When to Choose Economy, Business, or First Class for Business Travel

By Jessica Sillers

Despite the name, business class isn’t always the obvious best choice for business travel. We’ve decoded the real difference between basic economy, economy, premium, business, and first class so you don’t have to. We’ve also got answers to your questions about when a pricer business class seat is really worth it.

Economy

Also known as coach, main cabin, or standard, economy class seats are the lowest tier in terms of price and (often) traveler comfort. Some carriers also offer “basic economy,” but since they use the same seats, we’ll consider this option part of economy for this post.

Economy keeps space tight to maximize profit. Seat width is typically 16.2-18.5 inches. The distance between rows of seats, called the “pitch,” is usually 30-34 inches, which translates to limited legroom, especially for long-limbed employees.

Economy tickets are substantially cheaper than other fare classes, and you get to your destination just as fast as the folks in the front of the plane! Some airlines offer a slightly upgraded economy class for an extra $20-30 or so (look for labels like Economy Plus or Economy Select). Generally, this means seats with an extra inch or two of width and legroom in an exit row or near the front of the cabin.

Premium

Premium seats don’t exist on every flight, but they can be a helpful intermediate class between economy and business. Premium seats not only offer roomier seats, but generally a better recline and upgrades on boarding, luggage allowance, and in-flight meals and entertainment. As far as legroom goes, 36-40 inches is typical, with about 17-19 inches of seat width.

The main consideration to watch with premium airfare is its highly variable price point. SeatGuru found that premium seats cost nearly double an economy fare when booked in advance. Taking a last-minute chance was much more cost-effective, with tickets generally costing 10-35% more than economy.

Still, the premium seats generally cost much less than a business class ticket (SeatGuru said 65% less was typical; our searches turned up premium tickets that cost 25% or less than business class fare!).

Business

A business class flight experience has everything to do with whether you’re on a short or long-haul flight.

On a short flight (most flights under 3,000 miles), business class tickets offer a comfier upright seat and better food, beverage, and in-flight amenities than economy. You’ll typically get about 36-40 inches of legroom and a 19-21-inch seat. Pricewise, business class usually costs a few hundred dollars more, close to doubling an economy fare.

On a long-haul flight, which is usually classified as being more than 3,000 miles in distance, or more than 7 hours’ flight duration, business class seats represent a substantial increase in comfort from premium. You can expect 48-80 inches for pitch on these flights, and about 19-26 inches for seat width. Part of the reason for the wide variance here is that some business class seats simply recline (although further than other seats, and often with a footrest), and others unfold into a lie flat bed. These tickets can easily cost 4-10 times as much as an economy fare.

First

Again, short vs. long flights have vastly different standards for first class. On most short flights, first and business class are similar or nearly identical. You might get an extra 5-7 inches or so of pitch and 1-3 inches of seat width, as well as better food and more attentive service.

On a long flight, expect 10-30 more inches of legroom than business, premium refreshment service, more cabin privacy, and increased amenities.

How to Write a Travel Policy for Fare Classes

The best ticket class for your next trip can depend on a few factors. A well-written travel policy provides clear guidance on what kind of ticket employees should book for their next flight.

First, distance matters. As a rule of thumb, choosing coach for flights under 6 hours and premium or business class for long-haul flights might make sense.

Frequency of travel is the next consideration. Employees traveling once a month or less may expect to prioritize budget over comfort. Weekly travelers may burn out faster if they’re in coach all the time. A Wall Street Journal report found an increase in companies using business class as a way to improve employee retention and morale.

Upgrading flights can also be part of your strategy to retain your best performers. For senior employees, a business class seat can be a well-earned perk for the value they bring to the company. Think about what level of seniority gets a business class ticket, how you’d handle trips where employees at different levels fly together, and when it is (or isn’t) okay for an employee to upgrade their ticket with their own money or miles.

As is often the case, preparation makes all the difference in identifying the right ticket for your trip. Choosing a ticket doesn’t need to be stressful or confusing. You may find that once you know, inch for inch, what your ticket buys, it’s easier to set your own standards for when to fly business, premium, or economy.

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