If you’re ready to take to the skies again, you might be considering booking a seat in business or first class for your next trip, especially if you are taking a long-haul flight or you need some extra legroom.
Who doesn’t need a little extra room these days with airlines packing as many seats in coach as they can? Nobody wants to get off their flight with cramped legs, and if it’s an overnight flight it’s nearly impossible to sleep comfortably in a coach seat that barely reclines no matter how good your neck pillow is..
The free-flowing wine, champagne and upscale menus in first or business class are also part of the fun! Exclusive lounge access before you board lets you grab a bite and sometimes even a shower before your flight to ensure you sleep well during your journey.
But what is the difference between the two classes of service, and is it worth the extra money or rewards to pay for a premium seat or upgrade your ticket? One thing to keep in mind is that rates and services will vary by carrier, route, aircraft and demand, but we can give you an idea of what the differences are so you’ll know what to look for when you’re booking.
We’ll also take a look at the three domestic legacy carriers and provide details on what they offer to passengers in first and business class cabins, and we’ll also tell you about some premium services offered in select business travel markets by the three airlines.
In this post you'll learn:
Key Differences for International Flights
Long international flights are a prime opportunity to try business or first class service. Flights to Europe are often scheduled overnight, and if you’re headed to Asia you could be on a plane for 15-20 hours.
Seats that lay flat in business or first class can let you get some sleep during your flight so you can land refreshed and ready to tour the destination or attend to business. In some cases, there are even private lounges for upper class passengers to use before boarding.
But not all seats are created equal, so don’t expect a lie-flat seat on all premium bookings, and not all airports have lounge access, so depending on your departure city you may or may not be able to take advantage of that perk.
Premium cabin travel usually includes expedited security screening and check-in; two or three free checked bags depending on the carrier, ticket and your elite status; priority boarding and even quick access to your luggage when you land. And the food is definitely better than the much-maligned meals served in coach, with business and first class menus often designed by renowned chiefs.
There are also sleep kits that are handed out in premium cabins that can include slippers, pajamas and impressive pouches filled with designer amenities. Most premium cabins also have dedicated flight attendants for personal service, and extra entertainment options and sometimes free wi-fi. But as airlines reimagine business travel, they have introduced branded products that are often more upscale than traditional first class seats, so read on to find out more.
Foreigh carriers offer some of the most deluxe premium cabin experiences with some carriers like Lufthansa offering its first class passengers chauffeured cars to the airport. And Etihad Airways even offers suites called Apartments in the Sky to its first class passengers.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the three largest domestic carriers and their offerings to showcase the amenities for business and first class passengers and give you an idea of how the two classes of travel differ and what you can expect.
Business Class vs First Class on American Airlines
On American, premium cabins are suggested according to routes. American Airlines recommends booking business class service on its shorter international flights from the US to Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, Puerto Rico and some destinations in South America. First class is recommended for flights from the US to Asia, Australia, Europe and other parts of South America that are further away..
A business, first class or premium economy ticket will get you priority privileges before you board that include letting you speed through check-in, security and boarding, even if you arrive late. Of course, first class passengers get priority, then business, then premium economy and elite status or those who carry one of the airline’s co-branded cards that offer this benefit. You’ll also get free checked bags: two for business class travelers and three for first class passengers.
Comfortable Seats and Upscale Meals
First class service on American includes wider seats with more legroom, premium dining with menus designed by Dallas restaurateur Julian Barsotti, as well as free entertainment and wi-fi. Shorter international flights offer similar services in business class.
The airline’s most exclusive services are called Flagship First and Flagship Business. It is offered on international and transcontinental flights on its Boeing 777-300 aircraft, and is only available in five airports currently in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York’s JFK, with Philadelphia launching soon. Lounges in those cities for first and business class Flagship passengers offer chef-inspired meals, premium wine tables, specialty cocktail bars, shower suites and more.
Business and first class seats and services can vary greatly by aircraft and route, so be sure to check this page to see what you are booking, and check what services are available in your departure city and destination.
Flagship First and Five Star Services
Flagship First Dining for example allows you to have a sit-down dining experience in the lounge before you board so you can maximize the amount of time you can sleep while flying. Dishes are designed in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, a culinary arts organization. The first class experience can also extend after you land in London for example, where American Airlines offers showers and breakfast and lunch buffets in its Arrivals Lounge.
American also offers Five Star Service at 16 US airports and four international ones to its premium class passengers, though this will cost $350 more per adult ticket and $100 for an additional adult. It includes access to Flagship First check-in and access to Admirals Club lounges. You can also use 35,000 AAdvantage miles to add this service on for the first adult and 10,000 miles for the second adult.
Business Class vs First Class on Delta Airlines
Delta Airlines premium products can be a little confusing. The carrier offers first class service on its shorter international flights and some domestic routes, but it’s most premium product is actually Delta One, which is technically a business class fare that is offered on longer flights.
Delta Airlines offers Sky Priority service to its first class passengers, which includes expedited check-in, security and boarding, and you also get your bags first when you land. First class seats offer up to 8” of extra legroom and seats that recline up to 5.4” compared to the main cabin. Food is made fresh and varies by length of flight. Flights over 900 miles include a chef-curated meal.
Delta One passengers also get Sky Priority services, and on board there are 180-degree lie-flat seats. The airline’s A350 and A339 planes feature doors and privacy dividers between center suites for Delta One passengers. Passengers are offered TUMI amenity kits that include LE LABO lotion and lip balm. Delta One passengers also get Sky Club lounge access before their flight.
If you’re booked on Delta One, you’ll be the first to board the plane, and you’ll have an elevated dining experience on board with chef-designed meals with local, seasonal and regional offerings paired with premium wines. Top-shelf liquor choices include Grey Goose vodka and Jack Daniels Single Barrel Select.
Delta One is available primarily on long-haul routes, but is also available in some domestic markets including flights departing from LAX. First class passengers and Delta One passengers also have access to Sky Club lounges where available before their flight.
Business Class vs First Class on United Airlines
United First is the premium class of service offered on flights throughout the US including Alaska, Hawaii and Canada. If you’re booked on a United First ticket you get Premier Access benefits which include dedicated check-in and security lane access as well as priority boarding. You can also check up to two bags for free. Business class passengers also get Premier Access benefits.
United Business is offered on flights between the US and Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as some transcontinental flights, and offers similar benefits as those offered to first class passengers. The biggest difference is in service levels when flying.
On board in first and business class you’ll get a premium leather reclining seat with a six-way adjustable headrest with a slot for your laptop in the armrest. Granite-topped tray tables offer a flip up mobile device holder and a universal power plug. Entertainment options include United Private Screening where you can stream from an extensive series of movies and TV shows as well as DirectTV.
The carrier has teamed up with Trotter Project to offer restaurant-quality dining as well as On the Rocks cocktails, a rotating craft beer selection and illy coffee for first, business and Polaris customers.
The real premium product on United flights is United Polaris, which is being rolled out on new and retrofitted planes. It is a business class product that is available on long-haul international flights and is replacing United first class on long flights. Seats lie flat and there are dividers between them if you are traveling alone.
The airline has teamed up with Saks Fifth Avenue to offer luxury bedding in Polaris cabins, which includes a quilted duvet or a lighter throw blanket. You can even request mattress cushions for more comfort.
Amenity kits include slippers and pajamas for flights over 12 hours and skincare items from Sunday Riley, as well as earplugs and other amenities. There are also exclusive Polaris lounges you can visit before boarding in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark and San Francisco. If there is no Polaris lounge at your departing airport, first, business and Polaris passengers can use United Club lounges before boarding.
Some food and beverage services are currently limited on some airlines and flights due to the pandemic, so check on what the airline is offering if this is part of the experience you are looking forward to. And some lounges that provide access to first and business class passengers are currently closed, so check on that as well if you are planning to use a lounge prior to boarding.
As you can see, there are a lot of variables and considerations when booking a premium airline seat, and in some cases business class service is actually more premium than first class, so do your homework before booking to ensure you get the experience you want.
Many domestic flights for instance, are not that long or you have to change planes at an airline hub, so it may not be worth paying extra for a business or first class experience. Many flights don’t offer upper class services and/or there are limited seats, though it is usually an option on transcontinental flights.
Some planes are also older, and the seat configurations can vary greatly so be sure to check out the type of plane and its floor plan to get a better idea of what the actual seat you’re considering looks like, especially if the fare is lower than you expect. That may be because the plane has older seats that only recline and may not lay flat, or the seat width and pitch are not as great as you would expect.
If your company is willing to pick up the tab, then flying in a premium cabin is a no-brainer on business trips. But check out a few options for the route you are taking because it could mean the difference between having an enclosed area with a lie flat seat or just getting a wide reclining seat. Also, some carriers may have lounges in your departure city, while others don’t. It also might be of interest to find out what they’re serving and/or arrival times to make your final decision.
If you are paying for the flight or using points or miles for an award ticket, consider the value you are getting before booking a first or business class seat. For miles and points collectors, award seats in premium cabins usually offer the best value for redemptions, so if you’ve got a lot of miles and points stashed it might be time to find an award seat in a first or business class cabin to get the most value for your rewards. Shop around if you’re using miles because you can usually get a better first or business class experience with fewer miles or by transferring points if you do your research.