Paying for domestic First Class

"First Class" flights within North America sorta deserve the quotes I just put around them. While there are a few exceptions1, the majority of these flights feature recliner-style seats with 38" of pitch (remember, economy has 32"), 20-ish inches wide, no lounge access, limited alcoholic beverage selections, and if there's food at all it's likely to remind you of a high school cafeteria - overboiled mystery meat (or gluey pasta) served with a side of surliness. Let's just call this "Crappy First Class™"

Meanwhile many of these same airlines have upgraded the seats in their long-haul international planes to be fully lie-flat beds with 60+ inches of pitch while simultaneously re-branding them as Business Class seats! Delta had the sense to name their crappy First Class product "Business Class", whereas United stuck with the First Class moniker (except when the planes fly to Mexico — all of a sudden that same cabin is now called Business! Gahhhh!).

SeatGuru is your friend in these cases - plug in the date and flight number when you're shopping to make sure you know what you're actually getting for your money!

guess which one is called "First Class"...

Cabin names aside, I do sometimes pay for Crappy First Class – especially since I made the decision last year to stop chasing elite status and fly on points as much as possible. Despite the flying experience having no glamour, there are advantages to being in First, the main one being that you're first in line for re-bookings if something goes wrong with your flight. And on a busy travel weekend when a big storm comes in, you'll be grateful you sprang for the good seats. You also earn more miles in First (usually 50% more), you board first, and you don't have to worry about room for your carry on. It also includes a checked bag (economy usually doesn't unless you have elite status or a co-branded credit card).

So when I'm paying for crappy First it's almost always with Delta and here's why: Despite everything about two flights being equal, United is double or triple Delta's price. And that's true on nearly every intra-North American flight. I just don't get it. Yes, Delta miles have earned the nickname "SkyPesos" because you need a billion of them to go anywhere interesting, but United started openly copying Delta's mileage plan rules last year so I don't think their mileage program alone warrants paying double. Also, note the little icon below that shows United has no Wi-Fi. United is in the middle of a decade-long rollout out Wi-Fi (it's been fleet-wide on Delta for years) so you might even argue that the Delta flight is superior.

And keep in mind that in this example, Delta's Crappy First class was only about $150 more than Economy, which is about all I'd be willing to pay for the 5 extra inches of legroom, near-worthless bonus miles, free crappy food and liquor, a checked bag, and a virtual line pass for rebooking if there's a problem. United is asking $700 for those same things (albeit with slightly more useful miles). But I can take the Delta flight, and use the money I saved to go buy all of the United miles I'd have earned by flighing United and still have money left over. 

1 Most carriers offer what I like to call "fancy domestic First" on their LAX-JFK and LAX-SFO runs. Those flights have their own unique price quirks which I won't talk about here. JetBlue's "Mint" is in this category and it's especially intriguing. Virgin America is in a unique middle point between the two offerings. They have 55" massaging recliner seats on all of their flights, so in many domestic markets they're far and away the nicest experience available. But their product lags behind their competitors' lie-flat fancy domestic First offerings on the JFK/SFO/LAX runs despite being similarly priced.


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