To alleviate the tedium and discomfort of long flights, many passengers investigate the option of flying in first or business class. This article discusses whether it's worth the price and how you can reduce the cost.
What you get
Amenities in first and business class (also known as premium classes) vary widely by airline and even plane type, and it's absolutely imperative to research carefully before choosing.
The following overview discusses the amenities you can expect on a long-haul flight, loosely defined as over six hours. Few airlines offer first class for shorter trips anymore, except in very high-yield Asian routes (e.g. Hong Kong-Singapore) and in the United States, where business class is usually not offered and domestic "first" class approximates short-haul business class elsewhere. Short-haul business class is increasingly converging on offering the same limited in-flight facilities as economy class, the main selling point being flexibility, access to perks (e.g. airline lounges, complimentary in-flight meals), and an empty middle seat.
If you fly within North America, most of the extra features that coach passengers now have to pay for (like food, entertainment and checked luggage) are already included in the ticket price of premium passengers. However, unlike in other countries, flying domestic first class in the United States does not typically include automatic lounge access except for some transcontinental routes; you will need to separately purchase a lounge pass or lounge membership for that.
'Premium Economy' or 'Economy Plus' is offered by some airlines on some aircraft. It provides a larger and more comfortable seat than standard Economy and is cheaper than Business class. On international flights, premium economy seating can amount to what business class used to be, during the 1980s. The extra cost can double the cost of your flight ticket, especially if you're traveling to and from Asia—or just add another 10%, if you upgrade at the last minute on a mostly empty flight—but it is much cheaper than business class.
Extra amenities offered to premium economy passengers vary widely from airline to airline, ranging from nothing more than the extra legroom in United Airlines or American Airlines, to lounge access at the departure airport either for a fee as is the case of Air France or Lufthansa, or as part of the ticket price as is case of All Nippon Airways or Japan Airlines. Check each airline's web-site before you buy.
On U.S. airlines, premium economy usually involves the same seats as economy section, but the rows are spaced a few inches further apart and placed nearer the front of the airplane. The extra cost for this legroom can be as low as US$10 on a short, low-demand domestic flight.
For a long time, business class was akin to economy with larger seats and more seat pitch (space for your legs), but the continuing drive to strip all frills out of economy and better other airlines' business classes has seen some major changes in the past decade.
At the airport, business class flyers typically have a separate check-in area or at least their own row, and can access a business class lounge that offers drinks, snacks, newspapers and maybe Internet access. Some of the best lounges offer showers and even nap rooms. Note that you can typically only use a business class lounge at your departure airport and when waiting for a connection, although some airlines allow long-haul passengers to use them on arrival as well.
Why fly business?
Once on board — and you're usually boarded first — seat pitch in business remains good by any measure: while 91 cm (36 in) is considered unusually generous in economy, few long-haul business seats are under 100 cm (40 in) and 130-153 cm (50-60 in) is considered standard. However, for many travellers the most important consideration is recline, particularly the holy grail of the flat bed seat (180° recline, parallel to the floor), which pretty much guarantees a good night's sleep. True flat bed seats are rare and expensive, with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class pioneering the concept, but lie-flat seats, angled seats like those found in Air France's business class cabin, which recline to an angle of perhaps 170° and are vertically tilted to squeeze in better, are increasingly common. Flat-bed and lie-flat seats are usually found only on long-haul flights in premium carriers (Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, etc.). That said, these are often also deployed on shorter flights between major financial centres that see very heavy business traffic (eg. Singapore-Hong Kong flights on Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific).
Food and drink in business class is much better than the slop usually encountered in economy class. You can expect to be given actual menus with several choices, with courses served one by one from actual porcelain plates and accompanied by free drinks. Some airlines allow you to order from an extensive menu before you fly, in which case the meal will be loaded especially for you.
Entertainment options in business class are also good, with audio and video on demand (AVOD) a standard amenity, either via a display built into your seat or portable DVD players passed out by request. Power sockets for laptops are often provided and Internet access may be available too.
The last perk comes at the end, as you'll be the first out of the plane (apart from the first class) and into the immigration and customs lanes. In fact, in some stations such as London's Heathrow Airport, there are dedicated lanes for business class passengers at passport control.
Why fly first?
Due to the race to improve business class, first class is a slowly dying breed. Some airlines have dropped it entirely and those that still offer it limit it to "premier" or "high-yield" routes with very heavy business traffic and hence enough people willing to pay for the privilege. However in the mid-late 2000s, carriers like Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways and Emirates have released new first-class products.
The first class experience begins before you board the plane: some airlines like Thai throw in limousine transfers to and from the airport, where you can expect to have your bags carried by a porter, be checked in at a private first-class check-in area and enjoy your first glass of sparkling wine at a first-class lounge. Lufthansa's Frankfurt Airport hub goes a step further, dedicating an entire terminal to first-class flyers!
Once onboard, first class is perhaps best known for the superlative meal service, and indeed high-quality champagne, lobster tail and caviar do still feature on some menus. These days, though, the trend is towards a wide selection of entrees served to order and lengthy wine lists. Service is very personal, with first class cabin crew tending to as few as two or three passengers each. In Etihad's "The Residence", which is marketed as a class above first class and perhaps the most luxurious experience on a commercial flight, you will get chauffeur driving you to the airport, a personal lounge, a full-course fine dining meal, a personal butler to attend to your needs until the end of your flight, and an apartment with a double bed on board the flight. It is extremely expensive, with the cheapest tickets starting from US$13,000.
A standard amenity in modern first class is a lie-flat seat, which lies completely flat (180 degrees) and is increasingly offered in suite or cradle configurations where you have a curtain or other privacy divider to separate you from other passengers, and a few airlines even offer these in "double" configurations for two people. When reclined, the seat will actually resemble a bed, made up by crew with comfortable linens, pillows, etc. Pyjamas are usually provided and even the toiletry kit will contain recognizable brand names. When sitting up, seat pitch regularly exceeds 200 cm (80") and there are rarely more than 4 seats in a row.
An exception to the availability of lie-flat seats in first class is on U.S. domestic flights, where first class seats usually the same as those on short-haul business class or long-haul premium economy elsewhere. That said, lie-flat seats are provided on some transcontinental routes or flights between the mainland and Hawaii.
When it comes to frequent flyer miles, first class passengers can accrue up to three times the number of miles flown. For example, those flying round-trip long-haul like Singapore-Los Angeles using SIA's Suite Class have more than enough miles to redeem up to 2 intra-South East Asian flights.
Last but not least, first class gets the best seats in the plane. This is almost invariably at the front of the plane, where engine noise and turbulence are minimized.
How to fly
It's a question on the mind of many an economy class passenger as they troop past those big seats on their way to the back of the bus: just how did these lucky plonkers end up here, and how come I didn't?
The obvious way of flying in first or business class is to fork out a thick wad of money for the privilege (or, better yet, get your company to do it for you). However, this does not come cheap: as rough rules of thumb, you can expect to pay up to four times the normal economy fare for business, and eleven times for first class!
Generally speaking, there is no point in even looking for discounts for business or first-class seats on direct flights from A to B. Airlines know well that there is a certain core group of flyers who are willing to pay top dollar for the privilege of getting somewhere fast and in comfort, and charge accordingly. For example, a direct flight from Singapore to Los Angeles and back in business costs a whopping US$5000 before taxes, and discounted seats are simply not available. However, the flip side to this is there is maximum flexibility for last-minute changes to one's itinerary.
A better solution is to look for connecting flights that go from A to B via a third destination C, preferably so that flights from C to B are very popular and competitive. If you're willing to route through Bangkok, you can get from Singapore to LA on Thai Airways for US$2880, and if you accept a less flexible, restricted J-class ticket the price drops further yet to an almost tolerable US$2240 — under three times the average economy class price.
If you're willing to further forego the "speed" factor, you may be able to scout out better deals. For example, Asiana offers business class flights between Bangkok and Los Angeles for just US$1600 (including taxes). The catch? You'll be stuck with a 15-hour layover at Seoul in both directions. Likewise, you can knock a few thousand off that US$5000 Singapore Airlines flight if you buy your tickets from Sri Lanka — but if you're departing from Singapore, that means flying Singapore-Colombo-Singapore-Los Angeles-Singapore-Colombo-Singapore!
If you're planning a really long trip, consider a Round the world ticket. They are also available in business and first class versions, which are comparatively affordable, being usually priced at (roughly) twice and thrice the economy version.
Last but not least, if flying with others, many airlines offer "companion tickets" where, if you buy one full-price business or first ticket, you get another one cheaply or even for free. However, as the name of the ticket implies, both the paying and the dependent passenger must fly together.
Frequent flyer miles
Many frequent flyers consider business and first class awards and upgrades the best way to use your miles. Instead of the 4x/11x spreads for cash, you can typically get a business-class award for as little as 1.5 times the miles for an economy and first-class awards for twice (although the ratios vary from program to program).
The flip side, though, is lack of availability and total inflexibility. For airlines, getting somebody to burn up 200,000 miles on a first-class seat that would otherwise have gone empty is an excellent trade — but having that award flyer displace somebody who would willingly have paid US$10,000 for the seat is a terrible trade. You thus need to make your reservations as early as possible — some start calling as soon as award inventory is released, which may be 6-12 months before the flight!
While the above is often the case for many who know no better, there are "professionals" out there to help the average Joe maximize the value of their frequent flyer miles (and other loyalty points), usually for a fee of between US$100-200. Given the hassles often associated with spending points and miles, such services can be well worth the price!
If you have a long-haul economy flight that you'd like to upgrade, the airline may be willing to sell you an award upgrade, where you get bumped up to business class in exchange for some miles. These come in two flavors: the expensive confirmed upgrade, where you are guaranteed a business-class seat in advance, and the comparatively cheap standby upgrade, where you will only get told at check-in (or even the gate!) whether you'll be sipping champagne in first or chewing on your knees in steerage today.
Having elite status with an airline or within an airline alliance can net you complimentary upgrades to business or first. Typically this requires tens of thousands of miles to be racked up to your account, often requiring requalification each year, but if you’re flying more than about 25,000 miles a year, you should be able to gain at least a basic level of elite status. And, as you gain higher status (most US carriers have three or four levels of elite) your chance of a free upgrade rises. Another tip regarding elite status which can guarantee an upgrade is to look for certain economy fare classes which offer instant upgrades for elite members. For example, on Delta, an elite member with a Y or B class coach ticket will be automatically upgraded.
In general, airlines do not hand out free upgrades to passengers for no reason. However, if you are lucky, the airline may upgrade you to a higher class for free either at check-in or at the gate if they have to do so for operational reasons. This typically occurs if economy class is overbooked, but there are available seats in the higher classes. In general though, airlines will try to make customers pay for upgrades, and only hand out free upgrades as a last resort. Often, airlines will first offer to upgrade customers for a discounted price at check-in if there are still premium seats available, and these can often be a good deal. Only if there are still empty seats and an overbooked economy class after that would the airlines typically hand out free upgrades, with priority usually given to those who have elite frequent flyer status, as well as those who have paid for more expensive fare classes. In general, you are more likely to be upgraded as a single traveller or with a small party size than as part of a large group, simply because it is easier for airlines to move smaller groups around.
Sometimes, airlines may ask for volunteers to be bumped off overbooked flights to a later flight in exchange for a free upgrade to a higher cabin class. If you are not pressed for time, this could be a good way for you to obtain service in a premium cabin.
To maximise your chances of getting upgraded, try to fly routes or during times when there are more leisure travellers and fewer business travellers. After all, many business travellers are doing so on their company's expense account, and would thus be more willing to pay top dollar to fly in the premium classes, meaning that the premium classes are more likely to be full. Although the procedures used to decide on who gets free upgrades differ from airline to airline, in general you are more likely to upgraded if you buy an expensive full-priced ticket than if you buy a heavily discounted ticket on sale. It may also be worth it to pay extra for premium economy if available and you have the financial means to afford it; the price difference from premium economy to business is typically much larger than between economy and premium economy, meaning that your free upgrade would not be as good a bargain if it was the latter. It is also advisable to dress reasonably well for your flight, though you do not need to dress in a suit or tuxedo; upgrades have often been pre-selected by a computer prior to check-in or boarding, and many business travellers dress comfortably for long flights, but if you turn up dressed like a hippie, any upgrade you might have been pre-selected for may be voided by the check-in or gate agent.
Of course, it is also possible, though less common, for you to be downgraded for operational reasons, if the higher class is oversold and the lower class has vacancies. In this case, you will typically still have access to the lounge and other pre-flight amenities that you originally paid for, and the airline is in general required to refund you the fare difference between the class you paid for and the class you were downgraded to.
A dodgy class of dealers known as first and business class discounters merge the two approaches: they buy people's frequent-flyer miles on the cheap, and sell them on to travellers at steeply discounted prices.
The business depends on a loophole in most airmile programs that allows the miles holder to redeem miles for tickets for other travelers. The stated intent of the clause is to allow the miles holder to exchange miles for tickets for family or close friends. Through a broker, the miles holder instead redeems their miles for a ticket for a stranger. The stranger pays the broker, and the broker pays the miles holder -- minus the brokerage fee.
In terms of criminal law, dealing in frequent flyer miles is generally legal, except in the US state of Utah which has a specific state law prohibiting such trading. However, such trading usually violates the terms of the frequent flyer program. The contract stipulations for airline miles typically disallow buying tickets with miles for someone who isn't a close relation. If discovered, the airline may choose to punish one or both parties by invalidating remaining miles, invalidating the ticket without compensation, or (in extreme circumstances) even suing you or the broker for damages.
A discount ticket is therefore a shaky proposition; there is a real possibility that you will be refused the seat you paid thousands of dollars for. Airline mile brokers usually refuse to give refunds or other service if the transaction doesn't work out.
Types of discounters
There are brokers that deal in bulk purchase of seats and their resale and brokers that deal with individual sellers and purchasers. The latter tend to deal only with the most expensive seats and can give the best savings. For a real budget traveller the seats are still hundreds of dollars, but for a business traveller this can result in savings of thousands more. The former can yield excellent deals and are sometimes known as general sales agents or bucket shops. In dealing with them it is worth checking online oneself with the airline's own website in order to make sure that there is no cheaper ticket available.