Is it worth traveling in domestic first class?

Mar 31, 2020

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Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on all forms of travel, airlines have been canceling flights, downgrading to smaller planes and making significant cuts to onboard service to help reduce in-flight interactions and keep everyone healthy. TPG reader Michael wants to know if it’s still worth flying domestic first class with the reduced service …

Is it worth traveling in first class domestically during this coronavirus pandemic? I have read the first class service has been reduced to protect the health of everyone.

TPG READER MICHAEL

Let’s start with the assumption that Michael has an essential reason to be traveling right now. Otherwise the answer to this question is a resounding no. It doesn’t matter if it’s Emirates first class or Spirit Airlines or something in between. You should only be traveling right now if it’s an absolute necessity.

While Michael asked specifically about reduced service in domestic first class, I think it’s worth zooming out to discuss whether domestic first class is ever worth it, even if you’re getting the full product. Sometimes the difference in price between economy and first class is so low that it ends up being a no-brainer. On longer flights, the extra space can often be worth it no matter the cost — especially if you’re a larger passenger.

Further Reading: We tried American’s new-and-improved domestic first class

However, many people are confused about what domestic first class actually entails. Unless you get lucky flying a widebody aircraft on a domestic route (usually between major hub cities or on transcontinental flights), you’re going to end up in a recliner seat with a few extra inches of legroom. This is a far cry from the aspirational, lie-flat products and top-notch service that most people associate with first class.

American Airlines’ newest 737 first class (Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)

Another common misconception involves lounge access. Most most domestic, first-class tickets don’t come with any kind of lounge access at all. This includes not just premium spots like a United Polaris or American Airlines Flagship lounge but also the more basic offerings — namely United Clubs, American Admirals Clubs or Delta Sky Clubs.

READ MORE: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

When it comes to food, you’ll normally get a hot meal on longer domestic first-class flights, though shorter flights and some flights operated by regional jets just get snack baskets. The most frequent route on which I’ve flown domestic first class is from New York-JFK to Washington-National (DCA), and on the 45-minute hop, there’s barely enough time for drink service let alone a full meal. While food quality in these first-class cabins has improved in recent years, it can vary heavily, and if you’re trying to eat healthily, you might have a tough time. Even when I’m flying in domestic first class, I often choose to eat on the ground — especially if I’m departing from an airport with a Priority Pass restaurant.

Obviously, domestic first class offers more space and a more comfortable experience than flying economy, and if I’m able to snag a complimentary upgrade or a reasonably-priced cash fare, I don’t think twice about it. You just need to come in with moderate expectations and understand that many of the luxury trappings of first class don’t apply to domestic flights.

In short, I don’t think reduced service in the forward cabin in light of the coronavirus outbreak really changes the value proposition all that much. For me, flying up front is about the extra space more than the food and beverage, and I certainly wouldn’t miss it as long as I knew to grab a bite to eat at the airport.

However, there is one important argument against flying first class now. Between low fares and elite upgrades, first-class cabins may be going out with a much higher occupancy rate than economy. At a time of social distancing — ironically enough — you might have an easier time in a cramped economy seat with no one sitting next to you than in a first-class recliner with three-quarters of the cabin occupied.

Bottom line

Domestic first class on most U.S. airlines is good but definitely not great, and the real benefit for most people is the extra space, not the food. Having to buy a $10 meal at the airport before your flight (or eating for free in a Priority Pass lounge or restaurant) doesn’t change the value proposition much, so if you thought domestic first class was worth it before, your answer probably hasn’t changed much.

Thanks for the question, Michael, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured image by Zach Griff / The Points Guy

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