On many airlines, business class is the highest class of service on the aircraft, making it a de facto first class in its own right.
What has evolved into today’s business class actually started out resembling today’s premium economy. In the late 1970s when airlines introduced discount economy class fares, they wanted a way to incentivize business travelers (that weren’t otherwise booking first class) to keep purchasing full fare economy class tickets. Airlines created a separate cabin for these full fare economy travelers, with more space and onboard catering and amenities that were more similar to first class, and business class was born.
As the international air travel market evolved, business class became the primary mode of transport for long haul international business travel, and ultimately became so popular that many carriers replaced their first class cabins altogether with a top-tier business class product.
What is business class?
Business class is a class of service onboard a commercial flight. On many carriers, it’s the highest class of service; on some carriers it’s between first class and economy or premium economy class.
Business class also has the broadest variety among products. Within Europe, it’s common for business class to resemble the basic economy class seat, albeit in a curtained section in the front of the aircraft, with different onboard service and a guaranteed empty middle seat. On longer haul flights, airlines switch to larger aircraft and offer their long haul business class product, but this varies by airline.
Air France and British Airways both serve Tel Aviv from Paris and London, respectively, with longhaul-configured widebodied aircraft, but KLM, flying from nearby Amsterdam, flies the Europe-configured Boeing 737, so it’s important to check aircraft types and seating arrangements when booking.
For American carriers, business class is generally a long haul international product. The premium cabin on domestic flights is first class, but there are some differences. Some US airlines offer a premium cabin product on international short and medium haul flights that is very similar to domestic first class, but call it business class.
Outside the United States and Europe, short haul business class looks similar to US domestic first class.
Business class also goes by a variety of different names. While many airlines name their business class products some variation of “Business Class”, many other airlines have distinct branding. On Virgin Atlantic it’s Upper Class, while competitor British Airways calls it Club World on longhaul flights, and Club Europe on short and medium haul flights. On Thai Airways it’s Royal Silk; Korean Air has long called it Prestige Class; Delta refers to it as Delta One; JetBlue styles it simply Mint.
How much are business class tickets?
An intercontinental long haul business class ticket from the United States will usually average between $3,000 and $5,000 roundtrip onboard major national carriers. Discount carriers may offer lower business class fares.
Fares are often highest on the longest flights, where business class demand can be significant. Long haul flights with nonstop flight times of greater than twelve hours (nonstops from the US to the Middle East, Australia/New Zealand, and Southeast Asia) will often go for $5,000 to $12,000 roundtrip.
Short haul business class fares in other regions of the world often price in-line with US domestic first class, with roundtrip fares as little as $300 for some shorter flights.
Business class fares also raise and lower in line with business demand. Across the Atlantic, business class fares are at their peak during the northern winter, outside of holiday periods. It’s not uncommon for transatlantic flights in the winter to depart nearly empty in economy class, but sold out in business class.
The inverse is true in the summer, with sold out economy class sections, and relatively less full business class cabins—with fares to match. This is particularly true in July and August when much of Europe stops transacting business for extended summer vacations.
As a general rule, business class demand dips during holiday periods, but airlines often compensate for this by scheduling different aircraft to accommodate demand changes.
>> Read about the routes where you're most likely to find a great price on business class
What's a business class deal?
Again, this greatly depends on a number of factors including whether it's a Mistake Fare (when the airline prices the flight much lower than it meant to) or if it's just a discounted fare. If it's a Mistake Fare, you could snag an international business class flight for as low as $300.
Generally, a good deal on an international business class flight is anything under around $2,700. Scott's Cheap Flights now sends business class deals (along with first class and premium economy) to our Elite members. For our deals we look for prices in the $500s to Mexico and the Caribbean, around $1,200 to Latin America, $1,700 to Europe, and $2,200 to Asia.
Here are some examples of real deals we have sent our members:
- Newark to Paris nonstop for $1,599 roundtrip in business class
- San Francisco to Amsterdam for $1,851 roundtrip in business class
- Miami to Panama nonstop for $522 roundtrip in business class
- Philadelphia to Cairo for $1,454 roundtrip in business class
How to find cheap business class flights
The words “cheap” and “business class” rarely go together, but if you’ve got dreams of lie-flat beds and champagne in the sky, there is hope. It is possible to find affordable business class airfare; you just need a little bit of luck on your side (or a lot of points and miles) and the ability to act fast when you find a spectacular deal.
1. Hope for a business class Mistake Fare.
Mistake Fares are the holy grail of cheap flights, and they happen when an airline accidentally prices a flight much lower than intended—as much as 90% off usual prices. When that happens with a business class fare, it could become as cheap or even cheaper than a typical economy fare.
There’s no secret to finding Mistake Fares; you just have to get lucky, or you need to be running dozens of flight searches every day, like our team of Flight Experts does. Mistake Fares in business class are pretty rare. In 2020, we found about a dozen, mostly domestic and to the Caribbean and Latin America, along with two to Europe and one to West Africa.
Some of the business class mistake fares we’ve previously sent members include:
- LAX/SFO to Asia in Business Class for $600 roundtrip (normally $3,000+)
- Orlando to Mexico City in Business Class for $313 roundtrip (normally $1,000)
- JFK to Buenos Aires in Business Class for $728 roundtrip (normally $2,000+)
- Boston to Iceland in Business Class for $716 roundtrip (normally $1,800)
The key in snagging a mistake fare: act fast. Most Mistake Fares don’t last more than a day, and some disappear within hours.
>> Here are three things you need to know about Mistake Fares.
2. Join Scott's Cheap Flights to get alerted to great business class prices.
We send business class deals, including business class Mistake Fares, to our Elite members. Some recent deals in business class include $983 roundtrip to Peru, $198 roundtrip to Napa Valley, and $1,043 roundtrip to the UK.
3. Use points and miles to buy a business class ticket.
As far as cash output, the “cheapest” way to snag a business class seat is often by purchasing it with credit card points or airline miles. The amount of points you’ll need to spend varies (just as with a cash price, point redemptions can fluctuate often) and there may not be award availability on every flight, but you may be able to score a business class seat for as low as 25,000 points.
There are a ton of resources available (such as The Points Guy) to help you get started earning points, and many cards offer signup bonuses worth 60,000 or more points when you spend a certain amount in the few few months.
4. Book an economy ticket and upgrade with points or cash.
If you don’t have enough points to purchase a business class seat at booking, you can purchase a main economy seat and, if there is award availability on the flight, use your points to upgrade.
A few caveats: first, make sure there is award availability before you book the ticket you plan to upgrade, and second, make sure you book a fare class that is eligible for upgrades. Some, like basic economy, are not eligible for any upgrades, even those paid with points or cash.
Often times, as it gets closer to the departure date, if there are several unsold business class seats on a flight, the airline might offer an upgrade for purchase at a reduced rate. You may get an email in advance or you might see the option when you check in online.
If neither happens, you can always ask at the check-in counter or at the gate. Sometimes you can snag a business class seat at a very low upgrade price at the last minute.
5. Book an economy ticket and bid on an upgrade.
Some airlines, including Norwegian Air, Iberia, and Icelandair allow passengers in certain fare classes to bid on an upgrade to a higher class. Typically, if you are eligible the airline will send you an email, but you can also check your airline’s policies and use your confirmation code to see if you’re eligible and place your bid.
On the bidding page, the airline will typically offer a suggested price that’s more likely to be accepted (and usually there is a minimum bid) and include details on when you’ll find out if your bid was accepted.
In order to place your bid, you’ll need to input your credit card info. If your bid is accepted you will be charged immediately. The bid is a new, additional amount (in addition to the amount you’ve previously paid) that you’re willing to pay for the upgrade, and typically you bid separately on the outbound and return flights.
6. Look for business class fare sales.
Airlines do occasionally put their business class seats on sale, however, while the price might be a significant discount off the regular price, it’s highly unlikely that the prices they offer would ever qualify as “cheap.”
For example, if a business class seat from Los Angeles to Paris typically goes for around $3,000, the sale price might be around $2,000. While it's not what most people would call cheap, that’s a big savings over the usual cost.
How to upgrade to business class
With Cash or Points in Advance
Airlines vary in how they offer upsells to business class before departure. Some airlines want to keep business class availability open for travelers buying tickets outright instead of upgrading, and may reserve upgrade sales with cash or points until day of departure. Delta is one airline that consistently offers cash or mileage upgrades in advance—passengers need only retrieve their reservation to see what’s available for their upcoming flights, bearing in mind upgrade prices tend to fluctuate the same way fares do.
Many carriers also limit the number of seats available for sale with points, so travelers wanting to upgrade using points should book early to ensure best availability. It’s also important to note that most airlines do not allow “double upgrades” with most forms of payment. For example, on a carrier with both premium economy and business class, if a passenger upgrades to premium economy, it may not be possible to then later upgrade the upgraded ticket to business class, so it’s helpful to review the terms and conditions for any upgrade prior to purchase.
Some frequent flier programs have begun charging copays for mileage upgrades to business class, which can range up to several hundred dollars for long haul flights. These copays are often waived for top-tier frequent fliers.
With Cash or Points during Check-In
Another option for upgrades is during the check-in process. Many airlines will continue to sell premium cabin seats at a discount right up until departure time. During check-in, many airlines will offer paid upgrades with tiered pricing based on frequent flier status (upgrades are often cheaper for higher-tier members).
Some airlines, like Air France, even offer mixed currency purchases for upgrades during the check-in process. Passengers can pay entirely with points, entirely with cash, or use a sliding scale to pick a combination of the two.
Many carriers also offer bids for business class upgrades within a few weeks of departure. From about a week up to several weeks before the flight, airlines will e-mail confirmed passengers with links to submit a bid (passengers in the know can often visit the airlines website to submit bids without being prompted by e-mail).
Bids will be collected (with a minimum bid—no “The Price Is Right-style” $1 bid shenanigans here!) and winning bidders are notified by e-mail. Airlines that have both premium economy and economy cabins may have differing minimum bids for passengers based on which cabin they’re upgrading from.
It’s important to check how much advance upgrades are going for when determining a bid, although it’s notable that many carriers who offer upgrade-by-bid programs tend not to sell upgrades as aggressively using other methods.
With Frequent Flier Benefits
Unlike on domestic flights, it’s uncommon for frequent fliers to be automatically upgraded to long haul business class cabins solely because of their status. Many programs offer a point or certificate system for top-tier travelers to choose to waitlist for upgrades on a select number of flights each calendar year. The number of points or certificates awarded is often based on the amount of travel after reaching an upper tier in the program.
Business class vs other tickets
On many airlines, business class is the top of the tier for their intercontinental long haul product suite. Carriers without first class have a bit more latitude to add luxury touches to their business class cabins, as they don’t have a first class cabin from which to distinguish their business class.
- Top level of luxury and comfort—on carriers that have it
- Lie-flat seat and fine cuisine
- Highly personalized service
- Often the top class of service on many airlines
- Lie-flat seat and significant personal space
- Usually an onboard bar or refreshment area
- Larger reclining seat and upgraded amenities
- Meals can be the same as economy or slightly upgraded
- Often more baggage allowance and sometimes priority handling
- Most economical class of service
- Basic seating and amenities
What do business class tickets usually include?
Business class tickets, with a few exceptions, are priced all-inclusively, although there are some exceptions. Discounted fares on British Airways Club World don’t include free advance seat assignments; Emirates also has an “unbundled” business class fare that doesn’t include advance seat assignments or lounge access.
Most airlines include a substantial checked baggage allowance, airport lounge access, and onboard food and entertainment. Seating is typically lie-flat on most long haul flights. Many airlines also operate arrivals lounges in some airports, offering travelers breakfast, and perhaps a shower suite upon arrival.
Business class travelers can typically choose from multiple entrees for their main meal, which is typically delivery on china on a linen-lined tray. Many airlines, such as Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways, offer pre-order services, allowing passengers to choose their entrée in advance of the flight. Alcoholic beverages are complimentary in business class, and business class passengers typically enjoy a wider selection and/or higher quality brands than are available in economy class.
Many airlines hand out amenity kits in business class on long haul flights. On Air France the kits include products from the French cosmetics brand Clarins, while ANA hands out kits custom-designed for the airline by the British luggage brand Globe-Trotter, stocked with items from the Japanese cosmetics brand Shiro.
Business class travelers also typically benefit from a dedicated check-in space, priority baggage handling and delivery, priority security lines (and sometimes fast-track immigration lines on arrival).
Some airlines, including Emirates and Turkish, offer free chauffeur-driven airport transfers before and after the flight to business class travelers on paid fares (not upgrades or mileage redemptions).
First class vs. Business class
First class is a class higher than business class. On many long haul international flights, airlines may offer both first class and business class on the same aircraft. Generally speaking, business class is meant to offer a noteworthy increase in personal space and onboard amenities over economy class, but not necessarily luxurious. First class is meant to be an increase in personal space and onboard amenities over business class, private and exclusive enough to comfortably be called a luxury experience. Read more about the differences between first class and business class.
Airlines that offer business class
Here's an incomplete list of the many major airlines that offer business class.
- Aer Lingus
- Aerolineas Argentinas
- Air Astana
- Air Belgium
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air Europa
- Air France
- Air India
- Air Mauritius
- Air Namibia
- Air New Zealand
- Air Serbia
- Air Tahiti Nui
- Air Transat
- AirAsia X
- American Airlines
- All Nippon Airways (ANA)
- Azores Airlines
- British Airways
- Brussels Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- China Southern
- Czech Airlines
- El Al
- EVA Air
- Fiji Airways
- Garuda Indonesia
- Japan Airlines (JAL)
- Kenya Airways
- Korean Air
- La Compagnie
- LOT Polish
- Malaysia Airlines
- Middle East Airlines
- Oman Air
- Philippine Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Royal Air Maroc
- S7 Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- TAP Portugal
- Turkish Airlines
- Vietnam Airlines
- Virgin Atlantic
Business class cabins and services change over time. Passengers can use websites like SeatGuru and SkyTrax to check out airline seating advice with seat maps, and read reviews and rankings of the world’s airlines, respectively. You can also read our guide to the best airlines for international business class.