I recently had someone ask me through the Ask The Points Jet Setter form whether international first class was really worth the extra points? This is a question that seems to get posed quite a bit, so I figured I would provide my take on whether international first class is really worth the extra points.
I have had the extremely good fortune to have flown internationally in both first and business class on some of the best airlines in the world. On the whole, flying first class makes you feel like an absolute rock star and is one of the few instances where many of us (myself included) are able to see how the other half live. Overall, I do not regret a single point I have spent on any first class redemption. But that was more so because I was traveling with someone that meant a great deal to me and I wanted to redeem my miles for the best that was available. When I am traveling by myself (which is unfortunately quite often these days), I usually stick with business class – even if a first class redemption is available.
To start, I will say this – if you are celebrating something special like a honeymoon or a milestone birthday, in most cases I would say spend the extra miles for first class. Special events are meant to be special, and the first class experience generally offers this. With that said, let’s dive into the comparisons.
The Ground Experience (Check-in, Lounges, etc.)
The first thing you are going to experience when you get to the airport is going to be the ground experience. Depending on where you are flying out of, this experience is going to differ greatly. For example, Cathay Pacific has a dedicated first class check-in area at Hong Kong Airport (HKG) where only those passengers flying first class (or OneWorld Emeralds) can check-in. Other airports will combine the first and business class check-in lanes and sometimes even include their elite members in the same check-in lane. Overall, I would not put much emphasis on the check-in as regardless of whether your fly first or business, your line is almost certainly going to be shorter than the economy class line and the experience will be about the same.
Some airlines/airports offer a priority screening lane for premium cabin passengers. At the large majority of airports where this is offered, you will receive this perk regardless of whether you are flying first class or business class. So, again, this is a perk that is a wash between the two cabins.
Where things really start to differentiate is with the lounge experience. When you are flying out of a major airport, most airlines that offer a first class cabin will have a separate section of the lounge that only first class passengers can access. And in the case of Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong (HKG) or Japan Airlines in Tokyo (HND/NRT), they actually have entire lounges dedicated just to first class passengers.
It is worth noting that these lounges are often also open to top tier elite members, though generally speaking the first class lounges tend to be far less busy than the business class lounges.
The first class lounges often offer a made to order menu as well, which can be great during a long travel day.
Some of the business class lounges will also offer a made to order menu for ordering – like Cathay Pacific’s fantastic Dan Dan Noodles.
In my opinion, the only real benefit of the first class ground experience over the business class ground experience is the slightly better lounge experience. With that said, I would not go out of my way to fly first class simply for the ground experience as both experiences tend to be about on par with each other.
The Hard Product (Seats, In-Flight Entertainment, Food, etc.)
The hard product is something that is going to differ greatly among airlines. For example, British Airways first class is often called the best business class in the sky because it tends to fall woefully short of the first class offerings from airlines like Cathay Pacific or Emirates. There are a few things about the hard product that will remain consistent though.
When you fly first class, you are always going to have more space than you would in the business class cabin. That space usually comes in the form of a first class “suite” instead of just a seat.
Cathay Pacific first class suite
Cathay Pacific business class seat
Within the seat, you will generally see a slightly bigger in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen in a first class seat versus a business class seat. Although the screen size itself may be slightly larger, I have found that the available options on the IFE are identical between first class and business class.
Cathay Pacific first class IFE screen
Cathay Pacific business class IFE screen
You will also find that food and drinks served in first class are slightly better than what you will receive in business class. For example, you will often find a more refined selection of liquor, wine and champagne in first class, along with appetizers that involve things like caviar.
Japan Airlines caviar appetizer
Unless you are very much into food, I personally do not see a huge difference between food in first class and food in business class.
Cathay Pacific first class main course
Cathay Pacific business class main course
The alcohol on the other hand is a different story entirely. If you are someone who likes to drink higher end liquor, champagne and/or wine, then first class wins out hands down over business class. In fact, in most cases, the first class cabin will have at least 1 or 2 exceptionally good liquor, champagne and wine options on offer. As a whiskey/bourbon/scotch guy, this is one area where I am always happy with redeeming the extra miles as I have had the opportunity to drink some truly exceptional single malts that I would not otherwise pay $35+ an ounce to sample!
Writing a trip report while enjoying a Glenmorangie Signet single malt scotch
While both the business class and first class cabins will receive an amenity kit, the first class amenity kit always seems to offer slightly more.
Cathay Pacific first class amenity kit
Cathay Pacific business class amenity kit
While the amenity kit being more stacked is not really a big deal to me personally, where first class really excels is in the pajamas that it offers. Most every carrier will offer their first class passengers a pair of pajamas to utilize during the flight.
Japan Airlines pajama top
Cathay Pacific pajamas
The Japan Airlines pajama top is actually so comfortable that it is a staple in my carry-on bag whenever I travel internationally. It is also extremely nice to come off of a 10+ hour flight with fresh clothes. As a result, first class gets a huge thumbs up in my book in this regard.
The Soft Product (Service, Ambiance, etc.)
I think the soft product is really where you are likely to see the biggest difference (outside of the seat obviously). In my experiences, business class cabin crews can be hit or miss – especially with U.S. airlines. Some are fantastic and just as good as they are in first class (I am looking at you JAL), while others are worse than I have experienced in economy class (I am looking at you Delta). But on the whole, the service, the ambiance, the calm, the everything is going to be just that much better in first class.
I have never flown on a private jet, but I would imagine that international first class is about as close as I will ever get to experiencing the level of service and ambiance of a private jet flight. It will be the little things like being offered a delicious tuna amuse bouche with a glass of champagne when you board.
Or having a fresh flower placed at your seat when you board.
Or receiving an individual pot of french press coffee when you order an coffee.
These are just some of the small “soft product” touches that make the first class experience just that much better than the business class experience. While the “soft product” touches are going to vary from airline to airline, on the whole I personally think this is what makes the first class experience worthwhile if you are celebrating something special. Are these touches necessary for an enjoyable flight? No, not necessarily. But if you are celebrating something special, it is these little touches that will generally make you feel like spending the extra miles was worthwhile.
Airlines Where The First Class Experience Is “Meh”
There are a few airlines where the first class product leaves a bit to be desired and you may want to think twice about redeeming extra miles for. In my opinion, those airlines are United, American, British Airways and Thai Airways. British Airways’ first class is often called the best business class in the sky – and there’s good reason for that. While the cabin is striking, the hard and soft product leave a lot to be desired. The fuel surcharges that often exceed $1,000 per passenger also make this one of the “meh” first class flights in my opinion. United and American both suffer from offering an outdated international first class where the hard and soft product are just downright bad. Mediocre food, an outdated and worn out seat and typical U.S. based crews with attitude all make me associated both with “meh” first class products/experiences.
American Airlines old and worn out 777-200 first class suite
Lastly, there is Thai Airways. Thai suffers from what I think is poor management that leads to crews that really do not care. While the first class suite on the A380 is well appointed, the remainder of the fleet that offers a first class cabin is outdated and very much showing its age. The service on Thai is always hit or miss with miss being the case more often than not. The food is so-so and the first class product has always reminded me of a pretty good business class.
Overall, these are the only 4 airlines that I would think twice about spending the extra miles for a first class redemption on.
As with a lot of things in the points and miles game, the answer to whether international first class is really worth the extra points is a true YMMV (your miles may vary) situation. For me personally, unless I am flying with someone special, business class is more than enough for me and allows me to save those extra miles for a later trip.
When would you spend the extra miles for a first class ticket?
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