This question comes up a lot from people who are right on the verge of affording it or have a ton of unused miles. For most, looking at the cost will immediately determine the answer. If you simply can’t afford the costs, as things like bills and daily expenses are a top priority, then it’s not worth even considering what could be an extra several thousand to over ten thousand dollars in cost each way for an international flight. For others, the costs may mean nothing, and they will fly first class simply because the impact will be non-existent.
Then there is everyone else. And for those, the question really revolves around the purpose of the flight. Is it for business or pleasure? Will you buy one ticket or is it for the whole family? Are you paying the whole thing or is someone else helping? And finally, do you have miles to put toward the cost?
In general, first class offers better food, better legroom, more privacy, more comfortable seating, friendlier staff, and more room to work. In addition, you get off the plane first, don’t have to fight for overhead storage space, and have better access to restrooms. And while that may or may not sound important, flying first class is a very different experience from coach or economy. But the biggest benefit is for those who have a busy day directly after the flight. All of those perks lead to a more enjoyable experience, which leaves you better rested and more able to get right into things when you land.
For business fliers, this can be extremely important. If you are finishing up some work on the flight, then going directly to a meeting to make a presentation which could make your company hundreds of thousands of dollars, the costs of the first class tickets should be negligible compared to the importance of being ready for the meeting. An employee who sits in an economy middle seat with no room to open a laptop is going to have a hard time prepping for that meeting. He or she will also, likely, be tired from the experience and not in the best frame of mind. This can impact a meeting and cost a sale. For those reasons, many people traveling for business travel first or business class to the meeting, and economy back.
For vacationers, however, the added expense may not be as worth it. If you are traveling, the first day is likely simply reaching the destination, unpacking, and relaxing pool or bar-side, anyway. And when you consider what you could do with the additional money, most would argue the cash could go to better purposes. For that reason, most people traveling for pleasure will opt for a less expensive option.
The one caveat is those who travel often or who have an abundance of frequent flyer miles. In this case, traveling first or business class may make more sense than traveling economy. Rewards tend to build faster in the more expensive seats, allowing you to reach gold and platinum levels faster, meaning your rewards will be even better. You also usually get a better value using miles for first class tickets than you do for economy. So your miles will grow faster, they will be worth more, and you will enjoy flying more if you fly first class. The cost savings can quickly outweigh the additional costs for those who truly fly often.
Ultimately, you need to weigh the costs to the benefits of flying first class. If a large business deal hangs in the balance, you can probably justify the expense. But if the only value is that you may be a little less tired on a pool day during vacation, the costs may be harder to justify.