What Are the Differences Between Travel Classes on Airline Flights?

Air Travel 101: What Are the Differences Between Travel Classes on Airline Flights?

While there are differences in the kind of service provided between various airlines, the two factors that generally have the largest impact on what kind of service you will receive onboard your flight are the flight’s distance and the class of service you book.

In this article, I’ll take a brief look at the four classes that can be most commonly found onboard airliners. Before jumping into the details of what you can expect when flying each of the travel classes, though, here’s a quick overview of them:

  • Economy class: The cheapest class offering standard seats and limited meal service mainly dependent on flight’s length.
  • Premium economy class: Service largely similar to economy class, but with a considerably larger seat.
  • Business class: Better meals and seats, though both of those largely depend on the airline you fly. On intra-European flights, you will generally get the same seat as in economy class.
  • First class: On decline, larger seat than in business class. Much more personalized service because of the small number of passengers in the cabin.

 

The Four Common Classes of Travel

As mentioned above, there are four classes of travel you can find on airline flights all over the world: economy, premium economy, business, and first.

While more and more airlines are adding premium economy class to their aircraft’s cabins, first class is on decline due to, among other things, the fact that business class is improving and resembling what first class looked like just a decade or two ago.

Also, while economy and business classes can be found on most short (excluding low-cost) and long-haul flights, premium economy and first class are something found almost exclusively on long-haul flights (and domestic flights within the US in case of first class).

 

Economy Class

Let’s start with the most basic of the classes and the one that most of us opt for when flying for one reason or another, economy class.

This class can be found on the vast majority of airline flights excluding the very few premium class only flights such as British Airways’ all business-class flight between London City and New York JFK airport.

Economy Class Seats

When it comes to economy class seats, there is not much to talk about.

Generally, they have around 30″ of seat pitch and can recline a couple of inches. That said, some low-cost airlines like Ryanair (and even legacy carriers like British Airways) have short-haul economy class seats that don’t recline at all.

Economy Class Short-Haul Seat
Typical short-haul economy class seats.

On long-haul planes, it is also common to find an in-flight entertainment screen (although smaller than in the more premium classes) in front of you that you can use to watch movies among other things and a USB port you can use to charge your cellphone.

Also, luckily for those of us that travel with a laptop, more and more airlines are starting to offer power outlets even in economy class.

Economy Class Long-Haul Cabin
Typical long-haul economy class cabin.

Economy Class In-Flight Service

If you are flying with a low-cost airline such as easyJet, AirAsia X or Scoot, you will have to pay for any food or drinks you might want to consume onboard the flight – whether you are on a 2-hour hop across Europe or a 10-hour intercontinental flight.

With a traditional airline like Lufthansa or Japan Airlines, you will generally get free drinks and a snack on a short-haul flight (although some airlines are traditional airlines adopting the buy-on-board model), and a meal (or two) served on a single tray on a long-haul flight.

Economy Class Meal
Typical economy class meal.

Additionally, on long-haul flights, some airlines also provide simple amenity kits, tooth brushes, and so on even in economy class.

Economy Class Ground Service

As far as ground service is concerned, unless you have an airline status, Priority Pass membership, or similar, there is nothing noteworthy. You will have to wait in (sometimes long) economy class lines, and you will have no lounge access.

 

Premium Economy Class

If you want a bit more space – or if your employer doesn’t allow business class travel – then you should look at premium economy class. This class of travel is on the rise, and is generally only available on medium and long-haul flights.

When booking with your own money, make sure to also check business class prices. Sometimes premium economy class tickets can get as expensive as(or even more expensive than) discounted business class tickets!

Premium Economy Class Seats

The most significant improvement in premium economy class as compared to economy class is the space available to each passenger.

Generally, the seat will be a couple of inches wider and will recline a couple of inches more than an economy class seat. More than that, though, what matters is that you will get about 38″ to 40″ of seat pitch which might not sound like a lot but is a considerable improvement in comfort over standard economy class.

Premium Economy Class Seat
Typical premium economy class seats.

Aside from that, power ports are a standard feature in premium economy class, and so are leg and foot rests.

One thing to be careful about, though, is that with some airlines – mostly the US ones – premium economy class means a standard economy class seat with a slightly better leg room (and perhaps free champagne).

Premium Economy Class In-Flight Service

If you are considering buying a premium economy class flight for the service you will receive onboard, it might be time to reconsider.

Unfortunately, in most cases, the meal you will receive in premium economy class will be roughly the same as in economy class. Depending on the airline, the difference in the meal service might be that in premium economy the meal will be served in glassware. Or, that you will be served a welcome drink before departure.

Premium Economy Class Meal
Lufthansa premium economy class meal.

You might also receive an amenity kit that you either would not receive in economy class or that is marginally better than the one offered in economy class.

Premium Economy Class Ground Service

While some airlines will not offer many perks in terms of ground service to their premium economy class passengers, others – such as Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Air New Zealand – provide access to priority queues and priority luggage handling.

Similarly, some airlines like Lufthansa allow premium economy class passengers to pay an additional fee to access airport lounges, and very few airlines such as JAL even offer complimentary lounge access to their premium economy class ticket holders.

 

Business Class

Once you fly business class on a long-haul flight, you will think of that experience every time you will board an long-haul economy class flight.

That said, not all business classes are the same.

The amenities and service you receive will not only vary greatly based on the length of the route you fly, but also on the airline – and even on the airline’s aircraft type.

So, what can you expect in business class?

Business Class Seats

Perhaps the number one reason people go for business class as opposed to economy or premium economy is, once again, the space. The space that allows them to lie down and arrive at a destination well-rested.

And, on major carriers on long-haul (and some medium-haul) flights, that’s what you can expect.

Nowadays, it is standard for airlines to offer lie-flat, or at least angle-flat, seats on long-haul flights. It is also becoming more and more common for all seats to offer direct aisle access. In other words, seats that allow you to get out of even a window seat without having to climb over the passenger next to you.

JAL Apex Suite Business Class Seat
One of the best business class seats out there – Apex Suite.

That said, there are still some airlines that – even in long-haul business class – offer “just” recliners similar to what you would get in premium economy class on other carriers. Or configurations with middle seats where you have to climb over your fellow passenger to get to the restroom in the middle of the night…

As for short-haul flights, Europe is the rock bottom. In Europe, what you get in most cases is just an economy class seat with the middle seat in a row of three blocked for “more comfort.” In other regions, you can expect recliners similar to international premium economy class.

Business Class Seats
Typical short-haul business class seats outside of Europe.

Business Class In-Flight Service

Just like with the seats, there is a significant difference in what you can expect in business class in terms of in-flight service as compared to both standard and premium economy classes.

That said, on shorter flights, you will generally get a meal on a single tray that might be similar to what you would get in premium economy on a long-haul flight.

On long-haul flights departing during lunch or dinner time, you will be able to enjoy a multi-course meal, or even two. On redeye flights, the service might be shortened and served on a single tray to give you more time to sleep.

Qatar Airways Business Class Meal
Qatar Airways business class meal.

Separately from the above, you will also likely be served a pre-flight drink from a selection that might include champagne on top of soft drinks. Similarly, your selection of drinks in-flight – especially when it comes to liquor and wine – will be better than in economy and premium economy class.

Business Class Ground Service

With a business class ticket, you will be able to save time by having access to priority check-in queues and by your baggage getting a “priority tag” which (at the very least in theory) means that your bag will be one of the first ones to be unloaded off the aircraft and placed on the baggage claim belt.

Priority Boarding Queue
Priority boarding queue.

Separately from that, with some airlines at selected airports – such as with British Airways at London Heathrow or Thai Airways at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi – you will also be able to use dedicated immigration and security lanes which should shave some more minutes off your “wasted time.”

On top of saving time, you will be able to spend the time you have to wait for your flight in more comfort than most economy and premium economy class passengers – in a business class lounge.

Business Class Lounge
ANA business class lounge.

Even though the quality of those varies greatly, you will generally find free food and drinks, relatively comfortable seating, and even showers in them.

 

First Class

Finally, first class. The class we aspire to fly but almost never, if at all, get to. Given the fact that the service gap between first class and business class is closing, more and more airlines are discontinuing it – or only keeping it on selected few exclusive routes.

When talking about first class below, I am excluding domestic (and regional) first class in the United States and some other countries which resembles short-haul business class as described in the section above.

First Class Seats

Just like with business class, the quality of first class seats varies with some airlines like Singapore Airlines and Emirates offering large private suites on some of their aircraft and others offering seats that are not much different from other airlines’ business class.

In either case, though, the space that you will have in first class on a major carrier including the above two and the likes of Cathay Pacific or Lufthansa will be much larger than what you would get in business class.

Cathay Pacific First Class Seat
Cathay Pacific first class seat.

Simply said, while in business class, lie-flat seats tend to either be staggered with the seat in front in one way or another (like on ANA or Asiana Airlines) or narrow (like the Apex Suites), in first class, you will have plenty of space to stretch without having to put your feet under the seat in front of you.

First Class In-Flight Service

The “soft product,” or service, is where business class differs from business class the most.

While on long-haul aircraft, it is not unusual to find thirty or forty business class seats, the number of first class seats – if available at all – is usually much lower. As such, the service that each passenger receives is much more “personalized.”

Besides that, the drink selection is usually better than in business class, and the meals offered tend to be more extensive – and oftentimes feature caviar which is, in a way, a “symbol” of first class.

First Class Ground Service

First class passengers, just like business class passengers, receive their own dedicated check-in (and oftentimes also security check) lines. Given the lower number of passengers overall, they can save even more time than when using business class lines. (That said, sometimes they are the same.)

When flying first class, you can also access lounges. Sometimes the lounge will be the same as the one that business class passengers can access. That’s often the case at airports other than the airline’s hub.

Other times, you will be able to access much better first class lounges, though, which might offer a la carte dining, massages, or even hotel-like sleeping rooms.

Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge
Cathay Pacific first class lounge.

Separately from all of the above, some airlines also offer airport transfers to their first class (and sometimes business class) passengers.

 

Summary

When it comes to travel classes, in general, the rule of “the more expensive, the better” applies. That said, there are plenty of ways to fly business or first class relatively cheaply – at least on a one-off basis.

Personally, I think that on most flights the class of travel doesn’t matter since the key is to get from point A to point B. And, while I sometimes fly business class (and rarely first class) using miles, when I have to pay using my own money, I almost exclusively fly economy class.

In most cases, the class of travel will be determined by your budget. In some cases, though, it might be a company policy. In that case, if your company doesn’t allow business class, try getting a ride in at least premium economy!

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