Whether you have the funds (or the points) to upgrade your seat, is it really worth breaking the piggy bank to turn left on the plane?
From late 2025, Australia’s national airline Qantas will be flying intrepid travellers direct from Sydney and Melbourne to New York City and London.
These ultra-long-haul flights will be some of the longest commercial routes in the world, with the direct Sydney-to-London flight expected to clock in at around 20 hours.
There are plenty of benefits of a direct flight, but flying non-stop for almost a day can present its own challenges – comfort being the biggest concern.
If you’re planning a big flight – and you’ve got the money – here’s what you need to know about flying first class.
What to expect when you turn left
Mark Chaskiel, joint Managing Director and CEO of luxury travel advisor group, FBI Travel, says that flying first class ensures that “everything is maxed – your comfort level, your service level, your quality of food.”
Depending on your carrier, a first-class ticket will often get you a private onboard suite, chef-designed meals, a flat-lying bed, entertainment booth and a lot more space – more than in business and well more than in economy or premium economy.
Even before you board, first class passengers have access to special lounges in the airport. When flying out of Sydney or Melbourne, with Qantas for example, first-class passenger lounges feature a menu by Neil Perry, sommeliers, private workspaces and even spa treatments.
That doesn’t mean that all first, or even business, class tickets are the same.
“Pre-COVID, [first class] was quite a competitive place. With the recovery, we’re finding that there are not all that many airlines yet with first class,” Chaskiel says.
He notes that Emirates is currently leading the pack with first class offerings. A first-class ticket with the flag-carrying airline even provides access to a spacious onboard shower.
First or business class – what’s the difference?
First and business class tickets were once worlds apart, but the gap is closing.
“I always used to say to people, the difference between businesses and first is almost like the difference between economy and business,” Chaskiel says. “That’s become a little bit blurry lately.”
It all depends on the carrier.
A business class ticket with one airline might be as good as a first class ticket with another. Qatar Airways for example, hosts business class guests in the plush Qsuite, giving each passenger a private booth with plenty of space and a lie-flat bed – an experience comparable in many ways to a first class ticket on other airlines.
Otherwise, on a flight offering both business and first class you can generally expect the first-class seats to have the most space and the most attentive service.
If you’ve got the money to splash out for business, Chaskiel notes you may wish to consider upgrading to first class.
“Because business class fares have become so high, in some cases, the gap between first and business is actually not bad.”
How to score an upgrade
There’s some sobering news for those hoping to get bumped up from economy. “I definitely wouldn’t count on it,” says Chaskiel. “There’s a huge shortage of first and business class seats at the moment. So even if you’re a premium traveller in a frequent flyer program… chances of an upgrade are almost impossible because the flights are full.”
Pre-pandemic, airline loyalty systems or points programs were key to scoring an upgrade. While they’re (for the moment) not as powerful as they once were, you can still put those frequent flyer miles to good use if you’re strategic.
He also suggests you choose your airline wisely, given many are still operating at reduced capacity.
“Not every airline is still fully operational. So, you’ll see flights that might be scheduled to operate, but they’re not yet operating.”
“My best advice is work with the airlines that are working now.”
First class tastes on an economy budget
While many of us are reluctant to spend our savings on an upgrade, there are ways you can improve your in-flight experience, even in ‘cattle class’.
If you’re flying economy for a long-haul flight, Chaskiel suggests dressing comfortably, drinking plenty of water (airplane cabins are notorious for dehydrating passengers), getting up to stretch regularly and investing in a good neck pillow.
Paying a little extra for a better seat is also one way to improve your comfort, even if you can’t shell out for business or first class.
“Even in economy now, airlines let you pre-pay or pre-purchase a better seat,” says Chaskiel. “So, if you don’t enough money for first or business but you do want to be a little bit more comfortable then pre-pay you seat assignment.”