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Flying first class isn’t a necessity, but experiencing life behind the curtain at least once can be a worthy goal. That’s where passengers might be feasting on fine wine and warmed nuts, enjoying movies on large screens with noise-canceling headphones, and sleeping in lie-flat beds on lengthy flights.
The good news is you can check “fly first class” off your bucket list without shelling out thousands of dollars.
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“It’s a pretty different experience for people who have only flown coach,” says Brett Snyder, founder of the airline industry blog Crankyflier.com and owner of an air travel concierge service. “It’ll definitely change the way you feel about getting to the destination.”
Here’s what you can expect when you sit upfront and how you can afford it.
First vs. business class
We’ll lump together first and business class into “premium class.” That’s because the term “first class” is disappearing, and oftentimes the only front seats available are dubbed “business class.” It depends on airline, aircraft and route. Either can be swanky. And, no, just because it’s called “business class” doesn’t mean you have to be traveling for work to sit in the front.
Whether they call it first or business, international flights are where you can expect the most luxurious service in premium classes.
Why try a premium cabin?
Sitting in the front might make you feel special, even superior. But there are practical reasons to consider a premium cabin, all of which can reduce the stress of flying.
The most precious amenity an airline can offer on its tube speeding along at 30,000 feet is square inches. More than just extra leg and elbow room, premium classes on many long-haul flights offer seats that can be made into lie-flat beds, better than those that merely recline.
“Everyone is going to have something different that matters to them,” Snyder says. “For some people, it’s going to be all about the seat. The ability to extend into a flat bed is not something you’re going to get every day and is definitely very different than coach.”
And some premium cabins are configured so that every seat has direct access to the aisle, so you're assured of never having to climb past a seatmate to visit the bathroom or stretch your legs. Consult the airline or sites like Seatguru.com to determine the type of seat you can expect.
Arriving more rested means you might get more from your first day of vacation or work at the destination. And more space might mean you’re more productive during the flight, if that’s your goal. You’ll also get dedicated overhead bin space.
For Joe Brancatelli, a business travel writer at Joesentme.com, flying in front is all about in-cabin real estate. “If you're buying a premium class for food or wine, you're probably doing it wrong,” he says. "It's all about space and comfort.”
A related benefit to space is privacy, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “With fewer seats in first class, you’re more distant from other passengers. It’s less crowded,” he says.
Special treatment begins before you step onto the jet bridge, perhaps with priority check-in, security lines and boarding, along with free checked bags, all of which can reduce the hassle of air travel. International flights are likely to include airport lounge access.
The food and drinks, including free alcohol, will usually be far better quality and more abundant in the premium cabin than in economy. “It’s not like in coach where they slap a tray down on the table — chicken or beef,” Snyder says.
Still, better food alone is not reason enough to pony up for premium fares, Brancatelli says. “Really, if you think the extra money for airline food and mediocre booze is worth the upgrade, you're eating and drinking very badly on the ground.”
Especially on lengthy international flights, expect a plethora of amenities that might include bigger entertainment screens than in coach, sleep masks, name-brand skin-care products and toiletries, noise-canceling headphones, even pajamas.
Undoubtedly, service in the forward cabin will be more doting, with flight attendants anticipating your needs and wants rather than just reacting to requests.
How to afford a premium seat
If you’re sold on trying a premium cabin, how do you afford it? After all, fares can sell for thousands of dollars, and not everybody works for a company that will pay for premium class on a business trip.
Airlines today are more reluctant to give away free premium-class upgrades to frequent flyers, instead making more front seats available for sale. “That's awful news for frequent flyers and great news for the one-off flyer,” Brancatelli says.
Experts agree the top way for people of average means to afford to fly in style is to use the right rewards credit cards. A single credit card sign-up bonus might offer enough points or miles to upgrade to premium class.
Suggesting a single best card is impossible because it depends on the airlines you fly and your spending habits, among other factors. But savvy travelers have good luck with credit card point programs that offer outsize value and flexibility to transfer to several airline partners. Examples are cards that earn points in the American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards® programs.
You can earn points from your normal spending on a credit card and then transfer those points to an airline frequent flyer program to book a premium fare. “If you’re looking to rack up miles quickly, credit cards are the way to do that,” Snyder says. “But, of course, don’t run up a bunch of debt just to get points.”
General travel cards that use points to erase travel expenses are flexible and might be good for cheaper domestic coach fares, but they're not ideal for buying a seat in the premium cabin, Snyder says. That’s because they require too many points; a $3,000 ticket will cost 300,000 points. If you’re getting 1.5 points per dollar spent on the card, you would need to charge $200,000 to earn that many points.
By comparison, a different card that transfers points to a frequent flyer program might require far less credit card spending to accumulate enough points for a premium seat, he says.
The downside of using credit card rewards is you’ll have to learn the rules of the card program and potentially a frequent flyer program, too.
“The best way to fly in first or business without paying a fortune is to collect frequent flyer miles or points to either obtain the seat outright or to upgrade from a lower fare,” Hobica says. “And the best way to get those miles or points is to save them up using credit card bonus offers, buying everything online at the airlines’ online shopping malls, and all the other tricks and tactics people use.
“I’ve flown in first class on many airlines, but it’s always been using miles and points.”
Upgrading to the premium cabin for just half of your round-trip travel will be cheaper, whether in dollars or rewards currency. Often a long-haul round trip will consist of a daytime flight going one direction and a night flight on the other. One strategy, especially if you’ll have a lie-flat seat, is to pay for a premium cabin on the leg when you’re likely to be sleeping so you arrive more refreshed. “The ability to sleep on an overnight flight is a terrific advantage and one of the reasons to focus on that leg when you're considering splurging,” Brancatelli says.
Alternatively, if you’re the type who can sleep anywhere, you might decide you want to be awake to enjoy your upscale service. If so, sleep in coach and make the daytime flight your premium cabin experience, Snyder says.
Frequent flyer miles
If you’ve accumulated miles on a single airline for years, you might use those to book your premium-cabin experience or upgrade to one. You can boost those miles by using a co-branded airline credit card.
Research prices as well as upgrades
Paying cash might be more doable than you think. It won’t be cheap, but a business-class fare to China might be more like $2,000 instead of the $10,000 you might guess, Snyder says. The more flexible your travel dates, the better chances you have of finding a deal.
Keep in mind, too, that it can cost less to upgrade from economy to business than to buy a premium fare outright.
“Start by comparing the coach and premium-class fare,” Brancatelli says. “You'll be shocked, especially domestically, how affordable the upgrade to first class actually may be. Sometimes as little as $100 one-way.”
Also, check on upgrades that airlines are offering once you arrive at the airport. “They are making excellent upgrade offers to flyers at the airport, sometimes $50 domestically to first (class), and as little as $300 one-way to business class — complete with lie-flat beds — on some international flights," Brancatelli says.
Go premium economy
You won’t get a flat-bed seat, but some long-haul flights offer an upgraded economy option, where you’ll get more than just a little extra legroom. You’ll also get a wider seat, upgraded food and drinks and priority boarding. You may or may not be able to use miles for premium economy, but it can be a cheaper upgrade option than first or business class, Snyder says.
Tips on booking premium class
Try it on long-haul
“If you’re looking to do this as a bucket-list trip, you should be looking to do a longer international flight so you can really get the full experience,” Snyder says.
If you’re looking to book an award flight, availability can be limited. As with paid tickets, you’ll get the best value when your travel dates are open.
Consider foreign airlines
With American carriers, there are likely to be no language barriers or unfamiliar meal options, but you might get more overall luxury and better service in a premium cabin with a foreign airline. The best 30 airlines in the world in 2017 were all non-U.S. airlines, according to SkyTrax.
Begin with the end in mind
Decide what experience you want on which airline and work backward in figuring out how to do that, Snyder says. Such planning might determine which travel credit card you apply for. For example, if you’re looking to fly first class on Korean Air, you might want a Chase card that allows Ultimate Rewards® point transfers into Korean Air’s frequent flyer program. “If you’re getting a card for this one big trip — to try to save up for it — you should really plot it out as best you can,” Snyder says.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card