Congrats! You've saved up your miles, picked a destination, and now you're ready to book your flight. As you're scrolling through, you see the option to upgrade to first class for shockingly less than you would expect. But how do you know it’s worth it?
What does a first class ticket even include? We're here to answer your questions on the goodies you can expect with a first class ticket and when it makes sense to treat yourself.
What even is first class?
As you probably know, first class is the most premium/luxury cabin you can get on an aircraft. It offers the most comfortable flying experience with a lot more amenities than you'd typically find in business or economy. But the real question is: are you flying domestically or jumping on a long-haul, international flight? The answer will lead to two very different experiences.
Domestic vs. international first class - the real first class
Chauffeurs, cocktail bars on board, and classy lounges are all part of the premium experience, but this isn't guaranteed if your ticket says 'first class.' Oh no, in fact, short-haul/domestic and long-haul/international flights have very different first-class standards.
It's all about the aircraft. Domestic flights, especially in the USA, will label their front-most cabin as 'First Class.' But the service, seat, meal, etc. are usually equivalent to a short-haul business class cabin. For example, a first class cabin for a New York to Orlando flight can be relabeled as business class on a flight from Atlanta to Mexico City.
Side note: we've gone into more detail with our first versus business class article.
You're more likely to find the premium first class you might expect on long-haul/international flights. This is where the real luxuries are. Lie-flat seats, airport transfers, and separate lounges are just the tip of the iceberg.
When booking, if the flight is labeled ‘first class’ but has these things, it isn't going to live up to the premium experience you expect:
- The flight is domestic/short haul
- There are no lie-flat seats (instead you'll have 'extra legroom' or 'extra recline')
- The price tag... real first class can go into the thousands, while short-haul /domestic (faux) first class is usually a few hundred dollars.
It's always good practice to google the cabin class, like 'American Flagship First Class' or 'United Polaris,' before you book to know exactly what you're getting.
In summary, domestic first class is often a business class cabin relabeled/rebranded as first class. Real first class is usually only found on long-haul flights with separate business class cabins.
What do you get in first class?
Booking a true first-class flight guarantees you red carpet entry with the theme song "We da best" blaring as you walk in. OK, not really, but that's the level of bougie that airlines are hoping to create for you.
It all starts from the moment you get to the airport (or before, with chauffeur-driven airport transfers). Some airlines, like Lufthansa, offer a personal assistant to help you check in and go through security. There'll be a separate lounge to wait for your flight, and, in some airports, they come complete with extra goodies, like a hair/nail salon and spa.
Once you've boarded (waaaay before or after everyone else - your choice), you can look forward to personalized service and fast response times. They'll be by your side faster than you can ask for your caviar! Depending on the airline and aircraft, you'll also be looking at special amenities like silk pajamas, a welcome drink, an ensuite mini bar, and other treats to make you truly feel pampered.
The food comes when you're ready (and not the other way around). It's similar to a fine-dining restaurant, complete with a menu, dishes made by top chefs, and accompanied by top-shelf liquor. For example, Emirates splashes out on glasses of Hennessy Paradis (which retails for a cool ~$900).
Cabin seats range from recliners and lie-flat seats to private cabins and apartments, all including ensuite storage/wardrobe. Again, Emirates is a great example - their Airbus A380 even has a shower! Cabins with lie-flat seats usually have a turn-down service, where flight attendants make up your bed when you're ready for a bit of shut-eye.
First class by airline
When it comes to flying first class on North American Airlines, here's our quick guide on what to expect from the most popular full-service airlines.
Flying first class on United Airlines
United doesn't have a true first class product. But, they make up for their long haul international luxuries with United Polaris - a business class cabin with lie flat seats and luxury brand amenities.
United offers a good example of faux first class. It only flies around the USA and offers basic comforts - none of those designer luxuries.
- On-ground: having a first class ticket gets you through lines quicker thanks to the Premier Access line for checking, boarding and security
- Bags: two free checked bags with priority handling, i.e. they're less likely to toss around your bags, and you'll get your luggage before everyone else.
- Seats: no recliners or life flats here, just extra legroom.
- In-flight service: access to Directv and alcohol.
Flying first class on Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines is another example of faux first class, which only flies within the US. For long haul international flights, their most premium cabin is Delta One - a business class cabin with lie-flat seats and suites.
- On-ground: you'll get faster check in, security, baggage handling, and early boarding with Sky priority service
- Bags: two free checked bags
- Seats: extra legroom (up to 8 inches) and up to 5.4 inches of recline
- In-flight service: complimentary snacks and drinks, blankets and pillows (when needed), and dedicated flight attendants. Flying beyond 1500 miles also scores you a full meal with options for your entrées.
Flying first class on American Airlines
American Airlines is the only North American airline with a true first class cabin. Flagship First flies long distances, usually international flights, but if you're lucky, also on select domestic routes e.g. SFO-JFK.
Flagship First is different from the typical domestic first class, though - confusing, we know.
Here's what to expect from their domestic first class:
- On-ground: access to Flagship and Admiral lounges, faster check-in, security and boarding. On some routes, you'll have the option to hire a luxury car for airport transfers.
- Bags: up to two checked bags
- Seats: wider seats than economy with varying recline
- In-flight service: chef-created menu, complimentary snacks and alcohol.
And what to expect from Flagship First:
- On-ground: access to Flagship and Admiral lounges. Private check-in and faster security and boarding. You also have the option to hire a luxury car for airport transfers.
- Bags: up to three checked bags
- Seats: lie flat suites on the Boeing 777-300
- In-flight service: chef-created menu, complimentary snacks and alcohol, branded amenity kit, sleeper sets, USB ports, and power outlets.
Airlines that offer the best international first-class flights
According to Skytrax's World Airline Awards:
- Singapore Airlines
- Swiss International Air Lines
- Air France
- ANA All Nippon Airways
- Japan Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- British Airways
- Korean Air
- Cathay Pacific Airways
- Etihad Airways
- Garuda Indonesia
- Qantas Airways
- China Eastern Airlines
- Oman Air
- China Southern Airlines
- Saudi Arabian Airlines
- Thai Airways
- Asiana Airlines
Fun fact: Flying on the Emirates A380 (yep, the one with the shower) doesn’t have to be a pipe dream. It’s can be slightly more affordable with shorter trips. For example, a one-way trip from Bangkok to Dubai costs an average of $2,000 for a 6-hour flight.
You can go even cheaper by opting for an even shorter route (3 hours) between Bangkok and Hong Kong for $600-$700 one way. While it's certainly one way to cross it off your list, we'd recommend going round trip to have enough time to enjoy the service.
How much is first class?
As you can probably imagine, all this luxury is costly. For example, US domestic first-class flights can cost anywhere between $300 to $600, whereas long-haul prices start at $2000 and can go up north of $5000!
The general rule of thumb is first-class flights cost 6-10x more than the price of economy.
Fun fact: The award for the most expensive first class ticket goes to The Residence at Etihad - costing a whopping $20,000-$31,000 RT for a trip between New York and Abu Dhabi.
Is flying first class worth it?
Here are the top reasons travelers usually fork out for first class:
- Lie-flat seats: if you're flying to another continent and want to feel rested when you land, this is definitely a huge draw card.
- More points and miles: paying for your flight in cash? You'll score more points/miles to earn that coveted elite status.
- Special occasions: since many first class perks are based on novelty, it can be worth the extra cash to fly for special events like your honeymoon or graduation.
Keep in mind, many of these experiences are included in a business class ticket for a lot less, and you'll often have the option to pay extra for first class exclusives like personal concierges.
When flying first class doesn't make sense
- The flight is too short (less than 6 hours): you won't have time to enjoy any in-flight perks
- You're flying during the daytime: lie-flat seats are great for nighttime trips, but not so much during the day.
- The cost is too high: Blowing your vacation budget on a first class cabin isn't ideal - save that money for the actual trip!
If you need help choosing between business and first class, check out our in-depth guide here.