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In Plane English: Should You Ever Shell Out for First-Class Fare?

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Last updated on June 15, 2020

The rich are getting richer, and the very rich are becoming very rich indeed. According to Forbes, there are now over 2,100 billionaires roaming the planet.

This spells trouble for airlines. Aside from banking on high profit margins from first class travel, airlines also use their first-class seats strategically as an incentive for travellers to accumulate loyalty reward points in the hopes of future upgrades. But the comforts of business class have also evolved, often coming with provisions formerly found only in first class (e.g. seats converting to flatbeds) and blurring the line of luxury for those making a choice between the two. To keep customers suitably pampered—and away from competing private jet travel—the relatively few airlines still offering first class have hastened to upgrade their first-class “soft product” (meals, linens, liquor, amenity kits, etc.).

For the hoi polloi, is the difference in accommodation vast enough to justify what is often a massive hike in fare?

The Costs (and Benefits) of First Class vs. Business Class

Do you have a big appetite and an even bigger budget? Then turn left and step into first class. Or, stretch your travel dollar with “luxe for less” in business class. We compare the first-class vs. business-class offerings of four top airlines’ long-haul routes.

British Airways

BA’s Business Class Club Suite

Where to? Toronto – London, England
First-Class Fare: $9185
Business-Class Fare: $8523

According to press reports, BA is creating a first-class experience that “would not look out of place in a revered five-star British hotel.” Along with the usual airport services like a dedicated check-in kiosk, speedy transfers through security, and direct boarding from the lounge area, British Airways has updated its first-class cabins with a herringbone layout and high walls for privacy and coziness. Expect tip-top British service in the updated Concorde Room and the Galleries First lounges, along with complimentary Elemis massages and facials. In-flight, you’ll enjoy one of the world’s most comfortable airline beds—fully flat with a foam and microfibre mattress top and 400-thread count bedding.

Other First-Class Highlights:

  • Custom-designed china and silverware
  • Pajamas and slippers by Temperley London
  • “Best of British” fine dining

Let’s Talk Business:
BA’s business-class fare doesn’t lag far behind its first-class offering. Starting in October 2019, Club World cabins will be converted to Club Suites with larger seats, privacy, more personalized service, and restaurant-style dining. There are also two dedicated business-class lounges—Terraces and Galleries.

Would You Like an Upgrade with That?
Executive Club is BA’s frequent flyer program and the upgrade process is easy and available for one-class/cabin upgrades, except from lowest economy fares. The points used in the program are Avios, and you’ll need somewhere between 18,000 and 30,000 one way for an upgrade to a first-class seat from business class.

Verdict:
Skip first class unless you can score an upgrade. Business class offers many similar amenities, along with that all-important flatbed and access to gym and shower facilities at Radisson Blu Edwardian New Providence Wharf Hotel in London.

Cathay Pacific

A first-class meal with Cathay Pacific

Where to? Vancouver – Hong Kong
First-Class Fare: $18,138
Business-Class Fare: $6,156

Enjoy the amenities of two first-class lounges, The Pier and The Wing, at Cathay’s hub in Hong Kong. They offer a fine-dining restaurant, a bar, in-house spa, private cabanas with day-bed, bath/shower and work area, yoga room, as well as a concierge to iron your clothes.

Cathay Pacific has a tiny first-class compartment with only six seats, thus ensuring privacy and excellent service. Highlights of the in-flight experience include the requisite vintage Champagne (Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2007), blini and caviar, as well as the opportunity to dine with a companion. Plus the following:

  • Extra-large seats
  • 500-thread count bedding
  • In-chair massager
  • Aesop toiletries
  • Chinese tailored pajamas and slippers
  • Turndown, fully-flat bed
  • Specialty coffee (cappuccino, espresso)
  • On-demand meals
  • Do-Not-Disturb and Wake-Up Call services

Let’s Talk Business:
Business-class travellers have access to exclusive lounges that offer the usual amenities: business centre, food and beverages. In-flight service is similar to first class, sans caviar, the companion dining and meals-on-demand.

Would You Like an Upgrade with That?
You can redeem American Airlines AAdvantage and Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles points for an upgrade, but keep in mind that with busy Hong Kong as its hub, there are not many upgrade seats available. 1,600 Asia Miles are required for a one-class upgrade (business to first).

Verdict:
First class is great for the full-on experience, especially if you can snag an upgrade. However, the business class offering is comfy enough for most travelers; many frequent flyers actually report that they prefer business class because it offers fewer distractions and is more restful. Plus Cathay’s price gap between first class and business appears to be particularly egregious.

Emirates

Emirates’ Moët & Chandon Champagne lounge

Where to? Toronto – Dubai
First Class Fare: $19,812
Business-Class Fare: $8,700

Emirates sells more first-class fares than all other airlines—and they’re not shy about serving the “wow” from the get-go.

A black car whisks you to the airport (taxes, tolls, gratuities included), where you’ll be personally greeted, assisted with baggage and speedily led through customs and security. You’ll be treated to caviar and Champagne before boarding directly from one of the first-class lounges. Emirates first-class lounge in Concourse A at its Dubai hub is the largest in the world, where you can shop for pricey baubles at Bulgari or rare wines at Le Clos. It also offers amenities such as showers, spa treatments, meditation and prayer rooms, fine dining, a cigar bar, business centre, and a children’s play area.

First-class passengers don’t have seats, they have suites. These are private cabins with hotel-level room service. Enjoy rare Dom Perignon Champagnes and wines, more caviar, and a wide choice of international cuisine served on Royal Doulton china. An on-board shower (max 20 minutes) is available, as well as a lounge should you care to mingle with other jet setters.

Other perks include:

  • Bvlgari amenity kits
  • Byredo skincare
  • Fresh orchids
  • “Moisturizing” cotton pajamas
  • Individual ambient lighting and temperature controls
  • Virtual windows (an industry first)

Let’s Talk Business:
Business-class passengers do receive some of the same amenities as first-class brethren—but won’t be treated to caviar, the in-flight shower, a-la-carte airport dining and turn-down service. All business class seats convert to full flatbeds.

Would You Like an Upgrade with That?
Almost all of Emirates’ first-class bookings are fully paid for and not upgrades, but you can try using Skywards Miles or a combination of Miles and cash to upgrade to first class. To upgrade from Business Class to First Class, you would have to pay the difference between the two fares in points or points and cash. (Skywards is transfer partners with Amex, Capital One, and Marriott.) Expect to spend at least 100,000 Skyward Miles.

Verdict:
Though pricey, with Emirates you get what you pay for. Go for it, if you can.

Lufthansa

Bath and shower room in Lufthansa’s first class lounge

Where to? Halifax to Delhi
First-Class Fare: $14,207
Business-Class Fare: $10,313

Lufthansa’s first-class passengers are treated to airport valet service and a personal assistant to take care of all the niggly travel details (customs, security, baggage and check-in). The first-class lounge offers day beds, bath/shower rooms, spa, cigar lounge, fine dining designed by Michelin-starred chefs, and a limousine to the plane. There are no overhead bins in flight, so each passenger has a large, personal combination locker. Other perks include:

  • Amenity kits from Windsor or Rimowa
  • La Prairie Skincare
  • Pajamas and slippers in various sizes
  • Top-shelf liquor
  • Caviar and Champagne
  • Fresh roses
  • Windows in lavatory

Let’s Talk Business:
Very similar amenities to first-class, minus the caviar, rare wines and whisky.

Would You Like an Upgrade with That?
You can redeem Air Canada’s Aeroplan Miles (around 700,000, plus approximately $450, for a first-class upgrade).

Verdict:
Lufthansa’s first-class is not as ostentatious as Emirates, so don’t expect to be dazzled at 35,000 feet. For most travellers the key perks (flatbed, decent pillows, and palatable food) are just fine in business class.

Why Travel First Class If Business Offers Similar Comforts?

Unwilling to spring for first class when business class is often suitably pampered? Fair enough, but keep the below in mind before you click.

  1. Service. Yes, there’s the wining and dining, but there are other, less hedonistic reasons to spring for a first-class ticket. Short of flying private, first class offers passengers a dedicated team to expedite all your travel needs—sometimes starting with chauffeured service from the minute you leave home.
  2. Networking. First-class-only airport and in-flight lounges are the perfect environments to interact with other global elites and forge strong business and personal connections. Making one good business deal can pay for a score of first-class fares.
  3. Comfort. For frequent long-haul travellers, the perk of being able to eat or sleep on one’s own schedule, or take an in-flight shower, is a boon.
  4. Privacy. Many first-class suites come with sliding doors, so there’s no chance of looky-loos snapping unflattering pics of public figures.
  5. Self Esteem. If you’re suffering from ego depletion, the fluffing you get on first class will top you right back up.

Author Bio

Rita Silvan
Rita Silvan is the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Canada magazine. After a successful career in women’s consumer publishing, Rita has pursued her interest in finance, especially in the areas of personal finance and investing for women. She obtained the Chartered Investment Manager (CIM) designation from the Canadian Securities Institute. Rita is the editor-in-chief of goldengirlfinance.com and a finance writer for Tier-1 Canadian banks and bespoke wealth management firms.

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