Last updated: 04:40 PM ET, Thu September 08 2016

Regional First Class: Is It Worth the Price?

Airlines & Airports | Melinda Crow | September 06, 2016

Regional First Class: Is It Worth the Price?

Smaller jets now go far beyond what was once considered "regional," consistently creeping into the schedule for flights over three hours in length. First-class seats on some routes are often only slightly more than economy, making them more available to the average traveler.

When you first stumble upon one of these low premium fares it's easy to think they could be a mistake. We checked a Dallas to Los Angeles route for each of the top three carriers and found the lowest first-class seats on early morning weekday flights, where some first-class seats were often only 40 percent more than the lowest available economy, and often actually lower than unrestricted economy fares. When that happens, and your choice is between a full-fare economy or a lower-priced, but restricted, first class, it's a no-brainer.  But regardless of the fares, the real question is whether or not these seats are worth any premium at all.

Do the math

The first step in making your decision is to calculate what's included with the first-class ticket that you would pay for in economy. Are you checking bags? All three major carriers charge $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for the second, with a few exceptions for certain credit card holders. The weight limits on those bags is 50 pounds. Those same bags are free for first-class ticket holders, plus the bags can weigh 70 pounds. Money saved each way: potentially $60.

Need to eat during the trip? Lunch or breakfast either in-flight or in the airport will set you back $12 to $15 each way. Usually have a glass of wine or a cocktail? That's another $8-10, bringing the total for food and beverages that are included with a first-class ticket to $20 to $25 for each leg of your trip. So now your extras have added up to as much as $85 each way when you fly economy. That first-class ticket is looking a little more tempting.

READ MORE: Do First-Class Cabins Create More Air Rage?

Then there are the perks that are harder to quantify. How much is your time worth? Everybody knows that first-class tickets include shorter security lines and early boarding, getting you on the plane with drink in hand quicker that the backseat passengers, but the opposite is also true. First class not only gets you off the plane first, but in most cases, checked bags for first-class passengers are delivered to the carousel first.

And then there are the qualifying miles to be considered. If you have your eyes on mileage status, first-class tickets, in most cases, gets you there faster, often 50 percent faster.

Creature comforts

If you aren't checking any bags, you don’t eat when you travel, and you aren't a mileage collector, the savings simply are not there. But maybe you just can't envision flying in teeny economy seats with no padding, no elbow room, no head room, and seats that barely recline. They are bad on full-sized jets; how bad can they be on those narrow-body planes? And just how much improvement are the first-class seats over the rest of the plane? For that, we turned to for specs on seat width, pitch, and amenities. All three carriers fly primarily Embraer and Bombardier regional jets. First-class seats will always beat the economy seats when it comes to leg room, but width may be another matter.

Seat Guru lists first-class seat widths on those jets ranging from 18 inches up to a whopping 24 inches on some United Embraer jets. Compare that to a standard 18-inch width in economy on the Embraers and 17 inches on the Bombardiers. Both of those widths are pretty standard for economy seats on any domestic jet, regardless of airplane size. First-class seats typically average closer to 20 inches in width on most domestic flights on full-sized jets. The fact that there are first-class seats on some regional jets that fall below 20 inches points out the importance of checking the seat size on your specific flight before you book if comfort is your primary concern.

Setting aside all the numbers, I recently had the opportunity to fly first class on a regional jet and was pleasantly surprised. The service was everything you would expect to receive on a full-size jet. The seats were far more comfortable than a typical economy seat, had plenty of legroom, and adequate overhead storage for a carry-on. (Though that varies among the regional jets.) The meal choices were adequate and the food certainly better than a cold sandwich in a box. The overall advice then, is to price shop, consider your personal needs regarding luggage and meals, then double check the dimensions of the premium seat you are actually buying. 


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