Amenity Kit, Bedding, Slippers And Menu when boarding Delta One

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Is It Worth It To Upgrade To First Class On Long Haul Flights

The question of whether or not it is worth upgrading to first class on long-haul flights is a complicated one for most travelers. Sure, if money is no object, it’s a no-brainer to upgrade. Or if you have airline elite status and qualify for a free upgrade, that’s also an easy decision. But for the average flier, several factors need to be weighted. 

On recent international flights, I decided to try out several options. I do have Platinum Medallion status on Delta Airlines. Still, rule changes have eliminated the chance to get complimentary upgrades to Delta One (the Delta first-class seat) on most international routes, especially if you purchase an economy-class ticket. So, on a recent trip to Europe, I opted to upgrade using points (which I have a lot of but hate to use frivolously) on the flight from Detroit to Amsterdam. A last-minute upgrade offer was a good value: 79,000 points or $799 to upgrade for the long-haul leg of my journey. I received a complimentary upgrade on my flight to Detriot from Pittsburgh as a bonus. I had my standard Platinum Medallion complimentary upgrade to Comfort + for my return flights from Amsterdam to Detriot. So I was able to compare the two classes carefully and determine when it’s worth taking the plunge. 

Ultimately, I am still trying to figure out a clear-cut answer to whether upgrading is worth it. It depends on the cost of doing so. But first, let’s discuss the difference between the premium cabin experience and either Premium Economy or Economy tickets. Most long-haul flights offer at least three service levels; some even throw in an extra level just below First Class but slightly better than Premium Economy; for clarity, we will refer to this as Business Class. 

Economy Service On International Flights:
  • Almost all international flights will offer all passengers a meal or even a meal and snack. You usually have two choices, and the food is average at best.
  • Besides a meal, most international flights offer all passengers at least beer and wine during meal service.
  • You will have a standard legroom seat, and each seat will have a small pillow and light blanket.
  • Often, you must pay for headphones in this cabin.
Premium Economy Service On International Flights:
  • You will receive all the benefits for the Standard Economy Seats listed above.
  • More leg room, typically around 3 inches of additional space.
  • You will receive complimentary earbuds for the entertainment system on most airlines.
  • Dedicated overhead storage (although others not seated in Premium seats will use this space)
  • You will usually have early boarding, giving you the first overhead bin choice. Since this cabin is typically in the front of the plane, you also get to deplane more quickly.
  • A small amenity kit, including earplugs and a sleeping mask, is often supplied on long-haul flights. 
Business Class (the step down between First Class and Premium Economy) Service On International Flights:
  • More leg room and usually a more comfortable seat. Often with a greater recline and a footrest. 
  • You may be offered expedited check-in with this ticket class and early boarding.
  • Dedicated overhead bins and often a divided cabin for more privacy.
  • Enhanced dining and meal service. Often with more frequent food, snack, and drink service.
  • Usually, this cabin class receives the premium amenity kit found in the first-class cabin.
  • You may also find a higher-quality pillow, a thicker blanket, and noise-canceling headphones.
First Class or Premium Service On International Flights:

Here is where it gets interesting. This type of cabin can vary widely. Some big-name foreign carriers such as Etihad, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, and Singapore Airlines, for example, are in a class of their own. So, for this decision-making, we are sticking with the major US carriers, who all offer similar premium cabins. On Delta Airlines, this is referred to as Delta One; on American Airlines, it’s called Flagship; on United Airlines, it’s called Polaris.

  • Room and lots of it. Usually, they have lay flat seats with extra legroom and a larger entertainment system with noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Lounge access or, in some cases, a lounge dedicated to only passengers in the Premium cabin.
  • Expedited check-in, sometimes security, boarding, and baggage handling. You will also get extra space in the overhead bin.
  • A premium amenity kit and sometimes even pj’s.
  • A welcome aboard cocktail, plus premium wines and alcohol during the flight.
  • ​An extensive menu with higher quality food, served on real china and with actual flatware.
  • Extras include warm towels, a dedicated restroom for this cabin class, and premium snacks throughout the flight.
  • And on some flights, an actual suite with small doors you can close for more privacy.
Menu card on first class flight
Menu For Food And Beverage

Now To The BIG Question: When Is It Worth It To Upgrade?

So now that you know what’s at stake, the real question is when to upgrade and how much is too much for these additional services and amenities. And, of course, it will all come down to what it’s worth to you personally to have additional comfort on a long-haul flight and how much money or how many points you have to spare. But here are some factors to consider:

#1 How Long Is The Flight

How long is the flight truly is the most critical question: how long is the flight? If you are on the plane for less than 7-8 hours, it often isn’t worth the cost. A 10-12 hour flight or even more is a different issue. Flights to Asia, Africa, Australia, or New Zealand can be brutal, so an upgrade will increase the quality of your trip.

#2 What Is The Cost

Here is where you need to do your homework. On the typical flight between Europe and the US, the cost difference between Economy and Premium Economy is often around $100 to $200, and the added comfort is easily justified. Economy and First Class can cost at least $2,000 more and often over $4,000 more. When you break this down to cost per flight hour, it ranges from $250 to $500. Is more legroom worth that price per hour? 

An upgrade on only the longest leg of a journey can save you significant money. I suggest waiting until after booking and weighing the airline’s offers to upgrade to specific segments. You might find something for half the original first-class ticket price.

Also, unless you have millions of airline points, use them wisely for upgrades. Points have value; they are like money. You can use sites or apps such as Point.me and thepointsguy.com, which will help value the points.  New to the points and miles game? Check out my post The Ultimate Beginners Guide To Points/Miles and Free Travel.

Here’s An Example Of An Upgrade Value

But let me run through an example of my recent upgrade. My initial ticket from PIT to VIE cost $755.95 for a Comfort + round trip. If I had booked a Delta One ticket (first-class cabin on Delta long-haul flights), the cost would have been over $4,000 at the time of booking. About three weeks before my trip, I received an offer to upgrade to Delta One on my DTW to AMS flight (the leg I most wanted to sit in Delta One since it was the overnight flight) for either $799 or 79,000 points. I jumped at this offer since I got what I wanted, and it was a savings of over $2,400 compared to the initial price. Using points, was a good value. I realize it was only one leg of the trip, but it was the most crucial to me. Before taking this offer, the upgrade prices were over $3,200 or 320,000 points for the same upgrade.

Taking the offer was a good thing; I was stuck on that plane for three extra hours (in my much more comfy seat with food and drinks) and in Amsterdam for over 10 hours awaiting my rebooked connection (my upgrade got me club access, making the wait slightly more bearable).

Noice-Cancelling headphone in first class
Noise-Cancelling Headphone Provided In First Class
#3 When To Take The Plunge

Should you book the cabin upgrade when booking or wait for upgrade offers? Often, waiting will lead to the best deal, but you might not get the cabin you want if you don’t book initially. Most airlines closely monitor seat inventory and the number of empty seats in first class, and if there are a lot, they make offers to entice passengers to upgrade. In these cases, you might get a real deal. Also, at check-in, it never hurts to ask if there is any upgrade offer; you might get an absolute steal. 

#4 It’s Always Worth Bidding On Upgrades If You Can

Some airlines give passengers the chance to bid on upgrades. Currently, the only US carrier offering any bid system is Hawaiian Airlines, which has a lot of limitations. But the theory is customers bid on upgrades based on what they are willing to spend, and the highest bidders get the upgrade, if available. This option has no downsides, so it’s worth putting in a bid if you have the option.

Dinner served on Delta flight to Amersterdam
Dinner Service Delta One
#5 Can You Do It On Certain Legs?

You can often upgrade specific segments before booking and even after issuing your original ticket. This might save you money and get you a higher level of service on the leg(s) that matter most to you. Often you want to upgrade on overnight flights to a flat bed since sleeping can be difficult for economy passengers. 

#6 Are There Ways To Get Better Upgrade Deals?

There are ways to get better upgrade deals. First, be patient; last-minute offers are usually the best. Book off-peak or less crowded flights; you might get better upgrade options. Crowded flights to popular destinations and peak travel times will be the most competitive for upgrades. Having elite status with an airline loyalty program may give you a leg up when seeking flight upgrades. Also, the airport you are flying out of makes a difference; there are more options for upgrades on flights from New York and Los Angeles, for example, since competition is greater in those markets.

#7 What Aircraft Are You Flighing?

Remember, not all aircraft are the same. So, a premium cabin on an older model might not be as nice or desirable as on the newest aircraft. Study your flights and determine if the premium cabin is worth it. Do your research; it can stop you from making costly mistakes.

First-class breakfast service on Delta One
Breakfast Before Landing

At The End Of The Day, The Question Is: What’s It Worth To You?

Splurging on an upgrade is a personal decision. I enjoyed my time in Delta One, but my return trip in Comfort + was also fine. My threshold for an upgrade would be based on the distance (definitely over 8 hours in my case) and price (I would look for something under $1000 or comparable points). My top tips include working your frequent flyer program to get upgraded if you can, only upgrading on longer haul flights, waiting until the last minute can work to your benefit, and researching the aircraft type and age before you splurge. 

Sometimes, upgrading is worth the extra money for special occasion trips or getting decent sleep on an overnight flight. And consider which airline you are flying; if you get a chance to upgrade on the elite foreign carriers do it, but for some of the mainline carriers in the US, it’s not that big of a deal. 

Below are links and resources to help you plan The perfect trip

Travel Resources

  • HOTELS
    Booking.com and Expedia.com are great resources for accommodations around the world. Book almost any hotel directly from these links.
  • TOURS
    The best places to book tours and activities are Viator or Get Your Guide . From great food tours to guided hiking adventures to local walking tours, you will find great experiences to add to your travels here.
  • FOOD EXPERIENCES
    EatWith is a great resource for authentic culinary experiences with passionate locals worldwide. Connecting travelers with hosts in over 130 countries, providing unique, intimate, and immersive experiences in private homes and exclusive venues.
  • TRAINS
    Trainline is Europe’s leading train and coach app. They work with over 210 rail and coach companies to help their customers travel to thousands of destinations across 45 countries. 

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