Is It Worth Flying First or Premium Class on a Budget Airline? We Decided to Find Out

Low-cost carriers Breeze Airways and French Bee have their own versions of first and premium class seats at the front of the plane. We recently tested them out to see how they stack up.

Blue Breeze Airways plane on runway

Breeze Airways’ “Nicest” class of service is the low-cost carrier’s version of first class.

Courtesy of Breeze Airways

With airfares soaring, and upgrades even more elusive if you lack the miles and status, your options can be pretty limited when trying to escape coach-class misery—at least on traditional airlines.

But there is an alternative that even savvy frequent fliers may not have thought of. Bargain first or premium class may sound like a contradiction, but it’s arguably one of the best “champagne on a beer budget” travel hacks. Over the years, I’ve purposely sought out the low-cost carriers that offer premium digs—one of my all-time favorites was on Norwegian Air’s Boeing 787 wide-bodies, where the upfront section featured comfy recliners, delicious hot meals, and seatback entertainment, for a price well below comparable offerings on major international carriers.

Norwegian ran into financial headwinds and, in 2021, gave up its long-haul service, and airlines that had attempted an all-premium-class service at affordable fares ultimately failed (with the exception of France’s La Compagnie). But several low-cost carriers that have recently come on the scene are offering a two-class layout, betting that some fliers will spend a little more for a better ride. And they might be on to something.

I recently flew in the pointy end of the plane on two niche airlines and the experience was a pleasant surprise. One flight was with Breeze Airways, a domestic upstart now flying coast to coast, and the other was on Paris-based French Bee, a long-haul leisure carrier, which offers a premium product on the overnight nonstops it operates across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Other low-cost carriers offer premium seating at discounted fares, too. They include Norse Atlantic Airways, a reboot of Norwegian Air that operates the same planes with the same layout and transatlantic service between the United States and Europe with a selection of seats that are wider and have more legroom than economy and include meals, starting at $462 one way with a checked bag. And there’s also Neos Air, an Italian budget carrier with flights between the U.S. (from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport) and Milan three times a week on 787 Dreamliner aircraft that have 28 seats at the front of the plane (out of 359 total) with more space, an upscale meal and beverage service, and fares that start at $686 one way.

Bargain first or premium class may sound like a contradiction, but it’s arguably one of the best ‘champagne on a beer budget’ travel hacks.
Barbara Peterson

There are some caveats, however. Don’t expect fully lie-flat beds, airport lounges, and other perks like vintage champagne that you would get on a world-class carrier like Air France or Singapore Airlines. The reason these discount lines can offer lower than average fares is that they’ve kept operating costs to a minimum. In fact, you may not even find such basic amenities as fully staffed customer service phone lines (texting and “chat” interactions are often the preferred and most available means of communication). And while fliers have come to expect fees for everything that isn’t nailed down, you could still be surprised, as I was when I saw that it would cost me $3 to print my boarding pass at the airport on Breeze Airways. As for what the experience is like in-flight, here is a full review.

What it’s like to fly first class on Breeze Airways

A Breeze first-class seat in the recline position

It’s hard to overstate how much difference a comfortable, well-designed seat can make on a cross-country flight.

Courtesy of Breeze Airways

The flight: Breeze Airways, Flight 298, White Plains, New York (HPN) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
The class of service: “Nicest” class, Breeze’s version of premium or first class
The price: From $298 each way for first class versus fares from $69 each way to fly economy
The review: Breeze Airways, the low-cost carrier from JetBlue founder David Neeleman, started as a quirky player flying among secondary airports, but in less than two years it has become a truly national airline. Toward the end of 2022, it passed the 100-route milestone and launched its first coast-to-coast nonstops, with flights to Los Angeles from New York’s Westchester County Airport, situated in a quiet suburb about 30 miles north of Manhattan.

I flew with Breeze last November, but rather than sit in the back, I decided to find out what it’s like flying up front with the competitively priced carrier. On the morning of my flight, I pulled up at the single passenger terminal in White Plains at 7 a.m. for the 8:30 a.m. departure. The diminutive airport has just four gates and the gate area was packed with travelers escaping the cold for points south. Amenities are limited but once I got through security—with the help of Clear to bypass the scrum—I found a place to sit near a convenience store and, aware that in-flight food would be limited to an assortment of snacks, grabbed a coffee and sandwich.

Once we boarded, I settled into Seat 8F—one of the 36 first-class seats at the front of the plane—thanks to my ticket in the class dubbed “Nicest,” to set it apart from “Nice” (the Breeze Airways equivalent of basic economy), and “Nicer” (the carrier’s version of economy, which offers a bit more legroom than “Nice”).

These elegant seats are only available on the Airbus A220, a bigger plane with more range than the smaller Embraer jets in its fleet. Fortunately, most of the airline’s flights of more than a few hours are on the A220—which has won praise for its features like large windows and other antidotes to claustrophobia. We pushed back at 8:33 a.m. and were soon in the air. The advantage of a smaller hub like White Plains is that it doesn’t have conga lines on the runway like the much more congested New York hubs of LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International. The captain announced the flying time would be five hours and 20 minutes and said the crew would be coming down the aisle shortly with refreshments.

While I sat in my capacious seat—20.5 inches wide, with pitch of 39 inches (the legroom between rows)—the time passed quickly, and it was easy to nod off. There are no seatback screens and we were alerted in advance that Wi-Fi was not available (it is currently being beta-tested for a rollout later this year), but I brought plenty of work and prior to departure had downloaded some binge-worthy TV shows to watch.

My conclusion about the experience and whether it’s worth it: It’s hard to overstate how much difference a comfortable, well-designed seat can make when you’re on a flight that spans multiple time zones.

What it’s like to fly premium on French Bee

French Bee premium economy seat

Sit back and relax in a French Bee premium seat for flights to Paris and Tahiti from the United States.

Courtesy of French Bee

The flight: French Bee, Flight 710, San Francisco (SFO) to Tahiti (PPT)
The class: Premium class
The price: From $835 one-way (based on current exchange rates) versus fares from $270 each way in Basic Economy
The review: Paris-based French Bee would seem to have an unbeatable combination—low fares and a distinct Gallic flavor that takes the edge off the budget airline experience.

Arriving at San Francisco International Airport for my late-night flight to Tahiti last October—the departure was scheduled for 11:20 p.m.—I quickly caught on to the benefits of flying premium with French Bee. There’s no dedicated airport lounge, and French Bee doesn’t participate in TSA PreCheck, but my boarding pass gave me a fast track through airport security (some smaller non-U.S. airlines can contract with the airport to offer this workaround), which I cleared in minutes.

The gate area was definitely crowded and I realized that many of my fellow travelers were speaking French; they’d taken off from Paris earlier in the day and were continuing on to French Polynesia (for a punishing total flying time of nearly 20 hours). Flights are via Airbus A350 wide-body jets that are configured to carry 411 passengers in three classes, which French Bee refers to as Eco, Smart, and Premium.

My premium ticket also allowed me to board ahead of the masses, and I settled into seat 2A, at the front of the 35-seat premium section. The 18-inch-wide seat felt like a retro business-class model, not fully lie flat but reclining enough to allow me to get some shut-eye on the 8.5-hour flight. The legroom was a decent (though not generous) 36 inches, and there were seatback screens loaded with a good mix of current TV series and new and classic films. A flight attendant offered me a glass of bubbly, and we pushed back from the gate on schedule.

Despite the late hour (I was still on New York time, so it felt like 3 a.m.), I could hardly refuse the full meal that my fare included—I chose pasta with shrimp in an Alfredo sauce, accompanied by a wedge of Brie, a salad, and a soufflé-like cheesecake, with a 2015 Chateau Blaignon merlot.

I settled back to watch My Salinger Year and nodded off. The crew came by four hours into my slumber with a continental breakfast 90 minutes before we landed. When we touched down at the ungodly hour of 4:45 a.m. local time in Tahiti, arriving passengers were given a rousing welcome from a band of musicians.

Other perks of French Bee’s premium class include a more generous baggage allowance (two 50-pound checked bags) plus free drinks and two meals. Those flying on an Eco fare (French Bee’s version of basic economy) do not have meals included, and the in-between Smart class includes one 50-pound checked bag and one in-flight meal but the same size seats as regular economy.

My conclusion about the experience and whether it’s worth it: French Bee’s premium class is a good deal for the money, but it’s not what I would consider a luxury travel experience. However, compared with the back of the plane, with 10 abreast seating, it’s worth it, especially for a nearly 9-hour flight.

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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