Business class is an airline class above economy (and premium economy), with upgraded amenities, service, and seating.
It's said that once you fly business, you can never go back to coach, and that might be correct. Economy can be crowded, with slow service and frustrating processes, but it’s also the most affordable way to fly, often priced several thousands of dollars less than costly upgraded counterparts. That’s not a small difference.
But go beyond the curtain and discover a world of comfy seats (some that even–*gasp*–lie flat to become a bed), star chef-designed multi-course menus, attentive service, and free-flowing champagne.
Business class is a significant upgrade over economy, or the slightly cushier premium economy, though it’s still outpaced by top-of-the-line first class. But as more airlines look to phase out first in favor of business on international routes, it’s worth knowing the basics, and whether it’s worth splurging thousands on a flight. Read on for our FAQ breaking down the business of business class on international flights.
It depends on what you want out of a flight, and how much you’re willing to pay for it.
If you can snag an amazing business class deal or upgrade using minimal points, it’s likely worth it. If you struggle to get comfortable on long-haul international flights, if you’re exceptionally tall, if you’re celebrating a special occasion, or if you need to arrive well-rested and ready to go to a make-or-break meeting, then business class may be worth it. But if you can fall asleep anywhere, don’t care about white-glove service, or would simply rather spend your travel dollars at your destination rather than in transit, it might not be worth your hard-earned cash.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that there’s no guarantee you’ll sleep your entire flight even in business class—there’s always jet lag, turbulence and other passengers to contend with, after all. But the added comfort goes a long way if you intend to start sightseeing immediately, or have important face-to-face meetings first thing on the ground.
Think about how hard it is sleeping on a long-haul redeye when you’re planted in the middle of the middle row, with your neighbor snoring softly in your ear, with no room to move or unable to get up to use the bathroom. On most international business class flights, that problem is nonexistent, with wider seats (at least two to three inches over economy) that become fully flat beds. Add in five-star service, excellent entertainment options, and stellar food and drink, and it’s a great way to travel when you’re celebrating a special occasion, or need to arrive in top form.
In addition to the aforementioned upgraded wider seats, which on long-haul international flights often fully recline to become lie-flat beds, business class also provides an elevated experience even before you board.
You’ll breeze past economy passengers to check in at a priority desk (with the option to check extra baggage, free of charge) and go through a priority security line. Once checked in, you’ll enjoy exclusive lounge access instead of searching for seats at the over-crowded gate, and when it’s time to board, you’ll be first.
Onboard, you’ll sink into a plush seat where amenities like duvet blankets, feather soft pillows, and designer toiletries await. Sip champagne, or your beverage of choice, while everyone else boards. In flight, you’ll receive superior drink and food choices (think multi-course menus, unlimited booze, and multiple snacks), and choose from a multitude of entertainment options on enlarged screens. When you land, your bags come out first. That last part alone is pretty spectacular.
It depends on the flight and carrier. Some airlines have replaced first class with business class entirely. On others, there is both first and business, with first offering an even more upscale experience. Imagine all the perks of business, but perhaps instead of simply lie-flat seats in business, first class has lie-flat seats that can become double beds, ensconced within a private suite that’s practically a bedroom. These suites will cost several times more than a business ticket, but the standard of service will be unmatched.
First class passengers always come, well first, when it comes to boarding, in-flight service, and perks. On luxe carriers like Emirates, first class might also include bathrooms with showers, or private transportation to the airport. There’s also fewer seats but plenty of flight attendants, so you’ll want for nothing.
While premium economy seats offer increased recline and more legroom than regular economy, the seats don’t lie fully flat, and have far less privacy than in business, with fewer amenities, too. Sometimes, the food in premium economy is the same food as in economy, and it’s far from the white-glove treatment of business class. Generally, premium economy is more of an upgraded version of economy than it is a lighter version or business or first.
A lot! Check the airline’s website before booking, as offerings may differ based on aircraft. Some of the airlines that most often have lie-flat beds (i.e., flat, not angled) are: Air Canada, Air China, ANA, Air New Zealand, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Iberia, KLM, Qatar Airways, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, United, and Virgin Atlantic.
Seat Guru has a great breakdown of what airlines offer in business class on different aircraft, and whether you can expect to lie flat, angled or sit deeply reclined. It’s a great resource so you don’t feel disappointed when you step on the plane expecting to spread out in a bed, and find a recliner chair instead.
According to Skytrax’s annual World Airline Awards, the airlines with the best business class offering in 2018 are:
Luxury never comes cheap. The price ranges greatly, but business class flights often cost five to ten times the cost of an economy ticket so you can expect to spend a few thousand dollars per person to fly business class internationally. To put that in perspective, if your entire budget for a week in Europe for two people is $3,000, that might very well be the cost of just one business class fare from the US to Europe.
Business class mistake fares can happen without warning and feature significantly discounted prices—up to 90% off the regular price. While sometimes airlines don’t honor these mistake fares, many times they do, choosing to see the mistake as an opportunity for great press, like when Hong Kong Airlines honored a $600 roundtrip mistake fare from SFO or LAX to Asia—a ticket that usually costs at least ten times that price.
Earning miles through loyalty and frequent flier programs is another great way to buy business class tickets without a high price tag. If you travel often, it’s likely you’ll rack miles up pretty quickly, but a good hack is to sign up for an airline or travel-friendly credit card with a large sign-up bonus. It will jumpstart your points potential and may cover an entire ticket, or at least one way, or offer the option to combine miles and cash. Using an airline credit card also increases point earning power, putting you on a faster track to an award ticket.
Additionally, be flexible with dates. Use flight search tools like Google Flights or Momondo and search for business fares in the calendar view. If you are able to adjust your travel dates, you might snag a better deal. Calendar view on airlines’ websites can also be a useful trick when redeeming for miles, too.
Additionally, keep an eye on your email inbox. As you departure date nears, some airlines offer passengers the opportunity to “bid” for cheaper business class tickets. If you do a bit of research as to what a business class seat on your flight is selling for online, and bid around 20 percent less, you may just get your deal accepted.
It really depends. Some airlines will charge you the full fare difference from what you paid for an economy ticket to the current business class rate. This can be a difference of thousands of dollars.
Some airlines will let you upgrade with miles, but there can be a lot of rules around that, too, dependent on what fare type you initially booked in, or what status you do or don’t hold with the airline. Those rules may become non-negotiable if you originally booked in a highly restricted fare such as basic economy, which often stipulates you cannot upgrade, no matter how much you’re willing to pay. If you want to leave the option open to upgrade, be sure to book in main economy or premium economy.
If you hold a certain level of status, the airline may upgrade you automatically, free of charge (but again, not if you booked basic economy), which is pretty much the only way to do it without paying a cent. Passengers holding a high loyalty status are usually placed at the front of the queue to upgrade as well, ahead of the general public.
Generally, the closer you wait to the flight date to upgrade, either paying in cash or by miles, the more you’re likely upgrade prices will drop—if there are lots of business class seats available (on routes typically popular with business travelers, this is less likely). As previously mentioned, this is the time the airline may offer you the chance to bid for a discounted business seat.
You can also try to call before the departure, or ask at the gate what’s still available and how much it will cost. It might be cheaper, but there’s no guarantee. Ultimately, if it’s a long flight and you want to arrive rested and indulge in some self care, and have the budget to do so, it may be money well spent.