At some point or another, most airline travelers have walked through a first class cabin on their way to their seat in economy class. It looks so alluring—wide, cushy leather recliners and plenty of space—and it’s hard not to envy the passengers flying “up front”.
The notion of first class didn’t start with the airlines, and it’s not exclusive to them, but there is an unmistakable cachet that accompanies a first class ticket, whether it’s on a short flight or one headed to the other side of the globe. There’s more space, better service, often free liquor and better food—and perhaps a chance to spot a celebrity or two.
First class products and amenities vary by the airline, aircraft, and length of the flight, but the top thing to know is that it’s often a significant premium over economy class and premium economy class.
What is first class?
First class is a class of service onboard an airline flight, with better accommodations, services, and amenities than business class, premium economy class, or economy class. It’s generally the highest quality and most expensive class of service onboard a commercial flight.
International first class tickets vs domestic first class tickets
The differences between first class on international flights and first class on domestic flights can be substantial.
The United States is one of the only countries where airlines brand their domestic premium cabin as first class—in most other countries, it’s business class.
International first class is generally considered luxurious, while modern domestic first class would be considered comfortable, but not luxurious. A major difference is that international first class fares include lounge access, and domestic first class fares generally don’t (there’s one exception, which is described later).
Domestic first class is primarily occupied by business travelers and super frequent fliers traveling on upgrades, and these customers typically appreciate practical comfort enhancements, but not bells and whistles.
American is the only US carrier still offering international first class; business class is the top premium cabin for other US carriers on international routes. The easiest comparison to make is that domestic first class is roughly equivalent to international business class (with some significant differences to account for the longer flight times internationally) while international first class is an ultra-luxe category of its own.
How much are first class tickets?
Like tickets in other classes of service, the primary driver of price for first class tickets is demand. The more quickly airlines are able to sell seats, the faster the price will increase. Airlines use historical sales data to determine the fare for an upcoming flight. In general, domestic first class fares are least expensive when business travel demand ebbs in business markets (think New York to Chicago), such as during weekends and holiday periods.
Some leisure markets also have demand for first class seats. Resort destinations in Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean will have high demand for first class during holiday periods, particularly during school breaks and the winter holidays.
From New York to Los Angeles, a midrange roundtrip in first class runs between $510 and $1,600 per person for a nonstop flight.
On a shorter flight, for example San Francisco to Seattle, a midrange roundtrip in first class runs between $285 and $410 per person for a nonstop flight.
An international first class ticket, using New York to London as an example, typically has a midrange figure between $4,000 and $9,000 roundtrip for a nonstop flight.
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How to find cheap first class tickets
First class tickets are rarely truly cheap, but it's possible to find cheaper discounted tickets.
Check fares on the “underdog”
First class fares are competitive just like any other fare type, and airlines will discount to sell their inventory when they need to. Airlines often don’t have difficulty selling flights to or from their hubs, but when they’re flying to a city that is a hub for another airline, they may sell seats less quickly.
For example, Delta Air Lines flies nonstop from San Francisco (a hub for United) to Seattle/Tacoma (a hub for Alaska Airlines). Delta’s hub in Seattle is relatively new, and they may have a less established customer base, so they often offer a lower first class fare in that market than either Alaska or United, which those carriers may also match on their lower demand flights.
Internationally, the differences can be even more pronounced. Travelers headed from New York to Paris can fly nonstop on Air France in their vaunted La Premiere cabin at roundtrip fares from around $8,500 during low demand periods. Bargain-seeking Paris fliers can fly via London on British Airways First, however, for about $4,000 roundtrip (Air France doesn’t return the “favor” for first class fliers bound for London via Paris, however).
Start shopping far in advance
In some markets, airlines may sell first class inventory at restricted, nonrefundable levels with significant restrictions (like a 50 day advance purchase requirement). It depends on the market forces at play in a particular market, but it doesn’t hurt to check far in advance of travel.
Paid first class inventory tends to book quite close to departure, but airlines may still have more seat inventory than they have forecasted they can sell, so they discount far out to fill seats.
Choose less popular flights
The adage rings true for first class flights in addition to economy class ones—the more demand, the higher the fare. Some flights at unpopular times (like overnight flights, flights with unattractive timings like 6AM departures on Saturday morning, or flights with circuitous routings or multiple connections) may have lower first class fares. Flights to/from leisure destinations (like Cancun or Maui) also generally have lower demand for all cabins during the workweek.
Keep checking back
The nice thing about first class fares is that passengers can usually upgrade (either by paying a fee or simply paying the difference in fare) after purchasing an economy class ticket. First class fares fluctuate with booking trends, and a substantial fare difference at the time of booking can shrink days or weeks later.
Know your frequent flier benefits
Many airlines that offer upgrades to their frequent fliers will also offer “instant upgrades” at the time of booking to frequent fliers who buy certain fare categories (typically higher than the lowest economy fare). Many of these airlines have search functions built-in to their websites to allow frequent fliers to display these fare types side-by-side with the lowest fare, allowing for easy value comparisons.
How to upgrade to first class
Another way to fly first class is to buy an economy ticket and upgrade. Ignore urban legends about fliers who were upgraded for flirting with the gate agent, being well-dressed, or saying they’re on their honeymoon—those stories describe one-in-a-million strokes of luck, rather than reasonable strategies for getting a seat in first class.
With cash—before day of departure
Many airlines will offer first class upgrades, either for a fee or a fare difference, in the manage reservation portal on their websites up until the day of departure (some up until check-in closes for the flight. Depending on what type of upgrade is being offered, the price can vary, so it’s good to check back in case it goes down. The upgrade fees or fare differences are typically nonrefundable post-purchase.
With points—before day of departure
Many airlines also allow frequent fliers to use their accumulated points to upgrade to first class. On domestic flights, the number of points required can often approach the amount needed for a free economy class ticket, so value those upgrades wisely. On international flights, many airlines levy a cash copay in addition to the redeemed points, but may waive this for top-tier fliers.
Some airlines have implemented bidding systems for first class upgrades. A typical procedure is that several days before check-in begins, the airline will e-mail passengers with coach tickets and invite them to bid using an online portal. There’s a minimum bid, and airlines will award an allotted number of seats to the highest bidders at the end of the process. They typically won’t solicit bids if the first class cabin is close to full, and they won’t offer every remaining seat for bid, reserving some for last-minute bookings and rebookings in the case of flight delays.
During check-in, online or at the airport
Many airlines won’t miss another opportunity to solicit for upgrade sales during the check-in process if they have seats available. Most airlines sell upgrades online, through their check-in kiosks, or at the ticket counter or gate.
With frequent flier benefits
Most airlines will also upgrade top-tier frequent fliers to first class, starting several days before the flight, right up until the time of departure, in addition to selling upgrades. These programs have complex rules that could be the subject of another entire article, and the rules and procedures vary from airline to airline.
On board upgrades are rare among US carriers, generally because of union rules, but some airlines (particularly outside the US) will sell upgrades after boarding if there are seats available. Some US carriers will also upgrade frequent fliers after they’ve boarded if there are no-shows in first class, but this varies by airline.
The “operational upgrade”
There are situations where airlines will upgrade passengers to first class for free. This generally happens only after airlines have exhausted all possible avenues to sell upgrades for cash or points and all the frequent fliers have been upgraded. There are a number of reasons for why this happens, ranging from overbooking to aircraft weight and balance. There’s no way to strategize or plan for this—only to enjoy it in the rare circumstances that it happens.
First class vs other tickets
First class is the most premium of airline classes of service. Other classes vary by route and airline, but airlines marketing offering first class and marketing it as such stand by the meaning—it’s the best they offer.
- The ultimate class of service onboard
- Usually the only premium cabin on domestic flights, with some exceptions
- Generally a larger seat and better onboard service with more amenities
- An “in between” first class and economy class, mostly on international flights
- Can also be the only premium cabin on some airlines’ international flights
- Practical enhancements over economy, but not quite “luxurious”
- Often limited to international routes and international-configured aircraft
- Quality significantly varies by airline—can be more similar to economy class, or closer to business class
- On international routes is often similar seat and service to US domestic first class
- The most affordable and most basic option with the least personal space compared to premium cabins
- Often includes meals and alcoholic drinks on international flights, but not domestic
- Often has baggage fees and more restricted tickets
What do first class tickets usually include?
A lot, usually, but there are some exclusions.
First class tickets typically include a substantial free checked baggage allowance (usually two bags per person or more). Depending on the airline and airport, there may also be priority lanes at the ticket counter/baggage check, and TSA screening (but not TSA PreCheck unless passengers otherwise qualify).
Domestic first class tickets do not normally include access to a lounge, unless the itinerary includes an international first class or business class flight. Alaska Airlines is a notable exception—passengers who have purchased first class fares (either with cash or Alaska Mileage Plan miles) have access to the Alaska Lounge (but not partner lounges) during their journey. Passengers who upgrade, either with cash or miles, are not entitled to lounge access.
First class tickets also include alcoholic beverages in glassware instead of plastic (flight attendants must discontinue alcohol service if passengers appear intoxicated) and on longer flights, meals. If an airline sells entertainment headsets or earbuds in economy, the same headsets or earbuds are typically offered complimentary in first class, or they may be of better quality. First class cabins may also have pillows and blankets available, which have generally disappeared from economy cabins.
First class passengers also board and deplane the aircraft first.
First class vs. business class
With a few exceptions, first class is the premium cabin onboard US domestic flights. A few routes, such as long haul transcontinental (e.g. New York to Los Angeles) are treated like international markets, which offer first class, business class, and economy class, but these are extraordinary.
Business class is typically offered on intercontinental flights, and with the exception of flat bed sleeper seats, is generally similar in style and delivery to domestic first class. International first class offers exceptional service that can easily be considered luxurious, and is markedly different from what most US airlines are offering on domestic routes.
To add a degree of confusion, US airlines sometimes deploy internationally-configured aircraft on domestic routes. When this happens, the airlines sometimes sell their international business class cabins as domestic first class (with domestic first class service), depending on the route.
For example, when American Airlines operates its internationally-configured 777-300 aircraft from Los Angeles to Miami, it sells its premium Flagship First and Flagship Business products in addition to economy class. When the same aircraft flies the shorter Dallas/Ft. Worth to Miami segment, American sells the Flagship First and Flagship Business cabins together as first class, and passengers in the know can select seats in the first two rows to enjoy the international Flagship First seat at a domestic first class fare.
Read more about the difference between first class and business class
Airlines that offer first class
The following airlines offer first class on US domestic routes:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- JetBlue Airways
- United Airlines
Spirit Airlines sells the Big Front Seat onboard its aircraft, which is similar to the seats in US domestic first class, but there is no other difference in service or amenities for customers seated in that section.
It’s important to explain that while most airlines have modernized their fleets to include first class on most of their flights, some of the smallest regional aircraft on some airlines have only economy class.
JetBlue’s Mint, which the airline likens to a premium international business class, is available in select long haul (mostly coast-to-coast) markets, and generally not on short or medium-haul flights.
Passengers can use the airline ranking site Skytrax to compare first class products on varying airlines and read customer reviews. SeatGuru is another handy site that provides seat maps for each airline’s seats, with customer reviews, photos, and feedback for individual seats on specific aircraft. SeatGuru will also give compiled detail on whether seats have less legroom or recline, are near lavatories or galleys, are missing a window, or other abnormalities.
Read more about first class
- Guide to American Airlines First Class
- The Best Airlines for Long Haul Business and First Class
- The Best Airlines for Domestic First Class