Premium economy: is it  worth the extra expense?

Premium economy can be a spacious and relatively luxurious way to fly long-haul. Or it can be a pinched and overpriced experience that leaves you feeling ripped off. So how much extra do you have to pay, and what do you really get for your money?

When we polled industry experts, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand were named as the best for premium economy, while British Airways and Air France’s offerings were said to be tired and in need of an upgrade.

Don’t kid yourself you’re getting business class seats on the cheap. Rob Burgess, of frequent flyer website headforpoints.com said: “Premium economy is not a half-way house between economy and business class. Passengers need to understand this. You are simply getting a higher quality economy product, often for a substantially higher price. It is not surprising that both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have said that, per square foot, premium economy is the most profitable part of the plane.

“If you book premium economy, you will get a slightly wider seat, a greater angle of recline, a footrest and better quality food, often served on china. You will usually get an upgraded main course but a starter and dessert from the economy menu. At the end of the day, it is still an upright seat which will be challenging to sit and sleep in for an overnight flight.”

The seat width

A typical seat in economy long-haul flights is around 17.5 inches wide on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic (airlines seem to still use imperial, not metric), 18 inches on Emirates and 18.5 inches on Qatar.

Upgrading to premium gives you a full extra … inch. Well, that’s the case with most BA planes, which means that its economy seat may be no wider than standard economy in Qatar. According to website seatguru.com, the widest seats in premium economy are on Virgin Atlantic, at 21 inches, with Thomson at 20.5 inches, and Air New Zealand, Cathay and Air Canada planes at 20 inches. Note the seat width is not standard for each airline, and can vary according to the make of plane.

The seat length (or pitch)

Legroom is where premium economy is significantly better than cattle class. A standard economy long-haul seat has a pitch of 30-31 inches on Virgin, 31 inches on BA and Lufthansa, and 32 inches on Air France. If you’re lucky, some United, Delta and American Airlines economy layouts are 35 inches.

The upgrade to premium economy gives you an extra seven inches legroom on most airlines, with most seats coming in at a 38 inch pitch. Norwegian, which flies lots of transatlantic routes, is the standout winner here, with its premium economy passengers enjoying 46 inches, or a whole 14 inches more than in the airline’s economy cabin. Japan Airlines are not bad, at 42 inches, followed by Air New Zealand at 41 inches.

As Tristan Sire of Jack’s Flight Club (a website that emails you when it finds really cheap flights) says, it’s no wonder that the main buyers of premium economy seats are tall people, and older people with aches and pains, for whom economy is just too uncomfortable, but who can’t afford to turn left on entering a Boeing 747.

The recline

Hoping for a lie-back experience in premium economy? Think again. Virgin Atlantic launched its new premium seats this week, and they let you recline seven inches. Their economy seats have a maximum recline of five inches. So all you get is an extra two inches of lie-back and try-to-forget-the-engine-roar.

The cost

Expect to pay 50% to 150% more than economy prices. We price-tested return flights from London to New York, for a week in May (18-25) and a week in July (20-27), and a trip from London to Sydney in January 2020. We used Skyscanner, Expedia and the airlines own websites to check prices.

The first thing to note is how wildly prices fluctuate between different dates. In May, we found BA offering its premium economy tickets to New York at £720, Virgin Atlantic at £739 and Delta at £805. But at the same time these airlines are charging economy cabin prices at just £264 (BA) £275 (Virgin) and £301 (Delta). So while £720 to New York is not dreadful, you are paying as much as triple the price of economy for those few extra inches.

Airline prices rocket in July, as all hard-pressed parents know. To head to the US in the first week of the UK school holidays, we were quoted £753 in economy on BA, and £1,186 in premium economy. Virgin wanted £718 and £1,221. Taking the step up to business, it was around £2,400 at both airlines. Basically you pay around £500 extra to go premium economy whether in May or July.

For very long-haul, the extra you pay for premium economy is frightening. For a London-Sydney return January we were quoted £908 on BA, and £947 on Singapore Airlines. To go premium on the same flights, BA charged £2,099, while Singapore wanted a stonking £2,838 and Qantas £2,688. It only cost another £1,200 to get a Singapore flat bed in business all the way.

One alternative is to buy a £500 economy flight to Kuala Lumpur, then transfer to budget airline Air Asia, which offers flat-bed flights to Australia from around £1,200 return.

Another is to jump when premium seats come up cheap, as they will do from time to time. Jack’s Flight Club this week emailed its one million members to say Lufthansa was offering premium economy London to Singapore for just £600, flights departing November to February, compared to its normal £1,100.

The other cost to consider is the environment. Apart from generalised concern over emissions, planes with fewer people because seats are more spread out produce more carbon per passenger.

The extras

British Airways allows two 23kg bags in premium economy, while its basic economy fare is hand luggage only. Where the gap from economy to premium is small, the bags alone can make an upgrade (almost) worth it.

But don’t expect a ticket into the glamorous (though often not) world of airline lounges. None of the major airlines include their lounges in premium tickets, although they may discount the cost of entry. But you may get the small thrill of being able to check in at the business desk while economy passengers queue for half an hour next to you.

You get a bigger telly. Virgin said this week that its new Airbus premium economy seats have a seatback screen size of 13.3 inches compared to 11.6 inches in economy, but not a patch on the 18.5 inches in business.

The experience

The Marsdens from Cheshire, who we feature in Money this week, paid British Airways more than £900 each extra to fly premium economy London to Costa Rica but said they had a woeful experience, with loos broken, the cabin cold and the food “inedible”.

Caroline Lewis* from Rotherham flies several times a year from the UK to Los Angeles. She always buys economy, but was recently persuaded to pay BA a small extra fee to upgrade to premium.

“I had expected a slightly bigger, deeper seat and better reclining feature than economy seats. But I would say the only obvious difference was the small foot rest … and that didn’t add to my overall comfort. Possibly it was an older plane, but it definitely wasn’t worth paying any extra for this seat.”

But John Strickland, director of independent transport consultancy JLS Consulting, has flown many times on BA’s premium economy cabin and says it can represent good value. “You get clearly more space and a smaller cabin. No, it’s not business class, but airlines have recognised there is a ‘premium leisure’ market, or travellers such as myself on business on a long haul flight who need more space.”

The verdict

SeatGuru says it’s only worth it if the extra cost is 10% – 15% higher than standard economy, which is rarely the case. If you are considering it, make sure you pick the right airline. Skytrax, the respected independent body which rates airlines said in 2018 Air New Zealand was best for premium economy, followed by Qantas and Singapore Airlines.

* Not her real name

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