Should I fly first (or business) class?

Recently, we traveled to Canada with my parents as a group of four. We all flew to Japan, taking a transpacific cruise with stops in Hokkaido, Alaska and Canada. There, we finished with 2.5 weeks visiting breathtaking national parks. Including all flights, meals, accommodation, and car hire, our total cost per person for the entire trip was less than a couple of our friends spent on just their plane tickets to Canada.

Why?

They flew business class.

Traditional airlines make their money on the premium cabins (first and business class). Not economy tickets.

Say a plane has 122 economy seats. As Wendover Productions explains, on a flight where the economy ticket is $876, if every economy seat is filled, that’s $106,872.

If the premium economy ticket is $2,633, the just 40 seats in this much smaller section of the plane is worth almost the same – $105,320.

If the business class ticket is $6,732, the 48 seats in this section of the plane – which takes up about the same amount of room as the entirety of economy since it’s more spacious – are worth a whopping $322,704.

And the 14 first class seats, sold at $8,715 each – those measly 14 seats are also worth more than the entire 122 in economy – $122,010.

A single first class passenger is ‘worth’ to the airline almost ten times as much as an economy passenger.

As Wendover Productions points out, the 102 passengers seated in premium economy, business, and first class pay $550,034, compared to the $106,872 paid by the 122 in economy. Forty percent of the passengers pay for 84% of the total takings.

Imagine what you can do with that extra money.

I’ve previously posted about how we travel on less than US$50 a day.

If you opted for a $876 economy ticket instead of a $8,715 first class ticket, you’ll have $7,229 to spend on accommodation, food, activities and souvenirs.

At $50 per day, that’s 146 days – or close to five months’ worth of expenses.

If you opt for a $876 economy ticket instead of a $6,732 business class ticket, you’ll have $5,856 left over. At $50 per day, that’s almost four months’ worth of expenses.

And even if you’re just considering premium economy, consider that the additional $1,757 is the equivalent of over a month’s worth of expenses at $50 a day.

Of course, daily budgets will vary depending on where you’re going.

Lonely Planet has a variety of suggested budgets for different locations and different tastes. If you decided to take a trip to the USA (the example destination Wendover Productions used in their comparison), they recommend up to $100 a day as ‘budget’, $100-$300 as ‘mid range’, and $300+ as ‘top end’.

If you were to do every ‘top end’ thing Lonely Planet recommends every day, (including luxury stays, top end restaurants, daily spa treatments, and a night out at the Met or other high-end entertainment every night), you’d probably spend around $715 per day.

Flying economy instead of first class would allow you to live like a king in New York, one of the most expensive cities on the planet, for 10 full days. Or for almost a month if you stick to the upper end of the ‘mid-range’ and spend $300 a day. And if you can ‘slum it’ on $100 a day (we’re currently in the US and spending far less per person per day) your saving will net you a whole 72 days – that’s almost two-and-a-half months, and you’ll be getting close to maxing out your tourist visa!

Running the numbers

So why are the premium classes so attractive? You certainly don’t get there any faster or safer. The only answer is comfort.

But there’s a huge price tag for that comfort. One that may not seem immediately apparent until we break it down.

Cost per square meter

Space – legroom, to lie down, to avoid sharing an armrest – is one of the comforts of the premium classes.

As Wendover Productions explains, on an Etihad A380, each economy seat takes up 0.34 square meters of floor space. Business class seats take up 0.94, and first class 3.25.

Where an economy class ticket costs $1,253, we might expect business class to cost roughly three times more, since it’s nearly three times as spacious, and first class to cost around ten times more, since it’s almost ten times as spacious. That would give us a rough ticket price of around $3,759 and $12,530 respectively.

And perhaps we should add on a bit for the increased baggage allowance – say $50 – and increased quality of meals and beverages – say $200. So let’s round our estimates up to $4,000 for business and $12,800 for first class.

But the ticket prices are much higher than that. $6,140 for business, and a whopping $14,128 for first class

If you break these figures down, as Wendover Productions does, you can see what an enormous money-spinner business class in particular is. While the economy part of the cabin is making $3,580 per square meter, and first class is making $4,347, business brings in a whopping $6,532.

What this means is that if all you are concerned with is space, you could buy an entire four seats in a row in economy, have room to lie down and no pesky neighbours to either side (and enjoy four times the meals and drinks!), for less than the price of a single business class ticket. By my calculations, it would cost $5,012, meaning you’d have $1,128 left over (or over 22 days’ budget travel) left over.

Aside from space, what are the benefits of the premium classes?

Continuing with the example of an Etihad A380, we can make the following comparisons between an economy seat and a business seat:

Comfort

  • ECONOMY: Wide cradle seats, full-sized fleece blankets, comfortable pillows.
  • BUSINESS: Generous recline and ample leg room, foot rest and lumbar support, in-seat massage.

Amenities

  • ECONOMY: Free dental kits with toothbrush, toothpaste, eyemasks upon request. Can pay $35 for Christian Lacroix sleepwear, and $22 for Christian Lacroix amenity kit.
  • BUSINESS: Dental kit and amenity kit are both free.

Entertainment

  • ECONOMY: Mobile and wifi connectivity, 10.6 or 11″ touch screen with hundreds of hours of entertainment.
  • BUSINESS: Mobile and wifi connectivity, 10.6″ touch screen with hundreds of hours of entertainment, noise cancelling headphones.

Magazines

  • ECONOMY: Boutique and Atlas.
  • BUSINESS: Boutique and Altas, plus an assortment of newspapers and magazines.

Food

  • ECONOMY: Appetisers: Three bean salad with tomato vinaigrette, warm bread.
    BUSINESS: Appetisers: Arabic mezze, beef bressaola, butternut squash soup.
  • ECONOMY: Main: Chicken with grain mustard sauce/fish kabsa/orzo pasta.
    BUSINESS: Main: Filet of salmon/chicken breast/lamb kabsa/artichoke ravioli.
  • ECONOMY: Dessert: Mixed berry cheesecake, tea/coffee.
    BUSINESS: Apple and custard pie/chocolate tart/seasonal fresh fruit/ice cream.
  • Business class also has a cheese course.

Obviously, the business class seat outranks the economy class seat on every measure (although passengers in economy can have an identical amenity kit for an extra fee, and there’s a chance they’ll get a slightly bigger touch screen than the standard business seat. Either way, the entertainment on the screen is the same!) But there are tips and tricks you can use to overcome practically all of these setbacks.

Turn your economy class seat into a business class experience

1. Comfort: Bring your own footrest.

This is hands-down the best flight advice I’ve ever received. An inflatable pillow should do the trick, or bring along a bag – even a grocery bag – to stuff a puffy jacket into. After using a foot rest, I no longer suffer a sore tailbone or back from long flights. And if you do? Get a jet-lag reducing massage on arrival. Cost: Free or up to $10. (+ a massage if you so choose)

2. Amenities: Buy or bring your own.

As long as all of your products are under 100ml, you can bring them on the plane. And many traditional airlines (as opposed to low cost carriers) now provide not only soaps but cologne/perfume and moisturiser  in the rest rooms. On Etihad, you can have the exact same experience as a business class passenger when it comes to amenities by forking out $57. But imagine how many of your own favourite products you could buy for that price. Cost: Free or up to $57.

3. Entertainment: Bring your own noise-cancelling headphones.

Entertainment is the same no matter what class you’re in. And if you’re saving thousands on avoiding the business class trap, you can invest in a good pair of headphones that you actually get to keep after the flight. I’m not too fussy when it comes to audio, and unless I’m on a small, noisy plane, don’t need noise cancellation. So I usually bring ear buds (the kind I’ve gotten for free with my phone or on other flights) because they’re much smaller to pack. Cost: Free or up to $599 (the most expensive noise-cancelling headphones I could find at JBHifi)

4. Magazines: Bring your own.

Who knows what you’re interested in better than you? Buy your own magazines and choose what you really want. Better yet, see if your library has magazines and ebooks you can borrow online. Just download your reading material to your devices before boarding. That way you’re not contributing to waste either. Cost: Free or up to $10 or so.

5. Food: Bring your own snacks.

You can buy a hell of a lot of cheese for the difference in ticket price between an economy class and a business class ticket. Let’s face it. Airline meals, due to the constraints of preparing a meal in-flight (or in advance and then heating and serving it in-flight) will hardly ever rival the meals you’ll have on the ground. Why not put that extra money towards a nice meal out once you land? If you really must have the premium experience in the air, you can buy champagne by the class for $8 and chocolates and other snacks for $6 from your economy seat. Cost: $6 and up.

Adding it all up…

Even if you went for the most expensive versions of all of the above – a $10 cushion and a $100 massage upon landing, $57 to buy the luxury amenities and pyjamas in-flight, buying an almost $600 pair of headphones, picking out four or five magazines to a value of $50, and not only having champagne and chocolates in the air but a $150 meal when you land, your luxurious experience in an economy seat would still only cost a tiny fraction of a business class ticket. All that, plus your ticket on the Etihad A380 mentioned above, works out to $2,233. Just over a third of the cost of a $6,140 business class ticket on the same plane. But as I’ve pointed out, you can make most of these comfort adjustments for very little, or even, for free.

If you have health or mobility issues that mean you find flying economy difficult or impossible, this advice may not be for you. (Although you may like to consider whether purchasing additional economy seats may be more comfortable and cheaper than flying business class). But I think it’s worth the rest of us running the numbers.

Cost per hour

A return flight 6 hours each way could cost you as little as $876 or as much as $8,715. That’s a difference between paying $73 an hour, or $726.

Is a slightly better meal and a smidge more leg room really worth paying $653 per hour extra?

What do you think?

Do you fly business class? Economy? First? Let me know why!

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