Condé Nast Traveler 6/12/2019
Picking a seat on a flight used to be simple: you picked the one that looked best, and that was that. Today, you’re presented with all sorts of seat options at different price ranges: there’s usually some combination of first, business, premium economy, economy plus, main cabin, and basic economy. For the uninitiated, it can be a confusing mess, compounded by the fact that airlines have their own names for many of the categories. Of the myriad seat choices, premium economy and economy plus are perhaps the most confusing, as they’re quite similarly named—in fact, some airlines use the name premium economy interchangeably—but in reality, they’re totally different categories when it comes to seat specs, service, and price. We’ve broken down the differences to help you pick when you book your next flight.
This category, typically found on domestic carriers, has many names: United’s Economy Plus, Delta’s Comfort +, American’s Main Cabin Extra, and JetBlue’s Even More Space. Whatever it’s called, the economy plus seat is actually part of the economy cabin. But what sets these seats apart from the rest is a few extra inches of legroom, priority boarding, a better location at the front of the cabin, free alcoholic beverages, and free meal service, depending on your specific airline.
Economy plus seats are pretty much equal in terms of quality across the domestic airlines. International carriers do offer upgraded economy seats, but they rarely come with as many perks as their U.S. counterparts. Instead, you’ll simply pay extra for an exit row or a spot at the front of the plane. (That said, most international airlines already offer economy passengers free food and drink, including alcoholic beverages.)
Of course, economy plus seats cost more than regular economy seats, but the exact price depends on routes. Shorter flights under three hours might only cost an extra $30 over the standard economy fare each way. But on long-haul international flights, you might have to pay $100 each way. Do note that if you didn’t pick the economy plus option when you booked your flight, you can usually pay extra to upgrade any time before your departure, if space allows. The only stipulation is you need to be booked on a main cabin ticket, not a basic economy ticket.
When it's worth it
If you have status with an airline, you might be eligible for a complimentary space-available upgrade from regular economy to economy plus. If the upgrade is free—and you don’t get a middle seat—it’s almost always worth it. Personally, as a frequent flyer with status, I would choose an exit row seat over economy plus, since it tends to have more leg room.
But if you don’t have status with an airline, you’ll have to pay up. In my opinion, passengers on the taller side will almost always benefit from the extra legroom, no matter how short the flight is. But if you don’t feel too cramped in regular economy, it might not be worth the price tag for flights under four hours. For long-haul flights, however, the upgrade is likely worth it if you have the means—the extra legroom goes a long way when you’re sitting for six hours or more, and it’s not that much more money in the grand scheme of airfare.
I recently flew Premium Plus on United from San Francisco to Auckland—my first ever experience in premium economy—and when I told friends what I was flying, every single one of them asked, “Wait, is that business or economy?” Technically, it’s neither. Premium economy is actually a standalone cabin that sits right between business and economy, both physically and in terms of amenities and services. U.S. and international airlines offer premium economy classes on certain long-haul international flights. While many simply call the cabin premium economy, here’s a brief rundown of some outliers with their own names for the class:
There’s a true difference between premium economy and regular economy (and even economy plus). Depending on the airline, passengers get extra leg room, extra recline, extra seat width, priority boarding, priority luggage allowances, extra earned miles, amenity kits, larger in-flight entertainment screens, upgraded headphones, and plated premium meals. Plus, the cabin often has 35 or fewer seats, meaning it’s usually a bit less chaotic and a little quieter than the economy cabin. But as many planes offer this cabin in a 2-4-2 layout, you could still get stuck with a dreaded middle seat, just as you can in regular economy.
Premium economy cabins are relatively new to most major airlines, with rollouts happening over the past few years, so the products are still being refined. That said, some of the best can be found on Singapore, Delta, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, and Cathay Pacific.
The one downside to premium economy is the cost—fares are oftentimes double that of economy. (Though, keep in mind that business can be six to ten times more expensive than economy, and sometimes even more.) You might be able to score a cheaper day-of paid upgrade if you’ve booked a main cabin economy ticket, so definitely inquire at the check-in desk when you arrive at the airport.
When it’s worth it
Given the cost, I don’t think premium economy is worth the spend if you’re looking to stick to a budget—take that extra money and spend it at your destination instead. But if you’re feeling like splurging just a bit, or need to hit the ground running after a long-haul flight, it’s definitely two or three steps above economy. While business would be my preferred cabin any day, I do think premium economy is best for travelers like honeymooners who want some special treatment at a fraction of the cost of business class, or for travelers with a little extra (but not business-class extra) disposable income.
Personally, I’d recommend a happy medium if the price is truly double that of economy: I would upgrade to premium economy on daytime flights so that you can enjoy the amenities, but aim for a bulkhead seat (read: extra legroom) in regular economy on overnight flights. The premium economy seats don’t really recline enough to get a super restful night of sleep, so I’d prefer to save the money there. But during the day, I actually enjoyed my time in United’s Premium Plus cabin—not something I’d say about my economy experience. The food was definitely much better than what’s served in the back, the amenity kits were a welcome relief to chapped lips and a dry face, and I did appreciate the extra space and recline for lounging rather than sleeping.
All that said, if I could score an upgrade to premium economy for less than twice the price of economy, regardless of the time of the flight, I’d say it’s probably worth it for a 12-plus-hour route.
The bottom line
Economy plus and premium economy are entirely different classes with vastly different price points and significantly different amenities. Economy plus is a slightly upgraded economy experience, while premium economy is its own cabin with elevated service on international flights. As airlines love to throw different names on their seats, be sure to check which class you’re actually getting before booking.
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