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What’s The Difference Between Economy And Premium Economy Airfare?

Is it just me, or have airlines made purchasing a ticket more confusing than ever? 

After you select the dates, destination and find the best fare, the next step is choosing your seat. But depending on the airline, you may have several options including basic economy, main cabin, premium economy, business class and of course first class. Other airlines instead offer different amounts of leg-room in their economy sections and charge accordingly. It can all be overwhelming, and without personal experience, it can be tough to decide when to to pay for the upgrades.

For this article I’m going to focus on the difference between premium economy and economy airfare. I hope to give you some ways to decide which option is better for you and provide some alternatives.

What Is Premium Economy Airfare?

First, let’s be clear that premium economy is whatever an airline wants it to be. So it can include more legroom, seats that recline more, alcoholic beverages, checked bags, better food, and early boarding. But each airline selects the perks. And, it’s important to note that these perks will often vary for domestic and international flights.

What does this cost? For a short, one-way domestic flight, premium economy can be as little as $50. But for long haul, one-way international flights the cost can be $500 or more.

So let me share a few of my premium economy experiences as an example.

Delta Comfort Plus–I’ve now opted to upgrade a few times on Delta flights–both domestically and internationally–and found it to be worthwhile. On domestic flights Comfort Plus will include early boarding, 3 inches additional leg room, and complimentary alcoholic beverages. Their international flights will also include seats with 50% more recline and premium meals.

Air Canada Premium Economy--I’ve tried this service once and enjoyed it. It included all the things mentioned above, plus two free checked bags.

Virgin Atlantic Economy Delight–I recently flew Virgin roundtrip from Los Angeles to London and opted for their Economy Delight fare. While I found the experience to be nice, this airline really is confusing when reserving seats since they offer three different levels of economy. Economy delight includes more legroom, priority check-in and boarding. However, on the return flight I was able to grab an exit row giving me so much more room to move around.

What airlines don’t tell you is that middle seats are often not booked in this part of the plane. So if I book a premium economy aisle or window seat, I’ve found that most of the time the middle seat is empty. My theory is that no one wants to pay for an upgraded middle seat. And in general, this section of the plane is less crowded making it easier to move about. 

Should You Pay For Premium Economy Airfare?

Whether or not you pay extra for premium economy may depend on the distance of your flight as well as the additional cost. For myself, if I’m flying coast-to-coast in the U.S., or internationally, I’ll typically pay for the upgraded seat. Shorter, domestic flights don’t seem worth the extra money to me.

But each person is different, so here are some considerations. How tall are you? Our son, Ryan, is over 6 feet, so a standard economy seat is really uncomfortable for him. How long is the flight? The extras only matter if you’ll be on the flight for a long time. Do you drink? No need to pay for alcohol if you never plan to drink it. Will you need to check a bag? If you typically bring just a carry-on, then this isn’t a valuable perk for you. Add up the extras that matter to you and then make an informed decision.

You do have options. For shorter flights with Ryan, we often pay for an exit row seat for him. Then Jason and I sit in the standard economy seats. So if more leg room is a priority for you consider purchasing the best seat in economy.

If you have miles accumulated on an airline, consider using those for an upgrade. Sometimes a smaller accumulation of miles can be used for an upgrade, but wouldn’t get you an entire airfare.

You can upgrade only the longest portion of an international flight. Last year I flew from Los Angeles to Kigali, Rwanda, which includes three separate flights. I only paid for the upgrade on the longest leg of the journey.

My final suggestion is to give premium economy a try one time. This experience can then inform your future decisions. Maybe like me you’ll continue to purchase the upgrade, or you may decide to spend your money somewhere else when you travel.

Have you ever flown premium economy? Let us know what you thought in the comments below!

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jenn

    We are looking at moving up to premium economy for an upcoming long haul flight so this post is super helpful!

    1. Wendy

      So glad you found it helpful!

    2. Wendy

      So glad it was helpful!

  2. Robert Greenway

    International long haul flights Vancouver – Manila regular economy already includes 2 – 50 lb. bags so to pay an extra $850 for premium to me is ludicrous.

    1. Wendy

      Keep in mind that the upgrade may include other perks besides luggage like drinks, early bording, better meals, and more legroom. For a long haul flight, I often find the premium economy worth the extra money.

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