The Evolution of First-Class Travel Throughout the Years — and Its Price Tag

There’s nothing quite like traveling in first class. The extra leg room to stretch out, the handy amenity kits, a dedicated attendant, priority boarding and delicious chow — it’s the best way to travel. And, it’s usually one of the most expensive.

But in its earliest forms, first class wasn’t always a luxury. In fact, in some cases, first class didn’t seem that much better than second class — especially by today’s standards. And in other cases, the only way to travel was first class.

Whether by land, sea or air, the history of first-class travel transitioned from smoothing out the journey’s difficulties to pampering you in deluxe comfort. Here’s a brief look at how traveling in first class has transformed over the span of hundreds of years.

Photograph shows Spearfish stagecoach on dirt road with driver and passengers circa 1900 to 1910
©Courtesy of Library of Congress

Stagecoaches and Concord Coaches

Nowadays, traveling by land means driving our own cars or calling an Uber. If you prefer a more luxurious ride, perhaps you’ll reserve a limo, call an UberLUX car or just buy one of the rarest cars in the world.

But before the travel Gods blessed us with comfortable, smooth-riding Cadillacs and Porches, traveling by land was uncomfortable — even for first-class passengers.

Stagecoaches, introduced in Britain in 1640, heralded some of the earliest instances of class seating. Up to eight first-class passengers rode inside the vehicle while second-class passengers sat on the roof or in a large outside basket attached to the rear, according to History World’s “History of Transport and Travel.”

First-class stagecoach travelers experienced more comfort beginning in 1680 when glass windows were installed, replacing blinds. Those who could afford it enjoyed protection from the weather and choking dust.

The stagecoach went through improvements and advancements during its evolution. By 1827, passengers’ backsides really caught a break with the invention of the Abbot Downing Company’s Concord stagecoach, which featured a leather and damask cloth interior as well as “thorough braces” to absorb shocks and soften the jolting ride.

Costing about $1,000 to $1,500 each, according to the Concord Historical Society, the Concord coach seemed to be a more comfortable mode of travel. In fact, author Mark Twain wrote in “Roughing It,” “Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description — an imposing cradle on wheels.”

Pullman Palace Sleeping Car Palmyra interior by Watkins Carleton E 1829 to 1916
Carleton E. Watkins / Wikimedia Commons

Pullman Sleeping Cars

Traveling by train today is comfortable, especially if you opt for first-class seating with adjustable headrests, footrests and air-conditioning. But that wasn’t the case back in the day.

“Traveling in very early railroad carriages was uncomfortable, impractical and sometimes dangerous,” according to the Linda Hall Library’s “A History of Railroad Technology.” The first railroad passenger cars looked similar to coaches, and passengers sat inside and outside on benches.

During this era, passengers from “all walks of life” shared railroad passenger cars. But by the 1840s, second- and third-class cars were made available. Traveling in third-class cars, referred to as “emigrant” cars, subjected passengers to terrible conditions and uncomfortable wooden seats.

Then came the Pullman sleeping car in the 1860s. Allowing passengers the ability to lay down in sleeping berths at night, sleeper cars helped “distinguish” the first class. These first-class cars had sophisticated decor, comfortable beds and an attendant to wait upon travelers. Some of the Pullman perks also included gourmet meals, chandeliers, leather seating and more, according to the Chicago History Museum’s “The Pullman Luxury Rail Car.”

But, of course, riding in first class didn’t come cheap. Those who wanted to travel on a Pullman sleeper had to pay much more than coach. Not only did they pay the higher fare, but passengers also paid for the basic coach fare based on mileage, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

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The First Class Lounge of the RMS Mauretania circa 1913
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Packet Ships and Ocean Liners

You likely wouldn’t sail on a boat to get to your overseas destinations — that’s what planes are for after all. However, you might book one of the most luxurious cruises in the world to get a “first class” experience on a ship. But if you were to travel first class by seas hundreds of years ago, don’t expect Broadway musicals, spa services or water slides.

In the early 1800s, many European immigrants boarded packet ships to sail to America. Those unlucky enough to sail in steerage brought their own bedding on board, cooked their own food and endured crowded, dark and foul-smelling spaces that were susceptible to rats and disease, according to the NMAH. Meanwhile, those shelling out for a stateroom enjoyed a mattress with linens, a washbasin and drawers, as well as better ventilation. They also ate in a saloon where they’d socialize and even dine with the captain.

If you were traveling in ocean liners and passenger ships in the early 1900s, you were wealthy. According to the NMAH, ships during this time resembled luxurious hotels and restaurants. They even boasted smoking rooms for first-class male passengers and first-class dining saloons that were more elegant and less “utilitarian” than third-class dining.

And there was quite a difference between what first-, second- and third-class passengers ate. On the legendary Titanic, for example, a first-class luncheon menu included chicken a la Maryland, custard pudding, apple meringue, roast beef, assorted cheeses and more. A second-class dinner included curried chicken and rice, roast turkey and plum pudding. But third-class had it rough with options like rice soup, cold meat — and gruel.

So, how much did it cost to sail? A 2012 paper prepared for the Economic History Association detailed passenger fares for ocean travel in cabin class from 1826 to 1916. According to the paper, advertised third-class fares ranged approximately from $20 to $40 and as high as $100 for first-class between 1850 to 1916.

Boeing 707 passenger cabin
© Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

First-Class Travel by Air

Before there was economy or business class, air travel was just one class — and that was first class, according to InsideHook’s “A Brief History of First Class.” The steep prices limited flying only to the elite: If you were airborne, you were first-class.

For example, in 1926, two Western Airlines passengers paid $90 one-way — more than $1,200 in today’s dollars — for an eight-hour flight between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, according to the Delta Flight Museum.

It wasn’t until 1928 that a two-tiered system appeared, reports InsideHook, citing a 1968 edition of Flying magazine. According to this magazine, cheaper second-class air travel was inaugurated on British and French airlines. While second-class passengers had scheduled callings for early-morning departures and traveled in slightly smaller planes, first-class travelers boarded restaurant planes with lunch included in their fare. Members of the second class paid $18.50 for a one-way ticket while first class paid $24.

As early as the 1920s, airlines were offering on-board movies, according to Air & Space magazine. Movie screens and projectors became standard equipment on Transcontinental Air Transport flights before 1930.

But there was a small distinction between first-class and tourist-class passengers when it came to movies. Air & Space magazine printed a 1961 Trans World Airlines ad and with the caption that first-class passengers could see first-run movies on flights for free. Meanwhile, tourist-class passengers paid a dollar for headphones.

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First Class interior of cabin service by chef and air hostess in 1969
© SAS Scandinavian Airlines

The Golden Age of Flying First Class

Although a two-tiered system was reportedly introduced in 1928, it seems it became more common in the U.S. a few decades later.

“Until the 1950s, airline patrons characteristically traveled on a first-class basis,” according to “The Complete History of Aviation.” As more people started taking to the friendly skies instead of the sea to get to Europe, cabin-class seating became the standard.

The average person during this time could expect to pay up to 5 percent of their annual salary to fly, reports Fast Co. Design.

In an article for Air & Space magazine, one writer wrote about her first-class flight on a Sabena DC-6 in 1955. Her ticket included a gourmet meal and, to her surprise, a bed.

“Apparently the only passenger ticketed with such accommodations, I dutifully climbed in and the stewardess drew the curtains tight,” she wrote. “I wriggled into my pajamas, put my hair up in pin curls, and lay there right under the airplane ceiling, too excited to sleep, looking from time to time out my porthole window at … total blackness, night over the Atlantic Ocean.”

In 1969-1970, Pan American World Airways debuted the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. According to “Pan Am” by Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly, the 747 had three economy sections and one first-class area. Nearly 60 passengers could sit in “plush upholstered swivel seats” in the first-class cabin. The 747 also offered a first-class lounge with a semi-circular sofa, swivel chairs and a bar.

Pan Am’s cuisine was top-notch as well on first-class transatlantic flights. For example, Presidential Special passengers had the privilege to dine on upscale cuisine. According to the Pan Am Historical Foundation, fliers could choose menu items such as filet mignon, lobster, roast ducking bigarade or rock cornish game hen.

first class airline suite
Dr Ajay Kumar Singh / Shutterstock.com

First-Class Travel Today

Although some might argue that first-class travel has somewhat experienced a de-evolution instead of an evolution over the years, today’s trains, planes and ships still offer exclusive services many would only classify as “first class.”

For instance, Delta One Business Class seats on long international and some cross-country flights convert to flat beds with increased privacy, fold-out tray tables and amenities for enjoying your electronics. Want more? Fly first class on Emirates, which includes a private suite, a shower spa, gourmet meals and more. Just be prepared to pay more than $20,000 for a round-trip ticket, according to a flight search for a first-class ticket from New York to Dubai.

If you prefer ground transportation but hate driving, you can still experience first class on a train. Amtrak offers seats on the Acela Express where you’ll get at-seat service as well as a free meal, drinks and more.

And what about ships? Many people go on sea voyages to vacation and explore the world. It’s called cruising, and some cruise lines offer “first class” experiences, including all-inclusive services like 24-hour room service, open bar access and unlimited WiFi. If you were to sail with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, their “all-inclusive promise” packages can cost upwards of $10,000.

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Sydney Champion contributed to the reporting for this article.