Away is Home asks, Why waste money on a first class seat?
And I think it’s not so simple. You have to understand what you get and what it costs to know whether you’re wasting money, getting a fantastic value, or just getting what you’d expect for the cost. Because there are times when it’s a waste, times when it’s a great deal, and that varies by airline (and frequent flyer program) and by passenger preferences.
So is first class worth it – in miles or money?
- Not all first class is created equal
- It doesn’t always cost very much at all
Obviously distinguishing between domestic and international first class matters. And indeed, distinguishing between international business class and international first class matters.
Domestically you generally get what Spirit Airlines dubs “the Big Front Seat.” A seat that is 2-3 inches wider and more legroom. Usually no foot rest. A meal for flights that are long enough, which won’t be all that great but it’s good. And complimentary cocktails and undrinkable wine.
I don’t mind flying coach at all for flights under 650 miles, in fact I rather like it since I get priority security, extra legroom seating, a complimentary cocktail and buy onboard item as well when flying American (top tier elite status). And I’ve probably paid just 4500 British Airways points for the privilege.
Nonetheless, I value first class over coach at some non-zero amount, even on a short flight. I’ve even “bought up” for $50 on the super-short New York LaGuardia – Washington National flight… when thunderstorms were expected during per travel times. Thirty seven minutes in the air became three hours on the plane, and I felt like I got my $50 worth in comfort. I wouldn’t have paid $150 for 3 hours, though.
International business class is a totally different thing.
- The flights are usually much longer
- The seats are usually – although not always – much better.
On a long-haul flight the luxury is being able to sleep. So to me, business class is all about the seat. More personal space, and the ability to lie down fully flat with a pillow is a great way to wake up on the other side relatively relaxed and refreshed. It doesn’t just pass the time, it can make you more productive — whether traveling for work, going to a meeting straight away, or hitting the ground running on personal travel.
Air France angled business seat
American’s new business class is a fully flat bed
For work it’s often an easy case. If you can’t take a day or two to recover from 12+ hours of travel, it can make sense for your company to buy travel that gets more productivity from you.
International first class is a different world altogether, at least with the better carriers. The seat is usually going to have more space, but the gap between coach and business is usually greater than between business and first. Touches like good wine and champagne, pajamas and top end amenities, gourmet food are one part of the difference.
Cathay Pacific first class seat
Cathay Pacific serves Krug champagne
So does ANA
I’ll never be in a position to spend $17,000 – $30,000 for an airline ticket, and would not value the increment of first class over business at the difference in price. But those who do may be trading down from flying private so for them first class would be a cost-saving measure. And if it’s for business, the folks that do it are likely involved in transactions of a big enough magnitude that the airfare is rounding error.
But when redeeming miles, business class usually isn’t that much more and first class may be a smaller increment still.
Take the US Airways award chart for US – North Asia roundtrip. Let’s call it New York – Hong Kong.
- Coach is 80,000 miles.
- Business is 110,000 miles, 15,000 extra points each way — a little over a third more although a paid ticket might be 4 times as much
- First class is 120,000 miles, just 5000 extra points over business each way although a paid ticket again might be 3 times as much as business.
Some programs do charge higher premiums for premium cabins. For instance, British Airways charges double the coach price for business class and triple the coach price for first. Still, that’s less than the 10 to 15 times what a paid first class ticket would cost.
So while it’s more miles, it’s not that many more miles. It may or may not be worth it to you of course.
The key questions are:
- How long is the flight?
- How good is the product?
- Are the ways in which the premium cabin is ‘good’ the things you value?
- What does it cost? (“At what margin…”)
I’d pay $20 per flight hour for comfort, but not everyone would. It’s inherently a matter of subjective value. The longer the flight, the more uncomfortable the incremental hour, the more on average I’d probably pay.
But domestically I’m usually flying up front, for no marginal cost (complimentary elite upgrade). It’s not really right to say “free” since there’s also a non-zero chance I might have paid an extra $20
I’ll gladly spend 30,000 more miles for business class and 40,000 miles roundtrip for first. In a heartbeat. I earn miles faster than I can spend them and I’m trying to spend them to the extent I can in the period in which they’re earned to guard against award chart inflation.
Between credit card signup bonuses, spend on cards, and even flying it isn’t hard for me to generate miles. For someone booking 4 or 5 tickets rather than 2, and who doesn’t spend the time to earn the volume of miles, the 30,000 mile difference could mean 150,000 extra miles that they don’t have.
How many miles you earn matters too!
For me it is sometimes although not usually a waste, since I do not pay much for the privilege and my elite status and mileage haul gets the premium cabins for me on the cheap. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
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