Which Is Better to Fly: First Class on a US Airline, or Business Class on a Foreign One?

Some version of this question comes up all the time, I’d say at least once a week.

Michael C asked,

All things being equal, Would you rather fly:

Los Angeles – Zurich – Paris in Swiss business class

Los Angeles – Munich – Paris in Lufthansa business class

or Los Angeles – Dallas – Paris in American’s old first class (Boeing 777-200)?

I’d pick Swiss over Lufthansa. I’d actually take American’s and Delta’s all aisle access fully flat Boeing 777s (and Delta’s 747) over Lufthansa business class! My general rule though is to always choose first class over business class.

I like Swiss’ staggered business class, they manage five across rather than four but the seats are well-enough arranged that you aren’t as obtrusive to your seatmate. Lufthansa’s six across business class just is not competitive.

The World’s Best Business Class Products

Not all Asian carriers have the top business class products, but all of the truly best business class products are offered by Asian carriers.

Singapore Airlines

With a four-across configuration, like in first class, Singapore Airlines’ seats are incredible wide and they are also relatively private.

There’s plenty of storage space as well as the little touches like an in-seat mirror. Interestingly in the latest generation of the seat the ‘shell’ is the same size as before but the seat itself lost two inches of width. In exchange for width there’s additional storage space. One of the common complaints, believe it or not, about the old seat was that it was too wide.

Singapore offers inflight internet across their 777 and A380 fleet, something that Etihad and Emirates offer and that American and Delta are increasingly as well.

And of course Singapore does a really spectacular job with onboard meals. They offer ‘book the cook’ which allows you to pick from an extensive menu and they’ll have your selection onboard for you.

If there’s a knock on Singapore it’s that they don’t provide amenity kits, or pajamas, but they do stock the lavatory with amenities. (Very few airlines offer PJs in business, but both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia do as does Qantas.)

Cathay Pacific

Hong Kong-based oneworld member Cathay Pacific offers reverse herringbone all aisle access seating. So they’ve got the seat.

Add in good service and they’re among the top business class carriers in the world.

EVA Air

Taipei-based Star Alliance member EVA Air offers a business class product that’s four abreast on the Boeing 777-300ER. That means all aisle access.

The seat is reverse herringbone and very similar to what Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, and others offer. It’s one of the best business class seats in the sky in my opinion.

They offer pre-order meals in their business (“Royal Laurel”) class and onboard internet. They serve Krug champagne. And this is business class, not first!

I think that Singapore’s is best, because I find the seat most spacious. I love Cathay Pacific and EVA Air. I find their seats a bit tighter.

EVA Air has the best champagne and offers a pre-order meal service. So soft product is probably comparable to Singapore’s.

Cathay Pacific’s food is fine at best, more than a notch below Singapore’s in my opinion. Unlike Singapore and EVA Airways, they don’t yet have onboard internet.

So if I had to rank them I would pick Singapore, EVA Air, and then Cathay Pacific.

A sleeper for the future is Virgin Australia. Already they offer fantastic service and good food. They’ve moving to reverse herringbone all aisle access seats. And they don’t just offer pajamas but also bedding. The mattress pad they use on their current Boeing 777 seats is simply super comfortable.

A blanket and small pillow isn’t enough.. but I can manage that myself most of the time. I usually find myself trying to snag a second blanket so I can use one as a mattress pad and the other as a sheet. Virgin Australia gives you a real, thick mattress pad that’s better than what some airlines have in first class. So I’m excited to try their new long haul business product rolling out this year.

The Best of US Airline Business Class Products

Depending on the cabin configuration, I’d take American or Delta first class over the offerings of European carriers. Since business class is predominantly about it seat I will take fully flat, all aisle access, with enough personal space (e.g. 4-across Boeing 777) over six across where a passenger in the window has to climb over the one in the aisle to get out or where there are four seats across in a narrow Boeing 767.

American offers four-across all aisle access on the bulk of their international fleet at this point. I find that quite confining on the narrow fuselage on a Boeing 767 (similar in many ways to what you’ll get with six-across Boeing 777s from European airlines).

There are still unreconfigured planes out there, of course, and those give you angled seats. But fewer and fewer of them.

Much much better are the business class seats on American’s 777-300ER, 777-200, and 787 aircraft.


American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER Business Class


American Airlines Boeing 777-200 Business Class


American Airlines Boeing 787 Business Class

US Airways actually pioneered these ‘reverse herringbone’ seats. While US Airways never had a great business class reputation, they drove innovation in the business class hard product. Combined between American and US Airways they’ve got the best overall hard product across the Atlantic in my opinion.

Delta offers reverse herringbone seating on many Asia Pacific routes, and a couple of Atlantic crossings including Tel Aviv. Their workhorse transatlantic offerings, however, aren’t reverse.

Here’s their standard herringbone seat I recently flew on the 777 from Sydney to Los Angeles.

It’s a perfectly fine seat, not very private.

United has flat seats. The legacy Continental seats are fairly good, but they’re six seats across on the Boeing 777 rather than four across. That means they aren’t ‘all aisle access’. You climb over your neighbor if you’re in the window. They aren’t private. Meanwhile legacy United 777s are eight across, ‘dorm-style’ business class if you will.

Why I’d Choose Even American and United First Class Over The Best Business Class

First class means a more spacious seat. It’s a more private, less crowded cabin. It’s easier to get the attention of a flight attendant for whatever need you have, like drink refills, even with the inconsistent crews on US airlines.

I believe the seat is the most important feature, especially when comparing to business class. And though the meals on American and United in first won’t be spectacular you aren’t giving up all that much even compared to the best business class meals be it on Singapore or Austrian.

Here’s United’s ‘Global First’ seat.

Here’s the old American Airlines first class seat onboard the Boeing 777-200 that Michael was asking about.

There’s a blanket and mattress pad with small pillow in first class, it was on the seat’s ottoman. And there’s a big pillow and blanket above the seat in the overhead, too. Together they make for quite nice bedding.

Your amenity kit is perfectly fine in American first class.

And there are pajamas. Perfect for a night’s sleep.

The seats even swivel. The most unique feature is that you can turn the seat to face many directions with about a 180 degree turn. If you’re traveling with someone, turn complete to face them and they can do the same.

Is this a proper international first class experience? Absolutely not. But I will take it over business class any day.

First class is disappearing on American’s 777-200s as they get new business class seats. The good news is that I would take American’s new business class on the 777 over Lufthansa or Swiss business class as well, so even booking American first class and getting ‘downgraded’ to business it would still be my choice of aircraft.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. A different reason for choosing the foreign carriers – I’d rather connect in Europe than in the US, especially on the return. IMO better lounges in Europe too. Better food on board as well.

    Plus, if you’re a Oneworld Emerald flying OW, you get the F lounge benefit even if flying a partner airline in biz.

  2. can you pictures be any more biased ? all the other seats are clear but somehow the UA seats are blurred. how objective of you.

  3. On a trip to HK as a family of four we flew EVA business on the outbound and UA on the return. Although I agree with your assessment of both of their products, we found the UA 8 across to be superior as we were able to attend to the children much easier with 4 middle seats together than on EVA. However, if I were flying solo or as a couple the 4 seat configuration in the middle of the aircraft would be awful. I can’t imagine who thought that was a good idea. Surely families of 4 aren’t the norm in this cabin?

  4. Hmmm…I think I’d generally agree, but have trouble with the UA or AA first is > SQ business. SQ business seat is massive, food probably way better than UA or AA first. And you didn’t mention the service, which is just incomparable on SQ. Blows UA or AA out of the water.

    Also @mason–totally agree. This is an angle rarely covered by bloggers. I flew UA biz on 747 upper deck with my toddler and the ease of tending to her was great and i still had a flat bed. I also booked my sister, her husband and 2 kids on UA biz on the 777-200 and it was great for them to be able to keep the 2 kids between them. Is it better than 4 across for the average person? Of course not. But it does work nicely for families. Ironically, that’s probably the opposite of UA’s target market for the biz cabin.

  5. It’s a crab shoot with the different configurations on different planes. I’ve had poor Lufthansa and Eva business class.

    And I did a flight on united. When travelling with a spouse, lay flat, but not aisle access seats may be preferable, if you still like to talk to each other.

  6. Quick correction – AA offers all-aisle access in about 45% of its international fleet, not yet ‘the bulk’. Approximate counts:

    Flat Seat:
    24 A330s
    25 763s
    11 787s
    17 77Ws
    5-ish 772
    82 Total

    Non-flat:
    24 763
    42 772
    ~24 752
    90 Total

    Surprisingly and sadly, AA is extremely far behind in this regard. UA/DL are all lie-flat now IIRC, and even Qatar has over 90% of its long-haul fleet reconfigured with flat seats.

  7. Couple thoughts:

    1. Traveling on Europe from the US on AA, as far as I know, you’re going to get the older product, most likely on a plane that doesn’t even have an F cabin, unless you connect through LHR. Which might be OK with you. Just throwing it out there.

    2. Singapore flies JFK-FRA.

  8. @Ben American does have some 757s flying in international service, I wasn’t thinking of those. Your numbers are still off though as you’re including 767s that fly domestic routes. In fact I want to say that only one of the 76s they’re keeping is left to be retrofit.

  9. I have to agree with @turgutbey

    SQ business for me is superior to UA / AA F.
    If you are sat in row 11 on the 777 you will be in a minicabin of 8 seats.
    The seat is larger than UA F and has a wall for privacy unlike AA F.

    The service is far more attentive and personalised than UA/AA.
    I prefer Bollinger, Satay and Lobster Thermidor too!

    In fact SQ J is so good that their own non-suites F becomes a tough sell…

  10. First and foremost, I take a nonstop if available in the best premium class possible. We flew LAX-SVO on Aeroflot business (angle flat) rather than LH F LAX-FRA-SVO simply to minimize our travel time. And it was fine. We still love UA GF and would gladly take it over business class on any other carrier–though SQ J might make us think twice. For routes where UA GF still is available, we are always quite pleased. We’d also take AA FF over business class on any other carrier, but this is harder to find than UA GF. To be honest, UA BF is actually pretty good, too…as long as you pick the aisle seat in the middle to preclude someone climbing over you. Otherwise, UA BF is comparable or better than most others to Europe IME, though AA’s new business class all aisle seating is better for more seats. I’m not a fan of DL’s J, and most European carriers don’t guarantee true flat bed business class (though LH just finished its retrofit and Swiss already can guarantee that).

  11. Too bad you didn’t include any photos of the upstairs section in business class on DL 747s. There are only 14 seats in 1×1 configuration.. Every seat is an aisle and a window seat. The peace and quiet is incredible. If anyone can point to a better business-class product, I’d like to see it. DLis dumping its 747s unfortunately.

    Overall, your post is very confusing. Because airlines have multiple aircraft with multiple configurations in business class and first class, statements about which airline has a better product, much less a broad domestic versus foreign comparison, are useless generalizations. It depends on the specific aircraft and route. For example, CX has great business class on the 777. On the A330 with 2x2x2 seating, not so much.

  12. Gary –

    Where does Japan Air Lines J class fall in here?
    I would fly that over UA F. Never flown SQ J but looks like that for sure is better than UA F.
    Also, DL has a much better J product than that herringbone crap on much of their fleet. You should include some pictures of that too.

  13. Personally, I’d pick either of the first two flights (especially the SwissAir flight) over the AA flight because I’d rather have the much longer first segment and actually have a chance at a full night’s sleep. Dallas-Paris is 9 hours. Maybe you can sleep 6 once all’s said and done. LAX-Zurich is 11:20.

  14. Good post. Honestly among US carriers I don’t seem much difference btw some Intl FC (UA or US 330s) and some BC (like Delta but only on the 747 or 330 NOT the 767). The hard product on a DL 330 Biz us as good as US Biz or UA Global First. But I think DL has arguably the best FAs of the whole bunch, which can make a huge difference.

  15. I agree with most of your post, but would choose SQ Business over UA First any day – and I’ve flown both of them a lot!
    I think the seat is a wash – SQ is wider, UA is a little longer, both are very similar in terms of privacy. Part of that is the cabin layout and part of it is the fact that SQ Business is often not full – they don’t upgrade elites to fill every single seat! Also, the UA First seats are pretty worn out these days – you won’t find that new-plane-smell here…
    Service is no comparison – SQ is light years ahead of UA, even Business to UA First and you hardly mention that. You suggest that you have easier access to flight attendants in First, which I don’t think is true for a SQ – UA comparison. SQ Biz is rarely full and the FA are much more attentive instead of relaxing in the galley. They are also more proactive, offering food, drink refills, making your bed, etc – so you don’t have to chase them down.
    And the SQ Biz food is also better than UA First. UA First is hardly different than UA Biz. SQ offers the “book the cook”, so you can order what you want. And the SQ wine list is a lot better than anything UA offers…
    In general, I also pick First over Business, but there are some exceptions and SQ-UA is one of them…

  16. I’d like to see reports on Air Berlin, Aer Lingus flat bed, Iberia, and Finnair business classes. Compared with AA. Don’t bother with ripoff BA.

  17. The Air Swiss A-330 out of BOS is very good. Some J seats are very private singles and the food and service better than most.

    JAL has 787 service BOS to NRT. Problem is they still; use angled seats in J Class. That’s pathetic!

    SQ is hard for anyone to beat. It’s still the best.

  18. Gary I was just in Europe for two weeks, LH over to Europe and AA back. Both flights in F, the LH was on a A380 and AA on the new 77W.

    I took a walk about the A380 to see the other class’s, the J seats looked nice, the 77W suits were horrible, no place for storage what so ever. No privacy, there is more privacy in J on the 77W then in F. Food in F, well we already know who wont on that front… Ground experience, again, we know who wins. The Food I ordered in the Flagship lounge in LHR looked amazing, presentation was spot on, but it was COLD.. Eggs Benedict should not be served cold. My food in the FCT was not cold unless it was suppose to be.

    So in my experience, F on AA 77W is a very good J product… I wouldn’t call it a true F product, the soft product need a lot of work, if you are going to serve a Filet then allow your passengers to pick it’ cooking temp not the catering company.. Why can’t AA get that right??? Until AA get it’s catering right, more and more people choose a foreign carrier..

    BTW, it must have been my lucky day, I was able to get 2 F seats on the 77W for 62,500 PP

  19. Hi Jeff,

    Your views are as valid as anyone else’s though at comparisons like this I find your views very much skewed to AA/US whereas others offer equally good, if not better service. Most airlines across the Atlantic starting to offer reverse herringbone – hence Zodiac’s delivery problems – and thus the differences are more minimal. One major downside of the reverse herringbone seat is the confined space for feet: especially people with tall feet cannot put them upright (on their heels) when seat is fully flat because of the shell of the seat in front of them is limiting the space. Ever tried to lay flat on UA 757 transcontinental F class?
    For that, I much prefer the way Kenia Airways and KLM (only on 747) went: a wide and unlimited tall feet support. Yes you do not to cross your neighbor area (in some seats, not all) but you get a LOT of width and space in return, plus a hell of a screen and lots of storage space. It’s also more social when traveling together.
    I do like reverse herringbone as well, but often find them too confining, also in width – no elbow room when fully flat.

    Jerry.

  20. I am so confused by seats! Why don’t they have good photos on sites like seatguru? Are there better sites that show photos? For example you say 777-200 is good, but there’s a v1 and a v2, and they are totally different. I was steering clear of AA business to europe because kept reading about seats you slide down on and outdated. Now you are saying they are good. I’m sure it depends on the age of the plane, but how do you know flight by flight?

    Trying to go to europe in fall, there are tons of routing options, but now seats are the sticking point.

  21. I much agree with other Jerry H (1) though I wonder if you could ever get a fair unbiased comparison. It’s all personal and much depends on the route. Personally, for me, business is about being able to work comfortably, to relax and to sleep. For the latter angled is still ok as long as you don’t slide. (For that, the old QF and BA craddle seats were superb.). To score well on all three, it’s not all about the seat; service and soft comforts come in as well. On this most European, Middle Eastern and Asian airlines beat US firms hands down (though DL and AA are rapidly improving; UA is horribly lagging behind). But next comes the route: direct wins over indirect, but I always try to put the short leg first and end with the long one. A comfortable lounge can get you into the right mood at the start, after all the initial (getting to the) airport hassle. I normally don’t get to fly F, but based on your descriptions, I would never think the 160-200% price difference is made up by the marginally better product. After the introduction of flat beds in J I’m usually very content. I do not expect a 5* hotel. I expect a place in the air where I can work, rest, eat & sleep (rather) comfortably. No more.

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