The Main Differences Between First Class and Business Class

First class seats offer an upgrade from economy on short-haul flights. Image Credit: Delta

But if you’re traveling on a long-haul flight in first class, you’ll immediately notice a massive difference:

Long-haul first class could mean an entire suite in the sky. Image Credit: Singapore Airlines

The amount of space you have on an international first class flight is multiple times greater — you’ll have a lie-flat seat with high-quality bedding, designer amenities, and so much more.

But, by and large, these 2 different products are still called “first class.” Similar examples exist in the realm of business class, too.

Here’s what a Lufthansa business class seat looks like on a short-haul flight within Europe:

Lufthansa short-haul business class. Image Credit: Daniel Ross

And here’s what a Lufthansa business class seat looks like on a long-haul flight:

Lufthansa long-haul business class. Image Credit: Lufthansa

In general, the most luxurious first class and business class experiences are found on long-haul flights.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way for average travelers to be able to tell what you’re getting without digging deeper into the aircraft type and other details. Additionally, many airlines choose to offer business class as their highest class, which can be miles ahead of what another airline might call “first class.”

For example, Qatar Airways has one of the world’s best business class products, known as Qsuite. Qsuite offers such an incredibly lavish experience, complete with lie-flat beds, 5-star dining, and fabulous service. Compared to what Delta offers on a domestic “first class” flight from Atlanta to Detroit, Qsuite wins without question.

Hot Tip: In general, U.S. airlines choose the term “first class” to refer to the highest cabin class available on domestic flights, while they use the term “business class” to refer to the highest cabin class available on international flights.

Delta One business class, which is only offered on long-haul flights and select premium transcontinental flights, is miles ahead of its first class product. Delta’s short-haul first class simply can’t compete with its long-haul business class offering.

Similarly, United’s Polaris business class, which is also only offered on select long-haul or transcontinental flights, will blow its domestic first class product out of the water, without question.

One notable exception is American Airlines, which is one of the only U.S. airlines that still offers a distinct cabin and product above business class. Indeed, American Airlines offers first class, business class, premium economy, and economy on a few of its flights.

What Is “Real” First Class?

We mentioned above that you can’t rely on the “first class” or “business class” label to conclusively determine what product you’re getting. Well, what is “real” first class? We touched on the answer with the example of American Airlines above — and it boils down to the number of cabins on a plane.

For example, on international, long-haul flights, if separate first class and business class tickets are being sold, you’ll almost always see that these first class tickets cost upwards of $10,000 apiece. On the other hand, business class might cost just $2,000 to $3,000. So, “real” first class can best be defined as the cabin above business class when business class tickets are sold separately, typically on long-haul flights.

Airlines may take different approaches to offering separate cabin classes. For example, in the U.S., first class (whether you’re flying on United, Alaska, Delta, or another carrier) usually refers to the small cabin at the front of the plane, which is typically equipped with slightly larger seats that recline a bit more than economy.

If a U.S. airline such as Delta operates a short-haul flight, say, from Atlanta (ATL) to Mexico City (MEX) using the same exact plane as a flight from Atlanta (ATL) to Detroit (DTW), the international flight’s front-most cabin is called “business class,” while the domestic flight’s front-most cabin is called “first class.”

In contrast, if Air New Zealand operates a short-haul, domestic flight from Auckland (AKL) to Christchurch (CHC), its forward-most cabin is called business. The same is true if Air New Zealand operates an ultra-long-haul, international flight from Auckland (AKL) to Los Angeles (LAX).

Another example is Air France. If Air France operates a short-haul flight from Paris (CDG) to Nice (NCE), its business class seats are simply economy seats with the middle seat blocked off. Similarly, if Air France operates a long-haul flight from Paris (CDG) to Denver (DEN), its lie-flat seat is also called business class. To make things more complicated, if Air France operates a long-haul flight between Paris (CDG) and Chicago (ORD), there may also be a separate product higher than business class: La Première first class.

So when people talk about “real” first class, it usually refers to the ridiculously expensive plane tickets where there’s a separate first class cabin (usually positioned in front of the business class cabin) on the same plane.

Airlines that offer “real” first class on at least 1 route include:

  • Air France
  • All Nippon Airways (ANA)
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • China Eastern
  • Emirates
  • Etihad Airways
  • Japan Airlines
  • Korean Air
  • Lufthansa
  • Qantas
  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Swiss International Air Lines

All that being said, let’s examine all of the ways these airlines usually distinguish their first class products from business class!

The 7 Differences Between First Class and Business Class

In this guide, we walk you through the differences between first class and business class in each aspect of the travel experience.

We refer to different airlines and walk you through specifics of their first and business class experiences and what sets them apart.

Ground Experience and Lounge Access

When you book a first class flight on an airline such as Lufthansa, you’ll immediately feel the difference upon stepping foot into the airport.

If you’re departing from or connecting in Frankfurt (FRA) as a Lufthansa first class passenger, you’ll start your experience by visiting the Lufthansa First Class Terminal.

When you fly Lufthansa first class from Frankfurt, you’ll experience one of the world’s best first class lounges. Image Credit: Lufthansa

This building is reserved only for Lufthansa’s VIPs — enjoy an exclusive area to check-in for your flight, print your boarding passes, and access private security screening.

Dining in Lufthansa’s VIP terminal lounge. Image Credit: Greg Stone

The First Class Terminal features state-of-the-art facilities, including a staffed cocktail bar boasting top-shelf alcohol, a huge business center, a cigar bar, a dining room with an extensive à la carte menu, nap rooms with beds, and, best of all, a Porsche or Mercedes chauffeur experience to directly board the plane.

Take a Porsche to your plane if you fly Lufthansa first class from Frankfurt! Image Credit: Andrew Kunesh

In contrast, Lufthansa business class travelers will be allowed to access a business class lounge that has buffet-style dining options, a bar, newspapers, and shower cubicles.

Not that anyone’s complaining, but the first class ground experience, especially if you’re departing from the airline’s central hub airport, far outclasses the business class ground experience.

Hot Tip: Check out more of the Lufthansa First Class Terminal and Lounge in our review of Lufthansa first class from Frankfurt (FRA) to Singapore (SIN).

Seat

When flying in business or first class, one can argue that what you’re paying for is the extra personal real estate — most people who pay to fly business and/or first class value the idea of not sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a seatmate in a cramped steel tube.

In general, real first class seats have much more personal space than business class seats.

One of the best examples of this is Singapore Airlines, specifically on its A380 aircraft.

Aboard Singapore Airlines’ A380 first class suites, you’ll encounter this:

Singapore Airlines’ new A380 suites feature a double bed and separate lounge chair. Image Credit: Greg Stone

The first class seats on this aircraft have a plush armchair (used for takeoff and landing), a separate lie-flat bed, a workstation, and a total of 50 square feet of space. Plus, these suites have high walls that offer more privacy from the rest of the aisle.

Let’s compare this to the business class seat on the same plane:

Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 new business class cabin. Image Credit: Greg Stone

Although this seat is a perfectly comfortable way to fly anywhere, you’ll immediately notice a big difference.

The business class seats still recline fully flat, but you don’t get a separate bed (your seat is your bed), you’ll have less privacy from other passengers, and there is less personal space allocated just for you.

Amenities

Flying on an airplane is an inherently uncomfortable experience — one of the areas where the difference between first class and business class is clear, especially amongst seasoned luxury travelers, is in the amenities department.

One of the airlines that consistently excels in pampering first class and business class travelers with amenities is Emirates.

To start, Emirates’ first class passengers (on A380 aircraft) have access to an exclusive onboard shower spa.

Refresh before landing in the Emirates onboard shower spa. Image Credit: Alex Miller

Beyond that, Emirates amenities include a huge Bvlgari amenity kit stocked with lotion, aftershave, lip balm, perfume, and other skincare products. There’s even a second amenity kit with nighttime products from Byredo, including pillow mist and eye cream.

Level up your souvenir game with a leather-bound notebook from Emirates, a set of extremely comfortable (and hydrating!) pajamas, Bowers and Wilkins noise cancellation headphones, and so much more.

First class amenities on Emirates. Image Credit: Alex Miller

As you can tell, Emirates goes overboard in showering its first class travelers with amenities.

Although Emirates offers excellent amenities to its business class passengers, too, it doesn’t offer an inflight shower spa, pajamas, a notebook, and a few other items.

Service

When it comes to inflight service, it’s hard to explain the difference between first class and business class unless you’ve experienced it yourself, first-hand.

The easiest way to begin this discussion is to mention that any particular business class cabin might have 50 seats, while a first class cabin usually maxes out at just over 10 seats.

The simple math says that your service will be much more personalized in first class simply because there’s a flight attendant assigned to every couple of passengers. In business class, expect 1 flight attendant for every 10 or so passengers.

One of the best examples showcasing this service concentration is in comparing Air France La Première first class with Air France business class.

Air France La Première first class. Image Credit: Air France

In Air France business class, service is designed to be efficient, with carts rolled up and down the aisles to serve passengers. Usually, multiple items are brought out on the same tray, and there are set dining times.

In La Première, there are just 4 seats in the whole cabin, so the service is truly exclusive. You can eat whenever you want, have refills of caviar, and even request custom dishes to be made.

In general, the cabin crew in first class are also more polished and can perfectly toe the line between being fun and professional.

Food

One of the most important elements of the inflight experience is the food. After all, if you’re paying thousands of dollars for a plane ticket, you’d rather not be hungry by the time you land.

For example, when you fly in ANA first class, you’ll enjoy expertly-crafted, celebrity chef-masterminded meals with many courses, plenty of flavor complexity, and, honestly, so much food that you’ll be stuffed by the time your meal is halfway done.

ANA first class dining. Image Credit: Alex Miller

In contrast, ANA business class‘ food, while delicious, is generally served on 1 or 2 trays.

Plus, you’ll usually enjoy caviar in first class, too!

Drink

One of the most unforgettable elements of a top-quality first class experience is the alcohol selection. In general, the alcohol selection on first class flights is incredible.

For example, Japan Airlines routinely offers its first class passengers some of the best drinks in the sky, including Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne, Salon Blanc de Blancs Champagne, Hibiki 17 or 21 whiskies, and Juyondai Yukimegami Junmai Daiginjo sake (which retails for $1,000 per bottle).

Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300ER first class champagne. Image Credit: Cherag Dubash

There’s massive variation here — some business class airlines offer more superior Champagne than other lesser-known first class airlines (such as China Eastern and Air China).

And this isn’t even limited to alcoholic beverages — many first class airlines offer fresh espresso drinks such as cappuccinos and lattes, while most business class airlines only offer blended coffee or basic espresso.

Price

The very last distinction between first class and business class is the price tag.

Airlines may make attractive business class fares available from time to time, allowing travelers to fly across the pond to Europe for less than $3,000 round-trip or to Asia for less than $4,000 round-trip.

In general, round-trip business class tickets to Europe or Asia usually hover around $5,000 to $6,000 in price.

In contrast, long-haul first class tickets are routinely past the 5-figure mark. In fact, it’s extremely rare to find a round-trip first class fare departing the U.S. to Asia or Europe for less than $10,000.

Indeed, ultra-premium first class airlines, including Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Japan Airlines, ANA, Qantas, and Air France, can sell first class tickets for more than $20,000.

This makes using points and miles even more attractive!

Final Thoughts

The difference between first class and business class is often misleading. Unfortunately, many airlines contribute to this confusion with their marketing communication.

As we’ve shared in this guide, most U.S. airlines refer to their forward-most cabin on domestic flights as “first class,” while their forward-most cabin on international flights is “business class.”

The distinctions go much deeper than that, though, once you start talking about long-haul travel. Real first class always refers to those extremely expensive plane tickets on exclusive nonstop routes offered as a step above business class on the same plane aboard airlines such as Air France, Emirates, Etihad, Lufthansa, ANA, and Qantas.

These first class experiences are truly a notch above business class in 7 major ways:

  • Ground experience and lounge access
  • Seat
  • Amenities
  • Service
  • Food
  • Drink
  • Price

Not all first class or business class experiences are created equal — remember this as you take your luxury travel to the next level with points!

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