5 Major Differences Between First Class and Business Class

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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:

Lounge Access

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.

Korean Air A380 First Class Bar
Korean Air A380 First Class Bar

Privacy

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.

Boarding Privileges

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.

Lufthansa First Class Limousine Service
Lufthansa First Class Limousine Service (Image courtesy of Lufthansa)

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.

Comfort

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.

Singapore Airlines A380 First Class Suites
Singapore Airlines A380 First Class Suites

Bottom Line

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.

5 Major Differences Between First Class and Business Class
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Comments

  • Terry kaiser says:

    I’ve been trying to book with you for a week with no response. First class lax to dme?

  • What is the best way to book first/business class? Prices are outrageous (over 20k sometimes) but I’ve also heard that award availability for first class is extremely hard to find. Would y’all recommend getting MR or ThankYou Points to book these or use miles? Any tips would be more than welcome!

    • Rob, in our experience, you’ll in general, get the best value by transferring points from Membership Rewards, ThankYou Points, Ultimate Rewards and SPG Points to airline partners and redeeming with an airline. If you want help, by logging in to your AwardWallet account and clicking the Bookings button you can submit a request for assistance. These folks book awards all day, every day, and their goal is to help you get the best value out of your points/miles, in whichever program they happen to be.

      • Great, I know only SPG and (maybe?) Chase transfers to AA directly, is it possible to use partners to get the miles onto AA?

        I’m completely new to the miles game so sorry if my question is very basic but thanks for all the help!

        • Rob, SPG is the only one that transfers to AA directly. Additionally, for example, while British Airways is a transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards, and you can redeem flights on AA with those miles, you cannot transfer those miles into an AA account. Other mechanisms to get miles into an AA account through a “transfer/exchange” would be to use something like points.com or to do a Hotel + Air booking with Marriott (https://awardwallet.com/blog/marriott-travel-packages-hotel-air-amazing-value/).

          These are excellent questions and are at the core of the confusion that many people face when it come to earning, redeeming and moving around points/miles. I hope this helps. Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions.

          • Thank you, I currently have a bit of miles on my AA account and was hoping to try and grow those for travel so I guess SPG would be the best way to go (considering that apparently the AA Citi Card isn’t as good for gathering miles) instead of another American Express card or even a Citi card.

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