What are the differences between business class and first class?
Even if you've flown in business class before, you may never have flown in proper, international first class and may be wondering if the extra points or cash is worth it. If you're looking to use your points and miles for a premium cabin seat, what are the differences between the two classes?
Note that this advice will differ from airline to airline. Some airlines, like Qatar Airways, have a business-class product so good that it is better than other airlines' first class. It also differs by route — you will likely have a better experience regardless of the class if departing from the airline's hub rather than at an outstation as the airline has more control over the passenger experience at its home airport. For example, it might operate its own lounge at a hub while relying on a third party lounge at an outstation.
Check-in, luggage and boarding
Both business- and first-class passengers will receive priority check-in, tagged luggage and boarding. There may be slightly shorter queues in these priority lanes for first-class passengers owing to the much smaller cabin than business class, though in my experience, there is rarely a wait in either.
This differs from airline to airline, but you will usually receive two checked bags as a business class passenger and three checked bags as a first-class passenger.
Technically, first-class luggage at your destination should arrive on the luggage belts first, though in practice, all priority-tagged bags may be delivered at the same time. First-class passengers will be the first to walk off the aircraft, and business-class passengers after them.
Many of the best airlines have separate lounges for business-class and first-class passengers. British Airways, for example, provides first-class passengers access to The Concorde Room at London Heathrow Terminal 5 (LHR) where passengers can enjoy Champagne and à la carte meals before their flight, while business-class passengers can sometimes expect to find a buffet with soup and some sloppy vegetable curry. Again, it all depends on the airline.
Emirates has a separate lounge at its hub in Dubai (DXB) with noticeably better quality in first than business -- though it has a single lounge for both business and first passengers at outstations.
Do some research before your flight -- if the departing airport has a separate lounge for first-class passengers, you can expect this to be noticeably better than what is provided for business class.
Seat on board
This is perhaps where you will notice the biggest difference between classes. Again, this will differ from airline to airline, but in general:
- In business class nowadays, you can expect a fully-flat (though tight fit) bed, hopefully with direct aisle access and some privacy and storage.
- In first class, you can expect a spacious, comfortable bed, guaranteed privacy and direct aisle access, usually so much storage space around the seat you probably won't even need to put anything in the overhead bin, and privacy -- both in terms of a small, intimate cabin and there may be a sliding door to make the seat much more intimate.
Food and beverage
You can expect multicourse gourmet meals in both classes. There will usually be more choices in first. For example, business class may all be served the same starter, while first-class passengers have a choice between two or more. You can expect caviar in most first-class cabins, but not in business class.
Beverages wise, there's typically proper Champagne in both classes, though the quality will likely differ between the two.
The same goes for wines -- the quality in first class will be noticeably better. Spirits will likely be slightly more top shelf in first class, though there won't be a huge difference for most airlines.
You'll receive plush pillows and blankets in both classes. You're likely to also have a mattress pad in first class to make that flat bed even more comfortable (honestly, on some airlines it will be more comfortable than your bed at home). Crew will sometimes make up your bed for you in first, but not in business. With everything, it depends on the airline.
You will receive pajamas in first class, but only in some business classes. Amenity kits will be similar, with higher-end products and a few bells and whistles in first over business.
The IFE screens will be noticeably bigger in first class, though the selection will be exactly the same as in business class, and in economy. If there's Wi-Fi on board, it may be provided free for first-class passengers, but business class might have to pay.
In first class, you can expect to be addressed by name by the crew at each interaction and your glass will never be empty. In business class, the crew have far more passengers in the cabin to take care of, so the service likely won't be nearly as personal. You may have to wait for a drink refill and they probably won't address you by name unless you have a crew member who goes above and beyond.
First class is noticeably more expensive than business class, whether you are using points or miles. A return business-class fare on British Airways between London (LHR) and Los Angeles (LAX) will set you back around $4,500 in business class and a whopping $7,500 in first class. If using Avios you'll need 130,000 return in business class or 170,000 in first class, off-peak.
If paying for a cash fare you'll earn more points and status credits in first than business. For the LAX return, for the cheapest business-class cash fare you'll earn 280 Tier Points and 16,326 Avios, whereas in first class you will earn 420 Tier Points and 27,210 Avios.
You're unlikely to have a bad flight in either class on a good airline. For a special occasion, it can be wonderful to splurge on points or cash and go for first class provided you can really make the most of it (enjoy a good lounge before the flight, eat and drink enough on board).
But don't worry if you can only find availability in business class. The innovations in business class (especially the seat) have hugely narrowed the gap between business and first classes to the point where airlines like Delta and United have done away with international first class altogether because business class is so good.
Of course, with all of these points, it depends on the exact airline you're flying with. At the end of the day, it pays to do your research before booking so you know what to expect.