A Beginner’s Guide to Flying in Business or First Class

Here's all you need to know for your first business- or first-class flight experience.
Josh Garber
By Josh Garber 

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We love helping our readers find ways to book first- and business-class tickets using points and miles. Although these tickets can be expensive if you're paying for them with cash, you can sometimes book a seat in these premium cabins using airline miles you've already earned or with points from signing up for certain credit cards.

First, you'll need to understand the difference between first and business class. It is also important to know what types of perks to expect, so you can assess when it makes sense to pay for the upgrade.

What's the difference between first and business class?

Both first and business class are premium cabins but can offer different experiences and seats depending on the airline. If you're flying domestically within the United States, flights generally have two cabins: The main cabin and a premium cabin. The main cabin often includes various economy fares, while the premium cabin is reserved for business class or first class, depending on the route and airline.

When you fly internationally from the U.S., you may be on a flight that offers both first and business class — for example, Cathay Pacific's Boeing 777-300 aircraft has separate first-class, business-class, premium economy and economy cabins.

The difference between first and business class can vary by airline. However, if you're taking a flight that offers both first and business class, first class almost always provides a more enhanced experience. This may include a suite with a door, fancier food and drinking options, and a more intimate, smaller cabin.

What to expect when flying first or business class

Although first- and business-class experiences can vary drastically between different airlines and routes, below are some perks that you can often expect when flying in first or business class:

  • Priority check-in, security and boarding.

  • Premium seats, including more space and lie-flat beds.

  • Lounge access.

  • Complimentary alcoholic beverages and enhanced food options.

  • Amenity kits.

  • Dedicated overhead space for your carry-on luggage.

  • Seats towards the front of the plane so you can deplane before other cabins.

In addition to the more common business- and first-class perks listed above, below are some more unique perks you can find on various airlines:

  • Qatar Qsuites has business class seats that can connect to create a double bed, which you can share with a partner or friend.

  • Although the service has recently been suspended, United Airlines will sometimes have a sundae cart for Polaris business class passengers on international routes.

  • Emirates offers its first- and business-class passengers complimentary chauffeur service to and from the airport.

Because the first- and business-class experience can vary dramatically by airline and route, you should consider what perks are offered before purchasing or upgrading to a business- or first-class ticket.

Why it can make sense to upgrade to first or business class

Depending on when and why you're traveling, it can make sense to upgrade from economy to first or business class if you have the cash or points to afford it. Below are some examples of when it may make sense for you to upgrade your flight:

  • For a lie-flat bed: If you're flying from the U.S. to another continent and want to hit the ground running when you land, upgrading to first or business class to get a lie-flat bed can help you arrive more well-rested than a simple economy seat.

  • For more points or miles: If you're paying for your flight in cash, flying first or business class will often help you earn more points and miles and can also help you maintain or earn elite status.

  • For a special occasion: If you're flying for a particular reason, like a honeymoon or celebrating your graduation, the perks offered by your airline will help make it an even more memorable trip.

When it doesn't make sense to upgrade to first or business class

Even though upgrading from economy to first or business class usually comes with several perks, there are times when making the upgrade wouldn't make sense, including:

  • On shorter flights, when you won't have much time to enjoy the premium seating.

  • When the airline asks for a significant amount of cash or points to upgrade.

  • On daytime flights overseas when you're not planning on taking a nap or sleeping, which may negate the value of a lie-flat seat.

The bottom line

If it's your first time flying business or first class, you can generally expect several perks that you wouldn't get flying economy — including priority check-in, a more comfortable/spacious seat, and enhanced food and drink options.

Although it may not always make sense to upgrade your flight to first or business class, it may be worth the extra cash or points to upgrade depending on why you're flying. As your first- or business-class experience may differ depending on the airline and route, you should research what perks are included with your ticket before purchasing.

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