Updated post: 28/02/2019 | February 2019
Business class travel did not get off to an auspicious start for me. The year was 1996, the place Cairns in Australia and my friend Fi and I were checking in for a flight to Hamilton Island, our jumping off point for a cruise around the Whitsunday Islands. The check-in attendant asked the question that all budget travellers dream of: ‘Would you ladies like a free upgrade to business class?’
Heck yes! We were soon settling down in our comfy seats, drink in hand, scanning that morning’s newspaper, feeling rather pleased with ourselves.
Then it all went wrong. Shortly after take-off, smoke started billowing out of the cockpit and the plane was forced to do an emergency landing back at Cairns. Fuel was dumped over the bay and fire engines raced to greet the aircraft. Our travel plans – and our nerves – were in tatters.
Fast forward to 2010 and a trip to Peru. The relatively modest price difference between economy and business class meant that it would almost rude not to treat myself to a little more comfort on my return flight to Lima. The Delft houses gifted on these KLM flights as a souvenir graces the top of my bookcase to this day. The Bols liqueur they once held has long since gone.
This was a turning point for me. Although a frequent flyer, I am not that keen on flying. However, I do like a good business class flight. From fast track security to exploring the lounge to relaxing in a flatbed seat, sipping a glass of champagne, I love the whole experience. Now, for any flight over 6 hours, it’s business class for me.
However, not all business class products are equal and you need to do your homework to get the best bang for your hard-earned bucks. To help you on your way, so here’s an essential guide to choosing a business class flight.
What should you consider when choosing a business class flight?
There are four main factors that I consider when choosing a business class flight:
- Quality of product
- Loyalty (Frequent Flyer) scheme
Let’s take a look at each of these factors in turn.
1. Quality of the business class product
The price of a business class ticket buys you a lot of perks. You get a dedicated check-in desk, fast-track security, priority boarding, extra baggage allowance and priority baggage handling where these services are supported. If you are a member of a frequent flyer scheme you will earn more miles and tier points.
But whilst there may be differences in how well airlines operate these services, they are not usually a deal-breaker when choosing which airline to book with. What differentiates the products are as follows:
- Seat comfort
- Cabin configuration
- Onboard service
- Business lounge
- Availability of a chauffeur service.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn
The business class seat
There are business class seats and then there are business class seats. What do I mean by this? Well, business-class seats can come in various shapes and sizes, from fully lie-flat seats, the older cradle-style business seats down to economy seats with extra legroom.
For maximum comfort and the best chance of forty winks, it goes without saying that you should look for fully lie-flat seats. Since their introduction by British Airways (BA) in the early 2000s, these seats have become the new norm for business class travel. However, all carriers do not provide them and you need to do your homework to identify which products to avoid.
Over the last year or so, some airlines have upped their game and introduced suites into their business class cabins, the type of seat usually found in the first class. I have been lucky enough to travel on Qatar Airway’s QSuite, which is being rolled out across their fleet. Other carriers that offer suits include Delta, Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Oman Air. Business class is the new first class!
So where do you go to avoid passing over your hard earned cash in return for a duff seat? Luckily, there are quite a few resources out there to help you. Here are my go-to sources of information:
- Seat Guru – a treasure trove of information about airlines and seats.
- Airline Quality by Skytrax – the Trip Advisor for airlines. Provides a rating system for seats and more.
- Route Happy – plug in your destination and dates and this great resource will rate the available options based on seats, onboard service and flight duration.
This is another important aspect for me. There are two factors to consider: cabin density and aisle access. One of the advantages of business class travel is a quieter cabin, so the fewer people the better.
And do you really want to clamber over your neighbour’s legs to reach the aisle? Well, with some airlines that is still the case.
To check out cabin configurations visit Seat Guru which provides seat maps for just about any aircraft you can think of. The ideal business class cabin configuration is 1-2-1, giving every passenger direct aisle access. American Airlines, Iberia, Emirates and Qatar, to name but a few, offer this on many of their aircraft. Some airlines go further and offer a 1-1-1 configuration (e.g. Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic).
With its 2-4-2 configuration, BA doesn’t cover itself with glory. The UK’s national carrier is investing £400 million to give its long-haul business class cabins a long-overdue upgrade. It is rumoured that this will include direct aisle access for every seat.
You should also consider if the airline charges for seat reservation. Although many airlines allow business class passengers to choose their seat at the time of booking free of charge (e.g. Qatar, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic), some do not. Again, BA should hang its head in shame, charging over £60 for this privilege on long-haul flights (unless you are a Silver Executive Club member or above).
What comes to mind when you think of onboard service? For me, it’s the following:
- Customer service
- Eating & drinking
- Entertainment system
- Amenity kits
These elements vary widely between airlines. Whilst they might be secondary deciding factors, they are unlikely to be deal breakers. For a sense of what you could be getting, check out the reviews on Airline Quality.
The business lounge
The ability to take advantage of the relative sanctuary of the lounge is a great perk of business class travel. A few good resources for lounge reviews are Airline Quality, The Points Guy and, particularly for the UK-based traveller, Turn Left for Less (one of my favourite websites).
Broadly speaking, the best lounges are at the airline’s home airport or at one of its major hubs. A few airlines offer complimentary spa treatments (e.g. BA, Virgin Atlantic).
However, access to a lounge is not guaranteed and there are some airports that will not have a business lounge (e.g. London City). Check availability on the airline’s website.
A number of airlines offer business class ticket holders a free limousine transfer. Unfortunately, many of these airlines exclude those travelling on promotional fares and the service may be restricted to certain routes. The most inclusive is Emirates, with few restrictions and a generous mileage allowance.
Think about what matters to you. Do you want a non-stop flight? Or would you prefer to break up your journey, even if this just means the opportunity to stretch your legs? Whichever of these options appeals to you, what you don’t want is a torturously long flight duration or a complicated itinerary.
Try to avoid flying with different operators who do not belong to the same route network as you take the risk of missed connections.
This may come as a surprise but cost is not the most important factor when choosing a business class flight. I’m not saying that price is not a consideration, but you shouldn’t automatically plump for the cheapest fare.
With the exception of sales times, it is a case of you pay for what you get. My view is that it is worth spending a few extra dollars for a better business class product or a more convenient schedule.
4. Loyalty Programs
Lastly, consider which airline loyalty programs you belong to. Flying with that airline, or a partner airline, will earn you destination miles and tier (status) points.
Every flier should sign up for at least one frequent flyer scheme. It’s not that often you get something for nothing, so it’s a no-brainer! Which one will depend largely on where you are based and your flying habits. For example; I am based on the UK and, for me, the best program is British Airway’s Executive Club which is part of the One World Alliance.
Is it worth flying business class?
By squeezing in more seats, many airlines are shrinking the existing limited legroom in their economy cabins. Therefore, now is as good a time as any to consider splurging on a business class flight.
Turning left on entering the aircraft is no longer the preserve of the business traveller, those with stacks of frequent flyer points or the very well-off. In my view, shorter flights under 6 hours aren’t worth the extra pounds for more legroom and a glass or two of fizz. However, on long-haul flights, they are worth every last penny.