There are many perks to a career in management consulting, and one of them is the ability to enjoy first class benefits when flying. You may get to enjoy the perks associated with flying first class while traveling for work as a consultant. More interestingly, your chances to enjoy first class benefits will be magnified once you’ve accrued hundreds of thousands of hotel or airline loyalty points, allowing you to upgrade to a first-class experience while taking a personal trip.
But should you?
While passengers in a premium cabin clearly have it better than those stuck in coach, one may wonder if the perks of flying first class are really worth the extra cost. On some level, everyone has a budget. Whether you are using loyalty points or cash, what is the rationale for investing in first class vs. saving your money and flying coach? In this article we’ll explore the benefit of first class so you can come to an informed conclusion about the value you personally place on the first-class cabin.
Domestic vs. International First Class Benefits
Let’s start by noting that the relative attractiveness of first class vs. coach varies significantly on domestic vs. international flights. Obviously, international flights are generally longer in length. Even if a premium cabin is far better than a coach cabin, enjoying the upgraded experience for 3-4 hours can be much less valuable than enjoying it for 12-14.
But beyond the time element, domestic first class offers what you might call “good, but not great” upgrades relative to coach. You’ll board first and you’ll probably be served a meal, which nowadays, is also probably best described as “good but not great.” You may have some upgraded entertainment options as well. Perhaps you’ll even get additional loyalty points per dollar if you’ve paid cash.
However, international first class is where things get far more interesting. The food is typically delicious (there are exceptions – here’s looking at you, PIA), and you are likely to have access to truly cool perks including lounges, a bar and a shower. In addition, your in-flight seat will most likely convert to a lie-flat bed.
In sum, if you are comparing coach vs. first class prices for domestic vs. international flights, you should be willing to “pay” a lot more for the international upgrade. It therefore makes sense to “save” your points for international upgrades instead of spending them on domestic awards.
Types of Perks
Next, let’s review the various types of first class benefits that exist. Different perks are valuable to different people, so it’s helpful to understand the full range available before we dive into airline-specific offers.
Here are some upgraded features and indirect benefits first class passengers often enjoy before, during, and after a flight:
- Free alcoholic drinks
- More loyalty points per dollar spent (if paying cash)
- Less stress from the ability to bypass long security lines and in some cases, from private “chauffeur” service to, around, and from the airport
- Access to special VIP lounges in select airports
- Upgraded entertainment options
- Better food options
- Networking – if you are outgoing enough (or force yourself to be) you can strike up conversations with often-interesting people.
- More space for relaxing, working, or both is always a feature…
- …but there are “next level” space benefits on some airlines that can include:
- A three-room “residence” including an en-suite shower and a personal inflight chef (Etihad Airlines)
- Smaller private apartments
- Lounge areas
- Physical “souvenirs” such as pajamas, socks, etc.
One of the main points people tend to make about the value of first class relative to economy travel is that for the extra investment, you simply save a lot of time – from easier access to the airport, a streamlined security process, boarding first, exiting first, etc.
While on the plane, you have more space and a better environment for being productive or truly relaxing, both of which are other ways to make better use of your time. Having spent most of our pre-consulting lives flying coach, we can authoritatively say that first class helps us make better use of our time.
Now that we have a general lay of the land for first class benefits, let’s explore what some of the top U.S. airlines specifically offer.
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How Perks Differ By Airline in the U.S.
U.S. airlines are well recognized globally, but as we review what they offer, keep in mind that they generally are recognized as not having the most exciting first class benefits. Many Asian airlines offer a first-class experience that far surpasses that of American, United, or Delta. These are the airlines on which you’ll experience in-flight lounges, bars, and showers. With that said, let’s see the main carriers here in the U.S. have to offer.
Delta First Class Benefits
Delta describes how its first class benefits differ from other classes in this handy comparison table. To summarize, first class offers the following benefits that surpass what Delta regularly offers in its economy cabins.
- Better seat-recline options, from 50% better than standard main cabin (First Class) to 180 degree recline for sleeping (Delta One on long haul international flights)
- With the seat recline comes far more legroom
- Dedicated overhead bin space
- Free checked bags
- Full meals (described as “fine dining”), including alcohol
- Personalized service from a dedicated flight attendant
- A larger seat-back entertainment system screen
- In-seat power outlets
- Priority boarding access
- Delta Sky Club lounge access in many airports (Delta One)
American Airlines First Class Benefits
There is really nothing Delta offers to first class passengers that American does not. But American does have a few additional perks to note. They are expanding their “Five Star Service” as a first class benefit in additional airports beyond DFW. This service helps you get to the airport quicker through coordinated car service, offers priority check-in options, and grants you lounge access. American also offers more loyalty points per dollar spent for first class ticket purchase, although this difference is negligible.
United First Class Benefits
United’s international first class product is arguably better than that of its rivals. United offers essentially all of the pers Delta and American offer, but its United Polaris premium cabin experience includes a few additional unique features such as:
- Access to United Polaris Lounges, which offer full meals, showers, and enhanced relaxation options
- Polaris Suites in-flight that offer enhanced privacy and lie-flat beds (United has also done a quicker job of rolling out its Polaris experience to more planes than Delta has with its Delta One product, meaning that you’re more likely at this point to find Polaris on a United flight than you are to find a Delta One cabin on a Delta flight).
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It’s important to realize that first class benefits all come with a price, even if you are using loyalty points to book the flight. Booking an international trip in first class on points might be equivalent to 5 (or more) domestic flights booked on points. It’s always important to translate the cost from points to dollars to make an informed choice on how to pay.
For example, on a pre-pandemic trip to Asia on United, we upgraded to first class for just over $1,000 on the trip over. This was a better value than upgrading using points. But on the way back, the upgrade was going to cost over $3,000, and we declined to purchase it in either cash or points.
Ultimately, the optimal choice for first class travel depends on your personal preferences corresponding to price and experience.
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