By Dr. James M. Dahle, WCI Founder
Is first class worth it? You have probably heard the phrase: “Fly first class or your heirs will!” Well, when should you fly first class? It's useful to encourage those who have a hard time spending their money to consider spending it on things that would make their life easier or more enjoyable. Here at The White Coat Investor, we believe there are five things you can do with money, and they should all be done well:
All can bring happiness to us and do good in the world. Today, we're going to talk about spending, and specifically, about spending money on flying. There are seven levels of flying that we will discuss, and for the most part, they reflect the economic status of the flyer. We're not talking about being a pilot today, we're just talking about being a passenger.
Here are your seven options for flying high in the sky.
#1 Not Flying
Here's the reality for the vast majority of humankind and even most Americans: it's a big deal to take a flight. Flights are expensive. As a kid, I only left my home state five times, and once was for me to be born and twice were for funerals. One of those times, we drove for four full days to get to the next state. That's the reality for most people. If they go on vacation, they are driving and they're staying with family. And it probably doesn't happen every year. So let's acknowledge the immense privilege it is to be able to fly anywhere at all for leisure. Not flying is what the lower class and, frankly, a large portion of the middle class do.
#2 Economy Class
OK, so you have enough money that you can go somewhere on a plane. Or maybe you don't have the money, but you somehow cobbled together a bunch of credit card rewards or airline miles or talked your employer into letting you combine a business and pleasure trip, etc. Now you can spend a few hundred dollars and fly somewhere. The class you fly in is called “economy” or “coach”. There isn't much legroom. You don't get meals. There may even be some drama in the cabin. But you can watch a movie or two, and then you're there, in a whole new place! This is all most people aspire to and it's wonderful and most of us probably would like to do it a little more than we do. Flying around to visit places just for leisure tends to be an upper-middle-class activity; let's say an income of $60,000+ per year.
Every airline calls this something different, such as “Economy Plus”. You pay just a little more, and you get just a little more. Maybe you board a little earlier or you get some additional food. You sit closer to the front of the airplane (faster escape and less turbulence). But mostly, you get a couple more inches of legroom. For tall people, moving up to premium is a big deal. For everyone else, it's kind of “whatever”. Again, we're talking about the upper-middle class here since it doesn't cost that much more to buy a premium seat.
#4 Business Class
As we talk about the next two classes, business and first class, it's really important that we distinguish between flying domestically and flying internationally. When you fly internationally in these classes, you get a lot more and you pay a lot more. In fact, on most domestic flights, business and first class are the same thing. It's really business class, but it's called first class. On domestic flights, you can expect to pay 2-3X what that coach seat costs. That's right, it's not just a little extra. It's dramatically more. Enough so that you might consider just buying the seat on each side of you in coach instead. So, what do you get for all that spending?
- More legroom
- Wider seat
- Sit at the front of the plane (quicker to get off, less turbulence)
- Your seat reclines more
- More attentive service
- Priority check-in (skip the line checking in)
- Priority boarding (you get on the plane first)
- Check two bags free
- On small regional flights, you get your checked carry-on bag first
- Maybe you get free entry to the airline lounge before or between flights
- Pre-flight drink
- Maybe the flight attendant will hang your jacket and stow your bag for you
- More likely to get a free meal—it's also probably a better meal and you might even get to pre-select it
- Booze is free
- Your mixed nuts might even be warmed
- Outlets to plug in your computer or phone (although these are showing up in coach these days)
- No additional charges for entertainment (again, showing up in coach these days—movies make passengers behave more and complain less)
Once we turn to international travel, everything changes quite a bit. You get all of the above, of course, plus more.
- Your pre-flight drink comes in a real glass
- You eat on real china with real silverware
- Your bed lies completely flat
- There is slightly more privacy
- Maybe a chauffeured pick-up and drop-off service
- Might even have access to a fully stocked bar
- Bigger TV/movie screen
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Massaging seats
Naturally, the price also goes up. You generally pay 3-5X as much for the ticket as a coach seat (which is already a four-figure amount). That's right, you get one seat for the same price as taking your whole family to Paris. What kind of income do you need to start thinking about flying business class? Certainly, a 1%er income, assuming you're paying for it and not being upgraded to it. But to me, it seems a pretty reasonable expense on a $500,000+ income.
#5 First Class
Now we turn to international first class. Start with the list above for business class. You obviously get all of that. Plus, you get:
- Space: a swiveling, lie-flat seat. You're the only one in your “row”, so you're never stepping over someone.
- Service: You may be only sharing your flight attendant with three other passengers.
- Privacy: You may even be able to close the door so nobody else can even see you.
- Sheets: The flight attendant will even make them up for you. The idea is that you're actually going to get a decent night's rest on this flight.
- Gourmet meals ordered off a menu.
- Shower spa: You're not only going to arrive rested, but you're going to be relaxed and sweet-smelling, too.
- Technology connections.
- Goodie bags.
Pretty awesome experience, eh? It varies by airline, of course, and as a general rule, this is not a strength of U.S. carriers. One website ranks the first-class experience as follows:
- Singapore Airlines
- Etihad Airways
- Air France
- ANA All Nippon Airways
- Qatar Airways
- Cathay Pacific Airways
- Thai Airways
So what is a first-class flight going to set you back? Plan to spend at least $5,000 and perhaps even five figures on this flight. Expect to pay 6-10 times what an economy seat costs. A 1%er income is enough to do this occasionally, but if you're going to do it regularly, a seven-figure income seems appropriate.
#6 Charted Jets and Fractional Ownership
Now we're moving into the next category. It's a category that is quite a bit more expensive than first class and isn't necessarily always better. It's just different. It's not even used that much internationally, and it particularly caters to those for whom time is money—not necessarily those looking for maximum luxury. This experience is provided by a number of competing companies, including the following:
- Wheels Up
- Magellan Jets
- Superior Air Charter (formerly known as JetSuite)
The idea here is that the plane is yours while you're using it. With just 6-12 hours of notice, you'll have a plane, a pilot, and maybe a flight attendant at your beck and call. The planes typically carry 6-12 people and can fly anywhere in North America, plus maybe the Caribbean and Central America, non-stop. They leave when you want to leave. No going through the terminal. No TSA. Minimal hassle from customs. While it costs extra, you'll usually have a car +/- a driver waiting for you. Next to the plane. The plane generally gets you to your destination a little faster, too.
Businesses find this particularly attractive. Not only are you basically flying in a domestic first-class level of comfort, but there's no one else on the plane. So you can work, negotiate deals, etc.
Naturally, the plane is stocked with your choice of meals, drinks, and entertainment. But what you're really getting here is your time back with maximal privacy. No connecting flights. No problem flying into a smaller airport. You, your spouse, and your two kids along with your sister and brother-in-law get to feel like royalty. Or the entire C-suite can fly together, work out the details of the merger, get the deal done, and still eat both breakfast and dinner in their homes at the usual time. When your CEO makes $8 million a year, you don't want her spending her time sitting around an airport chatting with TSA.
The models for how you pay for this are all over the place. If you fly a lot, you should look into fractional ownership. So perhaps you pay $500,000 one time for your share of the planes/company. Then, you pay $15,000 a month as a maintenance fee. Then, you pay perhaps $2,000 an hour for every hour you use the plane. Your total cost, of course, depends on how much you use it. The more you fly, the less each flight costs.
If you don't fly very much, say fewer than 25-50 hours a year, perhaps you just buy a pre-paid card. 25 flight hours might set you back anywhere from $150,000-$250,000, depending on the company and the plane. But 25 hours might be six round trips with eight total people ($200,000/48 = $4,000 per person per trip). That might only be 10X the cost of flying economy. Or, if it's just you commuting from L.A. to New York City, it's 80X the cost.
You'll pay a little more per flight if you charter the flights individually, but $8,000-$9,000 per hour seems to be the approximate price range.
Let's be honest, though. Once you arrive at this level, if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. So, how wealthy should you be when you start to consider either chartering jets or fractional ownership? Well, if you're going to spend a quarter-million dollars a year on airfare, I would think a multi-seven figure income would be appropriate. What's $250,000 when you make $4 million and take home $2.5 million? That's just 10%, and if it really improves your quality of life, why not? You can't take it with you when you go. You certainly should have an eight-figure net worth at this stage.
#7 Your Own Jet
You can also just buy the stupid jet yourself, along with your own pilots and crew. Aside from being very wealthy, you probably need to be flying a lot to justify this (who wants a pilot that rarely flies?) A Cessna Citation Latitude jet costs $10-$19 million. Obviously, some jets cost more, and some cost less. The maintenance is not insignificant either, and, for some reason, the pilots and crew want to be paid every month. A nine-figure net worth seems like a reasonable baseline for this expenditure. Let's be honest, though. You're not getting a lot more than the fractional ownership companies were providing. The main thing is just a status symbol. You can say: I own a jet.
Fly first class or your heirs will. But make sure you can actually afford to do so while meeting your financial goals.
What do you think? How do you fly? When did you decide you had enough to move up to the next level? Would you ever consider buying your own plane? Comment below!