If you’ve never flown Business Class on a long-haul flight, you’ve probably got some questions—and maybe a few myths that need dispelling. What’s it really like on the other side of the curtain? How is it different from First? Which airlines offer the best premium experience? And most importantly, can you get upgraded to Business Class without paying a dime? (Spoiler: Probably not.)
Read on to learn the answers to these questions and more, as well as how you can turn your Business Class dreams into reality.
How to get a free Business Class upgrade
When it comes to getting upgraded to Business Class, we’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that airlines almost never give out free Business Class upgrades on international flights, in spite of the countless articles you read about how to get one.
No matter how nicely you dress, how much you sweet talk the check-in agent or what your status with the airline’s frequent flyer program is, most carriers would rather let an international Business-Class seat fly empty than let someone sit in it without partially recouping the hundreds (or thousands) of pounds the company would otherwise make from it. (One exception is when airlines have to bump customers up from Economy because it’s full.)
The good news? There are more ways than ever to purchase an upgraded seat, even if you didn’t book Business Class to begin with.
From auction systems that carriers like Malaysia Airlines and Air New Zealand employ, to frequent flyer programs like Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus, which allow you to use a combination of miles and money to upgrade from Economy to Business, there are plenty of ways to move up a cabin for those who are willing to pay.
The best (and worst) Business Class products
Everyone wants to sit in Business Class, but do you know what you can expect on-board? Business Class products and services vary, depending on the carrier and the type of aircraft.
Let’s start with Business Class seats…er, beds. You see, on wide-body planes like the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380, as well as next-generation airliners like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350, the best Business Class carriers offer seats that convert into lie-flat beds (though some still have older “angled-flat” ones).
Likewise, while the trend is toward so-called “1-2-1” configurations, where all seats have aisle access—if this is a priority for you, double-check your plane’s seating chart before you book or upgrade. In most cases, planes from airlines like Japan’s ANA, Taiwan’s EVA Air, Finnair and (perhaps surprisingly) American Airlines feature state-of-the-art Business Class cabins with features like the ones we’ve just described.
The quality of food and beverages onboard also varies highly, though Business Class service almost always entails hot towels and multi-course meals served on real china, as well as complimentary champagne and spirits. Middle Eastern airlines like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are famous for serving up restaurant quality on-board food, while Singapore Airlines is known for its artisanal cocktail offerings, which include the iconic Singapore Sling.
When deciding whether or not to upgrade to Business Class, keep in mind that the experience is often limited on shorter routes, both due to lack of time and the smaller aircraft that often fly them. Certain airlines have gained a reputation for the lack of dazzle in their Business Class service, from US carriers like United (whose new “Polaris” product debuted to mixed reviews) to foreign ones such as Israel’s El Al and Russia’s Aeroflot.
Business Class on the ground
Another reason to consider upgrading to Business Class, or purchasing a Business Class ticket outright? The experience begins before you get on the plane—and in some cases, it continues after you land.
Unless you’re on a regional flight or one that departs from a small airport, you’ll receive priority check-in and baggage services, during which an employee of the airline will provide you with an invitation to an airport lounge. Inside, services can vary (some lounges include fresh food and cocktails, for example, while others simply offer snacks and soft drinks), but you’ll definitely enjoy a private, exclusive atmosphere away from the hustle-bustle of the main terminal.
Arrival perks are a little more variable. Only the world’s most premium airlines operate arrival lounges (Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, for example), while only certain airports offer priority immigration and customs process for First- and Business-Class passengers—like Thailand’s Bangkok Suvarnabhumi. At minimum, you’ll be one of the first passengers off the plane, to say nothing of the fact that you’ll arrive more relaxed and refreshed than customers in economy.
How to save on Business Class flights
There are many ways to fly in Business Class without going broke, despite the fact that airlines (especially very prestigious ones) rarely discount their premium fares. For one, you can counter high premium fares by booking your flight together with a hotel and/or rental car on sites such as ebookers.
Another way to fly Business Class for cheap is to play the miles and points game. Whether you rack up miles with an individual airline or airline alliance, or transfer flexible points from credit cards to the frequent flyer program of the airline you plan to fly, using frequent flyer currency to book award travel or to upgrade revenue tickets helps you shave a lot off the rack rate.
Speaking of upgrades, policies vary per airline, but you should keep some universal best practices in mind. Namely that in many cases, the very cheapest economy fares are not eligible for upgrade. Before purchasing your economy-class ticket, verify that the fare you’re eyeing is upgradeable. Even if such an appropriate fare costs a little extra, it beats being stuck in economy without the possibility of moving up, if that’s what’s important to you.
The bottom line
Business Class is absolutely worth it, but how you get a seat up-front and which airline you fly will vary depending on your budget, preferences and ability to strategize. While you almost certainly won’t get a free upgrade on an long-haul flight, there are many ways to fly Business Class without paying full fare, whether you pay a fee on top of an economy fare, use miles to upgrade your ticket or find a great sale price for purchasing Business Class tickets outright.
Now, what would you like as your welcome drink?