A couple of nights ago I was messing around on the United site looking at flights for an upcoming trip. Working for a company that relegates its employees to Economy Class means you never really have a hard look at what the better tickets cost. Rather, you just sit in the boarding lounge and look with envy at the people who work for companies that are willing to shell out to make their people comfortable on 12 hour flights. Ignorance is bliss, and so I’ve never really thought much about the cost.

Lately though I have been using my miles to upgrade to business depending on how wealthy I am feeling. So I have developed a bit of a taste for what you get for the extra expense. On my last flight home, I happened to be in a Business Class seat that looked straight into 1st Class, and so had a glimpse of what goes on up there, behind the gossamer curtains.

Anyway, in the course of my exploration, I took the steps to book my regular route in both Business and 1st, just to have a look at the cost. Well, Gatsby was right – the rich are different. As are the employees whose boss is willing to shell out for the upgrade. No wonder they’re all smiling.

So here’s a comparison between classes on a few key vectors like food, comfort and service. Along with the ticket price from San Francisco to Shanghai. In most cases I’m giving you the straight scoop, but I may have “estimated” in places where I did not have first hand knowledge. The prices are just as I was quoted.

Economy Class:

  • Ticket Cost: $1181
  • Boarding method: Done in groups, from 1 to 7.
  • Drinks: You wait for a visit from the drink cart, free liquor, you get the full can on soft drinks. Served in plastic.
  • Snacks: Pretzels.
  • Food: Plastic tray with entree, salad and desert, side by side. Two main meals and a bowl of Ramen sometime mid-flight.
  • Lighting: Overhead bulb.
  • Entertainment: 3-4 movies and a couple of episodes of those dumb little blond boys from the Disney Channel if the system is working.
  • Comfort: Regular fabric plane seat with a pillow and a blanket made from some synthetic material.
  • Rest Rooms: 4 shared by 300 people.

Business Class:

  • Ticket Cost: $12,341
  • Boarding Method: You get to get on first, before the rabble.
  • Drinks: Champagne or water pre-take-off. Never empty glasses of water or whatever else you want during the whole flight. Served in small glasses, made of glass.
  • Snacks: Bottomless glass bowl of delicately warmed and salted nuts.
  • Food: 3 courses served on china, separately with a linen table cloth. Two main meals and little sandwiches with the crusts cut off mid-flight.
  • Lighting: Overhead light plus gooseneck reading lamp.
  • Entertainment: Personal television screen with 4 or 5 movies, TV and a map of our progress.
  • Comfort: Leather double-wide recliner that almost goes flat, a chenile blanket, full size pillow and a little bag with socks, mask and toothbrush.
  • Rest Rooms: 4 shared by 20 people.

1st Class:

  • Ticket Cost: $23,965
  • Boarding: You are delivered individually to the plane in an air-conditioned golf cart that scissor-lifts you up to the cabin door.
  • Drinks: Every seat comes with a mini-bar and a bartender who has spent at least 10 years in apprenticing in 5 star taverns, minimum one assignment on each continent. Drinks are served in hand-blown Riedel crystal pre-washed in Evian. Glasses are guaranteed to be the biggest on the plane.
  • Snacks: Hand-crafted, low carb, delicately baked, light, fluffy, pastry things, all you can eat.
  • Food: A personal chef prepares as many meals of whatever ilk strikes your fancy, right there on your personal Viking range.
  • Lighting: Same as business class but the gooseneck lamp is bigger.
  • Entertainment: 1st run movies delivered by satellite are shown on individual screens suspended in front of your cabin space. On request, a well known troupe of actors with do your favorite Shakespeare play on a stage in the nose of the plane. Broadway shows are available on request and depending on how many empty seats are available in the lesser classes for the actors.
  • Comfort: Lie-flat beds that convert from Recaro designed leather sports car seats. Full 500 thread count linen sheets and pillow cases. Choice of Greenlandic eider down or hypoallergenic composite pillows and comforters. Maid service 4 times during the flight. For napping, a Hudson Bay Blanket, custom woven to your personal dimensions by an Inuit master weaver is offered along with a Pervuian Alpaca anorak, hand-knitted angora beanie and Thorlo hiking socks.
  • Rest Rooms: 20 shared by 15 people.

So there you have it, all the information you need to make an informed choice next time you plan that international adventure. The question, is it worth it?