7 business class travel tips and tricks from one first-timer to another

May 14, 2022

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Editor’s note: Celebrity Cruises provided TPG with complimentary airline tickets for a first look at Celebrity Beyond. The opinions expressed below are entirely from the author and weren’t subject to review by Celebrity Cruises, the airlines or any external entity.

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I am an expert economy-class flyer.

I’ve got TSA PreCheck and Global Entry. When necessary, I can unpack and re-pack quart-size toiletry bags, shoes and laptop computers at a security checkpoint in seconds … even with a toddler in tow. I can get my carry-on bag into the overhead bins in a second flat, and I find my preferred inflight entertainment on my United app within moments of fastening my seatbelt.

Put me in business class, though, and apparently I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

In fact, I hadn’t flown business class in over 10 years — until a few weeks ago. When I learned I’d be flying between Washington, D.C. and London, England in business class on not one, but two different airlines, I was over the moon. “More legroom!” I thought. “Lie-flat seats!”

I thought I had everything covered — until I talked to my TPG colleagues, Zach Griff and Nicky Kelvin, about my planned flights in United Polaris and Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class.

They opened my eyes to the world of perks and amenities available to me as a business-class flyer these days — few of which I’d even had an inkling of, and even fewer of which the airlines had bothered to alert me to in my reservation.

Had I not talked to my coworkers, I probably would have missed out on key components of the business-class experience. Even so, I felt lost, shy and sometimes confused when flying up front.

If you’re soon to embark on your first international business-class trip in a while, here are seven travel tips and tricks you should know to make the most of your experience, all of which were new to me on my recent transatlantic journey.

In This Post

Pick your seats wisely — because they’re not all the same

Polaris business class seat on a United airplane
A Polaris business class seat. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

“All the business-class seats are aisle seats,” I thought to myself when looking at the seat maps for both my flights, “so they should all be great.”

Not exactly.

As I learned, the configuration of business-class seats can vary widely (even on the same airline and on the same plane type). Not only were my United Polaris and Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seats completely different from one another, but when looking at my various flight options on both carriers, I also found that different aircraft types had different kinds of seats on board. Plus, depending on the row, you could find slightly different seats even on the same flight.

To optimize your flying experience, you need to read up on which seats your specific flight will offer and find the best one for your preferences.

For example, the Boeing 767 I was on offered United’s most up-to-date Polaris seats: individual pods with lie-flat seats next to small tabletops and a storage locker. On reading Zach’s United Polaris guide, I learned that the window seats were best for solo travelers while the middle row had pairs of seats better suited to couples or friends.

Even among the window seats, the odd-numbered rows offer more privacy, with the seats closer to the actual window and the wide tabletop by the aisle, while the even numbered rows have the seats angled toward the aisle with the tabletop and locker by the window.

I had been assigned an even row seat, but I changed to an odd row based on that advice since I wanted the most privacy possible. (I admit that I took some pleasure in changing my seat assignment like I was a pro.)

Related: Top 5 business-class cabins in the sky today

On my Virgin Atlantic flight back, my seat looked fine and I lucked out. As I boarded the plane, I realized the Boeing 787-9 had the airline’s older “herringbone” style of diagonal seats with their backs to the windows and angled toward the aisle. I had happily landed in what I would dub the “introvert section” along the port side of the aircraft, where the seats faced the backs of the middle row. However, the middle and starboard rows of seats faced each other, so those passengers ended up looking right at the person across from them. I suppose if you’re there to make friends, you could choose these “extrovert seats.”

Look for the dedicated airport check-in

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Even before I got to the planes, though, I made some rookie mistakes.

When I arrived at Dulles International Airport (IAD), I saw signs for Economy and Premier Access check-in, but not Polaris. I asked an attendant in the Premier Access line where I should go but they simply had me check in there. It turns out that the official Polaris check-in was around the back at another set of counters — not that there were any signs pointing in that direction.

At Heathrow Airport (LHR), I knew that Virgin Upper Class had its own check-in hall in Terminal 3 … because my colleague, Nicky, told me. Since it’s only accessible by car, and I was being shuttled to the airport by bus, I couldn’t take advantage of that perk. However, there were no signs showing me where to check in for Upper Class in the normal departure hall, either. I had to waylay a staffer to find out that I should use the Delta premium check-in line.

The kind gate agent did direct me to the elevator that would whisk me to a private Upper Class security line. But when I got to the second floor, there were no signs pointing the way. I just assumed the security line I saw was the right one — but I was so flustered that I forgot to empty my water bottle and had to chug 16 ounces on the spot. Guess my mistake meant I was properly hydrated for my flight.

Moral of the story: Look at an airport map or otherwise determine where the VIPs get to check in so you can head confidently to the correct line and not have to own up to an airport representative that you have no clue where you’re going. Agents at these dedicated counters are also usually better informed on which lounges you might have access to before your flight and how you can get to them through expedited security lines.

Arrive in time to enjoy access to fancy lounges with free food and drinks (and don’t forget to tip!)

What secret do globe-trotting businessfolk keep from us economy-class peons? They get free access to swanky VIP lounges while we stand in long lines for expensive concessions or join the masses in the boarding areas.

Not once did any official United communication alert me to the existence of the Polaris Lounge at Dulles. Not when I got my confirmation number via email. Not when I checked in online. Nor when I showed up at the airport. So thanks again, Zach, for not only pointing me toward the exclusive hangout but recommending I get there early to enjoy its many amenities.

At least when I checked in for my Virgin Atlantic flight, the agent not only told me about the airline’s famed Clubhouse, but also gave me directions to it.

These lounges are tricked out, so plan to arrive early to enjoy all the amenities. Both had enormous bars with plenty of complimentary drinks and all kinds of seating areas — some for comfy lounging and others geared for working, with loads of electrical and USB outlets.

The Polaris Lounge at Dulles had a separate, waiter-serviced restaurant where I assembled a delicious dinner by trying all the small plates: autumn squash soup, arugula and fennel salad, a quinoa samosa cake and a cheese plate (that really should have been on the dessert menu). I could have indulged in a glass of wine, but I was still nursing my strong cocktail from the lounge’s bar. For dessert, I had a warm chocolate chip cookie that came out so piping hot that ice cream bubbled when it came into contact with the mini cast iron skillet the cookie was served in.

The Virgin Upper Class lounge had an online food ordering system where I could select the breakfast items I wanted and magically the staff knew where to deliver the food. Again, I admit to over-ordering, choosing the fruit salad and a full vegetarian English breakfast with fried eggs, baked beans and a vegan sausage. I probably should have ordered a mimosa to be fancy, but I stuck with tea.

The Upper Class lounge also has Peloton bikes and a pool table. Pre-pandemic, it offered massages and hair cuts in the dedicated salon and spa areas. You can even do some alfresco plane-spotting from an elevated outdoor garden. It’s all included in the experience. Do your homework ahead of your flight to determine which lounge you can access and what fun awaits you — then get to the airport with enough time to enjoy it.

The only thing I wasn’t sure about was whether I was supposed to tip all the lovely people bringing me free food and drink. I canvassed my coworkers on return who recommend tipping a dollar or two for drinks and $5-$10 for a full dinner in the U.S., but said to skip the tip in Europe or Asia, where there’s less of a tipping culture.

Sorry, lovely lounge staff, for stiffing you. I won’t make that mistake the next time around.

Related: The 7 do’s and don’ts in an airport lounge

Swallow your pride and ask for a seat tour

Upper Class seat on Virgin Atlantic
An Upper Class seat on Virgin Atlantic. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

Business-class seats are works of engineering genius. The best seats smoothly convert into beds, the tray tables and storage nooks are hidden ergonomically throughout your little pod area, and outlets and reading lights pop up in all the right places.

Repeat after me: You are not an idiot if you can’t figure out how to work everything immediately upon taking your seat (though I certainly felt like one as I fiddled with the various seat and entertainment controls).

On my United flight, I was too shy to ask, but managed to work out how to get the seat into lie-flat mode myself. On Virgin, the flight attendants were friendlier, so I started with, “Can you show me how to work this seat?” The kind gent in charge of my section gave me the full tour. I swear to you, I would never have found the tray table or the USB outlet without his help.

Even should your jaded flight attendant cast a scornful glance your way, don’t let their attitude stand in the way of you getting maximum enjoyment out of your business-class flight. By asking for a quick tour of the seat, you can also figure out if everything is working properly, such as the seat controls or power outlets, and do something about it before takeoff if they’re not.

Don’t order a special meal or feel a need to pack snacks

I don’t trust that airlines will provide a standard meal that will accommodate my dietary restrictions, so I often order a special meal. Unless you absolutely need one, though, I would say don’t bother when you’re flying business class, especially if you can check the menu ahead of time.

Both United’s and Virgin’s business-class menus included a fish and vegetarian option, and the kosher meal I ordered for my United dinner was so sad that I asked the attendant to bring me the regular breakfast. That meant I got to choose which of the three breakfast options I wanted. I was in the mood for something light so I ordered the continental breakfast with a fruit salad, yogurt and a croissant, with orange juice and tea.

If it’s your first Virgin Atlantic flight, you might want to revel in the lovely presentation, real cutlery and the cutest little airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers, fittingly named Orville and Wilbur after the Wright brothers. (I really really wanted to take them as souvenirs, but I restrained myself.) That said, items do sometimes run out, so if you have your heart set on a particular dish, ask the flight attendant showing you to your seat to set one aside for you if possible.

I’m also told that if you want to rock a shorter long-haul flight like a pro, including those from the East Coast to London, you might want to consider eating dinner in the lounge then trying to go straight to sleep once the plane takes off. Up to you.

On day flights, you also won’t go hungry outside of meal times. On Virgin Atlantic, flight attendants came through the cabin several times with snacks and even had a basket set up in the Upper Class bar (Yes, there’s a bar on the airplane! How did I not know that?) for passengers to grab and go whenever they wanted. Plus, anytime after the main meal service you could order additional food items like cream tea or a salad.

Ask for all the amenities

Airplane tray table with amenity kit featuring toothbrush, socks, eye mask and lotion bottles
A Polaris amenity kit on United. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to make a fuss, but I’m told you really need to ask for all the available amenities when flying business class these days.

You want pajamas for your overnight flight? Ask. Want a cocktail instead of wine? Ask. Want to skip dinner and have your bed made up right away? Just ring the call button and ask your attendant. Though some of these things may be offered proactively, sometimes they are not, and you wouldn’t want to miss out.

Sometimes you can access an arrivals lounge when you land in your final destination. Many are still closed due to the pandemic, but if you’d like to use one, just ask. I asked on my United flight, but Heathrow’s are not yet open.

Typically, business-class seats come with an amenity kit, which is a little zippered makeup bag with socks, an eye mask, toothbrush and toothpaste, hand and face lotion and earplugs. These weren’t at our seats when we boarded the Virgin Atlantic flight, and the woman next to me was sad because she wanted to brush her teeth.

“Just ask,” I told her, since I was now an expert business-class flyer with one flight under my belt. The flight attendant gushed his apologies for not having them out and set about giving everyone a kit.

Just enjoy the legroom

View of my legs and seatwell in United Polaris airplane seat
United Polaris class legroom. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

At the end of the day, the best part of the business-class experience for me was, in fact, the extra legroom.

Perhaps I’m a woman of simple pleasures. Perhaps I’m a hardy traveler who can deal with queues, crowds and mediocre meals. Perhaps it’s just that I’m six feet tall and there is usually no comfortable place for me to cram my long limbs on a long-haul flight.

Despite the nice meals and the free drinks, my favorite aspect of this trip was that I could put my feet up and stretch my legs while I worked, watched movies and ate on board the plane. That — not the beverages or the fancy lounges — is why I’m trying to earn miles and elite status so I can have easier access to business class in the future.

At the end of the day, airplane food is fine but not necessarily blow-your-mind amazing. It can still be hard to sleep on a noisy, turbulent flight, even when lying flat. If you miss the lounge and never get that free cocktail, your business-class trip will be fine.

All that’s true because at the end of the day, you will still have way more personal space than in coach. And that, in my mind, is all you need to have the best flight ever.

Featured image by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy.

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