Imagine you've scored a great deal on first-class tickets - you're ready to be chauffeur driven between airports and waited on hand and foot. But instead, you're met with just a little extra legroom and a half-decent entertainment system.
You double-check your tickets because there must have been a mistake - but no, this is a ‘first class’ seat. At this point, you'll probably wonder (or, more realistically, google) what's the difference between business vs. first class flights. Hopefully, you stumbled on this article before booking!
Sure, both business and first-class cabins are envy-inducing when you make the sad walk down to economy. They've got all that glorious extra personal space and less chance of sitting next to a crying baby. But when it comes to choosing the right premium cabin, the labels can get a bit confusing.
To avoid booking a business class seat with a "first-class" label, you'll first need to know when a first-class ticket is 'true first class', especially if you're flying with a North American airline.
Click here if you're just looking for the breakdown of first vs. business class products by airline, or here to find the cheap business and first class tickets
True First Class: Domestic vs. International
Is there a foolproof way to know when you’re buying true first-class tickets? The simple answer is yes. Airlines (especially in North America) will label their highest domestic cabin as ‘first class’. This usually means reclining chairs and smaller lounges but none of the bells and whistles you’d typically find on an international first class flight (aka true first class).
Domestic first class is basically equivalent to a short-haul business class cabin, minus the lie-flat seats. It’s no wonder a cabin labeled as ‘first class’ on a domestic route can also be called a business class cabin on short-haul flights.
To keep things short and sweet, we’ll mainly be covering true first class (international/long-haul flights) in this article. So let's dive into the details.
The main differences between business class and true first class fall into seven categories:
Business vs. First Class lounges
Flying either business or first class grants you access to airport lounges. But whether you get a separate first class or business class lounge will depend on your airline, its alliance, and your itinerary.
The lounges are usually not separated for smaller airports, but they may have separate sections for first class, with better food and personalized service.
Long-haul international flights are likely to have dedicated first and business class lounges. You can expect to find buffets, rest areas, shower suites, workspaces, and play areas in both lounges. But, first class lounges have the added bonus of a guest/pet pass, private security screening, personal assistants, private car airport transfers, fine dining, and other luxury services.
You'll need to do a little googling before your flight to know exactly what you're getting (especially since services have changed post-covid). If your airport does have a separate first class lounge, expect it to be a tad better than the services in the business lounge.
Business vs. First Class boarding
Business class boarding is quite similar to economy. Passengers have to wait in line for security clearance (albeit they may have shorter lines), and flight attendants greet them at the plane's entry.
First class, on the other hand, lets you skip the security line-up, have a personal assistant that escorts you to departure gates, ride carts to get through the terminal, and luxury cars for airport transfers. (In some cases, like with American Airlines, business class passengers can pay extra for personalized/transport service).
On the plane, as a first class passenger, you’ll have the choice of boarding first or last, and may even board the plane via a different jet bridge. Once on board, the flight attendants will escort you to your seats, hand you a complimentary drink and guide you through your experience on the flight.
Business vs. First Class seats
Ah, the seats - this is by far the biggest reason to choose between first class and business class. With both premium cabins, you can expect to find recliners, lie-flats, and/or suites.
Recliners are the couches of the sky. They have more space than economy (3-4 inches wider) and more legroom (15-20 inches), which sometimes comes with a footrest. You'll mainly find these on domestic and short-haul routes.
Lie-flats seats are also true to their name - they rotate 180 degrees to create a "bed" to sleep on. These are more common in business class cabins and short-haul first class flights.
Suites are a step up from lie-flat seats. They feel like little apartments in the sky with privacy walls, curtains, and, in some cases, enough room to fit an extra armchair.
Business vs. First Class food and drinks
Some people swear that food tastes differently in the air, which often means rolling the dice on taste in economy. But in premium cabins, you’re guaranteed some of the finest meals.
The main differences between business and first class meals are the selection you’re offered and the convenience of being able to choose when you eat. Business class passengers usually get the same starters and have a choice between two entrées, while first class has many more options.
First class also allows you to be served upon request, with each course plated and served individually. In contrast, business class passengers are served at predetermined times alongside economy.
Drinks, as expected, are top-shelf, with the best quality reserved for first class - that’s where you’ll find the Dom Perignons and Charles Heidsiecks of the world.
Business vs. First Class Amenities
The amenities you receive vary by airline and route. However, you can expect to receive top-of-the-line pillows, blankets, and travel kits for longer flights in both classes.
While both cabins offer designer-branded travel kits, first class kits will often include more bells and whistles - like luxury skincare. It's also standard to receive PJs on long-haul first class, but this doesn’t happen on every business class flight.
If there is Wi-Fi on board, business class passengers may have to pay while it remains free for first class.
And although in-flight entertainment selections are the same for all cabins, first class may have a bigger screen than business class.
Business vs. First Class Service
First class is all about personalized service - crew members address you by name, keep your glass filled and attend to your calls as swiftly as possible.
Business class may not receive the same personal touch, but the service is still faster and more attentive than economy.
The turn-down service (when flight attendants convert the seat to a bed) is offered in both premium cabins, but may only be available to first class passengers on a flight with both first class and business class.
Some aircraft have staffed or self-service stand-up bars on board for both business and first class - and like lounges, some top-shelf drinks may be reserved for first class passengers only.
Business vs. First Class Cost
It goes without saying (but we're going to say it anyway) first class is more expensive than business class - whether you pay in cash or miles and points.
Paying for business class may cost an average of $3,000 to $5,000, while first class seats will set you back an average of $3,000 to $12,000.
Points/miles are the way to go to “save” costs on either class. You’ll need between 20,000-55,000 for business class and between 50,000-115,000 for first class round trip. Ironically, one way to get these points is by paying cash for a premium cabin and being rewarded with status credit. More on that later.
If you plan on using Avios (British Airways, Aer Lingus, and Iberia's reward currency), business class generally costs an average of 130,000 Avios round trip, while first class is around 170,000 Avios round trip.
Business Class vs. First Class by Airline
As we mentioned earlier, the difference between first class and business class depends a lot on the airline and the route you’re taking. So, we’ve broken down what each airline has to offer - you may want to bookmark this page! First, we’ll focus on North American airlines, and then we’ll link you to other major airlines that have both true first class and business class, if you’re up for a deep dive.
North American Airlines
Hats off to American for being the only North American airline that offers true first class (so far). The Flagship First Class and Flagship Business Class offer premium cabins on long-haul international flights.
But, they can sometimes be confused with their premium short-haul counterparts. For example, their First Class product (not true first class) only flies between the 50 United States, and their Business Class product is the highest cabin for short regional flights.
Here's what to expect on the Flagship First vs. Flagship Business class:
Flagship First vs. Flagship Business Check-in
For both classes, you'll get faster check-in lines and security lanes. The main difference is that Flagship First's passengers also have access to a separate check-in area.
Flagship First vs. Flagship Business Boarding
When there are 3 cabin classes, Flagship First is the first to board, but Flagship Business takes the lead on routes with 2 classes.
Flagship First vs. Flagship Business Lounges
Both classes have access to Flagship lounges in Chicago (ORD), Dallas (DFW), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA), and London (LHR).
Flagship Lounges include:
- Chef-inspired dining
- Personalized service
- Cocktail bar
- Premium wine table (yes, it's exactly what it sounds like)
- Lots of seating
- Shower suites
- Free Wi-Fi
- Dine-in restaurant - only available for Flagship First in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Miami.
Where Flagship lounges are unavailable - you'll find an Admiral's Club that offers free Wi-Fi, complimentary snacks and drinks, food for purchase, and PCs for work. Some clubs may have extra amenities like conference rooms available to reserve, children's play areas, or shower suites.
Flagship First vs. Flagship Business Seats
Both classes have lie-flat seats. Flagship business has a 1-2-1 seat configuration on international flights and 2-2 on transcontinental flights.
On longer flights, Flagship First also has a 1-2-1 seat configuration, with a larger chair than Flagship Business, which swivels into an office chair with a desk. However, the transcontinental flights only have a 1-1 setup (all window seats!)
Flagship First vs. Flagship Business Food and Drinks
Both cabins have multi-course meals - starting with the appetizer, salad, bread, and entrée. Dessert is served separately. Flagship First also includes a soup course - and better options for entrées and drinks.
You can review menus and reserve meals from 30 days to 24 hours before a flight.
Flagship First vs. Flagship Business Amenities
Both cabins come with basic toiletries and a reusable bag. On longer flights, you'll also receive a pillow, blanket, and maybe PJs.
Wi-Fi is an extra charge, but most premium cabins have power to plug in your devices.
Flagship Business Plus
American Airlines recently introduced a new class to their Flagship products. Flagship Business Plus is essentially the same as Business in the air, but on the ground - you'll have access to additional services such as:
- Flagship private check-in
- Flagship First Dining
- Three checked bags
United Airlines does not have true first class on long-haul international flights. However, their top-tier product, United Polaris, makes up for it with restaurant-quality dining, life flatbeds, separate cabins, Premier Access, etc.
United Airlines Business Class
United Polaris is business class, but it differs from United Business (confusing, we know). The difference is United Business only flies between the US, North America and Latin America. However, you’ll still get faster service through Premier Access, two free checked bags, and maybe lie-flat seats!
United Airlines First Class
The United First Class is an excellent example of faux first class. It's only available on short-haul flights between the US and Canada, including Alaska and Hawaii, and offers free checked bags, priority boarding, Premier Access, but only recliner-style seats. No lie-flat beds here!
Alaska also doesn't have long-haul international flights since they only fly between the US, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Belize. Their First Class product is available on all their planes except the Bombardier Q400 (usually reserved for small regional airports).
First Class offers comfy seats, meals, and lounge access, but you'll have to use your own device to access entertainment and pay for Wi-Fi.
Delta Air Lines
Delta also doesn't have true first class for long-haul flights. Their top-shelf product Delta One is technically business class but includes lie-flat seats. Like United, Delta's 'First Class' only flies short-haul international flights or domestic routes and doesn't include lie-flat seats.
Air Canada has two business class products - The top of the line Signature Service and Business Class.
Signature Service cabins mainly fly long-haul international flights on Boeing 777, Boeing 787, and Airbus 8330 aircraft. You'll get all the bells and whistles here, including airport transfers and lie-flat seats with in-built massagers!
Meanwhile, 'Business Class' flies Canadian domestic routes with recliner-style or at least wider seats than Economy.
The best domestic First Class
Since we’ve established that most North American airlines have faux first class, You're probably wondering which one wins out? Our top three are United, Delta, and American, and lucky for you, this traveler has personal experience with all three and breaks down the difference in this video.
International airlines with both First and Business Class
As we’ve seen with North American Airlines, not every airline has long-haul first + business class. So, we’ve included airlines with both in every continent.
Middle Eastern Airlines
Asian and Australian Airlines
All Nippon Airways
Is first class or business class better? Here's how to choose.
When flying domestic, what a premium cabin offers may not be worth the money. We know it's a huge flex and the extra legroom/comfy seats are generally better than being in economy. But if you don't plan on carrying the free checked bags or using the entertainment system, the price tag is usually not worth it.
Long-haul/international flights are a different beast. And when it comes to the battle of premium cabins, we choose business class! First-class prices are based on novelty experiences - do you really need to take a shower on the plane?
It also doesn't help that many airlines' business-class offerings outshine some first-class ones, especially after the pandemic. We’ll take Qatar’s Qsuite over Air France’s La Première any day!
When our team of flight finders are trying to find the best value business class deals, we ask ourselves:
- Is this a good airline?
- Does this aircraft have lie-flat or reclining seats?
- Does it come with Wi-Fi and good entertainment options?
- What are their meal options?
- What is the lounge like?
- Is the flight non-stop, or does it have a decent layover time?
Asking these questions will give you an idea if the value of the flight matches the price.
Where to find cheap business and first-class flights
Finding cheap first and business class deals takes time and patience, and unless you're using miles/points - "cheap" long-haul flights may still cost a couple of hundred (or thousand) dollars more than economy.
The easiest way to DIY finding cheap flights is by using Google Flights. Simply change the cabin filter to business/first class, and you'll only see tickets within the cabin class.
Sidenote: We've written an in-depth article on how to use Google Flights to find cheap tickets.
If you're short on time or would rather let the deals come to you, there are a few sites that'll do the dirty work for you:
1 Expert Flyer - to find mile and points availability.
2 Business Class Experts - for when you have a specific itinerary.
3 Jack's Flight Club - shameless plug here. When you sign up for our premium newsletter, we'll send you cheap flights as soon as we spot them, and yes, that includes premium economy, business and first-class flights too.
Previous premium and business class deals we’ve found:
- Seattle to Dublin at $935 RT
- Boston to Ponta Delgada at $594 RT
- New York to Bali at $934 RT
Sign up for an upgrade
When airlines are desperate to fill seats, asking to upgrade for cheap after booking isn’t a tall ask. Usually, it only applies to the next class, i.e. from Premium Economy to Business or from Business to First class. If you’re lucky, you may get to jump classes eg. Economy to First class.
The caveat is your connecting flight should also be the same class. Be sure to check your tickets beforehand; some classes (usually Basic Economy or Saver fares) do not allow upgrades.
Redeem miles and points
If you're a frequent flyer or frequent shopper, you may be able to pay for your flight using miles and points. This makes it much easier to score luxury flying without taking a hefty loss to your bank balance. For example, a long-haul Business class flight may cost $2000-$3000 but may only set you back 40,000 to 50,000 points.
To gain points when flying, stick to one airline, or fly within the same alliance. You can also sign up for loyalty programs like American Airlines’ AAdvantage and British Airways’ Executive Club.
For frequent shoppers, using airline loyalty programs, shopping with airline portals like Delta's SkyMiles Shopping, and switching to airline-branded credit cards will have you climbing the points ladder in no time.
If you're feeling lucky, these hacks aren't guaranteed to work but are worth a try:
1) Volunteer to wait for the next flight if yours is overbooked.
2) Ask for a last-minute upgrade over the counter. Airlines make their money from premium cabins, so they may be willing to upgrade rather than leave a seat empty.
3) Look and act the part. Dress nice, be polite and helpful, and fly alone during peak season. Most families travel this time, and it's much easier to upgrade a solo flyer than a family.
What not to do
Avoid mileage brokers like the plague. These are websites that offer super low prices for business and first-class flights.
They usually get their prices from unused company miles, which is against most airline rules. If caught, you may lose your ticket, the upgrade perks, air miles, and in rare cases, face a criminal charge, and that's not where you want to spend your holidays!