Buyer-beware: Airlines with the best and worst premium economy seats


  • Europe
  • Friday, 25 Oct 2019

Singapore Airlines’ premium economy class on its A380 planes offers more space, comfort and convenience. — Singapore Airlines

As economy travel gets more cramped, airlines have added “premium economy” sections that promise more space and comfort – often at a higher price. Airlines have discovered many travellers are willing to pay two, even three times the 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.

Space or comfort first? 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 offers about 25cm more leg space than you typically find in economy class, while most other carriers offer just 13-15cm more.

Not all the seats are equally comfortable either. Many reviewers dislike the “fixed shell” design used by Air France and Aeroflot, where the seat slides forward rather than reclines.

What premium economy doesn’t offer are lie-flat beds, now the standard for long-haul business and first-class cabins. Then again, fares for these flights are typically thousands more than what you’d pay for premium economy.

Other extras

Meanwhile, 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, skimp on the extras, offering less to its premium economy customers than some airlines provide in coach. 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 23kg to just 20kg, and puts a 10kg weight limit on carry-ons. Its check-in counters do brisk business in charging extra fees to those who fail 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 also doesn’t necessarily reflect what you get. For an April trip from Los Angeles to London, Kayak shows a US$1,698 (RM7,110) premium economy fare for Virgin Atlantic vs US$1,747 (RM7,315) charged by Norwegian.

Air New Zealand, winner of TripAdvisor’s 2019 Travelers’ Choice Awards for best premium economy, charges US$1,612 (RM6,750). The lowest economy fares for the same route are US$638 (RM2,671) for Virgin Atlantic, US$556 (RM2,328) for Norwegian, and US$576 (RM2,412) 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.

When to buy

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, you may pay only a few hundred dollars more to get premium economy, which could be a good deal.

Airlines may give you the opportunity to upgrade – again, for a few hundred bucks, or sometimes less – when you check in, if all the premium economy seats haven’t been sold.

Paying the full price for premium economy makes sense in some circumstances. Enduring five or more hours in a cramped coach seat may be hard for older or taller travellers.

A good premium economy cabin can also 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. – NerdWallet/AP


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