Business Class vs. First Class on International Flights: What’s the Difference?

The benefits of international first class versus business class will vary by airline, aircraft and route.
Josh Garber
By Josh Garber 
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International first and business class are both premium cabins, but there are key differences between the two including on-ground experience, dining and alcohol options on-board, and the seat itself.

Below we compare business class versus first class on international flights.

The basics of first class and business class on international airlines

International airlines will sometimes offer up to four different cabins.

  1. First class.

  2. Business class.

  3. Premium economy.

  4. Economy class.

Air France’s Boeing 777-300, for example, features a four-class cabin: row one is first class, rows three through 20 are business class, rows 23 through 26 are premium economy and rows 28 through 52 are economy class.

An easy way to think about the difference between international first class and business class is by using the ranking of flight cabins above, from the fanciest cabin (first class) to the most basic cabin (economy class).

Even if an airline does offer an international first class product, they don’t typically offer it on every route. For instance, you can fly Qatar Airways first class from Doha, Qatar, to Cairo, Egypt, but the airline doesn’t currently offer a first class ticket between Los Angeles and Doha.

Key differences

While what sets international first class and business class apart will vary based on airline, plane and route; however, there are some basic differences between the two.

More elevated food and alcohol options

A major benefit to flying first class is that you’ll have more sophisticated food and alcohol options on your flight. Emirates, for example, offers first-class passengers caviar, dining that’s on-demand (instead of a set meal service time) and Dom Pérignon — none of which are available in business class.

Smaller cabin

The first class cabin is smaller and more intimate than the business class cabin. First class cabins are often significantly smaller than business class cabins — in the Air France Boeing 777-300 example above, there are only four first class seats compared to 58 business-class seats.

Having a small cabin means you get more attention and quicker service from flight attendants, and also a more relaxing experience since you’ll have fewer disturbances from other passengers.

More space and privacy

While the exact differences in first class versus business class seats will depend on the airline and aircraft, in general, international first class seats are more spacious and offer more privacy than their business class counterparts.

The first class seat on Japan Airlines’ A350-1000 is more than twice as wide as the business-class seat on the same plane.

Better on-the-ground perks

First class passengers may get extra pre-flight benefits: First-class-only lounges, streamlined check-in and priority boarding are just some of the ways a first class ticket sweetens the deal.

For instance, if you fly Emirates first class through Dubai, you even get a complimentary massage in their first class lounge.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Since the exact benefits of first class versus business class will depend on the airline and route, we’d recommend researching the first class and business class offerings on an international flight before booking either cabin.

Airlines with first class international flights

Most airlines that fly internationally offer a business class product, it’s not nearly as common to find an international first class option.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of airlines that offer first class international flights on at least some of their routes:

How to find a first class seat on an international flight

The easiest way to find a flight with international first class is to use Google Flights and click the “First” cabin option, highlighted in blue below:

Is booking first class instead of business class worth it?

International first class can cost significantly more than business class — for instance, a one-way ticket from New York City and Munich, Germany, on Lufthansa costs over $15,000 for a first class ticket compared to $5,600 for business class.

When there’s a dramatic price difference, we generally wouldn’t recommend booking international first class over business class. But here are some times when it may be worth springing for international first class:

  • If you’re able to book or upgrade to first class with a reasonable amount of points. For instance, if you’re using Alaska Airlines miles, booking Cathay Pacific first class to Asia costs only 20,000 more miles than booking business class. This is because the two airlines are partners in the Oneworld alliance

  • When the airline offers a reasonable cash upgrade offer. Airlines will sometimes offer passengers the opportunity to upgrade to first class for less than you’d pay if you booked first class directly. We recommend checking your reservation online for upgrade options and asking the agent at check-in what the cost is for a first-class upgrade.

  • A special occasion, like your honeymoon or milestone birthday. If your budget allows, it may be worth splurging for a first class ticket for a special occasion.

The bottom line

An international first class experience can offer a number of benefits over flying business class abroad, including more spacious seats, fancier dining and alcohol options, and special on-ground experiences and lounges.

The exact benefits offered for international first and business class passengers will depend on the airline, aircraft and route, so you should be sure to do your research before booking your ticket.

International first class tickets can be significantly more expensive than business class tickets, so unless your budget is unlimited, flying first class may not be worth it.


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