Is First Class Worth It? Here’s How To Decide

Is First Class Worth It? Here’s How To Decide

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Over the past decade we’ve seen airlines in the United States do a better job monetizing first class. Back in the day first class would be outrageously expensive. Most seats wouldn’t be sold, but rather would go to people upgrading. Nowadays the percentage of first class seats outright paid for continues to increase, as airlines often decrease the price difference between economy and first class.

In this post I wanted to share my take on when first class is worth it — how much extra am I willing to pay for a first class seat, and how do I decide whether to try to upgrade or pay outright?

What are the benefits of flying first class?

First it’s probably worth sharing a bit of background, so we’re all on the same page. This post is dedicated to your run of the mill domestic first class experience within the United States — we’re not talking about Emirates’ A380 first class with showers.

While there’s still significant variance, in general you can expect that a domestic first class ticket includes the following:

  • A seat that is significantly wider and has more legroom — you can expect a wider seat with more shoulder space, and several extra inches of seat pitch, so you can stretch out more easily
  • Free alcohol onboard, and depending on the length of the flight, something to eat
  • Priority check-in, priority security, priority boarding, and priority deplaning
  • Free checked bags
  • More miles towards elite qualification, should you be going for airline status
  • Generally speaking domestic first class tickets don’t include lounge access — there are exceptions, like paid first class tickets on Alaska, or select transcon routes on American
Don’t get excited about domestic first class food nowadays

One thing to be on the lookout for is that sometimes airlines fly wide body aircraft with fully flat beds on domestic routes, so it could be worth going out of your way (or paying a premium) for these flights.

After all, a fully flat bed with direct aisle access…

American’s 777 business class

…looks significantly better than your standard domestic first class seat.

American’s 737 first class

How much do I value first class?

Personally I conservatively value being in first class over economy at $50 per hour (an hour generally equates to roughly 500 flown miles, if you want to look at it based on distance). There are obviously a lot of variables, but for me that seems like a fair number, and a good starting point for crunching numbers.

I derive value from first class for two simple reasons — the ability to be productive and comfortable. With high speed Wi-Fi increasingly becoming standard on flights, I can be every bit as productive in the air as on the ground. And while domestic first class is hardly anything to get excited about, it is a comfortable place from which to work, and can double as an office.

The extra space goes a long way in first class

Could I work in economy if I had to? Of course. However, it’s quite uncomfortable, and between the lack of privacy (even with a privacy screen someone is usually staring at my screen), the general lack of shoulder space (I have to angle my arms uncomfortably to make it work), and someone potentially reclining significantly into my space, it’s just not a pleasant experience. I’m getting old(er). Bones that I didn’t know existed have started to hurt, and if I can easily avoid this experience, then I do.

It’s harder to get work done in these seats

For me domestic first class is purely about the space. Some might appreciate the food or drinks, but the food is rarely good, and I’m not really looking to get drunk “just because” (well, unless I’m flying Emirates first class, in which case that’s a good enough occasion for me).

How do I decide whether to pay for first class?

American Airlines is the airline I fly most (given that I live in Miami), and I have Executive Platinum status in the AAdvantage program. In theory that entitles me to unlimited domestic upgrades, but that’s subject to availability. Sometimes those upgrades clear easily, while other times they don’t.

How do I go about deciding whether to pay for first class, or chance it with an upgrade?

First of all, I analyze the odds of my upgrade clearing:

  • How many first class seats are left for sale at the time of booking? If first class is mostly booked way in advance, it’s unlikely that many upgrades will clear, and on top of that, not all planes have the same ratio of first class seats to economy class seats
  • How competitive are upgrades in a market? Generally a Dallas to Los Angeles upgrade will be more competitive than an Austin to Tampa upgrade
  • How many extra legroom economy and exit row seats are occupied at the time of booking? This is generally a good indication of how many other elites are on the flight, since they can generally assign these seats in advance

Then I also often apply a discount to the fare difference. For example, say I’m looking at an American Airlines ticket, and the fare difference between economy and first class is $200:

  • As an Executive Platinum member I earn 11x AAdvantage miles per dollar spent, and I value those miles at 1.5 cents each; to me that’s an incremental 16.5% return on spending
  • If I pay with my Amex Platinum I earn 5x Membership Rewards points per dollar spent, and I value those at 1.7 cents each; to me that’s an incremental 8.5% return on spending

Between those two factors, I’m getting a 25% return on my spending. That lowers my real “out of pocket” from $200 to $150.

Beyond those considerations, I make decisions on a case-by-case basis. In other words, if I value first class at $50 extra per hour, and if I think I have a 50% chance of an upgrade clearing, I might be willing to pay an extra $25 per hour of flying to outright pay for first class.

I consider several factors when deciding whether to pay for first class

Some examples of deciding between fares

In general I find that Delta does the best job with its first class pricing, at least based on my willingness to pay. With Delta more often than not I find that first class pricing is right at the breakeven point based on my math.

For example, I have Silver Medallion status with Delta, so upgrades rarely clear. Take a Tampa to Boston Delta flight for example, where (non-basic) economy class costs $144, and first class costs $344.

Would I pay an extra $200 to essentially sit in a first class seat for well over three hours? Probably, especially when you consider that I really only view this as costing ~$170, after factoring in the value of the incremental miles I’d be earning. That’s right around $50 per hour, and as a Silver Medallion it can even be hard to snag a good Comfort+ seat without paying extra.

Often when booking in advance it can be harder to justify paying for first class, given that we often see very cheap economy fares. For example, take a Tampa to Chicago flight, where economy costs $49, and first class costs $331.

The flight has a block time of just under three hours, and the price difference is $280. I’d put my odds of an upgrade clearing at over 50%, so there’s no chance I’d pay for first class there.

Trickier is a Fort Lauderdale to Los Cabos itinerary, where economy costs $220, and first class costs $399. We’re talking about a ~$180 difference, and when you factor in a 25% return in terms of the miles I’d earn, that’s really only ~$135. That seems like a reasonable premium to pay to be guaranteed first class for well over six hours of flying, even if there’s a shot an upgrade would otherwise clear.

At least that’s how I approach these situations based on my specific circumstances — for others, I think it’s worth considering whether you have status more generally, and what value that gets you. In some cases elite status may already get you free checked bags, extra legroom economy seating, priority boarding, etc., in which case that reduces the incremental value of first class.

Conversely, if you don’t have status and know you’re going to be checking two bags, you can subtract the cost of that from the price difference. You could also factor in if you’d otherwise pay for extra legroom economy seats, priority boarding, etc.

Bottom line

Everyone values first class differently, so there’s no consistent formula for calculating how much of a premium it’s worth paying, especially given how many variables there are.

Personally I value first class at ~$50 per hour over economy, and that’s largely because I can work productively in first class, while it’s a struggle in economy. That doesn’t even account for such things as generally being comfortable, getting a meal and free drinks, earning bonus elite qualifying miles, etc.

When deciding what to book, I also factor in my upgrade chances, as well as the miles I’m earning for the difference in fare, since I view that as a discount.

Under what circumstances do you consider paying for first class?

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  1. Mallthus

    I generally value domestic first a little higher, but that's because I'm tall and "robustly proportioned". And generally I was finding that the math for paid first made sense on better than 75% of my flights in 2018 and 2019, even with status that could have, hypothetically, bumped me up for free given the additional miles earned on paid F.

    That said, I've only flown twice since the start of the pandemic (a huge...

    I generally value domestic first a little higher, but that's because I'm tall and "robustly proportioned". And generally I was finding that the math for paid first made sense on better than 75% of my flights in 2018 and 2019, even with status that could have, hypothetically, bumped me up for free given the additional miles earned on paid F.

    That said, I've only flown twice since the start of the pandemic (a huge decrease) and both times were on F9 (because they were flying where I needed to go, when I needed to go, at a fare comically lower than UA...I'm in DEN), so it'll be interesting to see if the math still works as I begin to fly more in Q4 (variants notwithstanding). `

  2. Ken

    Glad you included the 'getting old' criteria. My wife has a spinal implant to manage leg pain and we discovered about 5 years ago that the extra room in domestic first-class seats was the only way she could fly without arriving virtually crippled.
    We don't fly often but we only fly when the incremental cost of first-class isn't excessive. We are based at an American hub also so that is usually possible.

  3. LifeByTheMile

    As someone who does not hold (or hope to get) elite status, travels with motorcycle gear and is not exactly a small person, the deciding factor is adding in all the extra costs before making the price comparison.

    The two 70lbs, the extra leg room and seat selection, and priority boarding (overhead bin space) can all be purchased extra. But what we have found, with limited exceptions, is that once you add in all the...

    As someone who does not hold (or hope to get) elite status, travels with motorcycle gear and is not exactly a small person, the deciding factor is adding in all the extra costs before making the price comparison.

    The two 70lbs, the extra leg room and seat selection, and priority boarding (overhead bin space) can all be purchased extra. But what we have found, with limited exceptions, is that once you add in all the extra fees that F includes the non-F fare is either the same as or more expensive than up front.

    One final note with flying from YVR on a US carrier's First Class we get lounge access as it's technically an international flight.

  4. Sam

    “ Beyond those considerations, I make decisions on a case-by-case basis. In other words, if I value first class at $50 extra per hour, and if I think I have a 50% chance of an upgrade clearing, I might be willing to pay an extra $25 per hour of flying to outright pay for first class.”
    This logic is just plain stupid. You’re still paying the full price of an upgrade, not some made up $25 an hour just because an upgrade has a 50% chance of clearing

    1. Eskimo

      @Sam

      Well it depends?
      1. The logic is just plain stupid, the person can't make any sense.
      2. The person is just plain stupid, the logic doesn't make any sense.

      But you are right, @Lucky does pay full price of the upgrade.

  5. Douglas DeNunzio

    The response to travel overseas happen when one is able to go through a struggle.

  6. Mark G

    An additional advantage to a paid FC ticket is priority for itinerary changes in the case of irregular operations. In the past, I’ve been able to seamlessly switch flights having a first class ticket when I’m sure as an economy passenger they would have told me the automated rebooking is the best they can do.

  7. David S

    My methodology is simple, I want enough room to work. If first class is less than 2 coach seats + $25 (which is what I value the first class food and drink amenity), I buy first class, if not I buy 2 coach seats. Having lifetime high level status on both airlines I fly, I receive most of the other first class perks for free (i.e. early boarding, free bags, etc.).

  8. ovacikar

    The last example Fort Lauderdale to Los Cabos , screenshot $399 is Business class price, not First.

  9. John T

    Great guide. More of this and less 'passenger goes crazy on Spirit flight' please.

  10. Ivan X

    Thought I’d quickly mention that EWR/JFK-SFO/LAX in business class on United also gets you lounge access.

  11. Jim

    I usually fly AS (west coast) and DL (east of the Rockies). Occasionally I’ll fly WN depending on my destination. I mostly fly premium economy but keep an eye on first class airfares.

    During the peak of the pandemic, 1st was often $200 +/- more than PE for a roundtrip transcon. I would often fly PE eastbound and 1st westbound. Interestingly the difference in MQM’s and MQD’s earned between PE and 1st on DL...

    I usually fly AS (west coast) and DL (east of the Rockies). Occasionally I’ll fly WN depending on my destination. I mostly fly premium economy but keep an eye on first class airfares.

    During the peak of the pandemic, 1st was often $200 +/- more than PE for a roundtrip transcon. I would often fly PE eastbound and 1st westbound. Interestingly the difference in MQM’s and MQD’s earned between PE and 1st on DL is not as much as you would expect. But you are up front and get to enjoy the perks.

    I just booked a roundtrip flight on AS between RNO and SoCal in December. On the return leg, the difference between PE and 1st was $40. I jumped on it knowing I have complementary access to the Alaska Lounge at LAX and I earn 50% bonus miles.

  12. kcl491

    While researching a Denver/Fort Lauderdale round-trip I found that the United First Class fare was a little over $100 more than a similar non-stop Business Class round trip on Southwest. Very surprised because I've always been told Southwest is so much cheaper than the "big three". Opened my eyes.

  13. Arthur

    Another factor in the pandemonium is that I am spending much less on travel with no international trips. As a result, I am more willing to spend a little more on domestic F to make what travel I do more pleasant. But generally I have been finding paid domestic F at pretty reasonable prices or for miles.

  14. JoeSchmo

    I think you should add another variable - the savings in food/booze that you would otherwise purchase in the airport. If there's no lounge and even if there's a lounge but no food that would satisfy as a meal, then I would value that around $50.

  15. Randy

    For me, on AA, if F is <= 2x the cost of Y - then it is worth it.

    For F, AA gives 2x EQM. And if the price is 2x then you earn 2x EQD.

    So basically one F flight provides the same Elite Quals as two flights. So status requirements are half if always flying F. Although the credit for MM is BIS regardless of F or Y ticket.

  16. Richard_

    If you're traveling with a partner, a benefit of first class is that no third party sits next to you. While you might be able to buy three seats for the two of you (XTRASEAT), there's no guarantee if it will prevent someone else from sitting with you in a row of three and at that point the economics favor F.

  17. relidtm

    good break down for the first time though for a trans con I typically value this at 25-50% more then a base fare I booked a trip on Hawaiin airlines non stop and they wanted 5k per person to fly up front, very hard pill to swallow given that I booked flying to Europe same flight time for 600$ more per ticket.

  18. 100K

    Been following One Mile at a Time since he began on Boarding Area. Overall the best- well-written, humorous (esp in early days), great/quality photos, organized, attention to details. Thanks for your work.

  19. gstork

    I can’t do coach any more. The time I save in lines at check-in, getting on/off the plane, and just a bit more comfort in FC make it a no-brainer for me. The last few times I tried to tough it out in coach on short flights (ie LAX/SFO), we ended up sitting at the gate for an extra hour+ waiting for a mechanical issue to be fixed, or waiting next to the runway to...

    I can’t do coach any more. The time I save in lines at check-in, getting on/off the plane, and just a bit more comfort in FC make it a no-brainer for me. The last few times I tried to tough it out in coach on short flights (ie LAX/SFO), we ended up sitting at the gate for an extra hour+ waiting for a mechanical issue to be fixed, or waiting next to the runway to takeoff since the destination airport is congested due to weather, or whatever reason… I end up sitting in that cramped seat for 3x the normal flight time. Just not worth it, especially with the covid thing dragging on endlessly.

  20. Trey

    I think $50/hour is fair for a 2+ hours flight. I'd throw in a few other variables to consider: luggage (2 pcs can cost $70 per direction) if you're in economy, COVID (as someone mentioned), how much extra legroom seats in economy costs (and whether you can get those for free), the extra flexibility (e.g. same-day flight changes) that first class tickets bring and (for current situation) if how much booze you're planning to drink...

    I think $50/hour is fair for a 2+ hours flight. I'd throw in a few other variables to consider: luggage (2 pcs can cost $70 per direction) if you're in economy, COVID (as someone mentioned), how much extra legroom seats in economy costs (and whether you can get those for free), the extra flexibility (e.g. same-day flight changes) that first class tickets bring and (for current situation) if how much booze you're planning to drink cuz there's no more alcohol in economy!

  21. Francisco C

    If there is a tight connection at a large airport, one could add that as a reason to sit upfront instead of at the rear.

    1. Sel, D.

      +1. Additionally, first off for immigration when landing can make a HUGE difference at understaffed airports.

  22. John

    Not to over-complicate it, but it seems like for most people this is not a straight-line formula.....the cost per hour realistically should rise considerably for longer flights.....An hour flight--you can suck it up and no need to pay a ton to avoid it.....I don't think I'd pay more than 50 bucks....A coast to coast flight in a crowded economy cabin might get pretty miserable after a few hours....Depending on the circumstances I might pay 200 an hour.

  23. askmrlee

    Recently I took a SFO-ORD red-eye flight in F (booked as D class) in a 787-9 on UA for about $250 more than Y. Other flights on narrowbody aircraft for the same day were $350 to $400 more! I got a flat bed seat (instead of recliner on narrow body), alcohol, hot meal, larger IFE screen and decent sleep. I could have checked 3 - 70 lb bags for no charge vs. regular economy with...

    Recently I took a SFO-ORD red-eye flight in F (booked as D class) in a 787-9 on UA for about $250 more than Y. Other flights on narrowbody aircraft for the same day were $350 to $400 more! I got a flat bed seat (instead of recliner on narrow body), alcohol, hot meal, larger IFE screen and decent sleep. I could have checked 3 - 70 lb bags for no charge vs. regular economy with no free bags and a 50 lb limit. Moral of the story, don't limit your searches to just economy.

  24. pstm91

    For me, it's interesting to see how you quantify it. Maybe my mind works more simply, but I basically view it as a few hours in a seat (anything up to ~4hrs) is not worth spending for F if it's a large price difference or an amount I'm not willing to pay at that time. I don't work much on planes, so I have no problem sitting and watching something in a slightly tighter seat....

    For me, it's interesting to see how you quantify it. Maybe my mind works more simply, but I basically view it as a few hours in a seat (anything up to ~4hrs) is not worth spending for F if it's a large price difference or an amount I'm not willing to pay at that time. I don't work much on planes, so I have no problem sitting and watching something in a slightly tighter seat. With that said, if the price difference isn't much then I'll go for it. I also always look to see if it's a lie-flat - that is a difference maker.

  25. Steve

    When i fly AA (plat pro)i never book first, the incremental increase on AA for someone who has group 1/2 boarding regardless, free exit row seats, and a 25-40% upgrade chance anyways there is no point. I get every perk besides the bigger seat. Now if im flying alaska, united or delta i will book first since i dont have free checked bags, exit row, priority boarding etc.

  26. Bob

    This is awesome. More articles like this (and Hyatt's upgrade with points). Just to clarify. You actually did not fly with Spirit, right? You were "gifted" the status as a part of their promo campaign?

  27. Sel, D.

    Would your valuation change for a flight you couldn’t write-off? Do you even take those??? I wonder if you have enough biz owner followers to create a spin-off blog.

    1. Eskimo

      I would assume every trip on OMAAT is a tax write-off.
      I would think a biz owner type blog would be difficult because the spectrum would be too wide. A sole proprietor vs 10 vs 100 vs 1000 employee would play out significantly different, not to mention industry.

      Same goes with $50 per hour doesn't fit everybody here either. But sure does fit most.
      Consider this if your parents are wealthy? ($2 million),...

      I would assume every trip on OMAAT is a tax write-off.
      I would think a biz owner type blog would be difficult because the spectrum would be too wide. A sole proprietor vs 10 vs 100 vs 1000 employee would play out significantly different, not to mention industry.

      Same goes with $50 per hour doesn't fit everybody here either. But sure does fit most.
      Consider this if your parents are wealthy? ($2 million), some would be duck taped on Frontier. If your parents are worth $2 billion, you probably never seen a middle seat and consider any ticket less than 10k is cheap.

    2. Lawrence Mayer

      We tried first class one time with AA. The cost would run 400 to 800 for both of us. Too costly, here's why. As stated in the article, food not that great, wife doesn't drink, while I have to drive the rental car when we arrive, I can't indulge too much. Entertainment is the same in FC as in coach. The only benefit is the room. What we have done is purchased the middle seat....

      We tried first class one time with AA. The cost would run 400 to 800 for both of us. Too costly, here's why. As stated in the article, food not that great, wife doesn't drink, while I have to drive the rental car when we arrive, I can't indulge too much. Entertainment is the same in FC as in coach. The only benefit is the room. What we have done is purchased the middle seat. So we have lots of space between us, put our personal bag beneath the middle seat so we can stretch our legs, and no annoying passenger next to us. The money saved in not paying for FC allows to have an expensive meal and drink before we leave, or bring food bought at the airport.

  28. robert becker

    i am surprised that worries about covid are not part of the equation.

  29. Andre

    I pay for FC domestic every time now. I experimented with the whole “take a chance and get upgraded” game and I’ve been burned twice — both in an economy seat next to a figety kid whose mom couldn’t control him. I will never go through that again.

  30. Bob

    Great article, Ben. What is your math if you are using points instead of cash?

  31. trajan81

    My height pretty much dictates it for me....if I'm flying on metal that has extra legroom seats in Y I'll fly that if not, first it is. Being very tall is great for some things, not so great for others.

  32. paul

    Ben, great breakdown. I also use the $50/hr for paid upgrades. the answer to "how much should I pay for an upgrade" for me depends upon route, carrier, type of first class seat (lounger or lay flat) and especially length of flight and overnight or not. anything under 6 hours and over $50/hr for first? no thanks. redeye lax to nyc and an upgrade to F or even J lay flat at ~$50 hour? yes, please.

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Francisco C

If there is a tight connection at a large airport, one could add that as a reason to sit upfront instead of at the rear.

Sel, D.

+1. Additionally, first off for immigration when landing can make a HUGE difference at understaffed airports.

Ken

Glad you included the 'getting old' criteria. My wife has a spinal implant to manage leg pain and we discovered about 5 years ago that the extra room in domestic first-class seats was the only way she could fly without arriving virtually crippled. We don't fly often but we only fly when the incremental cost of first-class isn't excessive. We are based at an American hub also so that is usually possible.

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Is First Class Worth It? Here’s How To Decide
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