Flying First Class? Is It Worth The High Price?

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First class is the most luxurious way to fly. With access to the best airport facilities, the most spacious and private seating on board and fine dining, it is, of course, a fantastic way to travel. But with shockingly high prices the norm, it can seem out of reach for most travelers.

This article takes a look at this top class of service and what the first class product is like on many airlines. We also consider whether it is worth the price, how to get better deals, and where first class is heading, given that business class is improving with many airlines.

British Airways first class
The first class cabin with British Airways. Photo: British Airways

What is first class?

Put simply, first class the top tier of service offered by some, but by no means all, of the largest airlines. It’s all about privacy, flexibility, and luxury.

These days it will always include fully flat beds, either as large seats or private enclosed suites, as well as excellent food and drink. This is often prepared on-demand, and with extensive choice.

We are looking in this guide at international first class, generally on long haul services. Domestic first class is also a common appearance on US airlines. This, naturally, differs both in price and service from international first class.

Which airlines offer first class?

Airlines that (as at mid-2020) operate this class of service include the following:

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  • In North America first class is only offered on American Airlines.
  • In Europe, first class is found on British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, and Swiss International Airlines.
  • Asia is a standout region for first class. Many of the country’ flag carriers’ offers a first class cabin, as do many of the regional airlines in China. First class is offered by Air India, ANA, Japan Airlines, Bamboo Airways, Cathay Pacific (and subsidiary Cathay Dragon), Garuda Indonesia, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, and Korean Air. Chinese airlines offering it include Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern.
  • First class is popular in the Middle East too. The three leading carriers Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar Airways, all have first class. It is also available with El Al, Kuwait Airways, Oman Air, and Saudi.
  • In Australia and New Zealand, only Qantas offers it (and only on the A380).
Qantas First
Qantas First on the A380- the only first class with a Pacific airline. Photo: Qantas

And which airlines do not offer first class?

Many airlines have chosen to make business class their top offerings. In the US, this is currently all airlines except American Airlines. And many major European carriers, including Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Finnair, and Iberia, have no first class.

Recent years have seen a gradual decline in first class. Major airlines that have withdrawn it in recent years include United Airlines, South African Airways, Air New Zealand, Malaysian Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and LATAM.

Virgin Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic has an excellent Upper Class, but no first class product. Photo: Virgin Atlantic

With several of these airlines, first class seating has remained on many aircraft. It is not necessarily cost-effective to remove it straight away. Sometimes the seats are offered to business class customers (often as a perk for frequent flyers). And sometimes they are sold as business class, but with better seating. Malaysian Airlines, for example, did this with its first class cabin on the A380 and sold it as ‘Business Suite.’

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It is also important to note that while an airline may maintain first class, there can be reductions in aircraft and routes that offer it. For example, British Airways provides first class across much of its long haul fleet but decided not to install it on the Airbus A350.

How has first class evolved?

A bit of history for those that are interested. Where has the luxurious first class we see today come from?

In the early days of aviation, there was generally just one class. This started off as a basic product on small aircraft, but soon changed to match high-end demand for air travel. By 1935, for example, the DC3 was offering single cabin transcontinental service in the US, with spacious seating and beds.

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Qanats flying boat
Single cabins in the early days were more luxurious (This is a Qantas Empire flying boat). Photo: Qantas

Splitting cabins into economy and first class become more common as aviation expanded in the 1950s. TWA was one of the first airlines to offer separate cabins in its Super Constellation aircraft.

Getty Super Constellation
The interior of the Super Constellation allowed for two separate cabins (this is a preserved example in France). Photo: Getty Images

The introduction of the Boeing 747 in 1969 gave airlines a chance to change things again. The extra space offered allowed for larger seats and even lounges, and first class improved significantly. The same extra space, and growth in passenger numbers, led to the introduction of a third class, business class, during the 1970s.

Qantas lounge on the 747
The first class lounge a Qantas Boeing 747, 1971. Photo: Qantas

First class then improved further to differentiate it, with the first flat beds being installed by airlines such as British Airways in the mid-1990s, and setting the trend for the improvements that have taken place today. In some ways, it’s surprising it took so long to happen, given that back in the 1930s, this was common.

Getty British Airways first 2000
British Airways’ early first class flatbed seats. Photo: Getty Images

What do you get with first class?

As with all cabins of service, first class offerings differ between airlines. But in general, you can expect a premium experience throughout the journey. First class will usually include:

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At the airport:

  • Priority first class check-in and boarding.
  • Access to airline lounges (many airlines have dedicated first class lounges at their hubs or significant  locations).
  • Fast track, or separate, security lanes.
  • Chauffeur services to/from the airport (this is reducing, but Emirates still offers this).
Cathay Pacific lounge
Many airlines have dedicated first class lounges (This is a Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong). Photo: Cathay Pacific

Premium seats or suites onboard:

  • All international first class seat will be flat beds these days.
  • Many airlines offer semi-enclosed or fully enclosed suites.
  • Some seats or suites offer the possibility to combine to relax, dine, or work.
  • Larger entertainment screens.

Top-class service:

  • A higher ratio of cabin attendants to passengers.
  • More attentive service, and ability to set your own schedule for rest/dining.
  • Luxury products and bedding.
  • High-end food and premium wines, champagnes, and other drinks.
  • Larger and better-equipped bathrooms. Some airlines offer shower facilities on the A380.
  • Extra facilities, including bar or lounge areas on board with some airlines.
Emirates first class
Dining is an excellent experience in first class. Photo: Emirates

How does first class differ from business class?

One of the significant changes that has effected first class in recent years is the improvement in business class. many airlines now offer fully flat beds in long haul business class, and some are introducing suite-style seating. 

A good example of this is the new Club Suite introduced by British Airways. This is a significant improvement over its previous Club World business class, and there are now only minor improvements available in first class.

While airlines that offer first class will always provide an improved product over business class, there is a limit to what they can do. When you can have a spacious seat or flat bed, with a large video screen and plenty of space to dine and work, how much more do you need (or more importantly, how much more will you pay for?)

First class though, still retains a premium place. It offers a smaller and quieter cabin and privacy. It also provides more attentive service, more flexibility in service and schedule, and higher quality dining. It’s up to passengers to decide whether it is worth it!

Singapore Airlines Suites
Privacy is one of the selling points of first class (This is Singapore Airlines Suites). Photo: Singapore Airlines

What is first class like on airlines?

As a reminder, we are looking here at long haul international first class offerings, not domestic first class as often seen with US airlines.

What is first class like on American Airlines?

American Airlines is notable as the only airline in the US to offer a dedicated first class cabin on international flights. It provides its Flagship First cabin on the Boeing 777-300ER only.

There are eight seats arranged 1-2-1. These fully recline into flat beds, but are not enclosed or private, as is becoming more common with other airlines. American’s Flagship Business also offers flat beds, arranged in the same 1-2-1 configuration, but slightly smaller seating.

AA international first
International Flagship First with American Airlines, good but not award-winning. Photo: American Airlines

What is first class like on British Airways?

British Airways offers first class (branded as ‘First’) on its Boeing 747, 777, 787, and Airbus A380 aircraft. It has opted not to install first class on its new A350 aircraft.

Seating is similar, in a 1-2-1 configuration on all aircraft. But there is a newer product on the 787 and an older one on the 747 and 777. The A380 offers a slightly larger seat and is probably the best of them (but there is something special about sitting in the nose of the 747, while you still can!).

British Airways First
British Airways First seat. Photo: British Airways

First offers a significant improvement over its dated business class (Club World) cabin. This is in a 2-4-2 configuration, with no direct aisle access for many seats, and a smaller seat with limited storage. The new Club Suite product is changing this. It is a much-improved business class, with semi-closed, more spacious suites, all with aisle access. First then becomes more about premium service and catering.

British Airways Club Suite
The new British Airways Club Suite gives First some tough competition Photo: British Airways

It is currently available on the new A350 aircraft being delivered and some Boeing 777-200 aircraft. Full rollout to the Heathrow fleet should take place by 2025. In response, there have been upgrades to the First service and offering, but it seems that more improvements would be needed to justify the expense, possibly on its new 777-9 aircraft.

One extra benefit is access to the Concorde Room at Heathrow airport. This is British Airways’ top lounge, better than it’s first class lounge (which can be used by elite status members).

What is first class like on Lufthansa?

Lufthansa offers a well designed and comfortable first class. It’s a great product but lacks the over-the-top features and luxuries of some Middle Eastern and Asian airlines. This simplicity but stylish offering won Luftansa the best first class in Europe award with Skytrax’s World Airline Awards in 2019.

Lufthansa First Class is available on the Airbus A330 and A380 and the Boeing 747-8. The cabin is similar on all aircraft, with standard seats (no closed suites here) arranged 1-2-1 and with a width of 31 inches.

Lufthansa First Class
The Lufthansa First Class seat is similar across all aircraft types and offers little privacy. Photo: Lufthansa

When flying out of Frankfurt, passengers can use the dedicated first class terminal, with excellent lounges, personal assistants to check-in and guide passengers, and a Porsche or Mercedes transfer to the aircraft. There is also a smaller arrivals lounge.

Lufthansa First Class terminal
Lufthansa First Class passengers use a separate terminal at Frankfurt. Photo: Lufthansa

What is first class like on Singapore Airlines?

Singapore Airlines has first class on its A380 and Boeing 777-300 aircraft. And on both of these aircraft types, there is an older and a new first class product. With Singapore Airlines, you need to check what you are getting on each flight.

Singapore Airlines has won Skytrax’s World Airline Award for the best overall first class in 2019. It also won the best first class seat and was placed second for catering.

The A380 offers Suites class, its top first class seat. There are either six or 12 suites, arranged 1-2-1. These are closed suites, with a half-height wall, and separate bed and chair (as also offered by Etihad). With Singapore Airlines’ service alongside it, this is one of the best first class experiences available. The new style of suite was introduced in 2017 and is being rolled out over the coming years to the whole fleet.

Singapore Airlines Suites
Singapore Airlines Suites on the A380. Photo: Singapore Airlines

First Class on the 777 has open seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, and there is a new version on many aircraft. But some 777 have an older style seat that offers slightly less space.

Singapore Airlines First on the 777
Singapore Airlines First Class on the 777. Photo: Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines is also designing a new first class, to be installed on its 777-9 aircraft from 2022. We have yet to see plans, but it is set to be impressive.

What is first class like on Cathay Pacific?

Cathay Pacific offers first class on its 777-300 aircraft only (it has chosen not to install on the A350). First Class is offered on many routes to the US (currently including New York, Los Angeles, and Boston) and on several European routes (including London, Frankfurt, and Paris).

First Class also appears on some regional routes. This can be an excellent way to try it out for a much more affordable price. Routes include Bangkok, Singapore, and Taipei. But note that Cathay Pacific is notorious for aircraft changes, and the cabin can be changed at short notice.

At 36 inches wide, Cathay Pacific’s seats are the widest of any airline. But these are open seats, not the private closed alternatives. There are only six seats in a 1-1-1 configuration.

Cathay Pacific’s first class seats
Cathay Pacific’s First Class offers the widest seats of any airlines. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific also excels on the ground, with two dedicated first class lounges in Hong Kong (these are also available to top-level elite members).

Simple Flying took a closer look at Cathay Pacific’s First Class and its pricing. A round-trip flight from New York to Hong Kong was priced at $34,000, compared to $1,130 in economy class.

What is first class like on Etihad Airways?

Etihad Airways has one of the best first class products on offer. On its A380, it offers First Apartments – one of the most spacious first class offerings available. These apartments provide a separate flat bed and chair, and two can be joined together. On the A380, there is also a lounge area and a shower.

Etihad apartment
The First Apartment with Etihad is one of the largest available. Photo: Getty Images

But there is an even more luxurious offer than the apartments! Etihad is unique in also having a private multi-room suite, known as The Residence, on the A380. This has a lounge with a two-seat sofa, bedroom with a double bed, and bathroom. It comes with a butler, chef, and chauffeur service on the ground.

Etihad A380
Etihad’s Airbus A380 offers a private apartment. Photo: Getty Images

The A380 only operates a few routes, including New York, London, Paris, and Sydney. First class is also available on its Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft, but these smaller closed suites.

Etihad came out top amongst the Middle Eastern airlines with Skytrax’s World Airline Awards and was placed fourth globally in 2019.

What is first class like on Emirates?

Emirates is well known for its amazing first class offering, with an extravagant and stylish appearance. It operates on both its aircraft types – the A380 and the Boeing 777-300. First Class is offered on most aircraft and routes, but there are some of each aircraft fitted out with just two cabins. Emirates also offers a complimentary chauffeur service to and from the airport.

emirates-a380-first-class-onboard-lounge-chat-720x480
The bar area on Emirates A380s., for business and first class Photo: Emirates Airline

There are three different First Class products:

  • New First Class on the 777. This was introduced on new 777-300 aircraft from late 2017 and offers just six closed apartment-style suites. These have full floor to ceiling doors and walls, offering total privacy. They have one large seat that converts to a bed (Etihad still beats this with its separate bed and sofa). The middle suites even have virtual windows with a high definition camera view outside.
  • First Class on the A380. This is a slightly less extravagant version of the new 777 suite. There are 14 suites on the upper deck. These are semi-enclosed, and not as spacious or private as the 777 product. The A380 also has a great bar area, and two showers available for first class.
  • Older style 777 First Class. These are very similar to the A380 suite, but there is no bar or shower on the 777. There are eight first class suites in the same 1-2-1 configuration as the A380.
Emirates First Class
Emirates First Class on the 777. Photo: Emirates

Emirates offers a full dine on-demand service. And, as discussed by The Points Guy, this includes some of the most expensive wine of any airline. In 2019, it was serving a 2008 vintage of Dom Pérignon Champagne (worth $166 a bottle) and wines worth up to $400-$500.

It gets mixed reviews in awards. In the Skytrax’s World Airline Awards, Emirates only made it to sixth place globally, but its seats came in third. But it was the top choice in the 2019 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards.

Frequently asked questions about first class

How much do first class tickets cost?

Cash prices for first class can be shockingly high. On longer routes, they can easily be ten times or more the economy fare. At the top end, the real premium experiences, such as The Residence with Etihad, can set you back around $30,000.

We look at a couple of examples here, for New York to London with American Airlines, and London to Hong Kong with British Airways, both for return flights booked around three months in advance.

American Airlines fares
American Airlines fares. Image: American Airlines
British Airways fares
British Airways fares. Image: British Airways

Blog One Mile At A Time took a good, detailed look at first class pricing. This discusses how, in reality, very few passengers pay these high prices. Some may, and this creates a vital sense of exclusivity that tempts us to first class. But most seats are either offered at a significant discount through corporate deals or made available to frequent flyers using miles as a reward for loyalty.

If you don’t have access to corporate rates and deals, regular sales and promotions are one way to make it more affordable. These are not as common as sales in economy or business class. There is simply much less space to sell. But promotions do occur, and it is worth looking for them. One Mile At A Time shows some examples of past sales, quoting around $4,600 for London to Hong Kong, and $2,600 to the US.

First class can also be less expensive if booked using an around the world ticket. These are offered by each of the main three alliances, for multiple flights on their members. Rules and prices differ, but these can be excellent value compared to multiple individual tickets.

What about using air miles?

Using air miles is an excellent way to get good value premium cabin tickets. Where the cash price can rise ten times or more between economy and business, mileage increase are usually much smaller.

For example, British Airways pricing in Avios generally rises by fixed multiples. An Avios ticket from London to New York is 20,000 Avios in economy, 40,000 in premium economy, 60,000 in business, and 80,000 in first class.

And American Airlines has different pricing based on availability.

American Aadvantage first class
American Aadvantage first class awards. Image: American Airlines

All airlines with first class will have a loyalty program, where miles can be collected through flights as well as other activities such as hotel stays, car hire, online shopping, and credit card spending. Check out each airline program for details.

Airline alliances are important here too. You can use miles from any airline program to book awards on any member of the same alliance. So with American Airlines and British Airways, you can book any oneworld member first class, such as Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and Japan Airlines. There are some additional possibilities, too, such as using American Airlines’ miles to book Etihad Airways.

Is first class worth it?

Whether you are paying cash or using miles, first class is an expensive way to travel. It is important to look at what you are getting over business class when considering whether it is worth it. Some airlines offer a much better product, but with others, there are fewer improvements.

The spacious apartments and suites offered by Etihad and Emirates, for example, are a considerable step up from business, offering a lot more space and privacy, not to mention top service. Whereas with airlines like British Airways or American Airlines, business class is almost as good as first.

As our descriptions in this guide show, there are significant variations in offering even with the same airline. Check the aircraft and the routes carefully when considering whether that upgrade is worth it.

Emirates first class suite
High prices are more justified when you get top products offering comfort and privacy. Photo: Emirates

Paid first class is always going to be expensive, but if the benefits work for you, and especially if you can find a discount or promotion, then it can be worth it. It’s a different story when using air miles, as the additional amount required over business class is usually much less then you are looking at with cash fares. In this case, if there is availability, this can be excellent value for some real luxury travel.

Qatar Airways Qsuite Business
With business class offerings like the new Qsuite from Qatar Airways, it is harder to justify the increased cost of first class. Photo: Qatar Airways

What about upgrading to first class?

A mileage upgrade is another excellent value way to travel in first class. Many frequent flyer programs offer the option to upgrade a paid fare to a higher cabin using miles. This is usually only offered for one class of service, so you would need to book a cash business fare to be able to upgrade to first class.

The rules and rates will vary between airlines but should be well detailed on the airline loyalty program website. A couple of examples:

  • With British Airways, you pay the difference for an Avios award ticket between the cabins. So if you book a Club World flight from London to New York, for example, just 20,000 each way would be needed to upgrade to First (the difference between 60,000 Avios for a Club World ticket and 80,000 for First).
  • With American Airlines, it costs a fixed 25,000 miles to upgrade from business to first on any route from North America a Europe. But if you book a discount business fare (with booking code ‘I’), there is an additional supplement of $550. This can still be excellent value compared to the cash price.
American Aadvantage upgrades
American Airlines offers fixed mileage upgrades for all cabins. Image: American Airlines

What does the future look like for first class?

There is no doubt first class is declining. As we have described in this guide, business class continues to improve, making it harder to justify the additional expense.

Simple Flying looked at this decline in more detail previously. Many airlines have abandoned first class, and the number of seats has decreased with most airlines that have kept it. British Airways, for example, offered around 560,000 first class seats across its fleet in 2019. By 2018, it had almost 100,000 less.

Emirates is the main exception to this. It had 600,000 first class seats available in 2019, up from 310,000 in 2018. It sees strong demand for paid first class, claiming the privacy it offers as the main factor.

Emirates A380
Emirates is increasing first class, for now. Photo: Emirates

There is undoubtedly a place for first class, but is there enough demand for it to remain? In the short to medium term, it likely will. Although possibly in smaller cabins. It still offers a premium experience that airlines can use for marketing to companies and VIP travelers. It also provides a reward for frequent flyers loyalty, and an aspirational aim of continuing to fly (and collect miles) with an airline.

But longer term first class is certainly under threat. While it is true that airlines make more of their income from business and first class, these economics can be shifted more to business than first. There are also alternatives for those that can afford it. If passengers are paying for the privacy and their own space, then why not opt for a private jet, especially as first class availability reduces commercially. And for those that can’t pay for this, an improved business class will be more than good enough. If you want to fly it, better to do so now whilst more options remain!

Feel free to share your first class experiences in the comments. Which airlines have you flown, or would like to?

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