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It is not uncommon for infrequent travelers to use the terms “first class” and “business class” interchangeably. Heck, some airlines are known to do this. As an example, the same cabin which American Airlines has labeled as first class on domestic flights within the contiguous U.S. they reference as business class on flights to the Caribbean, Central America, and Canada. These are two-cabin flights, simply with different names.
However, when it comes to long-haul international travel, many aircraft are equipped with three (or more) cabins including both a business class and a first class cabin. With all of the investments airlines have made in their premium cabin products, the difference between business class and first class seats themselves is often relatively minor. So what separates first class from business class and why is choosing to splurge for first class travel something you should consider? Here's our take:
Many airlines that offer international first class also provide a separate first class lounge from the business class lounge. These first class lounges are typically less crowded, more comfortable and offer better dining options, including full sit-down meals in some cases. Additionally, it is not uncommon for first class lounges to provide complimentary massages and other spa treatments. Such features are rarely found in business class lounges.
On the other hand, a small number of airlines, such as Korean Air on their Airbus A380, offer onboard first class bars exclusively for first class passengers.
If we had to describe the difference between first class and business class with one word, it would be ‘privacy.' While the number of business class seats on some of the largest aircraft could exceed 100, the number of first class seats tends to be under 12. In some cases, it could be as small as four to six seats. The result is a much quieter and calmer experience which, in turn, should help you rest and sleep much better.
You might not think there is much of a difference between boarding first with the first class group or boarding second with the business class group. However, with wide-body aircraft that can dozens of business class seats, being able to board first does make a difference. And this is only guaranteed when flying first class.
The boarding process on a wide-body aircraft can take up to an hour; being able to get to your seat first and settle down comfortably does make a difference. Plus, the sooner you board, the earlier you can get settled and enjoy those pre-departure drinks and fancy champagne.
On some airlines, such as Lufthansa at their hub in Frankfurt, you can be driven through the tarmac from the first class lounge to the aircraft in a luxury car.
Food and Beverages
The quality of the food in first class and business class is usually remarkably similar. The difference is in the details. In first class, the food presentation tends to be better; additionally, the number of courses and variety is greater that you'd receive in business.
On the other hand, for those that enjoy champagne, wine, and high-end liquor, the selections tend to be extensive in first class. You won't be served all drinks in business, but you'll get top shelf and unique options in first class.
In general, modern business class seats are extremely comfortable. You may find business-class on some international airlines better than even first class on other airlines. That said, rarely will you find a first class seat that you are not happy with, even if the comfort levels might vary. With business class, there is still always a realistic chance that you will not be satisfied with the product from a comfort level due to cabin layout or seat configuration.
For those few airlines remaining that continue to offer an international first class product, splurging for first class awards over business class awards is a great idea provided the difference in award rate is not too substantial. And if you are flying on an international first class ticket, make sure you take full advantage of all the benefits provided to first class passengers by the airline you are flying with. Who knows what award availability will be there next year and if that first class cabin will exist for your next trip — earn those miles and then burn them for the very best experience you can achieve.
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