Business class: how, when and why to travel in business class

From finding deals and playing the system to checking airline seating layouts, travelling in style demands a lot of research

Business class

Have you ever dreamed of flying business class? At around four times the cost of an economy ticket, paying for extra legroom, better food and wine, and a chance to sleep in a flat (or almost flat)  chair-cum-bed is a special treat. However, with a little savvy, it is possible to find affordable business class fares that work for you. 

First, know this: a sweet deal on a business class seat is not going to just fall into your lap. 

As well as being flexible on dates and keeping an eye on the latest sales, deals and discounts, it helps if you can differentiate between a good deal and a bad deal, as well as between different airlines’ business class offerings on various routes. 

Here are a few tricks of the trade to help you move up the cabin.

What is Business Class?

As well as access to the business lounge in the airport, you can expect things like better food, linen napkins, silverware instead of plastic cutlery, a compartment for shoes under the footrest, and an amenity kit. 

The latter typically contains socks, skincare products, toothbrush, and sometimes a souvenir (KLM, for example, give all World Business Class travellers a Delft Blue miniature Dutch house model, which is... weird).

However, the standard of business class varies depending on the airline and the route, and frequent flyers typically have a favourite airline.

There are typically two types of business class, short-haul/domestic and long-haul. 

The former isn’t much to write home about in terms of the seat, and can often merely be a normal economy seat, but with the middle seat left empty to give both passengers more room. Mostly it’s a comfortable reclining seat with lots of legroom and a place to put your shoes and hand luggage. 

However, on long-haul routes over about six hours, business class tends to become far more luxurious, with the key addition of almost-flat reclining seats where it’s possible to rest and relax much more easily.

What is Premium Economy?

Even if you’re on the lookout for good value deals and discounts on business class seats, you can very often end up taking a bargain premium economy seat instead to save money, or because there’s a lack of availability in business class. 

Halfway between business class and economy, a full-price premium economy costs about half to two-thirds of a business class ticket. 

By opting for premium economy you’ll forgo a lot of legroom and your seat will recline a lot less, but overall it’s a great substitute for business class if you’re flying during the day, and so less likely to want to take a nap.

Different types of business class

It’s almost never talked about by the airlines themselves, but the quality of business class offerings is often determined by the layout chosen by the plane’s interior designers.

For example, some airlines still have an outdated 2-4-2 layout, which does mean that some passengers have to clamber over another to reach the aisle and the bathrooms. That’s a bit disappointing if you’ve paid a lot of money for your seat. 

So visit SeatGuru before you commit to buying any business class ticket to make sure the airline is using 1-1-1, 1-2-1 or 1-1-1-1, where everyone has direct access to the aisle. You may not always be able to get a window, but you will get privacy.

When to travel business class

Deciding when the right time for you to fly business class will depend on your needs, but typically the decision should start with the flight time. 

For example, paying for a business class ticket on an eight-hour flight that takes-off at lunchtime might appear to be a waste when you arrive at your destination having not slept. 

In contrast, business class on a long-haul night flight is a completely different proposition, and if you arrive well-rested you might even gain an extra day’s exploring on your trip. 

If you're taking a couple of flights via a hub airport, consider taking the night portion in business class followed by midday portion in economy, or vice versa.

How to buy cheap business class tickets

Business class seat sales are your best bet, which are typically more common during quiet periods of the business year, such as around Christmas and New Year. However, don’t assume they will be available on all routes. 

Some routes, such as between New York and London, are consistently very competitive, and you can often find deals and discounts. 

One of the most competitive markets at present is between Europe and Asia, where many Middle Eastern airlines are offering discounts to go via the likes of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Qatar.

You can find cheap business class fares on the likes of Skyscanner, but other valuable sources for finding deals – such as 2 for 1 tickets – include subscribing to airline newsletters, and following your target airlines on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Which airlines sell cheap business class seats?

Although there is no one airline that consistently sells affordable business class seats, some airlines to look out for at the moment are Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines

The former is expanding rapidly, while the latter is trying to attract passengers put-off by an attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on 2016.

Another burgeoning way for airlines of all kinds to sell business class tickets is via online auctions, where holders of economy class tickets on a flight can bid for an upgrade to business and premium economy. However, bidding at the right level is something of a dark art, and unlikely to results in a bargain.

How to use air miles to buy business class tickets

If you work for a company that is willing to pay business class airfares, you’re sorted. 

As well as flying business class on work trips, you can collect lots of air miles that you can probably use to pay for more business class flights for your own leisure trips. Bingo! 

If that’s not the case, you may be tempted to get an airline-branded credit card that gives you air miles according to how much you spend. However, know that it can take many years to accrue enough air miles to successfully upgrade an economy flight to business class. 

It helps if you fly on that airline frequently, even if it’s just short-haul flights.

What are positioning flights?

Have you got time on your hands? If you don’t mind wasting a bit of time to save a lot of money, you can grab an excellent deal on a business class seat by taking what the industry calls a positioning flight. 

This could mean relocating to start your flight as a random airport, typically in Europe. 

For example, an airline may sell a business class ticket from Paris-London-Shanghai that’s much cheaper than just the London-Shanghai leg. Take a cheap budget flight to Paris and you can save a lot of money, though you do have to factor in both the cost of that budget flight, and your own time. 

If the maths works it can be worth it, especially for a one-off ‘treat’ on a special holiday, so it’s worth keeping an eye on deals. 

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Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance journalist, copywriter and author with 20 years' experience. He's written journalism for over 50 publications and websites and, when he's not writing, spending most of his time travelling – putting the latest travel tech through its paces.