First class etiquette: how not to look like an inexperienced (and uncultured) idiot

First class etiquette: how not to look like an inexperienced (and uncultured) idiot

Congratulations! You freakin’ did it. After years of trudging it out back in the deepest bowels of economy class, you’re ready to take your very first trip in first class.

For most first timers, sitting in first class completely changes the travel experience. And guess what? Your etiquette when flying first class needs to change as well. I’m going to tell you exactly how to do it so that you’ll look like a first class veteran – even if it’s your first time in the pointy end of the airplane.

That said, “first class” is a very broad term. For example, domestic / short haul first class isn’t a very big leap from economy class. Therefore, your etiquette on Delta A321 first class from Atlanta to West Palm Beach won’t need to be as polished and refined as if you’re flying first class on an Asiana A380 from Los Angeles to Seoul. Just sayin’.

United Airlines 737-900ER first class
United Airlines 737-900 first class. Meh. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be on your best behavior!

It goes without saying that it’s important to have good etiquette whether you’re flying domestic or international. But trust me when I tell you this: showing up for your Asiana A380 first class flight in the same manner that you show up for that Atlanta to West Palm Beach flight will have the entire Asiana cabin crew hating your guts within 15 minutes. I promise you that.

First class flying etiquette: a step-by-step guide for not looking like an inexperienced (and uncultured) idiot

To help prevent incredibly awkward situations (and international incidents), I’m going to break down the entire first class flying experience part by part. I’m going to explain not only what to do, but what not to do as well.

Showing up at the airport

As difficult as it may be to resist the feeling of strutting into an airport like you own the joint, you have to know that nobody cares that you’re flying first class. To them, you’re just another annoying body to maneuver around on their way to Starbucks.

Therefore, your etiquette shouldn’t change all that much compared to when you’re flying economy class. Be nice. Courteous. And smile at the nice airport staff when they smile at you (even if they’re thinking that the shirt you chose for today’s flight is downright hideous).

Scott from SANspotter walking into San Diego airport terminal 2 west
Yours truly moments after arriving at SAN to catch a flight to Montreal in Air Canada A200-300 business class (the Canadian equivalent of first class). Despite how loudly the theme song from “Shaft” was playing in my head as I took this pic, I can promise you that absolutely nobody gave a **** about what I was about to do.

Checking in

Since most airlines have a dedicated line for first class passengers, there will be no need to embarrass yourself by running full speed to the gate counter in order to secure a good place in line.

Even though I just told you that it would be foolish to walking into an airport looking like you on the joint, it’s totally OK when walking up to the ticket counter. Nothing says “I got this” more than looking cool and collected as you mosey up to the first class queue as if you’re about to order a shot of whiskey, steak and eggs, and a hot bath for you and your horse.

sanspotter QANTAS check in SFO
“I got this.” (Followed up rather quickly by “am I even at the right airport?”)

For those of you who have never checked in using the first class queue before, I’m sorry to announce that there’s really nothing all that special about it. They don’t serve caviar and champagne while you’re waiting. And guess what? Even the airline employees running this line can (and will) have negative thoughts about you and that ugly shirt that you’re wearing.

The only real benefit to checking in using the first class line is speed. It’s usually a lot shorter then standing in the economy class line. Therefore, your etiquette should be a show of “thanks and appreciation” for the opportunity to have saved gobs of time over everybody else.

Boarding the flight

This is where first class flying etiquette is really important. As difficult as it may be to resist, do not hover around the boarding door waiting for the gate agents to announce the boarding process. Nothing says “impatient tool” more than standing mere meters away from the locked gate door 25 minutes before the boarding process begins.

SANspotter waiting for flight
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to look calm and cool when you’re fighting an irresistible urge to hover near the closed (and locked) boarding door?

Have a seat. Go take a walk. You’re going to be the first on the plane anyway, so there’s no need to expose yourself as a spaz who can’t relax and enjoy the process (even if that’s really who you are as a person).

The proper etiquette is to stay back and don’t approach the gate until the boarding process has been initiated by the gate agents. This helps them keep things neat and organized for the boarding process. Not only that, you’ll look like a seasoned pro as you show up at the boarding door from out of nowhere looking like you’ve done this a million times before.

United airlines zone 1 boarding queue gate 42 SAN
There’s no need to rush – at least that’s what I was telling myself as I was standing here in line to board United A319 first class to SFO. Trust me when I tell you that the less time you spend sitting in that seat the better!

The first few minutes on the plane

First class etiquette continues in the same calm and cool manner as you board the plane and take your seat. Stowe your carry-on in the overhead bin as quickly as possible. And for the love of God – do not ask for help. If you’re flying with a carry-on that’s too heavy for you to lift, everyone is going to hate your guts (despite how polite they may seem on the outside).

Also, many first-time first class flyers feel an enlarged sense of entitlement. They expect everything to be done for them, which (in most cases) isn’t how it works. You’re still responsible for your own things and getting yourself situated without any help from others.

sanpsotter flying first class etiquette
Here I am in the first class cabin of a Hawaiian Airlines A330-200 assessing the situation minutes after siting down (and feeling damn proud for stowing my own bag without any help of course).

Whether you’re flying domestic first class or long-haul international first class, a flight attendant will likely approach you asking if you’d like a drink. They may even offer to take your jacket if you’re wearing one. Taking them up on their offer is perfectly acceptable – as long as you don’t make it difficult for them.

Keep your drink order simple, and don’t spend more than a few seconds removing your jacket and preparing it to hand over to him or her. The cabin crew has a lot of other passengers to deal with, so the easier you make it for them, the better.

To be social or not to be social: that is the question

Many first class travelers are business people who need a quiet place to relax and get some work done. Most are normal people like you and me (with the same desire for peace and quiet).

sanspotter all alone in first class
That moment when you realize that you’ve scared everyone away with your “oh boy do I have a story for you!” face.

If you notice your seatmate doing any of the following, do not engage in conversation:

  • Napping
  • Typing on a phone or a laptop
  • Organizing papers
  • Reading religious materials
  • Pouring over a stack of Amway MLM documentation

Also, even though you may see other people doing it, stay off your phone! Silent texting is perfectly acceptable of course, but nobody likes to sit next to someone yapping away with someone on the other end about the most frivolous of things.

Sorry, but trying to close a million dollar deal before the boarding door closes is just as annoying (and inconsiderate) as someone describing their last proctology appointment in excruciatingly vivid detail. 

Proper etiquette during the meal service

What is it about airplane food that makes it more special than the food we have here on the ground? I’m still trying to figure that one out, but all I can say is this: dining in first class is a truly remarkable experience. Even if the food isn’t all that great.

sanspotter eating in first class
Nom nom nom

Here is a list of my best etiquette tips for dining in first class. Note that this is one of the areas where domestic / short haul first class and long haul first class differs greatly. The etiquette for each differ greatly as well – in all the ways I’m going to highlight for you now:

Domestic first class dining etiquette

  • First of all, don’t be disappointed with the meal choices. Domestic short haul first class meals have never been that great (well, not since the 70’s at least), so don’t show anger and or disappointment when nothing looks all that appealing to you. doing so would make you look like an entitled prick.
  • Don’t ask for a custom order. For example, if the main course is vegetarian ravioli, don’t ask them to add beef. Flying first class doesn’t mean that you’ll get a 5-star dining experience. You have to take what you can get.
  • You can take as much time as you want to eat in domestic / short haul first class. Unlike economy class (where the cabin crew has a system for delivering and picking up trays on a timely schedule), things are a lot more relaxed up front. If you’re not feeling like eating just after takeoff, let the flight attendant know and he or she will be happy to serve you later in the flight.

International first class / business class dining etiquette

  • Dining menus are usually handed out in the early stages of a flight, so it’s your responsibility to look it over and have something selected by the time the flight attendant approaches you for your order. Remember – these international first (and business) class cabin crews are extremely busy, and they don’t have time to stand around and wait while you choose something off the menu. Of course they’ll look happy doing it, but they will be thinking negative thoughts about you (and your ugly shirt) the entire time. 
  • Unlike domestic / short haul first class, it’s perfectly OK to request a somewhat custom order. International first class meals are usually served in small components anyway, so it’s easy for the cabin crew to mix and match things upon request. Just don’t go overboard with it.
  • On many airlines, dining is on demand. For example, in Xiamen Airlines 787-9 business class from Los Angeles to Xiamen, the cabin crew asked passengers individually when they would like to eat. The flight departed LAX at 12:30 AM, so they understood that some passengers might want to sleep before eating. Even if the cabin crew doesn’t offer an on-demand service, it’s perfectly OK to request it.
  • Don’t be a slob. International first class is a slightly elevated experience (how do you like that pun?). Dumping your Cheetos‘s all over the floor and mashing it into the carpet with your feet (while not giving a flying ***k about the poor slob who has to steam clean the carpet later) is not proper first class etiquette.


Yes. What you’ve heard is true. They do serve free drinks in first class. However, as difficult as it may be to resist the urge to treat the experience like a college frat party, the best course of action is to drink like a responsible adult (duh).

drunk sanspotter Alaska Airlines first class
I tried my best.

You will become extremely irritating to your fellow passengers the entire cabin crew the more you drink. This, in turn, means that the levels of service you will receive from the cabin crew will be greatly diminished. They (and everyone else) will be throwing massive amounts of shade at you.

Even though you may think that everyone else is being a jerk, chances are pretty good that it’s you that’s the problem. Nobody likes flying with a belligerent drunk who ruins the experience for everybody.

What to wear in first class

Isn’t it amazing how everybody in those old black and white movies used to dress like they were going to church when they traveled? Even the people who were flying on a 36-hour 10-city hop in economy class dressed to kill. I’m talkin’ designer suits and frilly dresses for all. It was truly a remarkable time in our history!

These days, it’s not uncommon to see first class passengers show up at the gate wearing flip-flops and Daisy Dukes. The motto (at least here in the United States) is:

“Hey, I’m comfortable, so screw you!”

How did it ever come to this? When did we get to a point where it was OK to have a complete and total disregard for politeness and common courtesy?

E175 first class
If this were 1945, there’d be nothing but suits, ties, and frilly dresses all up in this here E175.

I could probably get into a massive 20,000-word rant on this subject alone, but I’ll leave it at that. If you don’t want to be seen as a total doofus to everyone else, the following is a quick guide to the proper dress code for both domestic and international first class flying:

Domestic first class dress code

If it’s warm, it’s OK to wear shorts. T-shirts are fine too. However, if you want to look at least halfway attractive and respectable, at least go for long pants and a button up shirt. Showing up to first class wearing anything less classy than that else tells the world that you don’t give a f**k about anything but yourself. That’s not a good look.

International first /business class dress code

In my opinion, shorts are not appropriate in international first (or business) class. Not only because it’s trashy, but because short pants are not so common (and may be considered offensive) in some cultures.

sanspotter dress code first class
The good: I’m wearing pants in first class. The bad: I’m reading the menu like I’m taking a dump. So close, yet so far…

If you’re concerned about comfort and not being able to sleep while wearing something nice, there are clothes designed specifically for travel that look great, feel good, and won’t wrinkle on long flights. 

Flip-flops and exposed feet are a no-no. And whatever you do – do not show up to a long haul international flight wearing a ratty old tank top.

When it comes to dress code and etiquette in first class, the moral of the story is this:

  • Domestic / short haul first class is far more relaxed and you can get away with being more casual.
  • In international first / business class, you have to consider the cultures of others. What might not be offensive to you may be offensive to the people sitting across the aisle from you. Have some respect. More importantly, don’t be a selfish douchebag.

First class etiquette TLDR: No matter whether you’re flying domestic or international, it’ll be a much better experience for all by acting (and looking) like a respectable and decent human being. Dress nice, don’t drink too much, and for the love of all that is holy: leave the Daisy Duke’s at home.

Comments (9)

  1. Bob

    January 7, 2021
    • Scott (SANspotter)

      January 7, 2021
  2. hardip

    August 24, 2021
    • Scott (SANspotter)

      August 24, 2021
  3. Sharon

    June 2, 2022
  4. Andy Killick

    October 1, 2022
    • Scott (SANspotter)

      October 1, 2022
  5. Paul

    June 9, 2023
  6. Jay Money

    August 14, 2023

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