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Is It Okay To Fly First Class, Leave Spouse In Economy?

Every so often you’ll see the mainstream media covering the topic of someone flying in first or business class, and leaving their spouse in economy (in these stories, usually it’s the husband in the premium cabin, and the wife in economy). I wanted to address that topic in this post — I’ll share my take, and then I’m curious to hear how OMAAT readers feel.

My recent flight with husbands in first class, wives in economy

I recently took a domestic American Airlines first class flight. About 15 minutes after takeoff, while the seatbelt sign was still on, a woman came up from economy and sat on her husband’s armrest, and started kissing him, rubbing his back, etc. She then returned to her economy seat a short while later.

About 15 minutes later, a separate wife and son came up to say hi to another dad in first class. Then toward the end of the flight, another woman came up to what I’d assume was her spouse (I couldn’t see whether there was a ring or not).

The whole thing left me scratching my head a bit, especially the woman who came up and was super affectionate to her husband while she was back in economy. Goodness, I’d be in the doghouse if I did that regularly. Of course let me state that I’m not judging any of those people — I just noticed the pattern, and find the overall topic to be interesting.

Who doesn’t love a little PDA between cabins?!

There are reasons spouses end up in different cabins

Let me acknowledge that there are a couple of perfectly legitimate reasons you might end up in first or business class, with your spouse in economy (or vice versa):

  • Maybe you’re traveling for work and your business pays for a premium cabin seat, and then your spouse tags along, so you book them an economy seat
  • Maybe you have elite status with an airline, and get an upgrade to a premium cabin, while the upgrade doesn’t clear for your spouse
I understand how spouses end up in different cabins

My approach to traveling in a different cabin than a companion

I’m not applying my standards to others, but here’s my own approach:

  • Personally I can’t think of any time that I’ve flown in a premium cabin, with my spouse or a family member in a lower cabin; I would just feel kind of bad the entire flight
  • If traveling with a companion and if I knew I’d be in first or business class, I’d put extra effort to making sure I can get them a seat in that cabin as well
  • I’m not opposed to the concept of taking turns (my spouse gets first class on one flight, and then I take it on the next flight), but that’s not usually how the situation materializes for me
  • If I’m not convinced I can get both people in a premium cabin, I’d rather that both of us just sit in economy, because economy is a bit more tolerable if you’re at least next to someone you like

Again, that’s my own approach. but I’m not saying others should adhere to that. Now let me share what I’d consider to be the correct etiquette on this matter.

Personally I’d rather be in economy next to my companion

My advice on traveling in a different cabin than a spouse

In my opinion, there are two situations where I think it’s appropriate to consistently sit in a premium cabin and leave your spouse in economy. The first reason is a matter of space — if one spouse is way bigger than the other and simply can’t fit in an economy seat, then I think it’s fair enough that they fly in a premium cabin.

The other reason is if you’re traveling for work, and your company specifically pays for you to travel in first or business class to arrive well rested. In other words, if you’re flying from New York to London and have meetings when you land, and your company specifically paid for you to rest, then you should sit there. If your spouse tags along for a vacation, then I think that’s fair. The same isn’t true if it’s an evening Las Vegas to Los Angeles flight booked through work, and you’re going to spend the entire flight downing Woodford.

Beyond that, though, what do I consider to be the correct etiquette in order to be a decent person when only one person can be in a premium cabin?

I’d say the one approach I take issue with is the frequent traveler thinking that just because they got the upgrade means they should take it, and not give it to their spouse. That’s a total jerk move, if done consistently. “Oh, I travel a lot for work, so I deserve this.” Well, it sounds like you’re also away from home a lot then, leaving your spouse behind, so they probably deserve to share in those rewards.

With that in mind, I consider any of the following approaches to be fair:

  • If the airline allows you to change cabins mid-flight (some airlines allow it one time), you could always each have half of the flight in first or business class, and half of the flight in economy
  • Otherwise there’s nothing wrong with trading off, where you get the premium seat on one flight, and your spouse gets the premium seat on the next flight
  • Or you can just spend some time with your spouse and sit next to them in economy, and make someone else happy, by allowing them to have the upgrade
  • Or if you really want to score bonus points, just give away your premium seat to your spouse more often than not; odds are that if you’re the one getting a seat in a premium cabin (for whatever reason), then your spouse will also appreciate it more; maybe they’ll make it up to you in other ways!
There’s nothing wrong with trading off upgrades between flights

Bottom line

Every so often there’s a story about someone traveling in first or business class and leaving their spouse behind in economy. I witnessed this from multiple people on a recent flight. There’s nothing wrong with it in isolation, but if it becomes a pattern, I think there’s a bigger issue.

I think the only situation where it’s fair for one person to consistently sit up front is if their work is paying for a premium seat with the expectation that they need to arrive well rested and hit the ground running. Ideally find a way to also get your spouse a premium seat if they tag along, but otherwise I think that’s a fair justification.

Other than that, I think it’s only reasonable to either split premium seating 50/50 (either on a particular flight or between flights), to offer your spouse the upgrade more often than not, or to sit together in economy.

If you just consistently think you deserve to sit in premium cabins while your spouse is in economy, well, to each their own, I guess…

Where do you stand on traveling in a different cabin than your spouse?


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