The 6 Biggest Differences Between First & Business Class

Filed Under: Advice

This year I’ve been making an effort to fly business class rather than first class, which is motivated by a couple of factors:

Given that I’ve been flying a lot of business class lately, I figured I’d reflect on what I consider to be the six biggest differences between first class and business class. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The ground experience

For many airlines, the first class experience starts the moment you check-in. That’s especially true if you’re visiting one of the world’s best first class lounges.

The services offered on the ground to first class passengers by some airlines are truly impressive. For example, if you’re flying Air France first class out of Paris you can expect to be driven to your plane in a car, receive a complimentary spa treatment, and dine at a Michelin star restaurant.

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Be picked up directly at your plane in Air France first class!

While there are some great business class lounges out there, like the Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Lounge Doha and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse London, I’ve never had a business class ground experience which I found to be truly personalized.

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Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse London Heathrow

2. The personal space

The most precious resource on a plane is space (well, perhaps after oxygen), and that’s something first class generally provides more of.

The thing is, there are some great business class products out there nowadays which feature direct aisle access, and are arguably better than first class was 10 years ago.

Qatar Airways business class

However, the innovation when it comes to first class hard products is unrivaled. Just look at Singapore Airlines’ Suites Class, which features a double bed, or Etihad’s First Class Apartment, which you can actually walk around inside of without leaving “your” seat.

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Etihad Airways first class

3. The amenities

In my opinion a good night of sleep isn’t just about the amount of personal space, but also about what the airline does to make it comfortable.

Many first class products come with added amenities, like pajamas, amenity kits, etc.

Emirates first class amenities

However, in my opinion the single most important amenity is good bedding. Several first class products offer name brand bedding products, which can rival the sleep you’d get at home.

Qantas first class

4. The attentiveness

After all the business class flights I’ve taken lately, this is probably what I’ve realized the most. In business class I’m pleased if I feel like I’m being served as part of an efficient assembly line.

In first class my expectations of service are different, though. Service is generally much more attentive, where you feel like you’re being served in a restaurant and dining at your pace, rather than being served at a Medieval Times dinner & live show, where everything is brought out when it’s convenient to the crew.

Furthermore, I don’t feel guilty asking for things in first class. In business class I sometimes feel guilty ordering a cappuccino (assuming they offer it) during a busy dinner service or breakfast, since I know the crew is busy, and they have a lot of people to take care of. I don’t have that same guilt in first class.

5. The food

A few weeks back I asked whether airline food can truly be restaurant quality. I’d say that while business class food is certainly edible and acceptable, a first class meal actually can be an experience.

From Krug and caviar, to a chef who will custom make just about any dish for you, I’ve had some incredible meals in first class.

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Etihad Airways first class

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Cathay Pacific first class

6. The drinks

Admittedly this doesn’t appeal to everyone, but there’s no denying that some top airlines have an incredible drink selection in first class, whether it be Dom or Krug or Hennessy Paradis. There’s a huge amount of variance here — China Southern first class has worse champagne than Qatar Airways business class — but on the whole you’ll find some first class products with incredible drink selections. Even American Airlines is serving Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle in first class nowadays, which is very nice.

Cathay Pacific first class

Do I “miss” first class?

The question isn’t intended to sound as dramatic as it might be interpreted. The reality is that I’ve been flying a lot more business class this year, so do I “miss” flying first class as much? To be honest, not really.

Don’t get me wrong, I love first class on Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, Lufthansa, etc.

However, there are two things I’ve especially loved about flying business class:

  • I’ve loved being able to try new products; as much fun as it is to fly Emirates first class for the umpteenth time, it’s just as fun to experience a new airline in business class for the first time
  • I’ve found myself arriving more well rested when flying business class, which might seem backwards; however, in first class I tend to want to maximize the experience, and might eat and drink too much for my own good, while in business class I consider the primary goal to arrive well rested, and it has served that purpose quite well

So I’ve been enjoying business class quite a bit, though I still think first class is well worth the premium for a special occasion.

To finish I should just note that there are always exceptions to the “first class vs. business class” argument. In other words, on each of the above points I can think of instances where an airline does business class better than another airline does first class. For example, the food in Austrian business class is better than in China Southern first class, the drinks in Qatar Airways business class are better than in Air India first class, etc.

What do you view as the main differences between first & business class?

  1. I’m really starting to question even getting business class on redeye TATLs. No matter what I do, it is impossible for me to sleep on a plane. Several glasses of champagne and wine? Nope. Melatonin? Nope. Benadryl? Maybe, but it usually messes me up. What’s the point of J if I’m going to get the same amount of rest as I would in Y?

    Maybe it’s time to role out the big guns and get some Ambien…

    It’s really starting to bother me. I got off an ATL-LHR flight on Sunday (which I intentionally picked as a longer TATL flight) feeling exhausted and really pissed off.

  2. Really enjoyed your 2016 J reports. Much more interesting than just another EY/CX/SQ First review. Keep going!

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head with your final comparison. For me, the goal of business class is to arrive well rested so you can hit the ground running (only have 4 long haul J trips under my belt, 2 were Delta to Asia, one was Delta to Brazil and the last El Al to Israel). Have a decent meal and a drink or two but the goal always felt like i should get a good night sleep.

    First class, for me (Cathy to HKG and Qatar to Muscat) was all about the party. Have a five course meal, drink the good champagne and the good wine and the good scotch. And have a mid flight meal just because you can, and have a giant breakfast with 3 glasses of champagne.

    If I had unlimited $$ i’d go F all the time, but there’s certainly a much better value in J

  4. @William – I used to have this problem, but found it was due to the cheap earplugs provided in most of the amenity kits. Do yourself a favor and go to CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, etc. and pick up an inexpensive pack of Hearos Extreme or Hearos Ultimate ear plugs. They will block out all the noise and you’ll likely sleep great. I also have a favorite set of eye shades – not all are created equal, I think mine are from LH or SQ F.

  5. This is all very airline (and sometimes aircraft) dependent. But the latest business class seats are so good that I think it’s worth saving the miles in most cases. However, if the airline you’re planning to fly has old business class seats that aren’t up to date then first can certainly be a better option. My guess is that more and more airlines will phase out F as business class keep improving from a comfort perspective. For me the main goal is to arrive as rested as possible. I’m not a foodie by any stretch of the imagination so all of that caviar and foofoo food is lost on me. A basic meal is all I want along with a bit of room, aisle access without having to climb over some one or be climbed over, decent IFE and a good ground expereince.

    You’d have to pretty much pay me to fly UA in any class, but their Global First product I flew in the past was good…certainly on par seat wise with the newest business class. But I don’t understand why anyone would fly their 2-4-2 “business class”.

  6. The first class experience to me is all about convenience, comfort and space – none of which biz cabins offer to the same extent. I catch up on sleep and rest during the flights so the space, serenity and comfortable bedding are very important. I don’t dine nor drink alcohol in the air, since I just don’t enjoy those anywhere near as much as when on the ground.

    One correction: The restaurant at La Premiere in Paris boasts a menu by Alain Ducasse, who is the chef of several Michelin Star restaurants. However, the Michelin Stars follow the restaurant and not the Chef. Therefore, the restaurant at La Premiere is not a Michelin Star restaurant in itself.

  7. I once had a not so good first class experience on Thai Airways (ok my fault). I love the BKK-HKG-BKK route because it is one of the cheapest real first class routes.
    I already had some stomach problems on the way to the airport and in the lounge in HKG. I hardly ate something on the plane but the stewardess insisted that I try out this incredible green tea ice cream
    ‘Sir, you should try our ice cream. It is fantastic’
    ‘No, thanks – I’m full’
    ‘Just a little bit of it *wink with eyes*’
    ‘I will bring you a very small serving with some cream on top’

    And then I ate it and vomited everything into the toilet. On the other hand I felt relieved afterwards 😉

  8. I do think you’ve hit all the major differences. Of the six I would say 5 don’t move the needle even a little bit for me. We’ll call it 4.5. The personal space matters, though taking CX F vs CX J I think the personal space is moot for me. I don’t sit near anyone either way. Amenities don’t matter to me, except the bedding as you mentioned (Getting the 1/2 point).

  9. @William:

    If you do “upgrade” to Ambien, take just half of a pill at first. I’m usually a light sleeper on planes (even in business) so a few years ago I took a half-Ambien on an SFO-ATL redeye and had the best plane sleep of my life (better than any first class). And this was on AirTran economy!

  10. @Christoph: I am so sorry to hear that (well..sorta. I am happy you felt better after visiting the loo). I was on a flight from Narita to San Fran a few years ago in F. I was sleeping when I woke up to some strange noises. Turns out that a few who ordered the Kaiseki meals were experiencing food poisoning. Luckily I had some anti-emetics for my colleague travelling with me and some of the other passengers; but I felt so helpless that I couldn’t do anything other than provide some meds and “folk” remedies such as ginger ale. He doesn’t dine in the air anymore after that experience either. Weirdly, my reason for not dining in the air is unrelated to food poisoning (airline food caterers on good airlines are meticulous about hygiene), but more so the lack of desire because it’s a re-heated meal and doesn’t boast the same flavors.

    Anyways, I agree that the differences between biz and F are decreasing. However, space and personalized attention are important to my travel schedule, which typically looks like: hop on a plane, get off, go to a meeting, have a nice meal, work some more, hop on a plane…repeat. So, in that respect, first class just offers a little more comfort which I am willing to pay for.

  11. It’s very interesting to see what’s important to each person. To me it’s the leg room I can get in business class. That’s it. I couldn’t care less for the rest of the benefits and if it wasn’t for my wife, who loves flying business class because unlike me she can sleep on the plane, I wouldn’t waste my precious points on this. First class is even less tempting to me. But, as a said, others have very different criteria.

  12. @Kent – You are precisely right that Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants, not to chefs. It slightly annoys me to hear talk of chefs being awarded stars. However, the media (and restaurant PR!) love to talk about Michelin-starred chefs, partly for commercial and publicity reasons. Another slight annoyance – people who think that Michelin stars are awarded for comfort or service (and thus expect white napkin formal service at any Michelin-starred restaurant). Michelin have a separate and much less famous rating for that – forks & spoons.

  13. Your aspirational trip reports were outstanding, but after close to 8 years of blogging, what´s left? I can only think of Garuda F and new Swiss F. Sure there are lots of places and hotels to go, but regarding air companies, there aren´t many lounges or aircrafts that you haven´t been to, you have covered almost everything.
    Why it was kind of easy? And will we see any other revolution like the A380 represented? Were you “Lucky” to have started your blog right around a big leap on lounges and first classes?
    What´s on your bucket list?

  14. Agree with half an ambien. Excellent sleep. If you wake up 4 hours after first half of pill, then take the other half. Just avoid alcohol with it.

  15. Most bloggers go on and on about First Class unique experiences like suites, etc. I have flown Singapore Suites and yes, it’s quite an experience. But I usually hear the bloggers talk derogatively about BA First, especially the fees they charge for both Bus and First. But to me, at least with BA, it’s not even close. Their Business cabin looks like a can of sardines with 8 across seating. The First is comfortable and last week we had two incredible flight attendants. AND they routinely make seats available. So at least to me, with BA it’s more than worth the difference to go for First Class.

  16. @Carlos – I was going to say, what happens after lucky’s tried all the “major” first and business class products out there?

  17. It depends on your goals. For me, the fly g (and lounge) experience is about 40% of why I travel. The hotel (including amenities like spa) are another 40%. The destination is the least important part.

    I know this horrifies real travelers, but it’s my life and those are my priorities. I work very long hours, with people (most of the time). I crave quiet, being pampered, and enjoying very good food and wine. Meeting the locals, or sampling their street food is on the list, but very far down.
    Fire away.

  18. @Mbh I don’t think people should feel the need to “fire away” at you. If that’s what you like, that’s what you like. I guess the question I would have is, Why do you need to be on a plane or in a lounge to enjoy good food and wine and be doted on? The air is not the best place to enjoy good food and wine, and certainly there are less hectic environments for pampering. If I was like you and really didn’t care about the destination, I would check into a kick-ass spa in the city I live in, and then have dinner every night at amazing restaurants.

  19. @Gerard +1 for that important last fact.

    @VS hit it on the nail unless he is an aviation fan. I love traveling, not so much the flying since that’s my bedroom more than anything. But if you’re gonna do it daily, might as well in first if affordable, no? It’s a bigger bedroom

  20. @ Lucky – how about the 7th biggest difference – the price!! Not sure it is worth such a huge gap between Business & First. First is fantastic but I would rather save the money for something else and take Business any time.

  21. I haven’t flown first class or business class internationally, so for me, it’s aspirational. I only discovered this blog because I was able to snag a first class ticket on American’s 300-ER LAX > SYD, returning on business via QF 380 SYD > DFW, and I wanted to read some of the flight reviews. So, I don’t have any perspective on first class versus business – my only point of reference has been numerous flights on Qantas’ economy class, and flying first class USA > Australia has always been a bucket list item.

    Having said that, based on what you’ve written as the 6 distinguishing items between first and business, I can completely rule out #6 (I don’t drink alcohol – I’m strictly a diet coke fan, and they serve that for free even in economy!

    For #3 – I think the pjs are a novelty, but the rest of it can be bought for a few bucks at a decent department store.

    I’m most looking forward to the ground experience (being able to use a premium lounge), and being treated like a valued guest once on board the flight.

  22. Hi Lucky,

    Good article as I am planning a trip to South America from PDX. Looking at a combination of Peru, Chile and Argentina. Any recommendations on Bus or First products?

  23. Mostly BC is good enough when FC does not offer much more. So far the only FC I am willing and happy to pay for is AF and GA. On most others it is not worth the extra money.

  24. As someone who travels long haul 10-12 times a year, I find J to be very good value – especially given some of the amazing deals you find these days. I’ve only flown EK F twice and, while I certainly enjoyed it, I don’t see that much incremental value for F over J. I’m glad to see many airlines reducing or doing away with the F cabin and focussing more on a good J experience.

  25. After a total rave about first class, you conclude that business class is the way to go. Huh?

    For those debating the right dosage of Ambien, please note that saying half a dose is about the same as saying half a piece of string. Ambien comes in dosages of 2.5, 5 and 10 mg, so half a 10 mg is more than double a 2.5 mg pill.

    The recommended initial dose is 5 mg for women and either 5 or 10 mg for men, taken only once per night immediately before bedtime. The recommended initial doses for women and men are different because zolpidem clearance is lower in women.

  26. @william @everyone

    Ambien can have very weird mental side effects for some people. Research it. Been there, had that, will never take it again, scared that it’s on the market and Presidents have used it.

    I prefer generic Temazepam. Much, much safer.

  27. I never pay for F but will use it on award booking if J is not available ( reluctantly as I don’t believe the difference is worth it, even with miles).
    I will pay for J if there is a significant discount on offer , eg Qatar, and often by using the second tier carriers ( Finnair, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, China Southern, American). The top airlines are more difficult, so I rarely fly on ANA or Singpore or Lufthansa.
    For day flights under 9 or 10 hours I will look at load in economy , (to the extent that it’s possible: often actually call the airline through its frequent flyer centre) and calculate the prospect of getting a free seat or row: yesterday I was on such a flight; business was jam packed, economy was about 25% taken.

  28. Nowadays I tend to redeem my points either for economy or first. I actually tend to avoid business class since I feel it’s wasting my points especially when I can hoard/save them for a First Class experience.

    As I’ve gotten older, no matter which class I fly (F, J, or Y) I always feel so tired or exhausted when flying TATL or TPAC due to jetlag. The only times I am fully rested after taking a flight in F or J is on flights to South America as jetlag wouldn’t be an issue.

  29. @VS, I’d be happy to go to that mythical spa as soon as it’s available on points (and a reasonable, attainable number). My travel is 90% points and miles, so I’m not about to shell out thousands in cash. Discovering this hobby (and this blog) is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It has enabled me to find a way to enjoy luxury without parting with (much of) my hard earned cash.

  30. hey Lucky —
    I’m debating which plane to fly from Singapore to JFK in Business. Either Korean Air a380 or Korean Air 747-8i? I’ve never tried the 747-8i before and would love to try it but the celetial bar on the a380 is great. What are your thoughts?

  31. Hi, new here.. but doing research. Hopefully someone can help with some of the questions I have. In 2001 we flew from USA to Cambodia (we had 4 flight changes….Crazy!) We had never been on an international flight before that time. So arrangements were made for economy class going and returning. We survived okay going. We were going to adopt so with the excitement and all, the hours just zipped past us as we tried to get as comfortable as we could. Returning was Another Story all together. After jet lag, adjusting to 12 hour difference in time change, and a week in a different country, and adjusting to be parents as well, we board flight to return home. We felt like sardines tossed in and shoved in the center of a long row of seats (with an infant in our lap). It was the worst!! No leg room and no elbow room! We have always hoped to return one day with our daughter to see her birth country. But I can’t even imagine that same trip again. Have anyone taken the flight into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which airline you recommend? Did you use the Business class and was it worth the difference in money? We are hoping to return there within a year and I would appreciate any suggestions with airlines, and seats or any advice that could make this trip easier on us. Thanks for reading and your replies.

  32. This writer is a racist to the core.
    The tone is professional and moderate till that part on China Southern Airlines which is hard hitting and brutal.
    White supremacist attitude at its worst.

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