Every week in the 10xTravel Insider’s Facebook group, I post a thread for people to ask questions about award flights they are trying to book. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of common requests—I mean, who doesn’t want to go to Hawaii?

However, I want to talk about something even more basic than booking award flights. Today, we’re going to talk about class of service. Specifically, how to determine what you want. While the answer might seem obvious at first, airlines—especially American carriers— have done a nice job making this a little tricky.

The biggest point of confusion is often about what “first class” actually means depending on the flight. I’m going to touch on what you can expect with each class of service and touch on why you might choose business class over first class.

Before we dive into each, here’s how I would rank each class of service from luxury to merely the essentials:

  1. International first class
  2. International business class
  3. Premium economy
  4. Domestic first class
  5. Comfort+, Main Cabin Extra etc.
  6. Economy/Main Cabin
  7. Basic economy

International first class

The crème de la crème of air travel. When flying international first class, one of the biggest distinguishing factors is space. You generally just have a ton of space. This alone provides much more privacy but many airlines take it a step further by providing doors to your suite.

When it comes to food and drink, airlines aren’t screwing around. From Krug to Dom Perignon to high-end scotch, cognac and wine, your drink choices won’t disappoint. When it comes to food, the common refrain of how bad airline food tastes won’t really apply to you.

Singapore Airlines First Class, image courtesy of Singapore Air

You can also expect very nice amenity kits and comfy pajamas. Of course, first class flight crews also prepare your bed when you’re ready to sleep with a mattress and blanket to ensure maximum comfort.

Depending on the airline, you might even get to enjoy a shower in the sky or a ride in a Porsche from the first class lounge to your flight. Who doesn’t love door-to-door service?

Speaking of service, with so few passengers in the first class cabin, the experience is much more personal. Flight attendants sometimes even have time for a conversation.

Last but not least, the first class lounges. They are next level. If you happen to fly Lufthansa first class out of Frankfurt (FRA), not only will you enjoy an amazing first class lounge, but you’ll get to visit the First Class Terminal—yes, a terminal just for first class and top-level elites. Don’t worry, your Porsche will deliver you to your flight.

International business class

Your experience flying business class internationally and on some flights across the U.S. can vary quite a bit by airline. Some carriers operate business class cabins with a 2-2-2 layout (seats grouped in 2s), some have 2-3-2 layouts while United even has a 2-4-2 layout on some planes.

A marker of a good business class product, though, is a 1-2-1 cabin layout. This means that every person in business class has direct aisle access and won’t have to climb over anyone (or have anyone climb over them) to get to the restroom or take a walk.

Delta Business Class, courtesy of Delta

Additionally, you want to look for lie-flat seats for maximum comfort while sleeping. Many airlines provide lie-flats these days but you’ll still want to keep an eye out for angle-flat seats. An angle-flat might not ruin your flight, but you don’t want to be surprised.

The seat is really the pillar of business class, but you can also expect solid service, food and drink, and a bit more privacy.

You’ll also find that some carriers such as Qatar Airways and EVA Air put a great deal of emphasis on business class rather than first class. Qatar Airways only has a few planes with first class and EVA doesn’t have any.

Don’t worry, you’ll also have lounge access!

Premium economy

Image courtesy of Air France

Premium economy has really made some noise recently. It’s not as nice as business class, but you get a slightly wider seat with much more legroom than an economy seat.

You’ll find premium economy on some airlines such as Air France, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. U.S. carriers have started to roll out premium economy but it’s not on all flights. In fact, Delta only has premium economy on its Airbus A350s (and soon some Boeing 777s).

In addition to more legroom, you’ll also get a small upgrade on food and drink options including a pre-departure beverage. Some premium economy seats even come with an amenity kit!

Domestic first class

Image courtesy of Delta

This is the class of service that causes the most confusion. The seats at the front of the plane on flights within the U.S. are referred to as “first class”. The seats are often as wide or slightly wider than you’ll get in premium economy with comparable legroom or just a bit less.

Why do I rank it below premium economy? Sure, you might get a pre-departure beverage but it’s not always consistent. However, you can expect it with premium economy and you’ll even have a sparkling wine option.

Additionally, domestic first class falls short comparatively when it comes to food options and you won’t receive an amenity kit. This makes sense as domestic first class cabins are used on shorter flights, but it’s part of a larger picture.

Comfort+, Economy Plus, Main Cabin Extra

Do NOT get these confused for premium economy. If you’re flying Delta, United or American, you will see Comfort+, Economy Plus and Main Cabin Extra options, respectively. These seats are just the regular economy seats with a touch more legroom.

Sure, you get bumped up a boarding group so you won’t have to fight as hard for overhead space for your carry-on bag, but that and the couple inches of extra legroom are about all you’re going to get.

Economy/Main Cabin

The regular economy seat gets you where you’re going but they’ve been getting smaller and smaller. Don’t expect much comfort but it will get you where you want to go and you can often pick your seat in advance.

Domestic economy bookings often require you to pay for a checked bag.

Basic economy

Without a doubt, the worst of the bunch. A basic economy comes with little more than a spot on the plane. You can’t pick your seat when booking—a seat will be assigned to you at check-in. Additionally, some airlines won’t even allow you to bring more than a small bag that can fit under your seat.

So, business or first class?

So, which one is right for you?

If you have the points and miles to burn, an international first class flight might be just the experience you want—this is an over the top experience. Keep in mind that award space can be much harder to find which will require more flexibility on your part.

Besides, many airlines don’t even operate an international first class and business class is as good as it gets.

For those who want to enjoy a much more comfortable long-haul flight and/or want to book multiple seats, finding business class award space will be much easier.

So, when you’re thinking about what class of service you really want, remember what each experience actually provides.

If you’re flying domestically—or to Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, you’ll be looking at domestic first class, not international first class. Consider whether a seat that’s a little wider with a little more legroom is worth it. You might decide you want to save the points and miles so you can book an international business class seat.

Not to make things more confusing, but intra-European business class flights are often just economy seats with no one sitting next to you and there aren’t any domestic first class seats—though LOT Polish Airlines does. See?! Confusing.

If you are curious about what kind of seat to expect, you can check SeatGuru. It’s not a perfect resource but it’s a very good resource.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, airlines don’t make understanding what you’re getting as easy as they could. That’s okay, though. Whether you want top of the line luxury, a bed to make sleeping easier, more space to stretch our or just a seat to where you’re going, it’s not too hard to figure out once you understand the basics.

The vast majority of the time, I find what people want with a nicer inflight experience are the lie-flat seat, solid food and drink options and lounges access. For this reason, a business class award is just the ticket.

Whatever your seat preference, you can use this guide to make sure you get what you want out of the inflight experience.


See you in the sky!