Even though I’ve written dozens and dozens of trip reports about international first class, I still get the occasional email or comment from a reader asking what’s so great about international first class. Not surprisingly these are largely deprived Delta flyers, as Delta doesn’t let you redeem miles for international first class. 😉
Last November I kind of touched on the issue in this post, after The Frugal Travel Guy wrote a post with the headline “My Worst Use of Miles: International First Class.” But there’s a bit more to it than I posted there.
There are a couple of things that I think are worth noting upfront.
Full fare premium cabin travel isn’t worth the revenue cost to me
When I fly internationally it’s almost always in premium cabins, but I’d never pay the full fare cost. I’d never suggest first class is worth the $15,000-20,000 price tag, but when we’re talking about using miles, I think it’s an absolute bargain. In some cases I even think premium cabins can be worth the (non-full fare) cost in cash. For example, over Thanksgiving Virgin Atlantic had Upper Class fares between New York and London of $1,500 all-in. I’ve even booked a few paid business class tickets. In May I flew a paid business class ticket to Japan which cost about $1,800, and was able to upgrade to first class. Between the upgrade and all the miles I earned, I thought it was a bargain. Last year I flew a $1,600 paid business class ticket to Paris in order to qualify for Executive Platinum, and managed to upgrade that to first class as well. I also thought that was a bargain, especially since it’s what allowed me to qualify for Executive Platinum.
Of course everyone’s financial situation differs and some have a higher tolerance for paying for premium cabins, but I still think that full fare premium cabin tickets are a poor value. Discounted tickets are a different story, though.
First class is on the way out
While I’m young, I really wish I had the opportunity to fly the Concorde. I’m an aviation nut, and the Concorde was in a league of its own. Now, I wasn’t even a teenager when it was flying so I can’t blame myself for never having had the opportunity to fly it (I guess I could’ve been a better lemonade salesman), but it’s still something I wish I would’ve had the chance to do.
While it’s perhaps not quite on the same level, the reality is that first class is on the way out. In 10 years I’d be shocked if more than a handful of airlines still had international first class cabins. Think about it, Cathay Pacific is one of the most “premium” airlines in the world and had small, six seat first class cabins on their 777s, but even they’re getting rid of it on many of their planes. The reasons for airlines getting rid of first class is twofold. First of all, the gap is narrowing between first and business class, as a majority of airlines now have fully flat seats in business class. The top business class seats we’re seeing now are better than first class seats from a few years ago. And second of all, given the economy and the general times of “cost consciousness” when it comes to business, it really is tough to justify anything beyond a fully flat business class product.
With that in mind, what makes first class better than business class?
I have a confession to make, and perhaps I shouldn’t make this, because it hurts my case — in most cases I arrive more well rested at my destination flying a good fully flat business class product than a top first class product. Maybe I’ve become jaded, though to me business class is a form of transportation — a really, really comfortable form of transportation, but at the end of the day it’s not an “experience.” Don’t get me wrong, I think business class can be amazing, but it’s typically not a memorable enough experience so that you remember it years down the road. The flight attendants are usually going through the “motions” of providing a consistent and efficient service. And that’s why I usually arrive well rested in business class — I don’t feel like there’s something I need to stay up to “experience.” If I can arrive well rested at my destination and have a decent meal in business class, I’d say it’s a fantastic product.
Even though I’ve done over a hundred segments in international first class, the novelty still hasn’t worn off. And the funny thing is I don’t think it will, because no two flights are anywhere near the same. While I’ve learned that it’s not a “waste” to sleep in international first class, especially on extremely long flights, there’s something about it that still excites me. Off the top of my head I can remember almost every international first class flight I’ve taken.
Just a few examples of memorable international first class experiences:
In 2009 I flew Swiss first class from Chicago to Zurich and was the only passenger in first class. It was probably the most memorable flight of my life and maybe even almost a bit awkward, since there’s no non-intrusive way for a single flight attendant to check on you every few minutes without it being a bit comical. But it was totally awesome nonetheless.
That same trip my brother and I flew Turkish first class from London to Istanbul and were also the only passengers in first class.
Then we fly Turkish first class from Istanbul to Hong Kong, and were once again the only first class passengers — that’s three flights in a row!
Or there was my Singapore Airlines first class flight in May from Singapore to Tokyo, where I flew with Janesis for the first time and woke up to this after a three hour nap:
I could go on and on and on. The fact is that as I go through my image gallery from all my travels and look at the first class cabins, it’s not the food or the seats that I remember, but the people. I’ve had some flights in first class where the flight attendants note my nut preferences, and when they offer me a refill specifically only give me the nuts I like. Or I love the way they do their plating, where they make certain that the logos on the silverware face me at all times.
That being said, I’d say half the value in first class over business class is the ground experience, which nowadays is the main differentiator for many airlines.
Back when Turkish had a first class cabin, their Istanbul first class lounge was amazing. It was the same they used for the airport’s VIP service, and featured a phenomenal menu and escorts from your hotel all the way to the plane. They’d pick you up from your hotel in Istanbul in a Mercedes, and when you arrived at the airport you’d be greeted by a porter and driven from check-in to the lounge. Then you left the lounge literally minutes before the plane would leave, so as soon as you boarded the door closed. It was an awesome experience.
I’d say the closest thing to that nowadays is the Thai experience. Their Bangkok first class ground experience is probably my favorite anywhere in the world. As a first class passenger you’re met by a porter as you arrive at the airport and escorted to check-in. Then you’re driven to the lounge, where you get a semi-private “living room.” The service is extremely attentive (almost uncomfortably so if you’re not used to the culture), and the menu is extensive. My favorite part of the service has to be the hour-long full body massage you get in their spa as a first class passenger before your flight. While a massage in Thailand isn’t usually that expensive, the novelty of getting a massage on the airline’s dime right before a 10-hour redeye is awesome. It’s also the only place in an airport you can use the word “bomb” and not get arrested (at least that I know of).
Then there’s the Lufthansa First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, where you’re driven to the plane in a Porsche or Mercedes, which as an aviation geek is probably the coolest experience one can have.
It’s not that much more expensive on miles
What it all comes down to for me is that the premium for first class internationally is very minimal when using miles. American charges a 12,500 mile premium for first class over business class to Asia one-way. United charges a 10,000 mile premium for first class over business class to much of Asia one-way. And for other regions the cost difference isn’t huge either. Rarely is it more than 15,000-20,000 miles per direction, and when you factor in that you’d typically pay that for a domestic upgrade, I’d say it’s a no brainer. That being said, if I had the choice between one coach trip and one first class trip OR two business class trips, I’d go with the latter. But in this day and age of unlimited miles through credit cards, it shouldn’t be too tough for those in the US with decent credit to “splurge” on first class.
To summarize in one sentence, business class will get you to your destination comfortably while first class can make getting to your destination half the fun.
How do you guys feel? Is the premium for first class worth it?