The allure of flying first class comes with the reality of sticker shock—if you’re looking to get from Point A to B on the same flight but with upgraded perks, a seat can cost as much as four times more than in the economy cabin. And since those added benefits differ by airlines, price tags can vary quite significantly.
To better understand the pricing, Upgraded Points looked into the costs of flying first versus economy on major U.S. carriers, finding that the four major airlines have about a $50 spread in the average price differences between the two cabins. Delta Air Lines had the highest difference, with $284.55 separating first and economy domestic one-way flights: First-class tickets average $419.62, while economy hovers at around $135.07.
On the lower end of the scale, differences at American Airlines averaged out to $235.85, with first-class seats around $370.43 and economy for $134.58. In between were Alaska Airlines, with an average price differential between classes of $281.25, and United Airlines with $250.25.
One reason that Delta’s costs may be higher could be its recently upgraded first-class experience on Airbus A321neo flights, with refreshed private seating, more spacious overhead bins, and faster Wi-Fi. Alaska also serves meals in first class on flights of 550 miles or more—a nice perk, considering most others require a minimum distance of 900 miles.
Those offerings are “attractive,” Upgraded Points founder and CEO Alex Miller tells Condé Nast Traveler, but he notes that while any first-class seat will always be a more comfortable experience, he personally “would definitely pay the extra to fly Delta’s refreshed first class, given the great use of space and additional privacy in comparison to American’s existing product.”
Miller added that he was most surprised to see the wide fluctuation in the first-class premium costs across various routes. “While we expected some variation, particularly with the longer flights, it was interesting to see that a first-class upgrade costs an average of anywhere between $93 to $658.” Overall, the study found that on average, passengers pay $262.97 on each one-way flight for first-class cabins, and more than $525 to go round-trip.
The greatest difference was on flights between New York’s JFK and Los Angeles’ LAX, where economy tickets average $188.29 but first-class was $846, a whopping difference of $657.71. That means you could take four flights in economy and still have $92 left for a decent airport meal for the price of that one first-class seat. Not far behind were flights between LAX and Hawaii’s Kahului Airport, where the economy average of $194.29 spikes to $745.29 for first class.
On the other end of the spectrum, the average economy fare on the shorter-haul LAX to San Francisco route of $94.73 bumps up $187.45 for first—though it’s almost double, it’s still a relatively affordable cost for the privilege of riding first. That route also offers one of the lowest first-class fares on popular domestic routes, with the ability to snag an upgraded seat on Alaska Airlines for just $159 in first. The Seattle-based airline also offers first-class seats for $164.71 between Las Vegas and LAX.
Other findings from the study show that Delta’s lowest first-class fare is $234.36 between Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale, while American’s is $210.57 between Atlanta and New York’s LaGuardia and United’s is $246.50 to travel from Denver to either Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Calculated using a sampling of data with travel dates throughout the year with prices from Google Flights on the 12 busiest domestic routes according to OAG, the study also considered Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue, which didn’t offer enough price data for a fair comparison, as well as Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier, none of which have true first-class service.
Numbers aside, the exact details of your situation matter to see if the premium is worth the upgrade. “Flying first-class is a great experience that all interested travelers should treat themselves to at least once,” Miller says. “When calculating whether or not it’s worth it, it’s important to consider the length of the flight, the purpose of the trip, and the travel budget to decide what makes the most sense for your situation.”