Differences in International and Domestic Airline Classes


By: Frank – @dugup46 – When I speak to people about traveling and my experiences, one of the main points of confusion is the differences in airline classes.  If I say that I flew “first class to Hong Kong,” the first thing most people imagine is a nice leather chair with a bit more space than economy.  Not everyone will realize the differences between flying first class domestic on an old airplane and first class with Cathay Pacific on their 777.  Knowing these differences is what separates the beginners from the big players in the game of award travel.  Let’s jump into an overview of these flights and see how you can begin maximizing your miles today!

Article Disclaimer:  Unless you want to read a book on the subject, I have to keep my conversation here with you limited.  The differences between airline classes is extremely vast.  Business class on Airline A can be an entirely different experience than Airline B.  The below article is only going to provide a general overview of each airline class.  Now that I got that out of the way, let’s get started:


Domestic Travel

When flying domestically within the United States, there are generally two classes you’ll be referring to: Economy and First Class.  For simplicity purposes in the article, I can only generalize each cabin’s experience and offerings.  Your experience can vary greatly depending on what airline you’re flying with, what aircraft you’re flying on, and what flight crew you are dealt.  You should always research your flight on websites like www.seatguru.com and this FlyerTalk Forum before your departure, to set your list of expectations for your particular flight.

economyDomestic Economy

These are the seats just about everybody has come to know and loathe.  Generally you will have limited space, limited service, and someone using your leg as an arm rest.  Food?  No.  Southwest does hand out a bag of peanuts that were made for ants and small children; however, that’s about the best you’ll do without fronting cash.  You will be served preciously three quarters of a can of cran-apple juice for the duration of your flight, and if you finish quickly – you may even get to throw away the empty cup!

businessDomestic First Class

The picture to the right is what most people imagine when I say, “I’m flying first class.”  Instead of having five seats in a row, there are four.  Therefore, the seats are much more spacious, and you may even get a little table to rest your drink on or jot down some notes.  In the event you need anything on your flight, you’ll be pleased to know you’ll have better service in your domestic first class seats.  Each seat will generally have a power outlet to plug in a laptop or charge a cell phone, and on flights longer than three hours you’ll even receive a full meal!  Overall, the meal really makes the difference here.  On flights shorter than three hours, flying first class is generally not worth the extra cost; however, when you add in meal service, the cost can be justified.  Just understand moving forward, this is not first class.  You can consider this a premium domestic flying experience.

International Travel

If you thought I had an extensive disclaimer before the domestic flight section, just take everything I said above and multiply it by 23 for the international section.  When dealing with international flights, choosing the correct airline will make all the difference.  You need to know the big players like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and all the others.  Then, you need to know which metal (better way of saying aircraft) you’ll be flying on.  Whether an airline is flying new metal or old metal will make a huge difference in your flying experience.  Again, the guide below is a very simplistic view on the different airline classes and typical expectations for your different flight classes.

internationaleconInternational Economy

Alright, so here we go with the real meat of the article.  “What will my international economy experience be like?”  I wish I could tell you it will be great, but I would be lying to you.  When faced with the decision of spending more money for more amenities or demanding to save money by reducing amenities, people will usually take the latter.  This decision spills over to your economy experience in a huge way.  Your seat will be similar to that of a domestic economy seat but with a little extra room.  You should expect a pillow and blanket for the duration of your flight, (not that you’ll be able to get much sleep) but it certainly doesn’t hurt!  When it comes to meal choices, you will generally have the choice between two different meals, both of which will be microwaved dishes served with plastic wrap, and will taste…. alright.  After your cell phone/computer dies out halfway through your flight, just try to get some rest.  It’s your best bet to manage the remainder of your eight hour flight.

International Business Class


Now this is where the excitement really starts to kick in.  International Business Class!  A high level of service, beautifully crafted meals, and a comfortable seat with power outlets!  What more could a person ask for?!  Let’s start off with your pre-departure drink.  Economy class customers are served well drinks, (usually at a cost) while business class customers are served top shelf drinks for free!  Fine wines, champagne, and cocktails for the duration of your eight hour flight.  Drink up!

Food?  Think… Olive Garden at the press of a button.  High quality food with beautiful presentation.  Soup, salad, bread sticks, main dishes – whatever you want, whenever you want it – all included.  Seats?  Let’s face it, this is what separates all the classes.  You can be served magic on a dish, but if you are sitting in those economy style seats, it’s not going to make the experience any better.  Lucky for you, not only are the seats much more spacious, but lay-flat seats are a new business class standard!  Simply press a button on your touch screen remote control (or button panel on the side of the seat) to transform your comfortable chair into a 180 degree flat bed!  Now you can legitimately get some rest before you’re snapped back into reality a few hours later.

International First Class

You have to be thinking, what else could someone ask for?  Nice chairs, nice meals, great service – there can’t be anything left.  In case you missed it, the word I left out when talking about business class is “premium.”

Emirates International First Class on the A380

When you are talking about an international first class flight, every aspect of the flight is premium.  Your chair is made from premium leathers that are even more spacious than business class.  You are served premium meals and drinks, (think… Dom Perignon and seven course meals) and you will experience a premium level of service that is unmatched.  Over the course of a nine hour flight, your staff will come to learn you and anticipate your wants before you even ask for them.  You’ll receive a pillow, blanket, pajamas, and a “swag bag” consisting of all types of goodies for your flight (eye mask, toiletry items, ear plugs, headphones, etc).  In addition to an amazing flight experience, you’ll have access to some premium “first class lounges” in the airport terminals, so be sure to maximize your trip and check them out!

Closing Remarks

This article should help clear up any confusion between the classes and the typical experiences you should expect on each.  What is the best flight experience you have enjoyed?  Which was the worst?  Leave a comment below and join in on the conversation!


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