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


First class gets there faster. Kidding. No matter where you sit–in front with the one-percenters or in the back next to the lavatories–everyone lands at the same time. So maybe it just feels as if business class vs first class arrives sooner. The fast answer is the difference lies in where you sit on the plane and in the amenities.

But those differences are important and there are other more subtle comparisons we can make. We’re also going to 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.

That’s why 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?

Air hostess bringing fruits to first-class cabin passengers

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 get on board, flight attendants in first class have already taken drink orders.

That’s how first-class passengers are drinking champagne and other refreshing beverages while the other classes are shuffling down the aisle toward the plane’s rear end and avoiding 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 at the same time 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, a 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?

Passengers in business-class airplane cabin

Between premium economy class passengers and first-class passengers are the business class seats. Here you also get upgraded flight service amenities, seating, and service level. 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. If you’re on your honeymoon or celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary, the business class will make it more special. Or if you’re presenting at an international meeting or just need to be your well-rested best instead of bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, then the business class is a life-saver.

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’re going to 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, take a look at 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 and pillow and a toiletries bag. You’ll also get beverage service before economy class passengers get to board.

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

How Are They Different?

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?

First class tickets are more expensive by as much as double the cost of business class depending on the airline and the route. This is important to know because often you can get many of the same amenities sitting with the folk in business class without paying first class passengers’ prices. I mean, 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. Often, the first-class ticket holders will receive the highest levels of customer service including a concierge, personal assistants, 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 the use of 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? Depends on the plane and the route again. 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. For international first class flights, the amenity kits are more luxurious with pajamas and slippers than what you get in business class.

The biggest difference, though, between business class vs first class is in the food and drink service. Business-class food is good, but first class passengers get dining often prepared by or selected by famous chefs. Wines are carefully paired with each course. Y’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 in them 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?

These are British Airways first class-cabin seats
british airways BA first class new seats” by Tips For Travellers is marked with CC BY 2.0.

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 a 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 selection of whisky. 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 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 make sure your every need is accommodated before take-off 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.

How is a Business Class Seat Better?

These are Air Canada business-class cabin seats
Air Canada Business Class Seats” by caribb is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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 as “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, for instance, 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?

Three passengers in first-class airplane cabin laugh as they want to drink wine

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 get to 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 or so hours in the air can put a dent in your productivity. You may even meet another businessperson with interesting connections. In economy, you might get stuck talking to shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith.

On long-haul international flights, first-class flyers sleep in beds with blankies and pillows. And a dedicated flight attendant makes sure you have everything you need so you 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. By the time you factor in your luggage, any extras like a snack, and your patience limits, you may find an upgrade worth the cost. Check your credit card awards as they can often get you upgraded for free.

It’s a little controversial, but if you’re polite, friendly, and dressed nicely you may even get upgraded for free on the spot. This has happened to me twice on overbooked flights. No one will upgrade you, though, 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.

Who Should Fly Business Class and Why?

Woman in business class airplane

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

A major perk, especially if you are an average-sized or larger human being, is the extra legroom and reclining space in the business class cabin. Some seats are a lie-flat style 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 an extra bag. You can wait for your flight in the luxurious privacy of a business class lounge with wi-fi, food, and drinks.

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 so you can 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 being served in the economy and beverages are included. Upon landing, your luggage will be at baggage claim before economy luggage.

Business Class Cost

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

Here are our pro tips:

  • Many airlines websites and flight search engines let you use a calendar feature to find the best deals if your dates are flexible. If you’re flying between Europe and the U.S., check the European carriers for their rates. Air France usually is 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 a possibility if 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 do get it, you’ll be set for some amazing pampering and relaxation for the next few hours.

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