounges are significantly better.
CATEGORY 2: SEATS
Two metrics are critical when it comes to seats: the width and the pitch.
Seat width is exactly what you’d expect: the distance between the armrests on a single seat.
Seat pitch is the distance from a point on your seat to the same point on the seat in front of it. Pitch is sometimes called legroom, though it’s not a great substitute since other factors like seat thickness can turn a seemingly-appealing seat pitch into a very uncomfortable flight.
Of course, you want both the seat width and pitch to be as large as possible.
So how do you choose a seat that will maximize those two numbers? Lucky for you, you’ve got a secret tool on your side when it comes to choosing seats.
SeatGuru is hands-down the best way to get seat data about any flight in the world. They’ve mapped out every aircraft of every airline, so when you’re buying a Singapore Airlines ticket on an A380 aircraft from Singapore to New York City, you know exactly what you’re getting. And in case you’ve never noticed, the aircraft you’ll be flying on is always displayed on your itinerary as you book a flight.
SeatGuru has charts that make it extremely easy to compare the best business class seats with the best first class seats on different long-haul business class flights and first class flights. Using that data of hundreds of airplane configurations in both first and business class, I’ve done some quick calculations to find average seat width, pitch, and configuration:
COMPARING BUSINESS CLASS & FIRST CLASS SEATS
|Business Class||First Class|
|% of Lie Flat / Suite Seats||57%||91%|
As you can see, nearly all first class seats lie flat, while just above half of business class seats do. When you’re flying for 8+ hours, the difference between lying flat and reclining in your seat is a big one.
Just like with lounges, some airlines really go over the top with their first class product. Singapore Airlines’ heralded Singapore Suites was the first to offer a double bed in the sky, while Etihad’s The Residence – a 3-room suite that gives you your own private living room and bathroom, along with a bedroom complete with double bed – allows passengers to take a shower at 30,000 feet.
The best way to know exactly what you’re getting into is to search for your exact aircraft and route on SeatGuru, since the last thing you want is to be expecting a lie-flat seat and be stuck with a lowly recliner.
VERDICT: First class seats are significantly better.
CATEGORY 3: FOOD AND DRINKS
If you thought the lounges and seats would be where you find the biggest differences between business class and first class, think again.
Again, we turn to Lucky, since he has much more business and first class flying experience than just about anyone else:
“While business class food is certainly edible and acceptable, a first class meal can actually be an experience.”
Let’s look at why he says that.
Business class meals tend to be better versions of economy class meals. They arrive hot, they’re served with a wide selection of drinks, and they’re generally quite tasty.
And that’s where the description ends. Why?
Because as Lucky says, there’s nothing innately amazing about the meals in business class. They can be comparable to a good restaurant on the ground, but not much else.
In other words, you won’t be telling your friends about the meal.
But in first class, things take a serious step up.
Head chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants prepare the menu, or an onboard chef will prepare whatever you request right before your eyes.
Renowned sommeliers choose the wines.
And airlines are in fierce competition to see who can create the best first class dining experience, which is why some like Singapore Airlines serve first class passengers both Krug Grande Cuvée and Dom Perignon 2004 alongside Calvisius caviar. Oh, and that’s before the plane even takes off.
Still, you can find some unique perks in business class as well. Korean Air, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic all have onboard bars in business class where you can catch a drink with fellow passengers, and more airlines are moving in that direction as well.
As industry competition increases, food and drink is a major way for airlines to differentiate themselves and attract passengers, so they’re throwing themselves at it in a way we’ve never seen before.
VERDICT: First class food is significantly better.
CATEGORY 4: IN-FLIGHT SERVICE & AMENITIES
If you haven’t noticed a theme here yet, let me lay it out for you: just like every other aspect of the flying experience we’ve looked at, the difference in in-flight service quality between business class and first class is quite significant.
IN-FLIGHT AMENITY KITS
Business class passengers receive amenities kits that are definitely a step above economy: sleep masks, skincare products, and an assortment of toiletries are the norm. And many airlines, like Air France shown below, are stepping up their game with more aesthetically-pleasing bags as well.
First class amenity kits, though, put the business class kits to shame. They come stocked with brand name perfume for ladies and cologne for men, lip balms, shoe horns and shoe polishes, travel mirrors, and more depending on who you fly with, and they’re always packaged in a stylishly eye-catching bag. The furniture icon Eames designed the American Airlines amenity kit bags shown below, which just so happen to double as a perfect tablet case after your flight is over.
In case the amenity kit wasn’t enough, most first class passengers flying overnight will receive pyjamas (usually silk) and a duvet to ensure those lengthy international flights are as comfortable as possible.
The main distinction in the service quality itself is that in first class the service is proactive, not reactive. 99% of the time you don’t even need to ask the flight attendant for something; they will have already anticipated your desires. And given that fewer passengers are opting for first class (it’s not cheap, after all), it’s not uncommon for there to only be a couple of passengers in first, meaning you’ve essentially got a flight attendant all to yourself!
One thing is for sure: your glass will never be less than half full.
VERDICT: First class in-flight service and amenities are significantly better.
OVERALL VERDICT: First class is significantly better than business class across all 4 critical metrics.
Step 2: The Best Way To Buy A Business Class Or First Class Ticket
METHOD 1: FREQUENT FLYER MILES
You’re going to need some frequent flyer miles first.
If you’re Canadian, our parent company Yore Oyster outlines exactly how you should start collecting miles, including ways to save $1,200 or more on flights with 5 minutes of reading. Start with the blog post Why Absolutely Every Canadian Needs An American Express Platinum and go from there.
If you’re American, there are plenty of good blogs out there that will teach you to get frequent flyer miles. The two I consistently go back to are One Mile At A Time, written by Lucky, and The Points Guy.
If you’re neither Canadian nor American, you’ll need to do some Googling. Start by searching for your country name + “frequent flyer miles” or “airline points” and go from there.
Once you’ve got your miles, you want to be smart about spending them, since you can make some pretty stupid mistakes if you don’t know what you’re doing. Yore Oyster has some other excellent blog posts about spending miles – I recommend starting with Avios and Aeroplan – The Ultimate Cheap Flights Combo, since it goes deep into how to exploit two completely different frequent flyer programs.
Method 2: UPGRADE A CASH TICKET USING FREQUENT FLYER MILES
Upgrading a ticket using miles is a great way to get into business or first class at a big discount.
And lucky for us, The Points Guy has created two incredible posts that show you exactly how to upgrade a ticket for just about every airline in the world (Part 1, Part 2). Be aware that not every ticket is upgradeable, so you should cross-reference your booking class with these posts the next time you’re booking and intend to upgrade. And of course, upgrades are subject to seat availability.
WHICH IS BETTER VALUE: BUSINESS CLASS OR FIRST CLASS?
If you’re paying with cash, go business class. First class tickets can often cost double or more of a business class ticket, and despite every aspect of flying first class being significantly better than business class, the extra several thousand dollars you’ll need to fork out probably isn’t worth a nicer meal and some silk pyjamas.
If you’re paying with miles, go first class. The experience is phenomenal, and you can talk about it for years to come (or just keep flying in first again and again, your choice).
Here’s a mileage chart from The Points Guy that shows how, on American Airlines flights, the largest mileage premium you have to pay for first class is 12,500 miles, or 25% more than business class.
CAN YOU EXPENSE A FIRST CLASS TICKET?
This is a very valid question if your company is paying for your flight, and in a lot of cases the answer is No. Of course policies vary by company, but most firms allow you to expense business class but won’t pony up for first (maybe you should send this article to your HR department?). So if this could be a deal-breaker for you, definitely look into it before buying your flight.
THAT’S THE DIFFERENCE
Did you catch it? Yes, first class is significantly better than business class, but as with all purchases, you need to weigh it against your own personal value judgments.
If you follow the method in the blog posts I presented in Step Two, you’ll have miles galore and will be flying first class in no time.
And first class is a beautiful thing.
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