If you’re like most people, you want to get as much value out of any purchase as possible. Therefore, you’d probably never buy a First Class or Business Class airline ticket. You might use miles to upgrade. But you certainly wouldn’t pony up your hard-earned dollars to sit in a wider seat.
However, money is meant to be spent. And if you’ve been successful in your career and/or had tremendous investment gains, maybe you should treat yourself to flying first class.
This post will set up parameters for when paying for a first class ticket is OK. OK is defined as feeling comfortable enough paying the premium where you don’t feel buyer’s remorse.
As a frugal person who has taken hundreds of flights from Economy Class, Business Class, and First Class, I’m trying to figure out the answer myself.
When It’s OK To Pay For A First Class Airline Ticket
You can always buy a First Class ticket as soon as you have the money. However, let’s go through the various guidelines in order to minimize regret and maximize the value we receive.
1) When A First Class Ticket Costs 2X The Price Of An Economy Class Ticket Or Less
A first class ticket generally costs 2-10 times more than an Economy Class ticket. The highest multiple comes during long international flights. For example, it might only cost you $1,000 to fly to Shanghai from San Francisco roundtrip. However, it could easily cost you $10,000 if you fly first class.
When you find First Class tickets less than two times the cost of an Economy class ticket, you have yourself a relative bargain. It’s like finding something you want for 40% – 60% off. The product may still be overpriced, but at least you’ll feel like you got a deal.
2) When You Earn A Top 5% – 10% Income
On an Airbus 321, there are usually 16 First Class seats. Then there are around 180 Economy and Economy plus seats. Therefore, about 8% of all seats consist of First-Class seats. For every commercial airplane, less than 10% of the seats are First-Class seats.
To stay consistent with the percentage of First-Class seats, one should strive to earn at least a top 10% income before paying for a first class ticket. An individual top 5% income is roughly $310,000. An individual top 10% income is roughly $160,000 as of 2018 according to the Economic Policy Institute. Today, the numbers are about 10% higher.
Now that we know what the income levels are, I think you’ve got to earn at least $300,000 a year. Earning only $160,000 feels like too little. Go for Economy Plus or Business Class instead.
3) When You Have A Top 5% – 10% Net Worth
Based on the same logic above, you should have a top 5% – 10% net worth before being OK to pay for a First Class airline ticket.
According to the 2019 Survey Of Consumer Finances, to be in the top 20% of households, you need a net worth of over $500,000. To have a top 1% net worth, you need over $11 million.
Therefore, to comfortably buy a First Class ticket, you should probably have a household net worth of at least $1 million. $1 million is a top 10% household net worth. However, based on experience, the $1 million threshold likely won’t be enough for you to spend up without discomfort.
Thanks to inflation, $3+ million is the new $1 million. And given we should think in real terms, having a minimum $3 million net worth is the more appropriate minimum threshold.
4) If You Fly Less Than Once Every Two Years
If you fly a lot, the cost to fly racks up quickly if you don’t have a business that pays for your ticket. Therefore, if you’re paying out of pocket, you probably want to save some money and only purchase Economy Class tickets.
However, if you are an infrequent flyer, the value of each trip goes up. Therefore, the value of paying for a First Class ticket also goes up.
Think about a scenario where you only take a vacation once every 10 years. You’d be more willing to go all out on the best accommodations, the highest rated activities, and the yummiest food. But if you go on vacation every three months, vacations aren’t as special.
Flying only once every two years or less is the threshold partly based on the logic of point #1 – when a First Class ticket costs 2X an Economy Class ticket or less. The idea is to manage your overall plane ticket expenditure.
The one caveat to this guide is that you also make at least a top 10% income.
5) When You Need A Bigger Seat
In general, domestic Economy Class seats are around 17 inches wide and domestic First Class seats are around 21 inches wide. A 4-inch difference is pretty massive as seat widths have been shrinking over the decades. Meanwhile, First Class seats offer between 8-39 inches of extra legroom.
If your body flows over the Economy Class armrest into the other passenger’s seat or if your legs can’t comfortably fit, then buying a First Class seat may be more appropriate. After all, your neighbor deserves the entire space of their seat.
Instead of paying for a First Class seat, you might be able to save by buying two Economy Class seats, which may be cheaper.
You might also need a more comfortable seat if you have some type of physical ailment, like chronic lower back pain or sciatica. If a First Class seat can help alleviate pain, then paying up may be worth it.
Not All First Class Seats Are Created Equal
There are different styles of First Class. Some First Class seats just recline. Although these seats are wider, the premium you should pay should be the lowest.
While other First Class seats go flat and have much longer leg room. These seats are the most desirable and are generally priced higher. If a First Class seat doesn’t lie flat, I’d rather just pay for Economy Plus with longer leg room.
Below is my favorite first class cabin arrangement by United from SFO to Honolulu. It is the Boeing 777-300ER plane with a 1-2-1 seating arrangement so you don’t have to sit next to someone.
The Problem With Frugal Spenders Who Are Analytical
The main reason why I have never paid for a Business Class or First Class airplane ticket is due to math. I take the difference between the cost of a First Class ticket and an Economy Class ticket. Then I divide the difference by the number of hours of the flight. Then I tell myself just sitting in the seat is making me that hourly rate!
Here’s an example. Around Christmas, it costs about $1,700 to fly first class from San Francisco to Honolulu. It costs about $680 to fly economy class on the same flight. $1,700 – $680 = $1,020. $1,020 divided by 5.5 hours = $185.
Is it really worth paying $1,700 for a first class ticket when I can just pay $680 and earn $185 an hour sleeping, listening to music, watching a movie, and writing a new post on my laptop? Perhaps not.
You Probably Won’t Regret Spending Up
I hope my guidelines better help you decide on paying for a First Class ticket. I’ve discovered during my financial spending history that I seldom regret spending up for something nicer. Instead, I more often regret not spending up during the moment.
For example, during our early retirement phase, my wife and I went to Naples, Italy when it was around 92 degrees. Yet, I didn’t want to pay 50 Euros for the both of us for a Hop On Hop Off bus to see the city. I felt like it was a ripoff. Further, I thought it would be better to see the city on foot and get some exercise.
We ended up finding a gelato place and not seeing a couple of the main sites because it was too damn far and hot. Until this day, I regret not spending the money to see the entire city. I wouldn’t have missed the 50 Euros. Maybe when our children are older we’ll try again.
At least we got to see the ruins of Pompei the next day. That was amazing.
Another great dilemma is how much to spend on a car. Since buying my Tata Motors SUV in December 2016 for big bucks, I’ve had zero remorse. I use my vehicle daily to safely transport my son to and from school. The SUV was a relatively big upgrade from my $20,000 Honda Fit.
A final common dilemma is how much to spend on a house. You don’t want to buy too much of a house and put your finances under strain. However, a house is a little different than buying a car or paying for a First Class ticket. A house has a good chance of appreciating over time. Therefore, when it comes to buying a house, stretching to your upper limits of affordability may be best for your finances.
Flying First Class May Help Reduce Friction
There’s one final reason why you may want to fly First Class. You hate flying so much that you don’t fly, even though you probably should. Unless you’re flying private, the general experience of flying isn’t great due to long security lines, delayed flights, and packed airplanes.
The best reason to fly is to see loved ones who live far away. The drive might take too long. Or driving might simply be impossible due to an ocean. What a shame not to see your loved ones more often because you can’t stand flying.
If flying First Class during a pandemic can help reduce friction and encourage you to see your parents, relatives, or friends more, then paying a premium might be well worth it.
Random Flight Booking Tips
- Make sure you surf for deals using incognito mode so the travel websites don’t track your moves.
- If you end up choosing a seat and changing the date to see what else you can get, you must wait until the website caches out. Go back too quickly and the system will think the seat you picked was already sold. If so, the price of the ticket tends to go up. Since there are so few seats in first class, the pricing algorithm will automatically increase if fewer seats are available.
- If you have the flexibility, you can wait last minute for potential deals. Or you can search for economy seating where the seat next to you is empty.
- Not all first class cabins are created equal. Research the various plane types before booking. Even the seat number can make a difference. For example, odd-row seats in First class on the 777-300ER face straight and have more windows.
- Flying First or Business may not be the best when flying with young children. Instead, consider Economy Plus where you can get four seats together.
Readers, what are your metrics for deciding on whether to pay for a First Class ticket? How do you overcome the guilt of spending more than you need to?
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Personally, I have worked really hard over the past 40 years and am frugal in nearly every other aspect of my life. I began flying first class about 5 years ago and fly coast to coast about 2x year. For a shorter flight I would consider coach. I like the comfort and the perks! I call it “ the big comfy seat”
Financial Samurai says
Love it! Coast to coast is not the easiest trip, so first class is nice.
Chuck Sarahan II says
One thing I did not see (or just missed it) as a consideration is flight time. The longer the flight e.g. NY to LA, the more first class is worth it. I would not fly first class Dallas to Chicago or Washington to St. Louis as the flight time is not worth it.
This is an easy one. Points. My company generates 1.5 to 2 million in Amex points each year. My wife and I don’t travel a lot, but when we do, we go big.
Great topic. A lot of business class ends up being just that – business. Paid for by corporate, so the top 10% of seats compared to top 10% income is a bit of a reach, but I get it.
Please add for medical reasons! If you have a bad back and going for international travel, sure you may feel guilty paying up for that lie flat seat, but you will definitely regret flying coach when you’re stuck in bed in Italy and don’t feel well enough to explore.
I think it’s all about priorities. My rich friends have vacation homes, Mercedes or the like and usually fly coach. I skip the homes and cars and fly first class. I get to be a baller for a couple grand while it costs them hundreds of thousands.
Olaf, the Mile High Finance Guy says
Fun blog post, I hadn’t ever thought of what reasons are needed for justification of first class. Personally, I am not ever willing to pay for the ticket as I have other luxuries I would prefer to indulge in. However, for me, if I have enough credit card reward points to book a ticket and the redemption rate is reasonable, then first class it is!
I definitely think it’s worth flying business class everywhere you go, flying becomes much more tolerable when you have access to the lounges and also food and drinks on the plane. When I travel internationally it is much nicer to be the first one off the plane and get your luggage and be at your resort before most get through customs. I do not splurge much but I will not give up business class, plus if you have a travel card some of these tickets are free using points.
I would mention to check out Seatguru when determining which seat to choose on your flight. Not all seats are created equal.
Jeff S says
I have flown First, Business, Econ Plus and Econ on long haul flights. Now any flight over 6 hours, I will buy either First Domestic or Business Int’l.
For me, the price difference for Int’l First vs Int’l Business is too much for the little value.
Many carriers have gotten rid of true First Class on Int’l routes and have All Business Class.
They both have lay down seats and that is the main reason I upgrade to Int’l Business. First class get separate check in, lounges, etc etc. but it is just not worth it to me.
Never flown first class but will fly business are time and reluctantly, even though we are in the top 1% earners. It’s all earned income, thus high taxes, thus the reluctance. Being Asian doesn’t help either.
Christine Minasian says
I would agree IndianMama, we are in the top 1% earners as well. We only flew first class once. We’re just too frugal to pay so much more for first class. High taxes for sure which is not fun.
Rob Ballew says
I fly a lot for personal and work normally. If paying personally, I’ll generally pay for domestic first if less than $150 a leg. International is trickier, especially with premium economy. I also try to focus on one airline to get status. I get upgraded about 35% if the time to business class for free and I can choose the front seats in economy for free worst case scenario.
Robert Dunn says
I generally fly domestically about eight times per year and fly internationally once per year. I always buy a first/business class ticket when flying domestically. Over the year I spend approximately $3500.00 on my upper class domestic flights compared to $2000.00 for coach. For that xtra $1500 I get elite status and bonus miles as well as other perks. I then use those bonus miles to fund or supplement my international first/business ticket. Well worth it!
Gunnar K says
I like to think that you got the inspiration for this blog topic while seated next to a fat guy on a plane.
I’m kidding, but it is an interesting topic. I almost always pay up for Economy Plus (or Main Cabin Extra or whatever each airline calls it). But the price difference for first class even on domestic flights is kinda crazy.
I’ve always thought it would make sense for airlines to have a plan be 50/50 first class and economy, or at least expand first class, then they could make the cost for first class only 1.5-2X the cost of economy. But obviously they do this for a living and the data probably says that most customers are more price-sensitive than I think.
Anyway, good blog
Cody King says
Get the upgrade. Live a little. Have a beer.
I’ve never flown first class before but it sure sounds nice. I’ve had mixed experiences with Economy Plus. While it was nice to feel a little less claustrophobic, most times I’ve gotten stuck next to a very large person who overflows into my seat. While I could have technically complained and requested them to be moved since they should be paying for 2 seats, I chose not to. It’s just such an awkward thing.
As little as I travel now, I might consider flying first class in the future, but it just doesn’t seem like the best call when traveling with young kids unless I knew they would be quiet and still the whole time (unlikely). I’m sure the other first class passengers would give me the evil eye the entire trip. And who wants that?