Is Flying First Class on United Worth it?

If you’re flying a domestic flight across the United States, chances are that the first class experience is going to be great, but not necessarily phenomenal. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather have the first class experience than not. I’ve just started getting more free upgrades with United, and am happy as a clam when that happens. However, now that I’ve gotten the experience, I can’t help but wonder if the, for some, elusive experience, really all that worth it.

This post simply describes the domestic U.S. first class experience; the international 6+ hour flights is a different ball game with those lay flat seats…

After a few first class flights, what quickly happens from the experience is the transition of pleasantly surprised –> luxury –> indulgence –> unhealthy consumption. The unhealthy consumption part is particularly true for the amount of free food and booze they try to feed you / you have access to on the flight. Alright, fine, there’s nothing wrong with free food and booze, but it’s still unhealthy if consumed in abundance and we’re still going to be looking at value since what the airlines feed you is not exactly the best of foods.

What first class domestic flight provides you—

Before the flight:

Priority Boarding: You get a special line that allows you to board 5 minutes ahead of everyone else. This also guarantees you overhead luggage space. Getting an airline credit card or having status puts you in at least priority line 2, which is essentially almost the same thing.

Free Check-in Luggage: This is a big one for those traveling on vacation with family as luggage costs have gone up  to $25 per check-in luggage. However, getting status or an airline credit card will also easily resolve this issue as you get at least 1 free checked bag. Also, learning to travel lighter without a checked bag and just a carry-on is a pretty liberating habit to have.

During the flight:

Pre-flight Drink: Since you get to sit down first and have some time before the rest of the plebeians get on, the flight attendants will come around asking you if you want a pre-flight drink. This can be anything they have such as water, orange juice, whiskey, wine, or cocktail.

Larger Seats: So this is pretty important for those that are larger in width. Otherwise, economy plus seating isn’t that bad and is comparable in the leg-room. I’m personally not tall enough to require all of that extra leg-room anyway. Definitely a perk to not have to fight for arm space with the guy next to you though.

Hot Towel:  Shortly after take-off, the flight attendant will come by with hot towels for you to wipe your face with. I actually love this, and this is a luxury that I look forward to every time to feel refreshed for the flight.

Beverage and a Bowl of Nuts: Next on the check-list is another order of your choice-beverage and a small bowl of heated salted nuts (cashews, peanuts, almonds, etc). I want to make a note that all the liquor you’ll be getting are nips of bottom shelf liquor and beer, as well as some standard wine.

United Alcoholic Beverages List (2015)

  • Tito’s Handmade Vodka®
  • Bacardi® Superior Rum
  • Canadian Club® Whisky
  • Dewar’s® “White Label®” Blended Scotch Whisky
  • Jack Daniel’s® Tennessee Whiskey
  • Jim Beam® Devil’s Cut® Bourbon Whiskey
  • Reliz Creek Pinot Noir 2011, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, California
  • Hess Select Chardonnay 2013, Monterey, California

If you wanted alcoholic beverages in economy seating, it’s $8 for spirit nips, and $16 for the half bottle of wine. If you don’t want an alcoholic beverage, it’s free for both first and economy class; the only difference is that in first class, you get your drinks immediately but have to wait a minute or two in economy.

The other work-around to the first class beverage perk is to simply buy liquor and snacks from the terminal before the flight and then be able to enjoy them whenever you want in your economy seat without paying the first-class ticket premium. Although, for some reason, if you do it this way, you might look like a degenerate to the passenger next to you.

Lunch/Dinner: One of the better perk of First Class is that it comes with lunch/dinner depending on when your flight is. The meal comes with actual dishes and silverware, which makes it feel like you’re dining somewhere as opposed to getting a quick fast-food sandwich in the slum-class seats.

A typical dinner meal will come with salad, main course (usually chicken, salmon, or vegetarian), and dessert. The below meal is from my most recent flight:

United First Class Salad Appetizer

Appetizer – Salad appetizer course with a mix of greens, julienned jicama, red and yellow bell pepper and carrot batonnets, curried chickpeas and couscous served with warmed multi-grain bread roll

United First Class Main Course

Main Course – Grill Chicken with Mixed Steamed Vegetables and White Rice

United First Class Dessert

Dessert – Chocolate Ice Cream with Chocolate Syrup and Whip Cream

I was also offered an oven-heated peanut butter chip cookie but I refused it; too much sugary goodness for my 5 hours of sedentary sitting.

Post Meal: When the meal is done, that pretty much wraps up the first class service. For the rest of the flight, you can order more beverages if you like. If you’re lucky, your flight would also have an electric outlet to plug in your devices. Some flights have movies streaming through their WI-FII that you can watch on your device for free (this also sometimes apply to flights without electric plugs.. which doesn’t make sense for keeping personal devices alive for the streaming). If your flight is still using Direct-TV personal screen, first class cabins get free access, while economy would have to pay $7 or something. Not a big deal.

After the flight

As soon as the flight lands, you get the extra perk of being able to be the first one off the flight. However, as soon as you leave the plane, it’s over; you’re just like everyone else again (maybe a little more relaxed and stress-free if it was a long flight). 

Is it worth it? So I definitely enjoy the experience of having more space and freedom to capture the attention of the flight attendant. Having a meal out of it is nice too. However, if you are spending a few hundred dollars for the first class upgrade, I don’t think the service provided justifies the cost. For maybe $30 of pre-purchased goods in the terminal, you could enjoy the same quality of food and drinks or better. For a credit card application or just flying with status, you can have most of the perks already. Overall, I wouldn’t spend the extra money on a first class upgrade from the value point of view. However, if you’re looking for a luxurious time and you don’t do it too often, a First Class upgrade might be worthwhile– just make sure to stand up and walk a little between desserts.

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