I’ve come to terms with the fact that, barring any dramatic changes in my finances, I will never know the luxury of flying first class. Even if I had the money, I can’t see spending that much more on a plane ticket just to have a little extra legroom and a hot towel. But a recent flight in which I sat near the front of the coach section, and therefore had a clear view of all that went on in first class, definitely made me reconsider my priorities.
While I was handed one measly Biscoff cookie and a cup of water, I saw flight attendants approaching each person in first class with a whole basket of snacks, none of which were dry-roasted peanuts or lone cookies. I’m talking about bags of chips, candy bars, trail mix—really top-notch stuff. When they started passing out the complimentary alcohol, I decided to find out what else I was missing out on in coach. As it turns out, flying first class in the United States can earn travelers a lot more than just candy bars and cushioned seats.
Anyone flying first class on American Airlines needn’t worry about impaired comfort on the flight. If flying domestically, you get noise-cancelling headphones, more legroom, access to a personal media player, and a cotton blanket and oversize pillow. International flyers get all this and much more, including an amenity kit (complete with an eye mask, socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, earplugs, mints, and Burt’s Bees products), a personal monitor to watch TV and movies, and a six-foot seat that can swivel or lay completely flat and that has electronic adjustable lumbar. Plus, any flight over two hours automatically qualifies for meal service; patrons get to choose between a barbecue-chicken salad with pecans and bleu cheese and artichoke mezzaluna pasta.
You can check in, get your bags, and board before everyone else if you fly first class on Continental. You’ll also get a drink before takeoff, free alcohol, a hot three-course meal if the flight’s longer than two hours, a headset and monitor with over seventy-five channels, and a blanket in sealed packaging so you know no one else used it first. No need to worry about checked-bag fees, either—the first two bags are free. There are also freshly baked cookies—I have no idea how they can promise that on an airplane, but I’m sure they find a way for first-class passengers.
Not only do you have priority check-in, boarding, and baggage handling on Delta, but if you’re at a participating airport, you also have your own security line. Meals are served with china and silverware and, when your trip is over 1,500 miles, are prepared by “celebrity chef” (as billed on Delta’s Web site) Michelle Bernstein. If your flight’s not long enough for a meal, fresh fruit and snacks like SunChips and Twix bars are readily available. Internet access and free movies, TV, and video games—not to mention the free alcohol—will also keep you entertained in the air.
Those on transcontinental flights get all the usual things, like pre-departure beverages (including Starbucks coffee), bigger seats, first dibs at boarding and baggage retrieval , meal service, and free movies if the flight lasts more than three hours. But flying internationally offers many more benefits: free newspapers, personal monitors with over 150 hours of programming, a travel kit with skin-soothing products, a variety of entrées to choose from, and dessert selections such as ice-cream sundaes, fresh fruit and cheese plates, and after-dinner liqueurs. International business class gets much of the same treatment, but their seats are ergonomic and have leg rests.
First-class travelers get their own check-in counter and have priority when it comes to baggage claim and boarding. The seats in first class are wider and offer more room to stretch your legs out. Other than your choice of quality wine, liquor, and beer (as well as other non-alcoholic drinks), there’s not much else offered. If you’re on the plane for more than three and a half hours, you get access to a pretty nice menu with options like omelets with sautéed peppers and chicken sausage, pork loin with port wine sauce and fingerling potatoes, and a slice of cheesecake or pie.
Virgin America is possibly the only airline in the United States that offers great services, like in-flight entertainment and comfortable seats, in both economy and first class. First class does have it a little better, though: leather seats that massage, two free checked bags, and all kinds of meals, desserts, snacks, and fancy wines. In fact, they boast the best first-class menu I’ve seen thus far. Eggplant Tart with Mushroom Mac-n-Cheese, Butterscotch Pudding with Vanilla Bourbon Mascarpone, Baby Beet Salad with Orange and Arugula—the varied menu alone (these are but a few of the offerings) might be worth the added cost.
Reading about all the first-class perks, I couldn’t help but feel a smidge of jealousy toward all the people who stretch out their legs and eat eggplant tarts while watching their own TV monitors as I sit uncomfortably crammed between two people and strain my neck to see the overhead movie while playing with an empty bag of peanuts. But when you think about it, either way you’re still stuck on a plane for hours with nothing but reheated food and mediocre movies. Once I saw the cost of such luxury—sometimes as much as ten times what a coach ticket costs—I quickly remembered my initial reaction to first-class flying. It’s interesting to see how the other half lives, but until first class also includes access to a time machine that allows you to skip over the whole flight process, I probably won’t pay to experience it firsthand.