What’s so great about international first class?

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.


American Flagship First Class Suite

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?

Comments

  1. I totally agree with you, first class is always worth it. Unfortunately I’ve never had the chance to fly first internationally though – largely do to as you said, Delta not allowing us to use are miles internationally to buy-up. I will NEVER fly internationally in a non-premium cabin. For me, every time I travel my trip starts the second I leave my house for the airport. Flying premium at least ensures my airport and flying experience will be great.

  2. Great post! We were able to travel for the first time internationally on business and first this year. The jump from economy to business (on Cathay Pacific’s new business class) was amazing and something I am definitely saving up more miles for! We also had the opportunity to do first class on Qantas on the A380 and it was amazing but probably the only time in our lives that we’ll be able to do that. To me, the jump from econ to biz is a much better value than biz – first. (this from a someone who travels/earns miles only through personal travel or cc bonuses)

  3. I used cathay first class for lax/hkg/lax segments of a trip a few weeks ago, this time I felt it was only slightly better than their business class.

  4. @ Paul — Within Asia they fly three cabin planes to HKG and NRT/HND, and internationally they fly them to LHR, FRA, MUC, MAD, FCO, SYD, etc.

  5. @ Mikey — While the hard product is only marginally better, didn’t you think the food and service were substantially better? Maybe you had bad crews?

  6. Terrific post–many thanks…and I was one of those urging you to write it because I have always been very curious (as a mostly Delta flier.)

    One question: Why do you think airlines would charge a relatively modest difference in points to jump from business to first, but often a HUGE difference in actual fare for the same jump?

    Seems to me that international first class now exists mainly for two reasons: as an aspirational lure for frequent fliers, and as a novelty product aimed at the super-rich for whom the difference between a $5K business class fare and a $10K or even $20K first class fare is of no consequence since it’s all just Monopoly money to them.

    Though I understand why you like international first, I have to say it’s hard to argue with the logic of carriers like Delta–the real competition is for everyday business fliers who will pay quite a lot to arive well-rested and well-fed but will never pay otherwordly sums to be treated like an Arab sheikh or a Hollywood celebrity.

    Thanks again for such a detailed report.

  7. 3 flights in a row as the only F pax? Should be no surprise, then, that they are getting rid of that product!!

  8. My GF is a three class Chief Purser for ANA and she says the only folks in the front cabin are almost always corporate types that have the company pay the full business and they get the UG to the front. But she swear even if they are almost all UG’d or awards, the cabins are full.

  9. I flew Paris-Frankfurt-Newark in Lufthansa First. From the pickup in the Porsche SUV to the personal walk thru behind customs to the actual flight, I never could go to the back-even for free.
    Thanks to your blog it was virtually free, I hope you have enjoyed the $$$ from all my CC referrals lol.

  10. The bummer is that for those of us who typically redeem miles to travel with a significant other, there are hardly ever TWO seats available in first class….

  11. The airlines have mispriced F, and it shows. From a paid $ standpoint, once I’ve got my flat bed, I’m golden. In 2010, I outright bought enough points to get my wife and I from the US to Bali in CX J. It cost me $2300/ticket. Well worth it. What’s F worth to me above and beyond that? Maybe $500/pp. This year, I got to enjoy CX F, so I actually have a comparison 🙂

  12. I’ll be the dissenter here and say that I simply don’t find a sufficient premium from flying First Class. Indeed, on many flights I struggle to find a premium flying Business Class instead of Economy. As you say, the issue is whether one views the flight as “transportation” or “experience”. Certainly, premium cabins are wonderful experiences, but I’d much rather not use the additional miles unless no other option was available.

  13. definitely worth the extra 10-15K miles.

    i’ve had my first INTL F on CX 77W, and it was the most memorable flight …. hands down

  14. Depends on how many miles you have.

    For me, definitely YES!

    Just wish LH would open seats (other than last minute).

  15. Great write-up, Lucky. Once I experienced riding in the front of the plane on JAL and AA, I am hooked. I will never fly in the back of the plane again. Next adventure is on SQ in Biz, and now that I found out LH is flying the 747-8 between LAX and FRA, I’ve got a new goal to fly with them and try their new biz class seats.

    It IS worth the experience and certainly enhances my travels. I’d rather take less trips and do it with lower stress, than many trips with higher stress. It’s just not an option anymore thanks to everything you show us so we enjoy the points/miles way of traveling. For that, I am eternally grateful for your great blog 🙂

  16. What do we regret more, what we have done, or what we haven’t done?

    If you’re reading this blog, then you’re serious about the game. And if you’re truly serious about the game, you need to fly int’l F at least once on an airline with a top-shelf soft product.

    The experience of boarding the jet, and having the Purser tell you that the entire F cabin is yours, sit where you like, there are your two lavs, here are your two dedicated cabin staff, is something that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

  17. well F isn’t anything special once you’ve gotten used to it.

    But then try Y after that and it’s like Oh the humanity!

    Hence sometimes that’s what we should do to make us appreciate F more!

  18. I just got back from a trip on Singapore and Asiana in 1st class (partly thanks to your advice!)

    While Singapore’s 1st class cabin service was excellent, their ground service in SFO and ICN wasn’t much different than economy. Sure, the lounges were OK, but not much better than the United Club.

    Asiana’s ground service at NRT was amazing – escort through security all the way to the ANA 1st Lounge, personal service at the ANA lounge, then escort to the plane right before the door closed. It really set them apart from SQ.

    Is ground service consistent enough across airports to factor into the overall 1st class experience? Or is it too depended on the location (FRA for LH, BKK for TG, etc.)?

    Cheers

  19. More important than anything else here:

    When are we gonna see your trip “report” review of the movie “Flight” that opens tomorrow???

  20. The think the discrepancy between mileage amts for biz and FC is moot. There just arent ever 2,3 or 4 seats avail for redemption so its not really relevant from where I sit.

  21. When redeeming miles I would say if it’s a 20k or 30k premium in miles roundtrip it’s worth it for a premium airline like many Asian carriers. Especially having experienced Cathay in both old/new business (new being a huge step up in hard product) along with their First product. I remember each detail of the First class segment because it was SO perfect and exact in every way. Business was great, don’t get me wrong, though I wouldn’t say over the top phenomenol.

    However on a product that is only a 2-class internationally like Delta of course Biz is just fine. Or on a more average product like United’s I may be tempted to save the miles as their Business product is pretty good.

  22. @ John — That’s a great question and I wish I had the answer. Interestingly business class is probably typically 5x as expensive as coach, while first class is maybe 2x as expensive as business class, so there’s very little correlation between the relative revenue cost of a ticket and the cabin one flies.

    I suspect that the mileage pricing somewhat reflects the rates at which airlines compensate each other for award tickets. In other words, airlines probably compensate each other about double as much for business class awards compared to coach awards, and marginally more for first class awards. That’s the only logic I can think of, at least.

    And I agree with you that if I started an airline I wouldn’t have first class — there’s a reason airlines are getting rid of it, and it ain’t because they’re making money on it!

  23. @ DiscoPapa — LOL, no disagreement there!

    @ ace — Happy you’ve enjoyed it, and thanks for the support. 😀

    @ Kevin — It’s definitely tougher than when just one person is traveling, but Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Thai, etc., do still frequently release multiple first class award seats.

  24. @ Carl — They only had it on the 777s they leased from Jet Airways, and they’ve returned all of those in the meantime. No more first class, unfortunately.

    @ Lawrence — I don’t think anyone ever “needs” anything other than coach. I can also do 16 hours in coach to Asia, but if I don’t have to I won’t. Just as people pay a premium to eat at a restaurant better than McDonalds, I’d say a premium for the comfort and added services in business or first class.

  25. By the time I had enough money to consider purchasing business class tickets I had already become accustomed to sleeping through my flights in economy class and didn’t even really mind it anymore

    After spending a fair amount of time reading numerous trip reports about premium cabins from all over the world, I often found the actual reality to be far less interesting than my original assumptions had been.

    To be perfectly honest I don’t really care for a lot of attention from the staff. All I really need service wise is a clean restroom, a drink now and then, and the ability to sleep through the bland and tasteless mush that passes for food these days.

    That’s not to say I never pay extra for better service, but if I’m going that route I’d much rather spend that money on a nice hotel where prompt and courteous attention from the staff and the quality of the service and preparation can have a much larger impact on my trip than whatever happens during the brief and forgettable moments when I’m still awake on the plane.

    As for points, I only recently rejoined the miles game earlier this year and although I’ve racked up a couple hundred thousand points during that time they’re still not in a form that will work with the few premium options I’ve actually been interested in.

    So, back to the drawing board I suppose. Or back to the economy cabin. Either is fine with me. 🙂

  26. @ msp2anywhere — VERY well said. 😀

    @ David — Agree, it’s a great lounge, and especially like the spa.

    @ Andy — It’s totally dependent on the airlines. There are some airlines that really emphasize the ground experience, while others that don’t seem to give a crap. Cathay Pacific and Singapore have among the best first class products in the sky, but neither of their ground experiences are memorable. On the other hand Thai and Lufthansa have amazing ground services. So while there are airlines that are better than other when it comes to ground services, even among the good ones it comes down to the individual airport.

    @ thegasguru — LOL!

    @ MileageUpdate — Three or four I’ll give you, but two? I see that all the time.

  27. Given that the premium between discount F/J tends to be wider than discount J/Y (at least for NYC-Europe/Asia), I cannot help but think this is further confirmation that international F is not long for this world.

  28. I’m looking forward to my RTW in F next year for my 21st birthday, but I wouldn’t pay above 75% more (revenue) for F over Y, and that isn’t because the experience is that much better, its because there is a mileage bonus.
    As for people saying they couldn’t fly internationally if not for premium cabins, really? I am ~6′ and have 10 fractured vertebrae, and sure, I’d rather premium cabins, but E+ isn’t that bad for flights of any length (and normal E isn’t that bad either).

  29. It’s all about the journey, when flying my rules are simple:
    F or J depending on airline choice. Always no more than 10-12 and have a stop over at least 12 hours.
    Melb-Euro currently favourite via Bangkok great 5star+ at under 125usd some fantastic properties and experiences. Melb – USA via NRT, ICN though Taipei is getting more stop overs at the minute.
    Within most of Europe it’s first or premium (some trains have a class beyond first, All LH flights include train travel from FRA to anywhere else in Germany, Salburg, Strasburgh. Great journeys are disapearing from most of our travel and you just have to find sometimes with a bit of any effort. The hardware can be F’ish but the crew make or break a journey. Then there are private charters, Lucky I am waiting on a review!!!!!!!!

    My favourite journey to Aus is via UA/CONT from HNL to CNS you island hop through Guam, micronesia, to Cairns if I can I do this in 3-4 days getting some rays or Air France (not saying I particularly like them, CDG-NRT-NOU-SYD so if the food is not the best you can eat some of the worlds finest on your stop overs. Lan/Air Tahiti codeshare SCL-IPC-PPT-AKL-SYD or MEL. A direct flight is not necessarily a journey but more like travel. If you are flying F surely it’s up to you how long the journey takes, if not you are not charging your clients properly and if you are needed in a rush then they send the corporate jet.

    What about an article on airlines that charge an outrageous amount of points but for any flight any seat after all if you can’t use your points due to lack of seats and you have millions to burn…tens of em.

    I wish they “Flying Clippers” were still in service getting there in the fullness of time with a staff ratio of 1-1 stoping overnight on land, now that was a journey and Lucky the Concorde was travel, though leaving LHR at 10ish NY for lunch and back home to greet the other half, What did you do today? Nothing much went out to lunch….
    I won’t mention what happens when the CC bill came in…but if it was NY lunch always booked it through Harrods so it came mixed in with other things. There is a certain english comedy that is a parody of this lifestyle “BoliStoli or a DomBom anyone”

  30. If using BA miles for Cathay Pacific travel, I don’t think that first class makes sense given the price differential and some intangible service aspects. I flew JFK-DPS (I won’t comment on the destination, as we very markedly disagree on its merits) outgoing in F and returning in J/C last year. The F crew was impeccably polite but treated me like a fragile porcelain doll and constantly seemed terrified to somehow mistep or offend. The J/C crew lacked such inhibitions and tried to read passengers and respond appropriately i.e. efficiently service people who were clearly there on business and disinterested in human contact but warmly engage jackasses like me who were traveling for fun and were in no hurry to get to sleep, repeatedly checking in just to chat. While Singapore/Cathay Pacific service is often stereotyped as robotic in the obsessive-compulsive-travel-nerd community, my personal experiences with both carriers do not mesh. When I next use AA miles for CX, I would definitely go with F but do not at all think it is warranted with BA miles for people who like personal interaction and are somewhat frugal with non-monetary currencies. I loved how the CX J/C crew weren’t afraid to read passengers, kind of like how the more experienced (because they are not fired when they get older) Thai Airways staff does. Maybe I’m super weird, but I think it’s cool when the F staff is comfortable pulling out the ottoman to sit down to chat with me.

  31. Rick, the Frugal Travel Guy, has since changed his tune. He no longer advocates “Economy” redemptions.

  32. lucky

    as for the food:

    I was a bit disappointed on the return trip, first class had 4 seats taken ( out of 6) when I requested a snack (there were 4 sandwich options) they were out of all 4.

    service was very good though.

  33. I’ve done Int’l first (points & paid), Int’l business (points & paid), domestic first (points & lots of corp paid) and I’ve done quite a bit of corporate private jet flying.

    At the pinnacle, obviously, is the private jet experience: drive up, plane departs, plane lands, rental car or town car waiting at the door, drive away.

    For Int’l first class there is no doubt that the experience onboard can range from sublime to slightly better than coach. There are some airlines that up their game on the ground as well with limos, exclusive terminals, lounges, etc. This is especially the case internationally but is beginning to appear domestically (AA’s LAX premium terminal).

    What I don’t understand is why the airlines don’t expand the ground experience to make it *almost* like a private jet experience. Separate the true, paid or HON-type passenger from the hoi polloi. I really think this is the only way going forward that the airlines will extract excess rent from those willing to pay.

    The domestic first class experience is so, so degraded when you have to schlep through the airport, fighting the crowds, security, TSA, Starbucks lines, etc only to arrive at a marginally more comfortable seat that I’m going to sleep 75% of the time anyway. All the energy of the airlines seems to go into the inflight experience. I just don’t get it.

  34. I’ve thought about it very hard and I just can’t find any justification to spend $10,000 on a ticket which I can get in coach for $500 on international first class. The only way that I can see anyone justifying it is: a) Someone else is paying for it b) I’m so rich that wasting money doesn’t matter. c) I think I’m above the common man in terms of social rank and don’t wish to associate with them.

    Maybe I value $10,000 more than a few extra drinks and 8 hours of “comfort”…you may think so, but I don’t think most of you are worth that much.

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