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How “premium” is premium economy? A guide to choosing that upgrade, airline by airline

Courtesy Virgin Australia
What else do you need?
By Leslie Josephs
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Disappointment tends to snowball for many airline passengers as they trudge down the aisle to their seats.

First, there is the deep envy for the first- and business-class passengers (in those seats too expensive for most of us, though we still gawk) leading up to a revulsion at the horrors of economy so severe that perhaps an explanation of the Seven Stages of Grief should come in the seat pocket along with the safety card.

Leave it to the crafty airlines to invent a new product—called premium economy—to capitalize on passengers’ trauma of cramped cabins past. Taiwan’s EVA Air and the UK’s Virgin Atlantic were the ones who pioneered the in-between service class in the early 1990s, but the concept really took off this year as fares tumbled and airlines grappled with ways to drum up revenue.

Premium economy is a sort of business class for the masses—you don’t get a sleeping pod, or lie-flat bed, or a five-course meal but premium economy can serve a noble purpose: to make flying slightly more bearable. But is it worth it?

Here’s a look at some of the premium-economy options out there on the market, in alphabetical order:

Air New Zealand 

Courtesy Air New Zealand

Name: Premium Economy
Offered since: 2005
Legroom: 41 inches

How much? Roundtrip Jan. 11-17 from San Francisco to Auckland was $4,766, more than double the cheapest economy fare for those dates.

What makes it special? The airline’s premium economy product was so special it needed to add more seats. That means it’s phasing out the pod-like white “space seats” for a conventional black seat. In addition to early boarding, passengers receive an amenity kit with pawpaw and avocado lip balm, eyeshades and socks. Meals include sumac salmon with roasted grapes, lamb with mashed sweet potatoes and white chocolate panna cotta with pistachio ice cream.

What do passengers say? The airline took the top spot for premium economy service this year according to the Skytracks World Airline Awards. Stephen M. wrote on TripAdvisor that the premium economy service deserves high marks on the flight he took on the 7-hour flight from Auckland to Perth but that it may be too hefty a price if traveling with a family.

British Airways

Courtesy British Airways

Name: World Traveller Plus
Offered since? 2000
Legroom: 38-inches on a Boeing 787-9 aircraft

How much? A Jan. 11-17 roundtrip ticket from London Heathrow to Dubai was $810, around 120% more than regular economy roundtrip.

What makes it special? Three-step adjustable footrest, pillows, fleece blankets, amenity kits that include socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste, an eye mask; a hot towel service, increased baggage allowance on some routes and free snack before take-off. Meals have included pan-roasted beef with herb risotto and arugula and cheese tortellini.

What do passengers say? Reviewers like the main feature: the extra space. “Made a long haul flight as tolerable as possible,” said pasdechatUK on Tripadvisor after flying the service. Meanwhile, user Robert T praised the seats as roomy and comfortable but added “they could spare us the very mediocre food, either do it good or don’t do it at all.”

Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Name: Premium Economy
Offered since? 2011
Legroom: 40 inches

How much? A Jan. 11-17 roundtrip ticket from Hong Kong to London Gatwick was $2,587 around 115% more than regular economy roundtrip.

What makes it special? Priority boarding, noise-cancelling headset, hot towel, amenity kits with socks, eyeshades, earplugs, and toothbrush and toothpaste.

What do passengers say? TripAdvisor reviewer SJDowney said that it was worth it for a 15-hour flight, adding that “the only negative was as soon as the person in front reclined their seat, it is virtually essential that you do the same or have the seat back almost in your face.” Reviewer “FranklinL” in California said it 75% worth the expense because he tried to fly from Asia and “wanted to commit suicide halfway through the flight it was so uncomfortable.”

Japan Airlines

Courtesy JAL

Name: JAL Sky Premium
Offered since: 2007
Legroom: 42 inches

How much? A Jan. 11-17 roundtrip premium economy ticket from Los Angeles International Airport to Tokyo Narita was recently going for $1,840, about a quarter more than in basic economy.

What makes it special? Priority baggage handling (but, of course, after first- and business class-bags), ice cream and champagne, access to international airport lounges. Food includes a Japanese meal, such as chicken teriyaki with pickled plum vinegar and a “Western” dish: acqua pazza white fish (fish poached in a seasoned broth).

What do passengers say? Even the airline’s economy class gets high marks, but premium economy stood out for space. TripAdvisor reviewers praise the airline for cleanliness, spacious seats and even food. Reviewer LMF57 noted “My husband is a little overweight (5’9″, 230 lbs), so long flying times in cramped seats don’t appeal to him. Premium economy let him recline comfortably, with a footrest, so he actually slept.” Marumillo wrote (link in Spanish) in December that the staff was attentive and “the only thing that didn’t work was the Wi-Fi.”


Courtesy Lufthansa

Name: Premium Economy
Offered since: 2014
Legroom: 38 inches

How much? Roundtrip Jan. 11-17 from Frankfurt to New York’s JFK was €903 ($944), about 110% more than the cheapest economy fare for those dates.

What makes it special?  Travelers receive a small, fruity welcome cocktail and a bottle of water, an amenity kit in zip pouch with a toothbrush and toothpaste, ear plugs, socks and an eye mask. Each seat has an outlet. Alcoholic beverages included and meals (two of them if flights are longer than 6.5 hours) are served on china. Access to Lufthansa business lounges for €25. Passengers are allowed two pieces of checked luggage weighing 50 lbs. (22.7 kg) each.

What do passengers say? Travelers appear to appreciate the extra space and cabin. TripAdvisor user Trevor N liked the exclusivity of Lufthansa’s premium economy, praising its “dedicated toilets unlike some airlines sharing with economy passengers.” Mancho, however, was unimpressed by the food and wine selection.

Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Name: Premium Economy
Offered since: 2007
Legroom: 38 inches

How much? A roundtrip ticket between San Francisco and Singapore Jan. 11-17 was $2,806, about 70% more than regular economy.

What makes it special?  Passengers have their own check-in lane, up to 77 lbs. of checked baggage, and priority handling. On-board treats include champagne and the ability to participate in the “Book the Cook” program, a meal designed by the airlines panel of world-class chefs can be ordered 24 hours ahead of time. Seats come with a 13.3-inch monitor and passengers have their own cabin on the monstrous A380.

What do passengers say? HobartianExplorers wrote on TripAdvisor that the legroom is an improvement from economy but that a reclining fellow passenger in front could lessen the benefit. Meanwhile, Cfsmcheryl notes “The only disadvantage that we have to share the toilets with the passengers in economy class.

Virgin Atlantic

Name: Premium Economy
Offered since? 1992
Legroom: 38 inches

How much? A roundtrip ticket from London Heathrow to Delhi Jan. 11-17 was £1,006 ($1,246), about 50% more than the cheapest economy ticket.

What makes it special? Priority boarding, baggage handling. Amenity kit includes earplugs, toothpaste and toothbrush, socks. Free drinks, including a champagne welcome flute before takeoff, and a choice of entrees such as beef stroganoff and spinach and ricotta cannelloni. If that doesn’t satisfy, Virgin has an open snack bar it calls the “Wander Wall” on board.

What do passengers say? The carrier that set the premium economy trend in motion 25 years ago still gets solid marks from flyers, with the seat design and legroom still one of the most attractive points. Travelers recommend checking the seating plan ahead of time to make sure you don’t get stuck next to the toilets.

And that’s only for now…

From next year, passengers can try premium economy American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Emirates, known more for glitzy first-class cabins, has said it is developing premium economy seats. Austrian Airlines is doing the same. Carriers are in the middle of dividing their cabins to into more classes of service with smaller differences (just in case you needed more reasons to judge your fellow flyers).

Not sure you want to take a trip just yet? One of premium economy’s biggest selling points may just be that you’re far, far away from the dreaded basic economy.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the price of a roundtrip ticket in premium economy class between San Francisco and Singapore as $4,360 and around 40% more than a regular economy fare. That ticket is currently $2,806 in premium economy, about 70% more than a regular economy ticket. 

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