What Flying First Class Is Really Like and How to Decide If It's Worth It

Here's what to expect if you're flying in first class on Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines.

Every time you board a plane, there they are: the flight's first-class passengers. While you were at the gate waiting for your group number to be called (and likely stressing about nabbing space in the overhead compartment), they were getting settled into their extra-large seats with dedicated carry-on space. And as you sulk past them toward your narrow seat in the back of the plane, they snuggle in under a complimentary blanket and sip Champagne.

That, you tell yourself, is what flying should be like.

But is the extra space and next-level service worth the pricey ticket? To explore that very question, we've pulled together what it looks like to fly in first class on various U.S. airlines, how flying in first class is different from traveling in business class and economy, and how the benefits change — in some cases, dramatically — when you book first class on a long-haul international flight versus a domestic one.

Benefits of Flying in First Class

First-class passengers enjoy several benefits before they even board the plane. For starters, they don't have to wait in the long economy check-in line, they get free checked bags, and they have an easier time going through security, as that first-class ticket may mean access to a different TSA line.

From there, they get to board the plane first, so they have time to stow their bags and settle in without a line of passengers crowding around. And, of course, on board, they often get extra legroom, a wider seat with a more exaggerated recline, a blanket and a pillow, a plush amenity kit, beverage service that includes alcohol, and better food (and more of it).

Flying First Class on Delta Air Lines

Delta One Suite
Courtesy of Delta

Delta Air Lines has six onboard experiences: Delta One, Premium Select, First Class, Comfort+, Main Cabin, and Basic Economy, but some offerings and cabins are only available on certain routes. For example, the ultra-luxe Delta One cabin — which has lie-flat seats, lip balm and hand cream by Grown Alchemist, and sleep amenities like an oversized duvet and a comfy down-alternative pillow — is only available on long-haul international flights and select long-haul domestic flights.

Pre-flight Service: Those flying in first class with Delta get Sky Priority service from the moment they enter the airport. That translates to accelerated check-in, security, and baggage handling, plus early boarding.

Baggage: Up to two free checked bags.

Seating: Up to eight inches of extra legroom and up to 5.4 inches of seat recline.

In-flight Service: A dedicated first-class cabin flight attendant and complimentary drinks and a snack. Those flying more than 900 miles can expect to receive a first-class meal box; passengers traveling between 900 and 2,399 miles receive a chef-curated meal and snacks, while flights over 2,300 miles include a full meal service with snacks and several entrées to choose from.

Flying First Class on United Airlines

United Polaris seat
Courtesy of United Airlines

On flights within the U.S., United Airlines' highest level of service is United First, but on flights from the U.S. to Latin America or the Caribbean (and some U.S. transcontinental flights) United Business is the first-class equivalent. Meanwhile, United Polaris provides the airline's ultimate flight experience — think lie-flat seats, Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, and slippers.

Pre-flight Service: With United, first-class passengers can use the quicker, shorter Premier Access lines to speed up the check-in, security, and boarding processes.

Baggage: Up to two free checked bags with priority baggage handling, meaning your suitcases get special attention and will be among the first to arrive at baggage claim.

Seating: In United's first-class cabin, expect the most legroom possible, and with United Polaris, get ready for fully reclining seats that convert to a flat six-foot, six-inch bed.

In-flight Service: Beer, wine, and spirits (including a rotating craft beer selection) and access to DirecTV and United Private Screening, for all the latest movies and TV shows.

Flying First Class on American Airlines

Courtesy of American Airlines

Like on United, on American Airlines, the first-class designation marks the highest level on flights around the U.S., while business class is the highest level on shorter international routes, including Bermuda and Canada. On some long-distance flights (both domestic and international), passengers have the option to book seats in Flagship First or Flagship Business classes, which make up the brand's most luxurious product — think lie-flat seats, access to the Flagship Lounge, and a sleep amenity set from Casper.

Airbus A321T First Class Amenities
Courtesy of American Airlines

Pre-flight Service: Those booking a first-class ticket with American will be granted priority access through the airport's most congested areas, from check-in to security to the gate.

Baggage: Up to three free checked bags, depending on the flight.

Seating: In American's first-class cabins, seats are wider and recline farther, although the exact increase varies by flight and aircraft layout.

In-flight Service: In first class, passengers will enjoy menus curated by premier chefs — such as chef and registered dietitian nutritionist Ellie Krieger, who focuses on healthy dishes, and Sam Choy, creator of Pacific Rim cuisine — thanks to the airline's partnership with the James Beard Foundation, along with extra snacks and a beverage service that includes alcohol.

Flying First Class Versus Business Class

Courtesy of American Airlines

On some airlines, like United and American, first-class fares offer the highest level of service on flights across the U.S., while business class provides the highest level of service on shorter-distance international routes (such as those heading to the Caribbean). If a plane has both cabin types, flying business class is typically a step down from flying first class.

Keep in mind that some airlines have a premium economy category (think Delta's Delta Comfort+), which tends to fall between economy and business or first class. A premium economy booking may have extra legroom, better meal service, and an increased bag allowance, but the perks can vary.

Flying First Class on Long-haul International Flights

Traveler using First Class lie-flat seat
Courtesy of American Airlines

Want the ultimate first-class experience? Save up and book a first-class ticket on a long-haul international flight (or in some cases, a U.S. transcontinental flight). It's on these long routes that you'll find that dreamy elevated flight experience.

While almost all airlines offer lie-flat seats and thoughtful sleep amenities, some of them truly excel at taking things to the next level. First class on Emirates' A380 and Boeing 777 planes, for instance, means flying in a fully enclosed suite with a full bed, an onboard shower, and a first-class bar and lounge. Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways, and Air France are all known for their respective first-class service and amenities.

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