Here’s Why Most Of What You’ve Heard About Business And First Class Is Rubbish

This is what happens when you end up without Wi-Fi on a two-hour flight.  With nothing firmly on my plate to write, I chose the path traveled frequently by my friend Gilbert, of God Save The Points.  Pick a controversial (but true) position, write intelligently and with purpose.  Sit back with a beer (or orange juice, if you’re still on antibiotics like me) and watch people try to burn you to the ground.

Here’s Why They’re Wrong

First of all, I hope each and everyone gets to fly in business class and first class every time a seat is available up front.  A friend of mine named Jen says “turn left or turn around” as do a number of folks.  It’s an idiom for saying if you enter a big, wide-body on a long flight overseas from that mid-cabin door, the business class cabins are usually to the left.  If you’re turning right, you’re in coach.  And, she’d rather just go home.  I can’t say I disagree, but we’re going deeper than that.

Let’s be honest.  Most of us won’t fly all of our flights in business class or first class.  Heck, I’m sitting in coach as I write this, and I fly up front plenty.  So, what are you missing?  My fellow bloggers, I love them all.  Well, most of them.  They tell you how great business class is.  And, they also tell you how horrible some business class products are.  That’s where I get off the hype bus. Let’s break it down.

Domestic First Class

In the United States, those seats near the front of most flights on American, Delta and United Airlines are called first class.  This isn’t to be confused with international first class.  Not even close.  It’s also not even close to business class.  So, what is domestic first class?

If we’re being completely honest with ourselves, Spirit Airlines wins the day here.  Yes, that airline everyone loves to hate, but who also lowered bag fees recently.  Spirit Airlines has a few rows of bigger seats in the front of their planes.  They call them…….Big Front Seats.

Want to know what you get with a Big Front Seat on Spirit?  You’re catching on quick.  You get……a Big Front Seat.  You don’t get an extra baggage allowance or free drinks.  It’s a slightly bigger seat.  And, it reclines a bit more.  Let’s compare that to United for a moment.

In United first class, you get a bigger seat that reclines a bit more.  The Wi-Fi is just as likely to be broken in first class as it is in coach, which is to say on most flights.  On many flights, you’ll get some type of food and free drinks.  But, on some flights over 2 hours, you don’t even get a meal anymore.  The food quality in domestic first class has gone downhill like a snowball down Everest.  It didn’t used to be that way.  But, it is.  On this matter, most bloggers agree.  

Free drinks?  Considering that you’re likely paying $150 to $500 more for your seat in first class, you better get drinking.  You’ve got a long way to go to pay for that upcharge.

You get more miles with your paid first class ticket, but the airlines make sure those miles are worth less than they were years ago.

So, what you’re really paying for is to avoid coach.  And, I totally get it.  I’m flying on Southwest Airlines right now.  It’s a 737 MAX and I have plenty of room for my MacBook Pro.  If I were on American Airlines’ version of the same plane, it just wouldn’t happen.  Those seats are a lot closer together.  So, on a long American Airlines flight, I’d consider forking over some cash so I could work while I flew.  But, I’m not making any part of that decision because of the great food, drinks, service I’m receiving at the front of the plane.  

What About International Flights?

Now, lie-flat business class seats are a huge improvement over economy class. They really are.  Some folks may not see the value in paying for the upgrade.  I completely respect that.  I’m also supportive of folks that feel comfortable springing for the extra cash to sit up front.  That’s not in my budget, but it’s why I collect miles and points.

Austrian Airlines Business Class Review

So, what’s my beef with international business and first class?  Nothing.  I love them all.  Pretty much every darn one.  I just don’t agree with the people who tell you why you shouldn’t fly a particular business class product.  People love to rip British Airways for their inferior layout and poor service.  First, there’s nothing wrong with the seat.  If you’re exceptionally tall or wide, you might have some trouble with it.  News flash, if you’re either of those things you won’t fit comfortably into many business class seats.  

Contract kitchens that prepare airline food don’t win Michelin Stars.  They also don’t win James Beard awards, regardless of how nice their cookbook looks. Some airline food is good, some is very good.  Seldom is it great, especially because of how different food tastes in the air.  No business class product in the world has ever been inferior because it didn’t serve $400 bottles of champagne.  

If you’re convincing yourself that the reason to pay more money or miles is because of the food, booze or service, you better use a pretty friendly calculator.  That math is fuzzy, awful fuzzy.  You are paying for space, the ability to sleep and maybe even a nice blanket.  United has really nice gel pillows and I appreciate having one when I fly.  But, that’s no what I’m paying extra for.

Here’s What Does Matter

What does matter when you fly is that you’re comfortable with the product you’re paying for, whether that’s using cash or miles.  Just don’t convince yourself that the extra money is “worth it”.  Given the perks you receive today besides the seat, it rarely is.  We all like to treat ourselves, we just don’t want to delude ourselves.  When my fellow bloggers tell you why they just can’t stand a particular airline’s business class, be smart and make your own mind up.  For a long trip overseas, do you want the ability to sleep, relax and work? Or, would you rather save your money or miles so you can fly more often.  Both are fine, and I love every last one of my fellow bloggers.

I just don’t love someone else telling you why you shouldn’t like a certain airline’s business class product, or why you have to fly first class overseas because business class just isn’t good enough.  Splurge if you want, because you want.  Don’t worry about how the other half (2%?) live.

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46 Comments

  1. Great points. Most bloggers ignore or diss Iberia. Well it got us on our first business class lie flat trip to Europe and it was amazing compared to coach and it was by far the cheapest out there (102k Chase points for 2 RT seats and not bad taxes). Wasn’t amazing, but it got us there relaxed and refreshed without cramped legs. Normally we dread coach flights back home after a European trip. But we were actually looking forward to the flights this time.

    1. Kyle, I’m super glad to hear Iberia worked out for you. Did you take advantage of their recent promotion with the super cheap flights to earn points? IMO, Iberia is more than a fine way to teach Europe. Glad you arrived refreshed!

    2. Absolutely agree with Kyle. I don’t fit in coach at all, my legs are too long. So I’m always looking for a way to upgrade, or an affordable tix up front. Even the worse biz/first flight is good. If I have 9 choices (and I’m out of SFO, so often I do have 9 choices), I’ll read reviews until my eyes spin and then go after the best deal. Short-haul, I love that we can finally just pay for an exit row seat. In defense of all the bloggers, they gotta have SOMETHING to write about, right? I think people who don’t travel often and rarely up front, are entertained by the bashing of certain flights and the lauding of others. Me, I’m just after solid information. Glad I found you.

      1. Huey Judy, I’m glad you found me as well! I don’t begrudge my fellow bloggers writing about different products. It’s definitely helpful for me as well. I just want to make sure we’re all making good decisions! Let me know how I can help.

  2. BA business class was my first experience in a lie flat seat, and it really was enjoyable. At 6’4, 240, I did perfectly fine and slept a couple hours on the flight from Chicago. The only truly bad encounter I’ve ever had with the front of thebplane was with SAS. I was fully expecting the newly updated Thompson Vantage XL seat, which they advertise as being equipped on in every wide body aircraft. Except it isn’t. There’s a single A340 named Torfinn Viking that they claim is a back up even though it’s in the air almost every day. It has a 2-2-2 layout and must have been really nice in the late 90’s when it was built, but that was a flight where I went in with really high expectations, and was really disappointed in SAS.

    1. I fly often to Europe and Asia. Have no doubt. BA is probably the most banana airline I have ever flew, both in the air and at land.

  3. I’ve found AAs Premium Economy a nice in-between . I’ve survived 2 flights to Australia on it. Definitely not comparable to business, but so much more manageable than normal economy or economy plus. I’m 6’4″

    1. Mayday, the advent of true premium economy products on the Big 3 US carriers is definitely a boon. It’s another way for people to get just a bit more comfort on those long flights. I’m definitely a fan of more options!

      1. How does AA Premium Economy to Australia compare with Qantas version? Or were your AA flights to Australia actually on a Qantas plane? (I’m considering Qantas premium economy for a similar flight…last time, I flew mostly Business, but the price without miles is daunting.)

          1. Thank you! I have quite a lot of AA miles but I’m not sure I have enough to get a Business trip to Oz. Purely curiosity, but… did you find there was much of a difference between Business and First on that long trip over the Pacific?

          2. Denise, I liked First Class better than Business Class. But, I didn’t like it enough to want to spend the extra every time. It was a nice treat. But, I don’t drink a ton on planes and the food isn’t a huge deciding factor for me. I’m of a reasonable enough size that I can sleep in both seats just fine. Worth trying once to say you had the experience? Probably. But, Business Class is perfect for me in price and comfort.

  4. Ed, I’m glad that I took the time to read your article, because I was dubious that an article with such a provocative lede would be satisfying. Poor travel writers often start with such great ledes but then the content quickly fizzles.

    You didn’t disappoint! I certainly have a very limited amount of experience up front, mostly on domestic flights using points, but you captured my experiences well! I think there is a place for livery and configuration admiration, particularly among those who are frequently on planes, that’s not the majority of the population.

    One aspect that you didn’t mention, since it wasn’t part of the thesis, is practicality. On a return from vacation in Vancouver, BC, to Northwest Arkansas, I had many choices, but two piqued my interest, for the same number of points.
    One involved three legs that took 12 hours, but the first two legs were on different large planes. It was an AvGeek adventure in theory; I did salivate! I opted for the two-leg route taking 6 hours, even though each leg was served by an Embraer 175. I’m glad I made that choice.

    1. brochite, thanks for your kind words. I enjoyed writing the article. I don’t have anything against people who admire specific configurations or business class products. I just don’t think it benefits most people, and sometimes creates a FOMO (even with me). At the end of the day, the right product is the one you want. And, I’ve made the same deliberations you did on your trip back from Vancouver. I do like new dots, lines and planes!

  5. This is probably the most honest post on Boarding Area in the last few years. As you say, all international business class, even the worst international business class, is a big upgrade over coach or even premium economy. And the reality that most people encounter with miles is a limited pool of miles and tough choices about the best way to spend them. All things being equal, it’s great to fly in the fanciest cabins and stay in the fanciest points hotels. But if the tradeoff is more travel in “inferior” products/properties vs. less travel in “superior” products/properties, I personally would always choose the former. As some have gotten into on Boarding Area and elsewhere, this is the big issue with getting so obsessed with the value of each redemption. Sure, my business class ticket might go for $5,000 in cash, but I would never pay that and comparing a business booking that I would never pay for vs. a coach booking I would pay for is comparing apples and oranges. Certainly, people should get the most value for their points, but as you imply, the question is whether you value more travel or less.

    And from a domestic perspective, I think it’s insane that travel bloggers discount the clear quality difference between Southwest and Jet Blue and all other carriers in economy class. Flying United and American (not to mention Spirit or Frontier) in the standard coach seats has just gotten worse and worse, while flying Southwest and Jet Blue is still a fairly pleasant experience. I would argue that, aside from boarding, regular Southwest is fairly comparable to most domestic first class, especially on shorter flights. If you want to board earlier, pay for Early Bird. If you want a drink, fork over the $5 – $7. Of course, there’s no way to game Southwest points (aside from the companion pass), so no one writes about it.

    1. districtdweller, I’ll never pay $5,000 for an airline ticket. So, we’re in agreement on relative values. I don’t have a problem with people redeeming miles at the “non-saver” levels if it gets them the trip they want. I’d like to arm them with the information on how to get the best value. But, at the end of the day we all make sub-optimal choices from time to time. And, some would argue redeeming for long-haul first class when business class is available as a waste of miles as well. Beauty is, truly in the eyes of the beholder. We’re in 100% agreement on Southwest. I desperately wish they had more lift out of my home airport of Washington-Dulles. I do enjoy each of the dozen or so flights I book on them each year. JetBlue has given up on IAD, so that’s a tough one for me even if I do love their product.

  6. To me, those who diss on business class are doing it for a comparative reason. If my choice is BA biz vs BA econ, of course BA Biz wins. But if my choice is BA biz vs AA biz, or even (IMO) Iberia biz, I’ll choose AA and Iberia. Because comparatively, BA is a worse choice. But if it is the only choice, I wouldn’t pass on it. And neither would many of those bloggers. That’s why they fly it so often.

    1. Travis, I think that those comments can paint an impression for folks who don’t travel a ton that they shouldn’t consider those products. I get plenty of questions from people asking, “Is it okay to fly BA business class? I hear it’s horrible.” Just trying to set that record straight.

  7. Totally agree with you on the proper reasoning for spending more (miles or money) on Biz or 1st class. I’m a tall person and majority of airlines made economy class seats pretty unbearable to sit in for longer than 2-3 hours. So for anything longer than 5-7 hours straight flight time I’ll consider business class: to get to destination in decent relaxed condition. For example, 787 over Atlantic is bearable with almost enough room to rest comfortably, but older airplanes have crammed economy seats.
    On trans-Pacific 15+ hours flight I won’t even consider anything less than Business: for a place to sleep and stretch, and as a bonus some choices of food and drinks. Typically food is better in Biz, but on my 2 recent flights to HKG on Cathay I ordered a special menu, and it was half spoiled, and half bad tasting – had to ask for regular option (although it turned out to be limited quantities!?!) – not a nice situation when you get hungry. So yes, spend more for the space and extra comfort, not for the booze or super food on the plane.
    And remember – for the most travelers flights are just a necessary transportation method to reach their destination, and not a feature by its own means to enjoy. If people would have an option to instantly teleport – most skip flying in a heartbeat.

  8. Hi. I liked agree with the article. Another thing that I would like to add as a perk is luggage allowance. Just this month I moved from Madrid to Central America and I really needed to bring 3 big 23kg checked suitcases + 10kg carry on.

  9. Ed, thanks for writing this blog and putting some sense into how to determine value when we fly. I agree very much with a lot of what you say. I think that is the key, value.
    For me based in Rome, I usually fly Oneworld to keep my BA Gold status. So if I can find a decent deal in business, I’ll take it. If not, I’ll usually go Premium Economy if the price is within 300€ of the Economy price (long haul). If not, I’m ok with flying Economy, even to Singapore as I did last year (via LHR on BA). It was worth it at under 500€ return, vs over 1750€ in Premium Economy.
    Likewise, when UA was offering 326€ return to EWR and 352€ to LAX last year in Economy, I took advantage of both of those, and I found UA’s product and service to not be too bad transatlantic on the 767. The domestic legs (EWR-LAX and LAX-ORD) were a completely different story.
    So yes, as much as I’d much prefer to be up front, for me it’s about total value. I’m not going to automatically pass up on a good deal in economy provided that the total value is a good deal for the total cost. And I look at deals in Premium Economy, Business and First in the same way.

    1. Dom, I think the proliferation of true Premium Economy products opens up many more options for astute travelers. I’d prefer not to fly from Europe to Singapore in economy. But, I could probably stomach it in Premium Economy. Bottom line, sounds like you’re making smart choices that work for you. That’s exactly what I want to hear!

    2. Sorry, neither my wife nor I can fly regular Economy any longer – as authors, we usually fly on tour with lots of stops and only a couple days in one place at best. She finally had to put her foot down when on one trip she flew into 15 different cities in 12 days, and at the end of it her doctor said if she kept up that pace she’d need knee replacement surgery – again!

      So, yeah – if you travel a lot, that extra legroom counts for a great deal….

  10. Nice read, and salient points to correct some perceptions. I enjoy OMAAT for example but he sure gets a bit fussy over the type of champagne in First…though in context it makes sense, given the cost, it’s still faintly ridiculous.
    That said, I’ve traveled over 2.5 million miles in my life.
    At this point, I not only want to be comfortable- I’ve “done my time” in endless economy tickets over the Atlantic or pacific to stretch my miles (and valued the extra trips that gave me) – but I’m interested in trying out the really premium experiences now at least once. In that sense, OMAAT and others reporting back on different carriers and the comparisons between is helpful but that’s because what I’m seeking is a very niche form of this hobby. And I know it’s a niche, but from reading most articles you’d think it was the norm for points and miles hobbyists.
    Point being, your article gets back to how most folks are actually using their miles: to travel.
    Not so much to experience an airlines inflight service as to simply get somewhere.
    So it’s very refreshing to see.

    1. Todd, Ben and I get along great. I have a ton of respect for his opinion. And, there are some folks for whom the product is extremely important to the happiness of their travel. I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. I just want to make sure people always remember it’s “okay” to like something that works for them, absent of what champagne they serve. I continue to rely on Ben’s reviews and impressions to help me choose when I have a choice between products. He’s one of the foremost experts in the space.

  11. Couple things. I will only fly Business class lie flat seat to Europe. Too old and cranky to fly any other way. As for first in the U.S. It’s no great improvement over coach. I’ve given up my Exec Platinum this year as I had to pay in a couple grand and it isn’t worth it. On a trip to Italy this year, I worked with a business class discounter and got two seats for $2600 on United , not a bad price. Considered TAP as they have better fares and new planes with lie flats but was wary of reviews.

    1. Curt, if I could find a daytime flight to Europe, I might go PE. Otherwise, lie-flat is the way for me as well. I’m just fairly agnostic on the product. As far as TAP is concerned, I flew them twice in November. Both flights saw multiple aircraft changes where I ended up without a lie-flat seat. Certainly not my preference, but I survived just fine and managed to sleep. TAP is still one to be wary of, IMO, if having their new product is important to you.

  12. What’s your take on Economy-Plus? The last couple times we’ve flown overseas that’s what they’ve booked for us, and I think it’s great – the seats may not be much/any wider, but there’s more legroom and leanback space, you get free food and alcohol (doesn’t mean much to me, but my wife both drinks & hates to fly!), & I’m actually able to sleep on overnight flights (which I wasn’t in straight coach!). The WiFi’s free and generally seems to work (at least the four times we’ve flown that way, it has), and the entertainment selection’s been good if you’re tired of what’s on your Smartphone or tablet.

    It’s significantly less expensive than Business & First Class, and surprisingly good for our needs.

    1. Timothy, you’ve had a much different experience than me on Wi-Fi, I’ll tell you that! It frequently is inoperable for me. I don’t have an issue with Economy Plus, but I strongly prefer it for daytime flights (so, from Europe to the US as an example). I’d prefer the true Premium Economy products that are rolling out now across more carriers. In the end, the important element is if it works for you. If you can sleep in an E+ seat, awesome! It sounds like it fits your needs just fine.

  13. Great blog! I currently live in Bahrain and end up taki g 2 or 3 trips back to the States a year, usually with BA/AA. I’ve flown BA economy, premium economy, and business class, and have always had a great experience with BA – in all classes. The food and service isn’t bad, as a matter of fact, I’ve been more surprised at the lack of customer service from AA, and I’ve flown everything g from First to Economy with them. I’m currently Platinum Pro with AA, but other than club access, the benefit to staying loyal to AA is decreasing, especially since they devalued their AAdvantage Miles. The perk for me still is I can redeem AAdvange Miles on Etihad and get a really good Business Class experience. Honestly, no US or European airline can come close to Etihad, Emirates, or Qatar Airways, in the customer service and product in Business and Economy. I wish the US big 3 would take a lesson from the Gulf 3, and Asian airlines.
    General kindness from the crew on the plane will go a long way for me, even if I have to be in the back of the plane. (I’m military, so I’m also used to flying in the back of C-130s and C-17s, so my perspective is probably a little off center from most business professionals out there.

    1. Keith, thanks for the note! AAdvantage miles really are best used on partners like Etihad and BA right now. I’ve rarely had a bad experience on BA. My only concern there are the fuel surcharges on award tickets. But, using Avios to upgrade to the next class of service is one of my favorite redemptions!

  14. I have always said… If you are flying at any service level for the food…. You are flying for the wrong reason.

  15. George, I am one of those that pays the extra for Business Class or First Class seats. I only travel a few times a year and find that life is too short to fly coach. I watch the prices closely and try to get the best deal for first class seats. I usually pay about 100-200 dollars more each way for the “upfront” seats but have gotten them for just a few dollars over coach for booking at the right time. Being a large guy I like the larger seats and not having to do my impression of “Tommy Boy” for 4 hours in coach on a flight to Vegas.

    For me when I factor in the savings of a checked bag(s) both ways, a more comfortable seat with adequate legroom and not losing a whole day of vacation getting over feeling a sardine for the entire flight is worth the extra. Keep up the blogging. I look forward to your next addition.

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