For the 50+ Traveler

Is getting there really half the fun? It is if you’re flying first class, where the flight may actually become one of the highlights of your trip.

Buying a seat in the front of the plane is definitely the ticket to an upgraded flying experience.

Having recently flown Cathay Pacific, Qatar, and Emirates in business class, I found that having a seat that converted to a flatbed with a soft duvet and plush pillow really made all the difference for the long flights, which ranged from 9 to 16 hours. I was able to stretch out and comfortably sleep on all of my flights.

On Emirates to Dubai, I had access to the same on-board cocktail and snack lounge throughout the flight as the first-class passengers. Flying Qatar on my way to Rwanda, I was able to choose when I wanted my dinner served and got to kick back in White Company pajamas and slippers that were so comfortable I still wear them to sleep.

Finally, Cathay Pacific’s business class lounges in Hong Kong offered noodle bars that whipped up made-to-order dumplings and ramen that rivaled many destination restaurants I’ve eaten at during my global travels.

However, we wanted to find out if first class is worth the price tag. Or can you get the same perks by settling for business class?

To find out, we’ve snuggled under plush blankets, sipped champagne, and nibbled on canapes to give you the high-flying scoop, so read on.

Airport signs for first and business class.

How Much More Is A First-Class Plane Ticket?

First things first: Just how much more does a first-class plane ticket cost? With dozens of carriers and hundreds of routes, it’s not possible to put a concrete number on first-class fares, but for comparison’s sake, here are a few examples of price differences on current routes.

For long-haul flights, you can expect a premium price tag for the premium experience. For example, on Etihad Airways, a 13-hour flight from JFK (New York) to the carrier’s Abu Dhabi hub costs $1,841 roundtrip in economy; $6,573 roundtrip in business; and $28,117 roundtrip in first class. This is a significant jump -- and the price of a compact car. This is in line with other long-haul flights according to a report published by Business Insider, which identifies eight factors that account for the high price, including Michelin-quality dining and the increased amount of square footage that private rooms account for, including the extra-large twin bed suites on Singapore Airlines.

Domestically, compare that to a 6-hour flight on Hawaiian Airlines from LAX (Los Angeles) to their Honolulu hub, where a ticket in the main cabin is $643 roundtrip, and first class is $1,637 roundtrip. Or on United, where a 3-hour flight from their Chicago headquarters to Miami is $370 roundtrip in Economy, and $887 roundtrip in first class. However, in both of these examples, as is the case on most domestic carriers, there are only two classes of service: economy and premium. (See more on this below.)

First class on a typical domestic flight.

What Do You Get In First Class On A Domestic Flight?

Flying in first class on a domestic flight usually comes with perks such as expedited check in, greater baggage allowances, and lounge access if you’re flying out of hub airports (however, in smaller regional locations, there may not be special counters or lounges). And you’ll be able to board the plane first, where flight attendants will most often offer you a beverage as soon as you board. Expect larger, more plush seats as well as warm nuts, a hot meal, and dessert, all served on china with real cutlery on flights where time allows.

That said, domestic first-class flights can bring an uneven array of benefits depending on the length of the flight. You most likely won’t have the lay-flat seats, extra privacy, or the extended amenities that first-class passengers receive on international flights (i.e. pajamas, toiletry kits, and blankets and pillows), and if you’re flying for less than 2 hours, a full-on first-class meal might not be on the menu.

One exception is Hawaiian Airlines, which has first-class seats that recline 180 degrees and cuisine that showcases Hawaii’s top local chefs. The airline’s Featured Chef Series offers a rotation of first-class menus by famed local chefs overseen by executive chef Lee Anne Wong, with dishes such as soy-braised short rib with wasabi mashed potatoes and quinoa tabbouleh salad.

First class bed on an Emirates flight.

What Do You Get In First Class On An International Flight?

When you fly an international carrier on a long-haul itinerary in first class, be prepared for a seamless experience that begins well before you ever set foot on the plane. Some carriers, such as Emirates, offer chauffeured cars to pick you up at your home or lodging and deliver you directly to the curb in front of the first-class check-in counter. Check in includes a generous bag allowance and takes only moments. From there, you’ll head through an expedited security line reserved for travelers flying in premium classes. Then it’s on to the luxe lounges.

First-class passengers will usually have their own lounge, or enjoy a private section of a larger lounge exclusively for their use. British Airways, for example, reserves its Concorde Lounges, the airline’s most luxurious, for first-class customers flying out of London Heathrow and New York JFK. The lounges offer full waiter service and private cabanas in addition to complimentary massage and facial treatments with Elemis aestheticians. In Dubai, Emirates first-class lounges offer a wine cellar, spa, and cigar lounge.

But that’s just the beginning of the equation. First class doesn’t just mean increased seat width. In many cases, your first-class ticket also affords you unrivaled privacy. First class on the luxurious Emirates A380 aren’t just seats, but small suites with doors that close to give you complete seclusion. Seats lay flat so you can sleep in comfort. Speaking of which, you’ll also receive pajamas woven from special hydrating fabrics. Dinner is a multi-course affair that starts with caviar and is served whenever you place your order. Meals are accompanied by fine wines, Dom Perignon champagne, and even ultra-premium Hennessy Paradis Cognac.

There are similar gourmet dining experiences and private rooms on other international carriers, as well as widescreen televisions for viewing movies on demand. Unique, however, to only Emirates and Etihad: A luxurious, spa-like shower above the clouds, only available to first-class passengers.

The interior of a SuperJet International flight.

What's The Difference Between First Class And Business Class?

On domestic flights and on regional carriers, you may not get to choose between business and first class, but will probably be offered a premium class option if you want to upgrade from economy. On some foreign routes, this is the case as well. For example Qatar Airways flights to and from the United States only offer economy and business class. The latter is a premium experience with private “pod” seats that turn into flat beds and can be combined to create private suites for up to four people.

You’ll have multi-course meals served on demand, premium champagne and wines, and even pajamas and slippers -- all perks that other airlines may only offer in first class, but priced in line with business fares ($5,277 round trip from JFK to the Doha hub for business, compared to $946 for economy).

For flights with both first- and business-class options, there are distinct differences. In first class you’ll find larger, more private spaces, including rooms with doors that close as compared to business seats that are large and luxurious, but more open. It’s this private personal real estate that contributes greatly to the overall cost of flying first class and is the greatest luxury.

On the ground, business class lounges offer self-serve buffets, while first-class lounges boast waiter service, full meals, and more private space in addition to the amenities outlined above.

Business class seating on a standard flight.

Is First Class Worth The Money?

It’s hard to believe you’re on a plane when flying first class. You’ll be spending your flight time in the lap of luxury. However, if you’re someone who doesn’t need complete privacy, or a shower at 40,000 feet, business class can deliver many of the same feelings of comfort and exclusivity while leaving you with plenty of additional spending money to splurge on high-end accommodations, unique experiences, and generous souvenir shopping during the rest of your travels.

Personally, my recent experiences have made me feel as though business class offered the most bang for my travel dollar, with amazing perks, service, and comfort! Want more insight into high flying? Check out the eight fanciest airlines on earth.

Photo Credit: Skitterphoto / Pexels, Mikhail Starodubov / Shutterstock