What's the Difference Between Business Class and First Class?

If you want a high-end experience the next time you travel, premium airfare is a great way to start your trip. Depending on the flight, you may have two options: business class and first class.

While there’s some overlap between what these types of tickets offer, they’re not the same thing. By knowing the difference, you can figure out which one works with your travel plans and your finances.

Business class vs. first class: The basics

Business class and first class are premium cabins with larger seats, better food and drinks, and other perks. When available on the same flight, first class is the best option, followed by business class, and then economy.

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However, many flights don’t have each option. You typically only see economy, business class, and first class on some long-haul international flights. On everything else, there’s economy class and one premium cabin, referred to as either business class or first class. If there’s only one premium cabin, then it’s just a matter of which term the airline uses.

First class is another level of luxury

On flights that have business class and first class, many of the features will be the same or similar. Both business-class and first-class passengers normally get:

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  • Priority check-in, priority boarding, and priority checked bag delivery
  • Complimentary airport lounge access
  • Comfortable, lie-flat seating
  • A high-quality meal service
  • Dedicated cabin crew

It’s an excellent travel experience either way. The difference is that first class is much more luxurious.

The exact perks vary depending on the airline and the route. But here are examples of what international first-class airfare often has over business class:

  • If you’re flying out of an airline’s home airport, it may offer a complimentary car service to pick you up. For example, Air France offers this with passengers flying out of Paris in its La Premiere cabin.
  • Airlines may offer separate airport lounges: one for business-class passengers and another, better lounge for first-class passengers. Some airlines even offer a separate first-class terminal. Lufthansa is one example, as it offers a first-class terminal in Frankfurt.
  • First-class seats are much more spacious and private. Many have privacy doors you can close, and some airlines even have full-on suites. Singapore Airlines is known for its suites, which include a reclinable swivel chair and a separate bed.
  • First class tends to have much better food and drinks. Since first-class cabins usually have 10 or fewer passengers, meals can be more carefully prepared than in business class, which may have 40 or 50. The airline can also offer more expensive beverages — some have champagnes that retail for over $300.

First-class tickets have a much higher price tag

With all the luxury perks, first-class airfare delivers an incredible experience. It also has an incredibly high price. Business class, which also isn’t cheap, can often cost $3,000 to $5,000 each way. An international first-class ticket can easily be $8,000 to $10,000, or more.

You get a much better deal if you pay for your ticket with miles instead of putting it on your credit card, but prices in miles are also high. Business-class tickets are frequently available for 50,000 to 75,000 miles, if you’re flexible about when you travel. First-class tickets are normally 100,000 miles or more. On many flights, first class costs at least 150,000 to 200,000 miles.

It’s certainly possible to earn that many miles, especially if you use travel credit cards. However, finding award availability for first class is challenging for a few reasons:

  • The first-class cabin has far fewer seats than the business-class cabin.
  • Airlines generally release a limited number of award tickets for first class — they’d rather sell those seats for $10,000 than 100,000 miles.
  • Everyone wants to fly in first class without paying cash, so award tickets get snatched up quickly.

Should you book business class or first class?

For most travelers, business class makes more sense than first class. While it’s not as luxurious, it’s still a premium cabin and a comfortable way to fly. It’s also easier and more affordable to book. Even if you’re paying with credit card miles, the number of miles you need for a first-class ticket could cover two business-class tickets.

Flying first class over business class only makes sense if you want the most extravagant experience and you’re willing to splurge for it. If you have a ton of travel points, or if money is no object, then you might decide you want the best of the best. Short of flying private, first class on international flights is as good as it gets.

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