Main differences between flying first class vs business class

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If you’re looking for a little bit of luxury on your next flight or searching for extra room when flying during a pandemic, splurging on a first class or business class seat could be a great option.

But, what are the differences between business and first class? And which one is right for you?

That depends on your preferences with regards to price, seating, food, amenities and more. We’ve broken down each category in business class vs. first class, so you can make the best decision when you’re purchasing your next flight. 

Doesn’t Qantas’ business class look incredibly inviting?! (Image by First Class Photography/Shutterstock)

Most significant differences between first class and business class

Pricing

Unsurprisingly, the prices for first class tickets are higher than those for business class tickets because first class is regarded as the premier cabin. Business class seats are good, but they don’t come with as many perks and benefits as first class, and the price will reflect that. 

It’s always important to keep in mind that flight prices vary based on airline, destination, and day or season of travel. Generally speaking, first class tickets for domestic flights can cost upwards of $1,500. In comparison, domestic business class seats tend to run under the $1,000 mark.

When it comes to international travel, some first class seats cost thousands (if not tens of thousands!) of dollars, and you typically won’t see one for less than about $4,000. Unless, of course, you’ve happened upon a mistake fare or a super sale. Business class seats are a bit more manageable in price, coming in at or below $3,000, especially for popular routes like New York to London.

It’s hard to peg a specific price range for these tickets as costs really do depend on the route and travel dates. But don’t forget, you can always use your points and miles to upgrade or purchase a first class or business seat, at no out of pocket cost to you! The top travel rewards cards are the best place to start if that’s your goal.

Included checked bags

Checked bag fees can add to your flight’s overall cost without you even realize it. Luckily, many airlines offer included checked bags to both first class and business class travelers. 

First class passengers on Alaska Airlines, Delta, JetBlue (first class cabin called “Mint”), and United all get two checked bags for free. On American, first class passengers get three checked bags for free. 

Business class passengers generally reap the same benefits as first class in this category: American, Delta, JetBlue (business class cabin called “Blue Plus”), and United all offer business class passengers two free checked bags. 

Seating

When comparing business vs. first class seats, first class is the more luxurious of the two. These are the seats at the front of the plane, and they allow each passenger plenty of room to spread out.

If you’re worried about the coronavirus, a first class seat will give you plenty of personal space to social distance and stay safe on your flight. On long-haul and international flights, first class seats typically fully recline to turn into a bed. And sometimes, passengers will even get their own pod or apartment.

Etihad first class
Etihad first class is bookable with airline miles. It’s one of the most sought after first class products in the air! (Image by @bta7/twenty20)

In business class, you’ll be able to stretch your legs out more, and you won’t have to share an armrest with a stranger. These seats are more comfortable and more spacious than economy seats. But most of the time, they don’t lie flat or offer you your own pod. That said, if you’re on a shorter flight, business class will offer you all the comfort you need for a lower price.

Food and beverages

Similar to seating, when it comes to in-flight food and beverages, you can expect first class to be a step above business class.

Dining in the first class cabin is an experience. On most airlines, you’ll be served meals on fine china, and it’s likely a chef helped craft the menu. Just imagine eating caviar and sipping champagne 30,000 feet in the air! Some airlines even have bars from which passengers can get complimentary drinks and stand up to mingle with other passengers. 

Business class dining is restaurant-quality food, and you’ll get more than the packaged peanuts and pretzels those in lower classes receive.

Lounge access

Lounge access is one of the best perks of flying business or first class. Lounges offer passengers free Wi-Fi, food, drinks and entertainment while you wait for your flight to take off. Plus, it’s a less crowded environment to detox from the stress of traveling. 

Most airline offer both business and first class passengers lounge access. There might be a first class only lounge or section in some cases, but business passengers will still be permitted inside the other areas or have a designated business class lounge. 

Lounge access is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to ease the stress of travel. (Image courtesy of Lufthansa)

Boarding and deboarding

First class passengers are typically among the first to board the plane, following only those with elite status and military personnel for most airlines. Business class then follows in the boarding process.

With the COVID pandemic, however, some airlines, like United, have started boarding in reverse order. On crowded flights, they’ll call those sitting in the back of the plane to board first and first class passengers last to limit the number of people walking by each other in the aisle. So, if a top benefit for you is boarding early, you might need to rethink your first class ticket. 

When deboarding, the passengers at the front of the plane (first class) get off first, followed by business class and then those in economy. This part of the process hasn’t been affected by the updated pandemic procedures. 

Amenities 

When comparing business class and first class amenities, one of the main differences is that first class service usually starts before takeoff. While business class service commences in the air (though COVID procedures may affect this). First class passengers may even get additional perks even before setting foot on the airplane, as some airlines include valet parking, curbside baggage pick up, expedited security lines and concierge check-in.

For business class passengers, you’ll likely have to go through the airport check-in and security procedures in the same way as any other passenger. But, you’ll get perks like more personalized service and amenity kits while on board.

The amenity kits offered to business class passengers usually include toiletry items like skincare products, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a sleep mask. Passengers will also get pillows and blankets for added comfort. First class amenities are similar, but some airlines even go as far as offering first class passengers full duvet covers and silk pajamas!

In-flight service

One of the most notable differences between business and first class is that there are flight attendants dedicated solely to the first class cabin. This makes your on-board experience a more personalized one, as you’ll get quicker service from the flight attendants dedicated to helping just the handful of passengers in the cabin. 

In business class, the flight attendants will likely be more attentive than if you’re in economy class. But the service and amenities won’t be as exceptional as those offered in first.

Bottom line

While definitely expensive (unless you use travel rewards, of course!), first class may be worth the extra expense for special occasions, international flights, or those who want to fly in luxury. On the other hand, business class can be a less expensive option with which you’ll still get certain services and amenities.

At the end of the day, it truly depends on your budget and personal preferences as a traveler. Flying in either class is will undoubtedly be a more elevated experience than flying in economy.

Alexandra Maloney is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, she covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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