The Evolution and Future of U.S.-Europe First Class Fares

The Evolution and Future of U.S.-Europe First Class Fares


One thing is certain: Cash upgrades at time of purchase are in. But the airlines are still experimenting with how much and when to charge.

When FCF first reported on the new strain of heavily-discounted First Class fares back in November 2014, they were only offered on a couple airlines and only to some destinations. Since then, the prices have continued to drop—in October 2015 American offered First Class for only $250 more than Business round-trip—but now we’re seeing fares stabilize a bit. Fares are around longer and the lowest ones require a 150-day advance-purchase. (All prices in this article are round-trip.)

Business Travelers
Good News: To Europe many companies only allow Business Class travel. On American and United you can pay the difference to upgrade to First without incurring a change fee (otherwise $500). It’s a good investment. On American this can even be done on BA code-share flights. But remember, you cannot change dates or flights without a fee, just the cabin.

But the more important trend is that more airlines are now offering a cash upgrade at time of ticketing from Business Class to First and on more routes than ever before. The trick for the airlines now is figuring out how much to charge for the upgrade.

What the Six Major Airlines Offering First Class to Europe are Doing Now

Air France: Always the holdout when it comes to discounting First Class, the airline is now lowering First Class fares, but intermittently on a “match-you” basis.

It is matching the competition on Washington, DC-Barcelona, for example, starting at $5,320 with a 50-day advance-purchase requirement, and on Los Angeles/San Francisco-London, starting at $5,599 (150-day advance purchase). Previously you’d expect to see fares in the $8,000 to $12,000 range. To Paris, fares still typically range from $7,500 to $9,600 with a 50-day advance and FCF doesn’t expect that to change soon.

American: Although the discount leader at the start, AA has realized that pricing First Class at $250 more than Business is unwise, especially because it undercut British Airways, its transatlantic code-share partner. American’s upgrade surcharge is now $950 to $1,350 to London. Fares start at $4,201 from New York (150-day advance-purchase). For perspective, it was only a few years ago that these fares were $8,000 to $10,000.

American also offers discounted First Class to London on 90-, 50-, and 28-day advance-purchase fares, but the upgrade varies: It starts at $1,350 to London and $1,400 Dallas-Frankfurt on a $3,544 base Business Class fare. (Keep in mind that AA is phasing out First Class on B777-200s.)

Net-net: It costs $1,100 and 50,000 miles to upgrade to First from Business to Europe, so on a strict cost basis there’s not that much difference. But with the upgrade surcharge, you have a confirmed seat. And, if you factor in how much you had to spend to get the 50,000 miles, buying the discounted ticket is the only way to go.


British Airways: The only one of the European carriers that offers lower-cost cash upgrades at time of ticketing to its hub city, London. The upgrade surcharge from Business Class is $950 to $1,350, resulting in First Class starting at $4,200 from New York and $5,373 from Seattle (150-day advance-purchase required on both). On fares with shorter advance-purchase requirements, the upgrade goes up as the deadline gets shorter: $1,400+ for 90-day fares; $2,000+ for 50-day, and $4,000 for 28-day.

When it comes to upgrading with miles, BA charges 17,500 (off-peak) to 25,000 (peak) one-way LAX-London, and 18,000 (off-peak) to 20,000 (peak) NYC-London. That’s a wash with the 150-day advance discounted fare.

Lufthansa/SWISS: These fast learners are taking the lead from Star Alliance partner United, but are a bit like Air France in that they do not discount to their hub cities, Frankfurt and Zurich, respectively. (The only exception we found was on Dallas-Frankfurt: Lufthansa matched American’s First Class fare, which prices out at only $1,450 more than Business.)

The lowest First Class fare ($3,861) we found offered by Lufthansa is on Charlotte-Madrid (150-day advance-purchase), only $550 more than Business Class ($3,311). Cash upgrades, at time of ticketing, are $600 to $1,500 to London, depending on the advance-purchase requirement (the shorter, the more expensive the surcharge).


United: The cash upgrade goes for $800 to $1,000 to London on a 150-day advance-purchase fare. United does not offer great discounts to its partners’ hubs, Frankfurt (Lufthansa) and Zurich (SWISS), but it will undercut Air France to Paris when it can. On New York-Paris, United charges $4,454 for a 150-day advance-purchase fare, while Air France charges $7,674. United fare is only $1,450 more than Business Class, whereas in the past the difference was often 5 to 10 times more.


United offers discounted First Class on other advance-purchase fares on other routes. On NY-London, the surcharge is about $650 with 90-day advance-purchase fares, $750 for 50-day, and $1,500 for 28-days out. From LAX the surcharge is $800, $610, $1,300 for these fares.

The Future of First Class to Europe?

I can see most airlines—even Air France at some point—going with a $1,000-$1,500 cash upgrade on most leisure, advance-purchase fares to Europe. In the meantime, book 150-days out to get the lowest First Class fare; on shorter bookings keep United and Lufthansa in mind for low-upgrade surcharges; and keep London in mind for low-cost upgrades from Business Class.