As coach travel gets more cramped, airlines have added “premium economy” sections that promise more space and comfort — often at a substantially higher price.
Air carriers have discovered many travelers are willing to pay two or even three times the prevailing economy fare to escape the crowded confines of coach. The extra money is mostly profit for the airlines, which is why so many now offer this class of service.
But what you get can vary dramatically by airline. A little buyer-beware knowledge next time you plan a trip can help you avoid wasting your money on an upgrade that isn’t worth it.
More space, but not necessarily more comfort
Premium economy’s big selling point is more space. The seats are an inch or two wider on average than the typical coach seat, and the rows are farther apart, offering several more inches of legroom. Most premium economy seats recline, and many have footrests.
How much space you actually get depends on the airline. According to airline seat review site SeatGuru, Japan Airlines JAL, +0.00% offers about 10 inches more leg space than you typically find in coach, while most other carriers offer just 5 or 6 inches more.
And not all the seats are equally comfortable. Many reviewers dislike the “fixed shell” design used by Air France AFLYY, -0.46% and Aeroflot, where the seat slides forward rather than reclining.
What premium economy doesn’t offer: lie-flat beds, which are now the standard for long-haul business and first-class cabins. Then again, fares for those flights are typically thousands of dollars more than you’d pay for premium economy.
What about the extras?
The amenities and customer service you get in premium economy are all over the map. Some, including premium economy pioneer Virgin Atlantic, offer priority check-in counters, cushy seats, amenity kits, plenty of good-quality food and expedited baggage handling. Others, such as discount carrier Norwegian Air, NWARF, -0.14% skimp on the extras, offering less to its premium economy customers than other airlines provide in coach.
For example: Free snacks and meals are pretty standard on international flights, even in economy. Norwegian, however, offers no free food other than small meals served in boxes to premium economy passengers. The carrier also reduced the weight limit for free checked bags from the industry standard of 23 kilos (50 pounds) to just 20 kilos (44 pounds), and puts a weight limit on carry-ons (10 kilos, or 22 pounds). Its check-in counters do a brisk business in charging extra fees to those who failed to read the fine print.
SeatGuru can give you some idea of the space you can expect, and the airline’s site usually details what’s included with your fare. Don’t rely too much on travel site reviews, since those may be out of date and the airline’s policies could have changed.
Are you paying more for less?
The airfare you pay doesn’t necessarily reflect what you get. For an April trip from Los Angeles to London, for example, Kayak shows a $1,698 premium economy fare for Virgin Atlantic versus $1,747 charged by Norwegian. (Air New Zealand, ANZFF, -3.87% winner of TripAdvisor’s 2019 Travelers’ Choice Awards for best premium economy, charges $1,612.)
The lowest economy fares for the same route: $638 for Virgin Atlantic, $556 for Norwegian and $576 for Air New Zealand. Which means that the premium you would pay for premium economy — the amount above the airline’s economy fare — is substantially more for Norwegian than the other two carriers.
(For reference, business class fares on the same route start at $3,033 for Virgin Atlantic and $2,842 for Air New Zealand. Norwegian doesn’t have a business class.)
When to spring for premium economy
The gap between economy and premium economy fares tends to narrow as the date of travel nears, airline experts say. If you book a ticket within three months of departure, for example, you may pay only a few hundred dollars more to get premium economy, which could be a good deal.
Airlines may also give you the opportunity to upgrade — again, for a few hundred bucks, and sometimes less — when you check in, if all the premium economy seats haven’t been sold.
Paying the full price for premium economy can make sense in some circumstances. Enduring five or more hours in a cramped coach seat may be hard for older or taller travelers. A good premium economy cabin also can enhance special occasions, such as a honeymoon, or a business trip where you need to arrive in fairly good shape. You just need to do some research to make sure that what you get will be worth the additional money.
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Liz Weston is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @lizweston.