Even if you’ve never splurged to fly in the fancy seats up front, you’ve no doubt heard all about first class and business class. These are the best seats on the plane, with extra service, better food, and free drinks to boot.
But first class and business class are not created equal. That’s especially true when comparing domestic first class seats you’ll find flying most airlines within the U.S. to longhaul international travel, where business and first class seats blow them out of the water.
Whether you’re using points or paying with cash, it’s important to know what you’re in for – and whether it’ll be worth the extra expense. That’s why we’re breaking down everything you need to know about the differences between first-class and business class.
- Domestic vs International First Class: What’s the Difference?
- The Difference Between Business Class and First Class
- The Pros and Cons of Flying Business Class
- The Pros and Cons of Flying First Class
- Business Class vs First Class: Which is Better?
Domestic vs International First Class: What’s the Difference?
Before we break down the differences between first and business class, let’s back up. The most critical difference depends on where you’re flying.
You may find first-class seats on both domestic and international flights. But the first-class seat and service you get flying within the U.S. on domestic carriers like Delta, American, or United is very different from what you see on long-haul international flights – especially with the likes of Emirates, Qatar Airways, Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA), and more.
The biggest difference you’ll find between domestic and international first class starts with the seat. When flying on a first-class ticket domestically, you can expect your seat to be a slightly bigger version of a standard economy seat. Unless you’re flying on a premier transcontinental route, it’s like a larger recliner seat.
Although these seats won’t lay completely flat as you’ll find on an international first-class seat, it will offer substantially more room than what you will find elsewhere on your domestic flight. Sometimes, you may luck out with a fancier lie-flat business class seat flying domestically in the U.S. But generally, this is about as good as it gets.
The Delta Air Lines seats pictured above, for example, are roughly 4 inches to 5 inches wider than what you’ll find in economy, as Delta (and other airlines) cram fewer seats per row into domestic first class. What’s more, you should get an additional 7 inches to 8 inches of additional legroom than what you would find in a standard economy seat.
Even flying domestic first class, you can generally expect complimentary pre-departure beverage service – though some airlines have cut that back during the pandemic. Though it varies by how long you’re flying and which airline you’re on, you’ll usually get a meal served on actual dinnerware … or at least a free snack. And throughout the flight, you typically get a level of service from flight attendants far above what you’d experience in economy.
There is no question that domestic first class is one of the best ways to fly in the U.S. But compared to international business or first class, it leaves a lot to be desired. Both classes of service are vastly different in terms of seats, service, food and drinks, and the overall experience.
The Difference Between Business Class and First Class
Now it’s time to look at international business vs first class. And this is where it starts to get really good.
But it’s important to understand that even when flying first or business class, your experience can vary wildly. These cabins are not created equally. Exactly what you get varies from airline to airline. And even on the same airline, it depends on different aircraft types.
Let’s continue with our Delta Air Lines example. Delta operates business class service from a number of different U.S. airports on a handful of different planes. If you are flying on a Boeing 767-300, your seat will be an older, outdated lie-flat seat like this – with older entertainment screens and nowhere near as much room as you’ll find in many other business class seats.
While still nice, it pales in comparison to what you will find onboard the new Delta One Suites on Delta’s Airbus A350 or A330-900neo aircraft. Even on the exact same airline, these are far nicer seats, complete with a door that closes fully to offer much more privacy than you’ll find on many other airlines.
But what about business class vs first class? You won’t find both on every airline flying internationally, but there are some key differences to consider that can put a first class ticket above even the fanciest business class suite.
Whether you are flying first-class or business class, you’ll have access to an airport lounge. While many airport lounges require holding the right credit card to get in, that’s not the case with a premium cabin flight. Your international ticket alone should get you in.
But just what you’ll find inside your lounge depends your airline, where you’re flying from, and which airport you’re at. Some airlines even have special lounges specifically for first class passengers, while business class passengers get access to a different lounge. At a bare minimum, it’s a space to enjoy free food, drinks, and a more comfortable spot to relax before your flight than what you’ll find in the terminal.
Qatar Airways is one of the top airlines in the world, and it provides a great example of an airline that offers both international first and business class lounges for their passengers departing out of the airline’s hub in Doha (DOH).
Qatar’s business class passengers will have access to the Al Mourjan Business Class Lounge. The lounge is massive and provides complimentary food and beverages, a business center to get work done, and plenty of comfortable seating to relax before your flight.
But if you are flying Qatar Airways first class, you’ll have access to the Qatar Al Safwa Lounge. And there’s really no better airport lounge in the world. It takes business class lounges and puts those amenities on steroids, with better food and a la carte dining, premium beverages, spa treatments, and much more. Plus, just look at this space.
In fact, the Al Safwa lounge even has sleeping rooms. But calling them sleeping rooms is unfair. It’s more like a miniature hotel available to some travelers with long enough layovers.
Or check out the Etihad First Class lounge, available to Etihad first-class passengers departing out of Etihad’s Abu Dhabi (AUH) hub.
On top of all the other lavish amenities, you’ll find a cigar lounge. You’ll have the ability to smoke some of the world’s finest cigars before your first class flight.
Even the worst airport lounge is better than sitting in the terminal at your gate. But while many business class lounges are very nice, what you’ll find in a first-class passengers-only lounge is generally over the top in almost every way.
It’s another way the airlines can differentiate between their first class and business class products.
When it comes to boarding, both business and first-class passengers will receive priority check-in and boarding.
Take, for example, Etihad’s first-class check-in area at their home base in Abu Dhabi (AUH). There is a separate terminal for first-class passengers to check your luggage and get your boarding pass before heading to the lounge.
Even if the airline you are flying doesn’t offer a separate terminal, there will almost always be a separate area for premium cabin passengers to check-in for their flight.
Oftentimes, first and business-class passengers will be able to board their flights from a separate gate, or even directly from the airport lounge. This certainly adds to the exclusivity of the experience.
Because there are simply fewer passengers flying in first and business class, the lines are shorter and you will ultimately board the plane faster. If an airline offers both first-class and business class service on the same flight, first-class passengers will typically board first, followed by business class passengers.
Both classes of service will receive pre-flight beverages while the rest of the flight is boarding. Just what you will get depends on the airline you are flying. On a recent Emirates first-class flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Dubai (DXB), I was offered Arabic coffee, champagne, and Arabic dates shortly after I boarded the plane – while business class and economy passengers were still boarding.
One difference you will find between the boarding and check-in process with first and business class comes from the checked baggage allowance. It varies from airline to airline, but generally speaking, business class passengers will receive two free checked bags and first-class passengers will receive up to three bags free.
When you arrive at your final destination after checking a bag, first-class baggage should be the first out on the baggage carousel, followed by business class baggage – though that won’t always be the case.
The boarding and pre-flight experience with first and business-class tickets should be relatively similar and will vary from airline to airline. But if you are flying first class, our experience is that the process feels much more personal as there are simply fewer passengers and the crew is able to provide a more intimate experience.
Comparing business class vs first class, the biggest and most notable difference is going to come from the actual seats onboard the plane. Stop us if you’ve heard this, but it varies wildly by airline.
If you are flying in business class, you can expect a seat that lies fully flat, with some additional privacy and, in some cases, direct aisle access. Though it depends on the airline and aircraft, many airlines with business class cabins have upgraded their seats in the last decade with a 1-2-1 layout.
That means there are fewer seats in the cabin and every passenger can get into the aisle without stepping over their neighbor, as is the case in the Delta One Suite cabin.
But that isn’t always the case with business class. Many older business class seats are still in a 2-2-2 arrangement – or worse. That means either window row has two seats and the middle section also has two seats. Ultimately, this means that not every business class passenger would have direct aisle access.
While the seats themselves are much nicer than back in economy, it’s less convenient. Take a look at the business class cabins on some older Qatar Airways and Emirates planes for reference. Some Emirates business class seats don’t recline all the way to a lie-flat bed.
But up in international first class, the seats are typically much larger, fully lie-flat, and more comfortable than what you’ll find even in business class. Not only will you have privacy, but nearly all first-class layouts will be in a 1-2-1 layout. Some take it even further, with even fewer seats in the first class cabin.
The first-class cabin is prime real estate for airlines to show off their most luxurious and comfortable seats. Take, for example, the Etihad apartments. Not only do you have one of the most comfortable seats in the sky, but you’ll also have a bench that folds down into your own bed and a fully enclosed suite. As the name suggests, this is closer in size to some New York City apartments than it is to an airline seat.
Sadly due to the pandemic, Etihad is not running any flights with the Apartment suites onboard and we likely may never see them again.
But first class is not dead. Another example is the Emirates first-class suites on their Airbus A380 aircraft. While it pales in comparison to the Etihad apartment seat, you’ll still have a ton of space and a door that closes to provide a ton of privacy.
And then there’s the cream of the crop: The new, game-changing suite onboard some Emirates 777 planes. There are just six suites total, arranged in a 1-1-1 format in the cabin. Each suite has floor-to-ceiling walls and closing doors, providing unmatched privacy and comfort.
Generally speaking, the biggest difference you are going to find between business class and first class will come from the actual seat you will sit in. First class seats are generally bigger, more comfortable, more private, and more exclusive.
But it varies from airline to airline. Some business class cabins, like the Qatar Airways Qsuites, are nicer than many first-class products.
Make sure to read reviews of the airline and specific aircraft you are flying. Those two factors can change the experience between the two cabins quite substantially. In our experience, Seat Guru is a great place to start this research. But be sure to page through our extensive airline reviews as well.
Food & Beverage
Whether you are flying in business class or first class, you can generally expect a multicourse meal plated on actual dishware and drinks served in real glassware. When it comes to food, the quality depends on which airline you’re flying – much like many of the other differences we’ve highlighted.
Yet Japan Airlines first class took that amazing meal and made it even better with more than seven different courses – each plated beautifully, each tastier than the last. Oh, and a $600 bottle of champagne sure didn’t hurt, either.
And that underscores one of the most important differences between first class and business class when it comes to food and drink: On airlines that offer both cabins, they save the absolute best for first class flyers. The best food, the best drinks, the best desserts, and the best service.
There are a few other noticeable differences up in first class. On many airlines, you can order when you want to eat – not just when the airline decides to serve a meal. Many airlines that offer both first and business-class services will serve the business class meal at a set time. In first class, it tends to be more open.
On many airlines including Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines, and more, first-class passengers often have the option for caviar service. That’s something you won’t find in business class.
Finally, while both business and first-class passengers will be provided with complimentary alcohol, most airlines reserve their most expensive and exclusive offerings for first-class passengers. That’s true whether you are drinking champagne, wine, or spirits.
For example, Japan Airlines first class passengers can sip on $600 bottles of Salon champagne. In Emirates First Class, you can get a vintage bottle of Dom Perignon.
No matter what airline you’re flying, business class and first-class passengers will receive some kind of amenity kit onboard.
Typically, these kits include things like a toothbrush, a sleep mask, compression socks, toiletries, and other goodies. Some first class amenity kits have higher-end toiletries than what you’d get back in business class. But many times, there isn’t a big difference between business class vs first class. The kits are pretty standard.
Both first and business-class passengers will also get blankets and pillows for the long-haul flight. However, many first-class passengers will more than likely get some sort of a mattress pad to make their lie-flat seat even more comfortable when it is time to sleep. That’s rare in business class.
Oftentimes, first-class passengers will get their bed made up for them by the flight crew. But again, this will be highly dependant on the airline. That was my experience when flying ANA first class from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Tokyo (HND). Some airlines offer this turndown service even in business class.
But perhaps the best business and first-class amenities belong to Emirates – the airline that loves to be over the top in almost every single way. To start with, both business and first-class passengers who are flying on the Airbus A380 will have access to the onboard bar and lounge.
While both business and first-class passengers can access the bar, only first-class passengers will have access to the top-shelf liquor options.
But the prime amenity onboard the Emirates Airbus A380 aircraft is a bathroom with a shower. This amenity is available exclusively for first-class passengers. Yes, showering on a plane before landing at your destination is as amazing as it sounds.
Nothing can make or break a flight quite like service. And it’s the single biggest variable when flying up front.
Just how good – or bad – your service is depends on the airline you’re flying and whichever crew is working your flight. Two identical flights on the exact same airline can be drastically different solely because of the flight attendants and pursers onboard. Some business class service will outstrip what you get flying first class because of a better crew.
But at the end of the day, there are typically far fewer seats in international first-class cabins. As a rule of thumb, that generally means better (and more personal service) where the flight attendants. Being addressed by name and responding at a moment’s notice are hallmarks of the best first class service.
While first class may have just six or eight seats, business class cabins typically have a few dozen – which means more passengers to attend to. While that doesn’t always mean service will be worse, it’s generally less intimate than flying up in first class.
The Pros and Cons of Flying Business Class
Pros of Flying Business Class
- Almost always a lie-flat seat
- Less expensive than first class. That’s true whether you are paying with cash or points. Use the flight price tracker feature from Google Flights to get notified when the price of your potential itinerary drops
- Airport lounge access
- More seat availability means easier to book – especially when using points & miles
- Better service and food than you will receive in economy or premium economy
- Priority boarding and pre-flight beverages
- At least two checked bags included with your ticket
Cons of Flying Business Class
- More expensive than economy or premium economy. That’s true whether you are paying with cash or points
- Not guaranteed direct aisle access from your seat
- Smaller and less comfortable seats than you will find in first class
- You will likely have to dine when the airline serves the meal, not when you want to eat
- Complimentary alcohol will be a step down from what you will get in first class
- Some amenities will not be available to business class passengers (i.e. the Emirates showers)
- Service will not be as intimate as it will in first class
The Pros and Cons of Flying First Class
Pros of Flying First Class
- Lie-flat seats that will turn into a bed when it’s time to sleep (including a mattress pad)
- Guaranteed direct aisle access – no matter which seat you choose
- Better, private lounges in some airports
- Elevated service, food and drinks than you will receive in business class
- Dine-on-demand service is typical in first class
- Exclusive amenities that are only available for first-class passengers
- Priority boarding and pre-flight beverages
- At least three checked bags are usually included with your ticket
Cons of Flying First Class
- More expensive than business class. That’s true whether you are paying with cash or points
- Less seat availability means it is harder to book – especially when using points & miles
- Harder to find multiple seats together due to the smaller cabins
Business Class vs First Class: Which is Better?
The answer to this question hinges on a number of factors, including the airline, aircraft, and the airport you depart from. What’s your budget – in points or in cash? How many seats do you need?
All these factors and more can determine whether first class is better than business class. While by no means cheap, business class is less expensive than first class. But there’s no question that first class is almost always a step above even an incredible business class flight.
At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with either class of service. But it’s important to know the difference between business class and first class before you book – especially whether you’re flying in the U.S. or heading on a big trip abroad.