Not All First Class Upgrades are Created Equally

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First class upgrades.  Most of us would like them, but not all of us have the elite status or miles/cash to burn to regularly spring ourselves out of coach and into the forward cabin.  Assuming you are typically in the majority that sits “behind the curtain” in coach and just hear the occasional clanking of real glasses and plates in first class from afar, I’m going to let you in on a little secret, most domestic first class upgrades aren’t that great.

Yes, you often get served some sort of food in first class for no additional charge, but that may or may not be a good thing.  Seriously, this is the “improved” meal I was served yesterday.  I was sick last night….coincidence?  Maybe, maybe not.

First Class Food

First Class Food

You will get served drinks upon request, again, which may or may not be a good thing (and that you can buy for $7 in the back anyway).  You will have more space than in economy, but keep in mind you can buy the “big front seat” on Spirit Airlines that is very similar to most domestic first class seats for about $40 on many routes, so the seat itself often isn’t super special.

First class is of course almost always more comfortable than economy, but not all first class upgrades are created equally.  While many domestic first class cabins aren’t that special, there are exceptions, and if you are ever going to strategize and spring for a little extra to sit up front, I’ll tell you when to do it.

The best domestic first class upgrades are on internationally configured planes that are flying a domestic segment.  Interestingly, they can also be some of the easier upgrades to get simply because of the large number of first class seats on these large planes.

United 777-200

United 777

I’ll give you a real life example, yesterday we flew into the NYC area from Houston for some holiday fun, and I purposefully picked a flight into Newark, not because I had lost my mind or thought Newark was the most convenient airport, but because there is an internationally configured two-class 777-200 on the schedule that United flies from Houston – Newark as it positions from one international flight to another.  In this case, the plane had just flown in from Japan to Houston before it got shuffled to Newark, where I’m sure it got ready for another exciting destination.


In the meantime, it was doing a short hop between Houston and Newark.  This means we could fly to the NYC area in lie-flat United BusinessFirst seats that are pretty darn comfortable for lounging around and even sleeping.  It also means that each seat (even in economy) has their own complimentary in-flight entertainment screen.


I picked this plane on purpose as I knew it would be exciting and enjoyable for us to fly on, even though lie-flat seats on a 3 hour flight are obviously totally unnecessary.

The combination of a nice big seat and good in-flight entertainment made the flight a total breeze for all of us.


Many domestic first class cabins have somewhere between 12 – 20 seats in them, but this plane has 50.  That means there are lots of additional upgrades that will clear beyond what is typical on most domestic routes.  I used confirmed upgrades in advance for our flight, but even those with low tier silver elite status can sometimes clear on these sorts of flights simply due to the large number of available first class seats.

If you ever have the urge to splurge with miles or money to get yourself or your family into first class on a domestic flight, don’t be plane agnostic.  Be very particular with your type of plane when you upgrade because some upgrades are much more “worth it” than others.

Our flight yesterday was not just transportation between Point A and Point B as many flights are, but instead it was a part of the adventure that we looked forward to in the weeks leading up to the trip, and enjoyed very much while it was happening.  The first class upgrade isn’t the focus of our trip, but it sure was fun.  Much more fun than an upgrade on a 737 probably would have been.

Do you ever pay special attention to aircraft type and seat maps when booking flights for your family?


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  1. Do you have any advice for parents on how to keep your kids grounded, so that they don’t grow up thinking business/first class is the only way to travel? I’d like to use not only Thanksgiving as a good teaching opportunity but every day/flight of the year.

    • Rich, we talk about not always sitting in the front in terms of taking turns with others who get a turn sitting there. We also talk about how not everyone gets the chance to every travel or fly. So my advice is just to talk about it with kids so they know from a young age travel in general is special regardless of the seat…but that it’s ok to be excited about the plane/seat too.

  2. My wife and I just returned from a trip to Italy. For outbound and inbound flights I was particular about the planes we rode. My wife thought I was crazy. We didn’t end up getting everything I wanted, but it was fun to be on Boeing and Airbus models that we previously had not flown on. No 777’s on our routes for this trip though. That would have been amazing!

  3. No flight is too short for a flat bed, last year I had a nice nap in business class on IPTE 777 ORD-DEN, which is 888 miles/2 hours.

  4. Hello,

    How would I go about finding out what flights from ATL use internationally configured planes? I am flying to Vancouver (YVR) in January do you know of any that would be on any of the various flight segments to get there?

  5. Thx for the reader question on how to keep kids grounded and for MP response. It’s an excellent way of framing it and I’m sure it will come up in a few years as my kid gets older. That sandwich looks disgusting btw. Looks like something my dog wouldn’t dare to eat.

  6. We will be on this exact flight on Saturday–on our way to Spain via Newark, Munich and Brussels! I think I will avoid the “beef” sandwich!It will be quite a contrast to the Embraer 145 that will take us from COS to IAH!

  7. Another take on keeping kids grounded: I read about a wealthy family who normally flew on private jets. When they hit “hard” times, they had to start flying commercial, at which point their daughter asked “Mommy, what are all these other people doing on our plane??”.

  8. Do you have any tricks for finding flights with the better equipment? Beyond just calling and checking seat maps? I find these kind of domestic flights pretty elusive on my trips flying out of SEA but would really appreciate a nicer ride to the east coast.

    • Leah, I just look at the schedule for the date I want to fly (or range of dates) and look for an aircraft type that has the potential to have the nicer seats. You can quickly rule out regional jets, 737s, etc. Look for the “big birds” and then check the seat maps, cross reference with seat guru, etc. They will typically only be hub to hub. Good luck!

  9. While I do always pay attention to the aircraft, internationally configured repositioning legs on domestic routes are extremely rare especially for us who are not hub captives. If you are a hub captive you would need to be traveling between hubs, if not a hub captive your destination would need to be a hub without direct service from your airport. Since I live in the Boston area, I have access to direct flights to every US based airlines’ hub with a direct flight, so the direct flight would take precedence over a connecting flight just so I could get an upgrade to a lie-flat for 3 hours. As a former Delta Elite, I will admit that I would take a Delta connecting flight when going to LAX or SFO. I would always make sure those connections went through JFK so I could get the upgrade to the BusinessElite flights. These flights were without the family though. Delta also did not have any direct service to SFO and only one flight to LAX.

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