The Main Differences Between Business Class vs. First Class — and Tips for Booking Each

Here's what to know about each premium cabin type — and how to book them.

If you're tired of the slog of flying in economy, it might be time for an upgrade. For a more enjoyable flight, booking a premium cabin — that is, business class, domestic first class, and international first class — provides vast improvements. But each of the cabins offers a fairly different experience, and it's important to know what to expect with each. Here's everything you need to know about the premium cabins available on planes today.

First Class on Airplane

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Business Class


  • Typically lie-flat or angled seats
  • Multicourse plated meal service
  • Priority check-in and boarding
  • Extra baggage allowance
  • Lounge access
  • Amenity kits


  • Business class seats, amenities, and services vary greatly per airline and aircraft
  • Usually a very expensive option
  • No complimentary upgrades

Business class is a premium cabin available on international long-haul flights. Seats are typically lie-flat or angled, not just recliners, offering far more space than in the economy or premium economy cabins. Service is elevated both in the air, from free alcohol to plated multicourse meals, and on the ground, from priority check-in and boarding to lounge access. But not all business-class cabins are created equal. Some more outdated products lack in seat comfort and privacy, while newer ones might include closed-door suite-style seats with extra space. Even within an airline, business-class cabins can vary greatly on different aircraft. Pricing is dramatically greater than economy, often thousands of dollars no matter the route.

Business Class on Boeing 787-10 Airplane

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Domestic First Class


  • More spacious and comfortable seats
  • Often served plated meals
  • Extra baggage allowance
  • Priority check-in and boarding
  • Complimentary upgrades for elite status holders
  • Not as expensive as business class or international first class


  • Typically no lie-flat seats
  • Lounge access is not guaranteed

Domestic first class is the top cabin on domestic flights and some short-haul international flights. On most airlines and aircraft, this means you'll sit in a recliner-style seat that offers more space and legroom than economy. Some transcontinental flights, however, may have business-class lie-flat seats, but this varies based on the airline and aircraft. On flights that are a few hours or longer, you'll be served plated hot meals, and on all flights, alcohol is complimentary. Before your flight, you'll receive priority check-in services (including extra baggage allowances), but you usually won't receive lounge access. You'll be one of the first groups to board your plane. The tickets cost more than economy, of course, but they're typically not as expensive as business-class fares — perhaps a few hundred up to a thousand dollars.

International First Class


  • The most privacy, with some seats being fully enclosed
  • Fine dining
  • Priority check-in and boarding
  • Extra baggage allowance
  • First class-only lounges at some airports; general lounge access at others
  • Amenity kits


  • Only available on certain airlines and aircraft
  • The most expensive option
  • No complimentary upgrades

International first class is the ultimate flying experience — it's the best cabin across the board on commercial aircraft, ranked above business class, and it has the price tag to match. Many airlines don't even offer an international first class; a few notable ones that do have the product include Singapore Airlines, Etihad, and Air France. What makes the cabin so exceptional is the space and privacy of each seat. On some airlines, first-class seats are private suites with closed doors. The dining experience is usually elevated beyond that of business class, with fine wines and over-the-top menu items. As with business class, you'll receive a number of perks on the ground, from priority check-in to exclusive lounge access — some airlines have special first-class lounges that are not accessible to frequent fliers or business-class travelers. And, of course, expect to board in one of the first groups. You'll find this type of first-class cabin on international long-haul flights only — and solely on certain routes on certain airlines.

How to Book Business Class, Domestic First Class, and International First Class

Business Class on Airplane

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You likely already know you can select any of these classes instead of the economy cabin when booking a flight. And you're probably also aware that you can use either cash or miles to purchase seats in business or first class.

But what you might not know is that on some airlines, you can ask if upgrades to business or first class are available at the check-in counter or transfer desk at the airport. You will not get a free upgrade, but you may get a reduced rate — say, a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand. The price is determined by the airline and varies based on route, capacity, and timing.

Some airlines also allow you to bid on upgrades to premium cabins. You may be able to enter the top amount you're willing to pay for an upgrade on your airline's website, or you might have to call in to enter your bid.

And for frequent fliers who achieve elite status on airlines, there are usually complimentary upgrades to domestic first class based on availability — you should request yours online or via your airline's app before the flight.

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