Is booking business class for international flights and long haul flights really worth the money?
You’ve all seen the picture of someone sitting in a lavishly wide seat sipping champagne some 30,000 feet up in the air. Usually a white tablecloth, real porcelain, metal cutlery, and caviar complete the picture. It all looks fantastic, but is business class worth it?
I had the privilege of flying on renowned carriers like Qatar, Etihad, Emirates, and others multiple times. In this guide, I’m going to share the good, the bad, and the overrated with you.
Before I even start, I want you to know that not all business classes are alike. It’s an incredibly competitive market and most airlines adapt really quickly. Still, make sure to look up pictures/videos of your particular setup & connection before you book. Depending on the size of the aircraft, there are often different cabin configurations, etc.
So, make sure the flight you are booking actually has the setup you desire. Even in business class, some seats are better than others. Not all window seats actually have access to a window either, etc
Also, airport facilities might vary greatly. Make sure to check what you can expect in advance. The internet is a great place and you can google basically everything ;-)
The perks of flying business class
Let’s take a look at what you get for your money when booking a business class flight.
1. Bigger seats, often with a lay-flat option.
Let’s face it: The worst part of flying are those tiny seats where it’s virtually impossible to sleep or sit comfortably for longer periods of time. Most modern business class seats are both bigger and offer a much wider range of positions. Most coveted of them all is the lay-flat option.
While very tall passengers might have problems stretching completely nevertheless, it is the perfect place to have a nap on a long haul flight for the average person. They usually come with cozy blankets and cushions, and some airlines even provide a mattress to go underneath.
Quite a lot of seats even have a massage function and multiple storage options for the gadgets you might need during the flight (kindle, camera, books, etc).
There is usually also a nice side-table which is the perfect place to put drinks & small snacks while still enabling you to leave your seat. It sounds like a small feature, but if you think about it a little longer, then I’m sure you remember a time or two when you were balancing your tray table with your dinner leftovers precariously above yourself while trying to wiggle out of your seat to see the toilett.
2. Multi-Course meals and high-quality booze
Food in economy class is infamously bad. And how could it be good? Serving 200+ people with a warm meal 30,000 feet above the ground at the same time is no small feat. Things in business class are quite a bit different.
First of all, meals are served using real porcelain and glass, metal cutlery, and there’s usually a nice table cloth underneath. Then of course, your table is much bigger and there are usually three or four real courses which are served separately.
The biggest difference is perhaps that you get to decide which time you have your meals. Your flight attendant will ask you about your preferred meal times shortly after take-off (or often even before). This is really wonderful as sometimes you want to go to bed early, etc.
There’s also a wide range of high-quality spirits, wines, and french champagnes to complete each meal. In fact, you usually even get a welcome cocktail (non-alcoholic choices are available) before take-off and another after the seat-belt-signs have been turned off. Usually, there is even a selection of snacks you can order whenever you feel like it.
As for quality, it will usually be way better than in the economy and mostly it will look like real meals you could order at a restaurant. Don’t expect it to be Michelin-star quality. With very few exceptions, it will taste like the average restaurant around the corner.
There is one important thing I’d like to add. Due to the multi-course meals, the cocktails, etc, time passes way quicker. It’s quite an exciting experience.
Oh, and usually you will have one or two bottles of water waiting for you at the seat. So, even when things get really busy (or rough), you won’t be dying of thirst anytime soon.
3. Bigger entertainment system
In economy, you get a very small screen right in the headrest of the passenger in front of you. There are even some airlines/aircraft without any entertainment option in economy class (Ryanair, etc). In business class, you almost always get a huge screen that can range between 14″ and 22″ (older seats may have smaller ones, tho). Often, there will be proper noise-canceling headphones available, so your experience will be even better.
A lot of airlines also offer a remote-control with another smaller screen. A feature I love because you run the flight map on it.
The selection of the movies is, as far as I can tell, the same as in the economy class, though. But the bigger screen really is a game-changer, because movies don’t have to be altered to fit the tiny headrest screen.
Some airlines even offer a limited free wifi-access for all business class passengers. Personally, I never use it, but I’m sure a lot of people appreciate it. Just don’t expect it to allow you to stream your favorite series on Netflix ;-)
4. Free amenity kit
Long haul flights can take 10 or even 14 hours. You eat, you drink, and you sleep. That’s why you get a lovely amenity kit in business class. Even though the quality varies greatly between the different airlines, there will always be a toothbrush available you can use after the meals. Socks, earplugs, and a sleeping mask are always included as well.
There is often a moisturizer (remember the cabin is really dry and your skin will thank you for using it), lip balm and sometimes even add a moisturizing spray to their kit. An Eau de toilett is usually also included, and in the bathroom, you will find one-way shavers.
In short, all the basic amenities you need on a flight. Sometimes, you also get a pajama, though a lot of airlines have stopped this service even on their long-haul night flights.
5. Way better service
In economy class, you usually will have to wait around an hour after boarding until you get your first drink. The speed of the foodservice will depend on where you sit and special requests will take ages. But 4-6 flight attendants serving 200 passengers can only do so much, eh? In business class, one attendant usually is responsible for 6-10 passengers. Big difference, eh?
So, no matter your request, it will be met within seconds. Mind you, because they have to prepare and serve each course separately, they will be quite busy anyway. Drink orders need to be delivered, seats have to be turned into beds, etc – I always feel like business class flight attendants have the more stressful job.
But I also have to note that they are usually much friendlier and more welcoming than their counterparts in the economy class. This is by design because they are schooled in a way to accommodate premium passengers and you should feel like a king or queen while onboard, eh?
(Note: This is not to say flight attendants working in economy class are rude or anything. But as they need to serve so many passengers, they don’t have the time to explain the seat function or the flight plan to each guest individually.)
6. You leave the aircraft before the rest
You’ve probably experienced this before. As soon as the aircraft hits the runaway, everyone will try to stand up and remove their bags from the overhead compartment. And then they wait for another 10-15 minutes until they can finally leave the aircraft.
Well, part of this delay is the fact that business and first-class passengers get to disembark first. It’s just 5 minutes, but that small difference can sometimes be really helpful at immigration, etc.
Note: You also get to board first, which I never do.
7. Bags arrive first at the baggage claim
Your check-in luggage will get a priority tag. That means it will arrive at the baggage claim before the bags and suitcases from the economy passengers. It’s just a small benefit, but it still means you will probably leave the airport 15 to 30 minutes earlier than those flying coach.
8. There are impressive lounges
Almost all airports have big lounges that cater exclusively to their business class guests (there will usually be separate lounges for first-class passengers). Think of it as a big buffet restaurant with comfortable lounge chairs in between and free wifi.
Some few lounges will even have a spa and shower opportunities, while fewer yet offer cabins with beds where you can actually take a nap.
If you have a longer layover (3-6 hours), these lounges can be invaluable. While most airports offer public lounge areas as well, these are often very crowded and the chairs less comfortable than you would wish them to be.
Very few business class lounges are truly spectacular, but they are almost always a nice and quiet place to while away the time before departure or during layovers. Also, they can be quite busy – especially during airport rush hours. So, don’t expect a quiet haven of tranquility.
9. Separate check-in counter & priority lanes
Most people will arrive at the airport around +/- 2 hours before their departure. You do it, I do it, everyone does it. The result: There are usually big queues at the check-in counters. In almost all cases there is a separate counter for business class passengers.
This speeds up the whole process tremendously and you can spend the remainder of the time sitting in a lounge sipping a cocktail and not waiting endlessly in a queue that feels like it’s not moving at all.
There are usually separate lanes for security checks and immigration as well.
10. You are allowed to bring 2 bags to the cabin
A lot of my esteemed fellow travelers love to travel hand luggage only. And I admit, not waiting at the baggage claim does have its merits. In business class, you are usually allowed to bring 2 bags (each 8kg) + one handbag. Even if it’s your first time not checking in any luggage, I’m sure you’ll have no problem making it work.
Usually, the check-in luggage limit is twice as high as well (but I feel that is really not a big benefit as few travelers will travel with 40kg or more).
What speaks against booking business class
1. Your sitting in the same loud aircraft
The idea behind booking business class is arriving at your destination all relaxed because you had nice food and were able to sleep perfectly. But here is the truth: The biggest stress factor on an aircraft is the loud noise, the dry air, and the high cabin pressure.
And these will be more or less the same if you are sitting in the front or the back. So, after 10 hours in business class, you’ll still feel groggy – even though a lot of ads want to sell you a different story. You feel much better than in economy class, sure. But it’s a far cry from visiting a spa for the same amount of time ;-)
I talk about this extensively in my guide on how to survive a long haul flight like a pro.
Note: The very back of an aircraft is usually the loudest part. But at the same time, it’s quieter because sitting in the last row means you don’t have 10 rows making noise behind you.
2. It’s very expensive
The average business class seat is 4-5 times more expensive than its equivalent in economy class. So, a trip from central Europe to Bali on a premium-carrier might cost 800$ in economy class and 2,400$ in business class.
While you will get quite a lot for your money, you still have to consider if it is really worth spending the average monthly disposable income of a family on sitting comparably comfortable for 10 hours. If you can afford it and don’t mind the money, then sure, go ahead.
But let’s suppose your trip is 2 weeks. You could use the same money (1,600$) to upgrade your hotel. Spending 100 Dollar+ per night on your hotel will make a major difference. If you had a hotel that is 100 a night before, then that extra 100 USD would get you into the top 5-star category or lets you book the extra big suite.
Sitting comfortably for 10 hours or having the super-luxury suite for 2 weeks? I hope I don’t need to tell you where your money is better invested. Here are 30 other common travel mistakes.
3. Points are still money!
Now, a lot of people use points to pay for their upgrades. Fair enough. There are tons of websites that show you how. What almost none of them will show you are the hidden fees – after all, most of these websites make big bucks on selling your credit cards (there’s usually an affiliate deal, etc).
Credit Cards don’t come for free. Depending on the card, you do have to pay a yearly fee, you do have to pay interest, etc. The airlines don’t give away those upgrades for free. Somebody has to pay for them. And that someone is either you or your neighbor who forget to redeem their miles.
Even when and if the equation makes sense and you were really smart about getting all those points, I want you to look at my previous argument. You could also use these points to upgrade your hotel (or even book it). And often, it will be a much better choice to enhance the overall experience of your trip.
Note: Almost all airlines have a loyalty program. I am not really talking about them here, because the average tourists won’t amass enough miles to afford an upgrade.
3. Priority lanes are often not faster
Immigration or security check – who doesn’t hate lining up there. In some countries, it can take hours to pass these. Often, you see a separate lane for business and first-class passengers to the side.
But speaking from personal experience, these lines are not always faster. Why? Well, the 20 economy lines serve a whole airport and things really average out. However, when one plane lands, those 40 business class passengers will all line up at that single queue.
The separate check-in counter really makes a difference, though! As a lot of modern airports have self-service check-in, the advantage is often not that great.
4. Priority boarding is an interesting concept at best
“We invite all business and first-class passengers as well as all status-holders to now board the aircraft. Boarding for all other passengers will commence shortly.“.
I’m not sure there is a single sentence in our modern society that imprints the difference between the privileged and “the cattle” in a more drastic way. You see the high and mighty parading right past the very line you have been waiting for the past 20 minutes. Ugh!
But here’s the reality: The average seat at the gate is still bigger and has more leg-room than any business class seat. Other than sipping your welcome drink, there’s really no need to board the confines of a plane a second earlier than you absolutely must.
If you ask me, then I’d do it the other way round and let business class passengers have the privilege of boarding last. But that’s just my two cents.
5. The high cabin pressure messes with your taste buds
When you see pictures of people sipping Dom Perignon and eating caviar on a plane, it really feels like the epitome of luxury. But you know what? I always laugh at the people who do it.
Ever wondered why airline food tastes so horrible? Preparing cheap meals for so many guests in a short time in a tiny kitchen is one part. The other part is actually the fact that your taste buds don’t work properly at 30,000 feet in the air.
That heavily salted caviar (you can tell when it’s all black and not glossy brown) has little to do with the product gourmands spend a fortune on. And tasting the delicate nuances of vintage champagne is equally as impossible. If that’s what you want: save the money and buy the real deal once you hit the ground.
Besides, I’ve had some pretty horrible food in business class as well.
6. Not all lounges were created equal
Lounges are another eyewash product. Most bigger airports have excellent cafés and restaurants, and you might as well buy some food or drinks there. Because you know what? Most lounges are nothing but a big restaurant with some comfortable chairs and a bigger toilett. With very few exceptions, it’s not a mystical paradise.
Also, they are often super crowded and if you are a group of 4, I often find it hard to find a seat next to each other. Sure, free drinks and food sound amazing – but the quality is usually rather mediocre and not even as good as at the average airport restaurant.
Please consider, that you will get a multi-course meal on the plane as well, and often you won’t be hungry when you enter the lounge anyways. Also, some lounges are at the other end of the airport and you end up walking to and fro for miles.
Note: Some few lounges feature spas or sleeping cabins. Those two things really make a big difference. An all-you-can-eat buffet doesn’t, in my opinion. Also, if you have really long layovers (say 4hours plus) they are awesome.
7. Most amenity kits are fairly cheap
The average business class amenity kit contains socks, earplugs, a moisturizer, a toothbrush, a sleeping mask, and often a little Eau de toilett by some sponsoring premium brand. While they are certainly nice to have, it will cost you 20$ max to replicate that kit yourself at your local drug store.
Now, it’s totally up to you if you feel like spending that money on a vanity. But what I am really saying is: No need to spend thousands of dollars to get that amenity kit. I personally always carry my own (even when flying business class), as I want to use the same brands on the flights I am using at home.
Also, most airlines distribute a smaller version of the amenity kit even in economy class for long haul flights. The difference is marginal at best.
8. Leaving the plane earlier is not as advantageous as you’d think
I personally hate to spend any second longer on an airplane than I absolutely must. So being able to leave my seat as early as possible really appeals to me.
In bigger airports, there will be a queue at the security check /immigration anyway – no matter when you leave an aircraft (there’s an arrival every 2-5 minutes, so go figure). So, in reality, you really don’t save that much time.
At the baggage claim, it’s the same. I usually see the first economy class guests arriving at the conveyor belt. Me sitting there waiting for my luggage 5 minutes earlier is a minor benefit at best.
If you are traveling without checked-in bags, this can be a big time-saver, though.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to downplay the advantages of business class. But there’s one general theme I see on almost all websites that review airlines: These people are aviation geeks and/or people who like to sell you expensive credit cards.
For them, the flight is the highlight of the trip and they’ll gladly pick a different airline and catch a connecting flight in Timbuktu if that means they can fly business or first-class. For most tourists, however, the flight is just a means to an end – a necessary evil, if you’d like.
Other benefits in business class
Some differences between business class vs economy depend on your personal preferences. My mother is quite short and slender, and she always says that she really doesn’t need the extra legroom in business class. So, here are some further things to consider:
1. Bigger bodies
No matter if you 6 1/2 feet tall or have a little extra around the hips, economy seats will probably make you feel claustrophobic. In these cases, the upgrade is more than worth the money, because it turns a possibly horrible experience into a bearable one.
2. Special medical conditions
I have very low blood pressure. It runs in the family, and the doctor says there is little to worry about. Still, I actually get faint very quickly and those lay-flat seats help a lot. In an economy seat, there is virtually no way to bring yourself into a position that prevents you from losing consciousness (in case you are interested, I only recently lost consciousness on a flight from Delhi to Abu Dhabi).
Now, that is my personal story, but there are many other physical or mental conditions were having more room, better service and easier accessibility will pay off. My dad, who just turned 60, only travels business class these days because he says the rest is just too big of a toll on his body.
3. Traveling with infants
Most mothers even shudder when thinking about flying internationally with their infants. But sometimes it cannot be avoided. Then and there the extra privacy you get in business class can be invaluable. It’s a lot less stress for the baby as well. They can usually provide special baby cradles for take-off and landing, and then you’ll be easy to accommodate the little one in your seat.
Also, while I personally don’t believe breastfeeding in public is a big deal and the most normal thing ever, most mothers will agree they could think of better places to do so than with 100 bored people around them.
Setting that aside, finding a safe place for your toddler on a plane (there are turbulences after all!) is not all that easy. So, business class will certainly add some extra security. But if you can’t afford it, here is a post to taking a car seat on a plane and what you need to look out for.
Business class vs first class
The good news ahead: A lot of airlines are actually in the process of dropping their first-class products. Starting with the beautiful Qsuites by Qatar airways, you will find a lot of aircraft with amazing seats with privacy shields, etc. in their business class.
The old first-class of a lot of airlines is actually sometimes worse than some newer business class products of more forward-thinking airlines (e.g. I feel that Lufthansa First Class is not as good as the Qsuites, etc.).
As this guide is already very long, I don’t want to add too much here. The main difference between business class and first-class is the size of the seats and the quality of the food. There will often be a dedicated chef who will prepare your orders à la minute, and they don’t serve caviar or truffles in business class either.
In most cases, first-class lounges are separated from their business class equivalent. Again, they are more spacious, offer better food and drinks, etc.
These days, there is a huge gap between economy class and business class, but the gap to first-class is actually quite a bit smaller. Of course, I wouldn’t say no to a real double bed in the sky or a bathroom where you can actually take a shower. But these are all non-essential perks, while the ability to actually lay-flat to sleep is vital. If you get my meaning.
The final verdict: Is business class worth it?
Most business-class products are quite spectacular and well-refined. The service is usually spotless and it really does feel a bit like spending some time in a resort rather than on a plane. Believe it or not, but time flies past so much faster in business class vs economy class. You really get an excellent value.
At the same time, there is no denying the high price tag. This is why I’d say booking business class is not worth it for the average and reasonably fit traveler. The premium is much better spent on hotel upgrades or experience at your destination. In the end, it’s a super-luxury product and if you don’t belong to the super privileged, then it’s probably not for you.
There are multiple ways to make a business class flight more affordable (loyalty miles, credit card points, special offers, etc). But, again, you could use the same energy and time to upgrade your hotels or go on two vacations instead of only one per year, etc.
In the end, it also boils down to priorities. Some people are real aviation geeks and others couldn’t care less about the quality of their amenity kit or if their seat has a massage function. In the end, it boils down to sitting comfortably for 8 hours or not.
For short flights (under 4 hours) I personally feel booking business class is a waste. Most aircraft on these connections don’t have the big lay-flat seats and the food service is also often a bit more limited. Sometimes, it’s even the same seats with just the middle seat empty. It’s up to you, but I personally wouldn’t pay a premium for these minimal upgrades of your comfort.
Just wanted to say thanks! I’ve been upgraded to business once flying from Baltimore to Oslo and it was lovely. Now I’m looking at Denver to Edinburgh and remembering how exhausted I was on a flight in economy from San Francisco to London and dreaming of getting some rest in business. But the prices are seriously hefty, and while I could swing it, it’s probably smarter just to get some rest asap after arrival and then enjoy everything we can on our trip.
Also, an extra thank you for the courtesy to nursing mothers having been one in the past!