The difference in class: first vs. business

Do you hesitate when choosing between business-class and first-class travel?

First-class travel can be extravagant. Image credit: JodiJacobson/iStock
First-class travel can be extravagant. Image credit: JodiJacobson/iStock

When you’re booking flights, the distance you’re traveling and the carrier you’re flying with can make all the difference to your experience in business class vs. first class. Understanding the details can help you make the right choices regarding the premium classes of travel.

First-class vs. business-class travel – levels of luxury

Let’s face it: the most significant jump in service and amenities occurs when you opt for business class over economy. Once you’ve decided to fly in a premium class, first class and business class feel quite similar at first glance. After all, both offer larger seats and more legroom. Both tickets let you board the airplane early. You’ll earn similar frequent flyer miles in both classes and flight attendants are busy pouring unlimited alcoholic beverages in both classes.

But the similarities may end there. Understanding the differences may help you choose what really matters to you. It’s also important to realize that domestic and international first class aren’t really the same, and the differences between the classes can be amplified depending on the airline you choose.

How far are you traveling? – one of the major factors in high-end first class

The difference between first class and business class becomes most apparent when you’re flying internationally, especially on a long-haul flight that crosses oceans and continents. First class on these flights provides significantly more privacy, space, and comfort. You can also expect gourmet meals options and fine wine and liquor, as well as luxurious amenities (think silk pajamas or down duvets) to enhance your comfort.

What airline are you flying? – some luxury is more decadent than others

Airlines based in the Middle East and East Asia tend to focus the most on extreme luxury in first class. Airlines such as Emirates, Singapore Airlines, and Qatar Airways continue to innovate new luxury touches to set their first-class service apart.

In contrast, some airlines are minimizing the difference between first class and business class, while other airlines — think Air Canada, Air New Zealand, and Delta Airlines — have essentially eliminated first class. Others, including American Airlines and United Airlines, are downsizing their first-class programs in favor of expanded business-class sections and services. Look for new ticket and seat category names (such as “BusinessFirst” or Virgin Atlantic’s “Upper Class”) to indicate when you’re seeing these new hybrid categories.

All of this means that it’s important to check with your carrier on each route to understand what first class and business class actually deliver before you book your flight.

The airport experience – first class vs. business class

Flying either first class or business class can elevate your experience from the moment you arrive at the airport. Many airlines offer private lounges to their premium passengers, with some going all out to provide extra luxury to their first-class flyers. For example, in the Air France first-class lounge in Paris include a menu designed by a Michelin-starred chef and complimentary spa treatments.

In general, look for the most luxurious first-class lounges in major Asian airports, or at the home airport for a given international carrier. In a few cases, first-class boarding leaves business class in the dust. For example, Lufthansa features a separate terminal for its first-class passengers at Frankfurt Airport. Rather than boarding with coach or even business-class flyers, these passengers are chauffeured to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz or Porsche.

Business-class lounges typically offer complimentary food and alcohol, free Wi-Fi, and reading material, as well as comfortable seating away from the hustle and bustle of the main terminal. Some may also offer an à la carte menu or a business center, and if you’re flying through an airline’s hub, amenities including shower suites, spas, and special facilities for children are more common.

In all cases though, a first-class lounge, if one is available, will provide more customized service, more extensive high-end food and drink options, and a less crowded, more luxurious space. If you expect an extended layover as you make connections, and if the serenity of a first-class lounge is one of the reasons you’d choose first class over business class, check to see what lounges are actually available on your route before booking your ticket.

Seats in first class and business class – legroom and more

The real difference in seats comes when you make the leap from economy or coach seating to business class. (Yes, some airlines offer a little more legroom in an intermediary class often known as “premium economy” — but for our purposes, those seats are still in economy class.)

On shorter or domestic flights, your business-class and first-class seats may seem quite similar. Both classes offer significantly more legroom and wider seats than economy and you’re likely to enjoy the smooth feel of a leather seat as well. But some real tech has gone into innovating airline seats, with architects and even yacht designers joining the industrial designers who have traditionally been involved in the creation process. In fact, a single business-class seat can cost an airline 80,000 USD to design and manufacture. So it’s no wonder the seats are fundamentally the same in first and business class.

Recline in luxury when you fly business-class. Image credti: Bertlmann/iStock
Recline in luxury when you fly business-class. Image credti: Bertlmann/iStock

As your flight gets longer, though, the differences increase. If you’re on a long haul international flight, your business-class seat is likely to recline significantly, often becoming a completely flat bed, so you can sleep comfortably during the flight. Another big plus to high-end business-class seating on long-haul flights is unencumbered direct access to an aisle without bothering any other passenger. Just how comfortable you can get varies from one airline and flight to the next, so look into the details if you’re going to be in the air for a long time.

International first class on certain carriers achieves a new level of luxury. Emirates first-class passengers enjoy a private cabin, as do first-class flyers on Etihad Airlines, where the “First Class Apartment” is large enough to allow you to walk around (a little bit) without leaving your own seating area. And Singapore Airlines’ Suites class, available on some long-haul flights, features a double bed and an onboard shower.

The model of plane you’re flying on may also affect the configuration of your seating. For example, while first class on Emirates is fundamentally the same from one flight to the next, business class can vary significantly depending on the type of plane being flown on the route. If you’re opting for business class but want to make sure you understand what you’re getting, ask ahead of time to get answers regarding how close you’ll be to other passengers, whether your seat unfolds flat into a bed, and any other questions or concerns you have.

Food and drink – what are they pouring?

In the not-too-distant past, passengers in all classes could expect to enjoy a meal on board even the shortest flights. Now, however, that privilege is typically reserved for business-class and first-class passengers, with coach flyers having to pay for their on-board food, bring their own meals with them, or just go hungry. Not surprisingly, you can expect a greater emphasis on fine dining and a larger range of options in first class than in business class.

Business-class food is quite good on most flights, especially on international routes. You can expect a restaurant-quality meal on almost every business-class flight. On some international flights, though, first-class meals can be a true dining experience, with caviar served and high-end Champagne poured, and chefs making meals to order. In some cases, acclaimed chefs design the first-class menus. For example, Air France, which is particularly noted for its dining, has some menus created by Michelin-starred chefs.

You can expect to enjoy a fine dining experience in first class. Image credit: Fabian Gysel/iStock
You can expect to enjoy a fine dining experience in first class. Image credit: Fabian Gysel/iStock

The quality of alcohol steps up in first class as well — though this depends on the airline. For example, Qatar Airways has traditionally poured finer Champagne in business class than some airlines pour for their first-class passengers. But in general, you can count on premium liquors and wines in first class, whether you prefer Dom Perignon or Hennessy Paradis.

While most first-class passengers crave (and pay for) privacy, dining and drinking can become a little more social in the business-class cabin. If you’re flying on Emirates, Qatar Airways, Virgin Atlantic, or Korean Air, you’re likely to find a bar in the business-class cabin with comfortable seating for chatting with fellow passengers, a bartender making drinks to order, and ready-to-eat snacks that might be considered a full meal downstairs in the economy cabin.

Amenities and service – the extras can make a difference

While passengers in coach may end up fighting for access to the few blankets or pillows available, flight attendants in the premium classes hand out amenities kits as a matter of habit. Many of the amenities (for instance, eye shades, ear plugs, and toothbrushes) are designed to let you sleep and wake up in comfort. Here, too, what you receive depends largely on the airline you’ve chosen.

In first class, you can expect to receive more elaborate amenities. For example, you’re likely to be handed pajamas to sleep in, and toiletries in your kit may carry designer brand names.

Another perk to flying long-haul first class is the quality of the bedding. Yes, the chairs may fold flat into beds in business class, but not every airline is going to turn that flat chair into a real bed with high-end sheets and blankets. In first class, you can expect luxurious sheets with high thread counts, similar to those you’d find in a four or five-star hotel.

Service also tends to be a little more attentive in first class, probably because each flight attendant is looking after fewer passengers. While business class doesn’t have the assembly line feel that you can experience behind the curtain in coach, flight attendants are often rushed to get through meal services. In first class, however, you’re more likely to be served meals, snacks, or drinks whenever you want them.

The choice between business and first – final factors to consider

For most people, the difference in cost between a business-class and first-class ticket is the deciding factor. All that luxury in first class comes at a price. Typically, a first-class ticket costs about double the price of a business-class ticket, though in some cases, a first-class seat can cost up to five times the cost of business class. Again, though, the route you’re flying can make a difference. An international business-class ticket may cost more than a domestic first-class ticket, depending on the route.

If you’re traveling on business, it’s also a good idea to check with your company’s expense account policies. Many corporations let employees and even consultants expense their business-class flights but won’t spring for the extra costs of first class. If you’re paying for your own ticket, it’s up to you, of course.

Another major consideration when choosing to book business class or first class is what you hope to get out of your flight. If your primary goal is to arrive at your destination well-rested and ready to leap into the business awaiting you, then business class might be your better choice. Many first-class flyers want to indulge in every bit of the experience they’re paying for. While that can be supremely enjoyable, the temptation to eat or drink a little too much, just for the experience, can work against you arriving at your destination fully rested.

Whether your final decision is first class or business class, premium treatment doesn’t have to stop at the edges of the airport. Extend your premium perks to the first and final legs of your journey when you book a reliable Blacklane car service to make it to your destination in comfort and style.