Airplane Tips: First Class Etiquette

Reader Rodney asked the following question on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog:

Lucky: After traveling places with my kids in economy, Ive decided to book a First Class ticket to Beijing on Air China. What are some rules to remember when sitting in the “front row”? Attire? Does/Don’ts? Thanks in advance for the tips!!

I wrote a post last week about maximizing international first class travel in terms of how to make it most pleasant for yourself, but it occurred that I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about general first class etiquette… and there’s probably a reason for that.

Now I’ve provided some very helpful PSAs over the years when it comes to flying, like:


But as I sit down to answer Rodney’s question I realize I don’t really have any etiquette tips, and I’m not sure if I’m just going crazy, am jaded, or am off base.

I don’t think the “rules/norms” of flying in first class really differ from economy. If anything you have more leeway. I mean, we’re talking about a cabin where the airline gives you pajamas and slippers, so you can totally fly like a 15 year old girl every time without getting weird looks (though ideally change out of the pajamas before landing — there’s an etiquette tip for you, from personal experience).

It’s also easier to be considerate when you have a lot of space. You’re flying Air China, and they have an especially private first class cabin.

Air China 777-300ER first class

I think maybe 20 years ago the “culture” in first class was different. But the tech industry has really changed business culture, whereby it’s okay to dress like crap, and if anything, shows “power” (not saying I agree, but I do think there’s something to it). I mean, people even used to dress up just to fly, even if it was economy.

I’d say the only “minor” tips I have are to use the “personal” reading light instead of the “overhead” reading light whenever possible, as it shines more direct light. And most first class cabins are kept completely dark, so light is more noticeable. The same applies to the window shades.

As far as traveling with kids goes, that’s more Mommy Points’ area of expertise than mine. I think the etiquette for traveling with kids in first class varies substantially based on how old they are, but in general I think as long as parents try to look after their kids/keep them entertained, it’s all good.

I realize this post is basically saying a lot about nothing, but I’m curious about what you guys think, because hopefully you can provide a better answer than I can. Is there any “real” first class etiquette aside from just applying common sense to the travel experience?

Filed Under: Advice
  1. Regardless of what cabin you are traveling in you should always be polite, because the people working are humans too!

  2. I would agree about etiquette being essentially the same as economy. Ditto on the window shades. I really hate on the “nighttime” portion of the flight (which is often still light on polar routes) when I’m trying to sleep or watch a movie in the dark cabin and some doofus has to have his window shade wide open. The question wasn’t clear on whether his kids would be with him, but if they are I would say there is even more of an expectation that they stay quiet. Economy almost always has a couple of kids crying or playing loudly, but travelers paying $10k+ for a F ticket expect to get an undisturbed night’s rest.

  3. People who need etiquette tips won’t read them. So here’s a tip for the first class cabin staff, which I guess applies more to domestic first class where you can and do sometimes get stuck next to the drunk lonely guy who thinks an airplane is a bar: If some dude has been speaking for more than an hour without taking a breath at the top of his lungs about how his ex cheated on him…it’s not just OK to cut him off, it’s mandatory. Thank You.

  4. Is it ok to order multiple items from the menu at the same time? What if I can’t make up my mind on what appetizer I should order?

    My first F experience will be this summer.

  5. @ VJ — Absolutely, it’s totally okay to ask. First class is almost always over-catered, but in the event that it’s not they’ll let you know (and you won’t be looked at like you’re crazy for asking). I’ve never had issues ordering multiple appetizers, and I’m sure ordering multiple main other items wouldn’t be a problem either.


  6. When I travel first class I like to travel a little more classy than I would in economy. In economy your clothing will get beat up, you are cramped and perhaps sweaty. In FC you have the chance to look at feel good. For some there dream is to have an empty FC to themselves, for others it is more the being part of a FC crowd on a journey. If your the latter you might want to feel more FC yourself. No need to go overboard but enjoy the experience.

  7. I think we have to keep in mind.. there is no such thing as Etiquette any more. It seems this has not been taught to children for about 20 years now. Just don;t expect it and you’ll do ok.

    Having gotten that out of the way, dress and act appropriately for first class and you will get first class service. If not.. then I don’t want to hear about it.

  8. Especially if they carry beluga. A few times I’ve had seconds and thirds, then just a salad, and skip the entree/dessert.

  9. The window shade thing kinda bothered me when I flew from SFO-HKG on United in First Class.

    I tried to stay up as much of the flight as possible so I would arrive nice and tired. I also enjoyed looking out the window from time to time during the long journey. The flight attendant asked me to shut my shade so it would be dark for everyone else.

    I understood her request and closed it but I was a little bummed and frustrated. I opened it several time throughout and felt like I was doing a no-no but oh well.

  10. @Chris

    I had a similar experience, though the crew didn’t tell me specifically but just closed my shades while I was using the washroom. I guess it’s just more important to keep First Class in an condition where all of us who paid for traveling would feel comfortable. I had another experience where there were kids running back and forth in the First Class cabin, and neither the crew nor the parents said anything, so I ended up not being to sleep for the entire journey as I hear very loud sound of their feet hitting the cabin floor.
    Having said that, though, I suspect if you want to look out you can probably keep one of the shades up from time to time, and no one is going to blame you for that.

  11. @Norman

    Yikes! I woulda said something. I’ve sat upstairs many times on the 747 to Hong Kong and left windows open and never had someone tell me to close them, even though most others were closed for the entire trip.

    Just another reason to want a private suite that is closed off to the rest of the cabin so you don’t bother others 🙂

  12. @Chris

    I like to think this in this way: those who can be convinced that their kids are disturbing others, won’t let it happen in the first place. Plus it’s a rather short flight of about 4 hours, so I decided to save the trouble.

    You’re right and I think that’s why most of the top-notch First Class products are now suites. The main reason for me to fly in First is that I get more attentive service than in Business, and that I at least have a a bit of breathing space and freedom, without having to mind too much about others(since we each have enough space of our own). And really I can feel the frustration you had on the United flight.

  13. It’s an interesting question, how do young children travel in first? The answer is that children should not disturb other passengers, pretty much at all costs. The parents quality and skill in parenting will be on absolute display and some degree of scrutiny upfront/upstairs. Unless you’re leaving your kids in the back with the nanny, you need to make sure that you bring sufficient and appropriate entertainment and kids know how to behave. I traveled with newborn and very young children up front and it’s helpful to use a number of shhh-ing techniques when necessary for the inevitable adjustment in a pressurized cabin. The seats are super big for kids, and they love to sleep. Whole foods sells some natural children’s sleep aids, drops basically that worked pretty well too! I find that the cabin attendants actually enjoy having kids or young children upfront, it’s pretty rare and they give kids special attention almost doing double duty as babysitters too!

  14. @ Rodney

    I flew the first class route to Beijing with Air China last month out of San Francisco. Something that was not mentioned was that more than likely that cabin will be practically empty. So you should really not be too concerned about how to act up front. You will find on this flight the 1-2 other people on the flight will more than likely be asleep for the whole trip (depending on which city you are departing from). The hard product is great. Most people give the food and service negative reviews with Air China, but I found that both were acceptable (food is more business class level).

  15. I don’t understand why it’s so bad to open a window shade every now and then. If you are sleeping wear the eye mask. On most premium cabins I’ve flown the light does not directly shine on someone else’s tv. Just like the recline or not recline discussion – if you don’t like it fly private or buy multiple seats.

  16. It didn’t stop a little old lady in First on Lufthansa from changing in the aisle and walking over to her bed in her spanx. Dinner And A Show.

  17. 1-Children under the age of 12, should not be booked into International First Class. Some children do behave well in public. But as I have experienced, many “well-to-do” parents of young children, think their children do no wrong.
    2-Do not tell anyone how you purchased your ticket. If you are on an award, no one needs to know that. People who have paid $10,000 for their First Class seat, are not happy about travellers on award tickets.
    3-You don’t have to dress up, but try for a neat business casual look. And take a shower and put on clean clothes. I once sat next to a man in business class from Geneva,CH that smelled so bad, no one could breath, near him. He was in a suit and obviously a UN employee, on a paid ticket. So the airline really couldn’t do anything to him.
    4-Wearing a track suit or basketball shorts in First class is very tacky. Maybe ok in business class, but not First.
    5-It is not acceptable to constantly turn your lights on and off. This isn’t a disco!

  18. Here’s an important tip: don’t be disruptive and please, please, please keep it quiet. People are in F to get away from the hubbub in economy (and even in Biz). Absolutely no shouting unless you personally have caught fire.

    Know your limits. No one likes a sloppy drunk. There is liquor on the ground, you don’t have to drink it all before you land.

    Pretend you’re in a fine restaurant. All those unwritten rules apply in F.

    And always, always, always be kind.

  19. The most important etiquette for first class is to leave your kids at home or in economy with the nanny. People to not pay $10+ to listen to your kids babble or run up and down the aisle all night.
    No matter what you do, they will at some point annoy and wake up others. So be considerate and keep them out of first class.

  20. Hey Lucky…

    Another PJ question. WHEN do you change into the PJ’s. Before or after takeoff? And if after, do you do it before or after the meal?

  21. Suit or nice slacks and blazer.

    Don’t be on your phone yacking about how important you think you are. Nobody cares.

    Don’t put your nasty bare feet up on the wall or anywhere. Nobody want’s to see it or smell it.

    Say please and thank you. Show respect to the cabin crew.

  22. I agree with those who suggest that business casual attire is appropriate when travelling in first. But then I don’t think shorts or sweat pants or bare feet are ever okay – even in economy.
    As to the PJ’s, I change after dinner, when I am ready to try to sleep – just seems weird to change on arrival and eat dinner in my pj’s – you are still in public afterall – but from Lucky’s trip reports i think he may disagree.

  23. Learn how to eat caviar. I was very confused by all the non-caviar components but watched some other passengers for clues.

  24. Dont bother showing your extensive picture of your vacation (on your iPad) to the flight attendants. They are just nice and busy, and they dont want to see you half naked body on a beach in Bora Bora.

    And please oh please no porn flicks on your iPad !

  25. On occasion I’ve wanted to work a bit or continue to read, etc, with all that spread out room and didn’t want the whole linen tablecloth routine but did want some dinner and that particular FA seemed a little miffed that I was putting a small chink in her routine, so I’m more likely now to go along with the show, even tho sometimes it gets a little ridiculous.

  26. Ah this brings to mind Richard Quest’s controversial tweet about banning children in first/business class. This is a topic that doesn’t have a black or white answer. It’s easy to say ‘as long as you ensure your kids behave’ but then who has robots for kids? And if you’re a parent would you really avoid business/first even if you can ,just because your kids may misbehave? It’s pretty tricky. Some airlines have sky nannies – cabin crew who specialise in helping parents travel with kids and I think this is the safe solution for now, if all airlines can afford it in all cabin levels.

  27. Have you ever heard anyone snore in First Class? If so, what is the proper etiquette? I would imagine snoring would be just as disturbing as kids running around.

  28. @ Patrick — I typically change before departure, and then right before final approach. Others wait until after the meal service, so it depends on your preferences.

  29. As for kids traveling in First Class I do believe they can be taught to behave well when there are others in the cabin, so I would disagree with @lee on banning kids in premium cabins. Although I had some bad experiences where kids really kept me from having a good rest, there were other times when the parents were able to control the situation, even with really excited and energetic kids, so I guess this comes down to the parents really.

    And to Rodney, do keep in mind that flight attendants of Air China may not be able to help you much, unless your kids speak Chinese.

  30. Everyone has given me great info to consider. For the record, I am NOT traveling with my kids but I almost booked us all in first class for another trip so it was good for thought anyway. Lucky, thanks for the pic of Air China FC….looks like I’ll be in my own cocoon.

  31. Here’s another one that should be obvious but apparently isn’t–don’t bathe in perfume/cologne before your flight (that goes for economy pax too!) I flew Copa business from PTY to TPA recently and was seated in front of a woman who had on so much perfume it made me nauseous. Thankfully, the cabin wasn’t full so I was able to move. Copa was nothing special either…I wouldn’t recommend redeeming any mile for their “premium” cabin.

  32. Good tips all around. I’d not wear a suit or dressy slacks though; good jeans are perfectly fine with something other than a t-shirt. And, I guess, if your crew speaks decent English don’t be afraid to ask them if you have any questions. Reading trip reports also helps so you know what to expect.

  33. Don’t leave the plane wearing the 1st class pajamas and stroll into the lounge 😉 Right Lucky? 🙂

  34. I am curious about the whole “attire” thing when flying FC. May one take into account their destination when deciding on what to wear? I am flying FC for the first time this Feb. SFO/OGG. I would think that wearing casual attire would be appropriate when flying to Hawai’i.

  35. It has been interesting reading the comments. I do feel that the current generation has respect with flying in premium cabins. As a former travel consultant, I tend to lean toward the conservative.

    1) I do not necessary feel dressing up in a suit is necessary, especially for long haul flights, but jeans and shorts are not appropriate. Business casual would be appropriate. For males, shirts with collars should be worn. Clothes should be neat and pressed upon arrival. After a 14 hour flight, clothes will be wrinkled. Changing into PJs allow the clothes to remain nice looking upon arrival. The previous comments about bathing and perfume are great! Just remember, first impressions.

    2) Respect for all passengers – this goes for traveling with children and snorers. There is a certain expectation of behavior in premium cabins. If the passenger or parents are not able to respect this unwritten behavior, then wisdom should be used and the appropriate class of service booked that accomodates the desired behavior. I have flown first class where the children behaved better than the adults in the cabin.

    3) I cannot stess enough … Remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Flight attendants are human and can have good/bad days. It is good to think that it is a privilege to sit in first/business class, not an entitlement.

  36. There is no “rule” of behaviour that is not a variant on “be considerate to others”. If what you want to do does not impact adversely on others, there is no reason why you should not do it. Bizarre or demonstrably careless clothing is mildly offensive (because odd) to others, and should be avoided. Otherwise, wear whatever you like.

    When did anyone last get served caviar in FC? I have not been offered it in ages.

  37. 1. Close the window shade. For you, its “lamp” (and lets be honest, youre reading something back lit)… for everyone else its the beacon that keeps ships from crashing against the shore. Close the damn shade. *if you have some.phobia relieved by an open window, discuss this with the person next to you, and give them a chance to move. Before takeoff.

    It shines in peoples eyes, makes crappy tablets feflect like crazy, and you dont even know.

    *youre awake and tje captain says “take a look at the sierra nevada out of the right window… its ok to open, but tjen close.

    2. Space. Theres so much fucking space. Dont invade. Thats hard to do in economy (avoiding invasion in economy is hard), but unless youre going to the lav…

    But in first class? Stay on your side!

    3. Assist the stewards. Pass drinks if youre aisle. Stack plates, put garbage neatly packed in a glass if window. Clear a sleeping passengers tray. Pick ONE DRINK and stick with it. The staff wont remember half the time. But ordering your white wine with a separate glass of ice then sending it back because there was too much wine in the one glass, and it couldnt fit in the ice class is facunty to the max. Also it delays everyone elses service.

    You arent a special snowflake. Keep it simple. Help everyone.

    4. Shut up. You know whats not in first class? Babies. You know what people do in first class? Be quiet. Its all about INVASION OF OTHERS HAPPINESS. You wanna take off your shoes? Cool. You want to listen to young jeezy? Ok. But everything you do should stay in your space. Moreso in fc than economy. Headphones. Silence. Flirt with the staff, ok. Talk a little, pass the time. Youre not going to take a stewardess home and your incessant cackling makes everyone for three rows as mad at you as if you put a “mental health dog” (we know its just your dog) with a screamig baby and placed that in the pie wedge from Hunger Games II that sent mocking jay mutants that spoke all thd terror of your life, recorded it, and played it through your headset for the entire duration of flight.

    5. Ettiquette. Most of the time theres this concept of “were all firdt class.” So we wont ask you to close the window for our comfort… you have it open..we.wont ask you to shut up, even though you should. Someone uber status MIGHT translate their power later, but for the most part, everyone considers each other equal.

    6. When it goes BOOP and you stand up? Get your bag and get out of thr way. Only the person with a 4hour connection and no club pass doesnt care about deboarding. Everyone wants off the plane.

  38. It’s handy to know that you should use the personal reading light instead of the overhead light when flying first class. My boss needs to head out of town for a meeting, and he wants to make sure that he’s comfortable in first class. I’ll share this information with him so that he can look further into ways to properly fly first class in the future.

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