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Best Airlines to Fly International Premium Economy

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Many travelers aspire to the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of a first class international flight. While premium economy doesn’t have the same wow factor, it can still provide a great experience. Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen looks at some of the best options for flying premium economy internationally.

Earlier this month, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen looked at the best options for flying premium economy within the US. This post came on the heels of Delta announcing a “rebranding” of their onboard offerings. However, many international carriers have been enhancing their premium economy products for the last few years, and today I’ll go through the best options for traveling in relative comfort if you can’t lay out the dough (or miles!) for business or first class.

Premium Economy tickets generally cost much less than business class, but they provide a significant upgrade from the amenities in regular coach.
Premium Economy fares generally cost much less than business class, but provide a significant upgrade from the amenities in regular coach.

For starters, it’s important to note that not all products and services are available on every flight and every plane, so be sure to check your specific aircraft’s configuration and listed amenities at booking to avoid unwanted surprises. Winding up on an older plane in a seat with limited recline isn’t the end of the world, but it’s pretty disappointing if you’re expecting a nice meal and upgraded seat.

In addition, international premium economy is generally marketed as an entirely separate class of service, and is often a fully separate cabin. This tends to differ from the domestic offerings discussed in Eric’s post linked above. As a result, trying to quantify the true extra cost of purchasing these seats is exceedingly difficult, since there are so many variables at play (time of year, route, distance, etc.). However, in comparing the various products, I’ve tried to give at least an estimate of the cost in comparison to standard economy tickets for trips from key airports.

Finally, because these products are truly separate classes, they’re typically only available to paying customers. This is in sharp contrast to most domestic offerings, which are available at no charge to many elite flyers (either ahead of time or within 24 hours of departure). In other words, be prepared to pay up! As you’ll see, the additional amenities are often worth the extra cost.

Air France's Premium Economy is a pretty big step up from standard economy.
Air France’s Premium Economy is a pretty big step up from standard economy.

Air France

Air France actually has one of the more standardized premium economy offerings, with essentially the same seats on all long-haul aircraft aside from its Boeing 747 planes. TPG Creative Director Adam Daniel Weiss flew this service from Paris to JFK earlier in the year; here’s an overview of what you can expect:

  • Pre-flight: When you purchase a premium economy ticket on Air France, you’ll enjoy all the privileges of SkyPriority, including priority check-in, security, boarding, and baggage handling. You can also check 2 bags at no charge, and SkyTeam Elite or Elite Plus members can check a third bag for free.
  • Seat: Adam was pleased to find that his seat was akin to domestic first class—with an additional 6 inches of recline and an extra inch of width (compared to regular economy). The seats are also fixed shell, so there’s no need to worry about anyone reclining into your space. You also can use a full-sized outlet to charge your computer or tablet, and the adjustable reading lamp and wide tray table make working (and dining) a breeze.
  • Amenities: In addition to the upgraded seat, you’ll get noise-cancelling headphones, an amenity kit, a personal 10.4 inch entertainment screen, and enhanced dining and drink service.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights from New York (JFK) to Paris in January start at $1,438.22 versus $1,108.22 for regular coach, a premium of just 29.8%.
Premium Economy on Air New Zealand's 777-300 aircraft include their state of the art Spaceseat.
Premium Economy on Air New Zealand’s 777-300 aircraft include their state of the art Spaceseat.

Air New Zealand

If your travels take you to the land of the Kiwis, Air New Zealand can fly you there in comfort with the premium economy product offered on its Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft. Each one is slightly different, so check online for additional details.

  • Pre-flight: Air New Zealand gives all premium economy passengers premium check-in and priority baggage handling.
  • Seat: The exact seat will depend on the aircraft, but expect 41-42 inches of pitch, a width of 17.8-20 inches, and extra recline, all of which are significant upgrades over economy. Their 777-200 planes have a slightly older product, but the newly updated 777-300 uses their trademarked “SpaceSeat” to give travelers more comfort and privacy. Finally, their new 787-9 aircraft includes luxurious dark leather seats with 9 inches of recline.
  • Amenities: All long-haul flights with these premium economy offerings include Kiwi-inspired cuisine, an extensive selection of New Zealand wines, complimentary amenity kits, and a wide range of in-flight entertainment from the seatback television.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Auckland in January start at $3,381.10 versus $$1,847.10 for regular coach, a premium of 83%.
Alitalia's "Classica Plus" seats offer significant enhancements over standard economy class.
Alitalia’s “Classica Plus” seats offer significant enhancements over standard economy class.

Alitalia

While not necessarily known as a luxury airline, Alitalia nonetheless offers a nice premium economy product (called Classica Plus) on its A330 and Boeing 777 aircraft for long-haul international flights.

  • Pre-flight: As a premium economy passenger, you have dedicated check-in areas and priority boarding, and on most flights to and from North America, you can check an extra bag for free.
  • Seat: Regardless of the aircraft you’re flying, you’ll be seated in a separate mini-cabin of 21 or 24 ergonomic seats, with 37-38 inches of pitch and 19.2 inches of width. According to the Alitalia website, these seats also provide 40% more recline than standard economy seats.
  • Amenities: You’ll enjoy enhanced meal and drink options with menus that cycle three times per month, including a welcome drink, warm towel, traditional antipasto, and Italian wine. Entertainment includes 45 movies and other on-demand programming, accessed from new 10.6-inch LCD screens, or you can use the USB port to upload content into the system.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights between New York-JFK and Rome in January start at $1,817.90 versus $1,227.90 for regular coach, a premium of 48%.
ANA Premium Economy
ANA’s premium economy has an upgraded seat, and it’s one of the few with lounge access.

ANA

As the leading Star Alliance carrier out of Japan, ANA has a solid premium economy offering. Unfortunately, it’s only available on the airline’s 777-300ER aircraft, plus its three-class 777-200 and 787-8 planes.

  • Pre-flight: Enjoy priority check-in and baggage handling, but most importantly, take advantage of complimentary lounge access! ANA gives premium economy passengers access to its lounges in both Tokyo airports, plus ones in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Jose, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, London, and Paris.
  • Seat: ANA has two different premium economy seats, with new 787 and 777-300ER aircraft having updated versions. Both types offer 38 inches of pitch, a seat width of at least 18 inches, universal power ports, large tray tables, and extendable footrests; the newer seats also include a personal reading light and USB ports.
  • Amenities: As a premium economy passenger, you’ll enjoy the regular economy class meal plus additional alcoholic beverage choices and snacks during the flight (current menus available here). All customers enjoy entertainment on demand and noise-cancelling headphones, with 10.6 inch touchscreen TVs on newer aircraft, and amenity kits that include the standard offerings plus slippers.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights from Seattle to Tokyo in January start at $2,494.70 versus $1,302.40 for regular coach, a premium of 91.5%.
The newly refurbished World Traveller Plus seats on British Airways are not only stylish but comfortable as well.
The newly refurbished World Traveller Plus seats on British Airways are both stylish and comfortable.

British Airways

British Airways is another carrier that offers a “standard” premium economy experience: the World Traveller Plus cabin is available on all long-haul aircraft. In fact, as one of the first airlines with this offering, British Airways is currently refreshing the product on its older 777-200 and 767 planes to match the updated versions aboard its new A380, 787, and 777-300ER aircraft.

  • Pre-flight: As a premium economy passenger, you can check an additional bag for free, but sadly, it appears that these tickets do not include priority check-in, security, or boarding.
  • Seat: The newer style of seats include greater recline, but all seats are a significant improvement from economy, with 38 inches of pitch and 18.5 inches of width (compared to 31 and 17.5 inches, respectively). New aircraft also include in-seat power to keep your electronic devices charged.
  • Amenities: British Airways pays close attention to their cuisine, providing you a three-course meal, full bar (on most flights) and a premium dining experience with fine china and linen napkins. All planes include on-demand entertainment and noise-cancelling headphones, though the new seats include a screen that’s 60% larger.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights from Miami to London-Heathrow in January start at $1,694.16 versus $1,287.27 for regular coach, a premium of 31.6%.
Cathay Pacific's premium economy may not look luxurious, but it comes with some nice amenities.
Cathay Pacific’s premium economy may not look luxurious, but it comes with some nice amenities.

Cathay Pacific

While Cathay Pacific has one of the best first class products out there (see TPG’s review), they also have a top-notch premium economy product on the vast majority of their long-haul aircraft. Here’s what to expect:

  • Pre-flight: As a premium economy passenger, you can take advantage of dedicated check-in counters and boarding lanes at the gate, and you’re entitled to additional baggage (either more weight or an additional piece).
  • Seat: Cathay’s premium economy seats are in a separate cabin of 26 to 34 seats, with a pitch of 38 inches, a width of 17.8-19.5 inches, and 8 inches of recline. Leg and footrests plus a four-position headrest make sleeping and resting even more comfortable. You’ll have access to a full tray table and smaller cocktail table to make the most of your space, whether eating, relaxing, or staying productive.
  • Amenities: You have access to a 10.6 inch personal TV loaded with Cathay’s StudioCX on-demand entertainment, or use the in-seat outlet to connect your iPhone or iPad and stream movies or music directly into the provided noise-cancelling headphones. You’ll also enjoy an environmentally-friendly amenity kit and a variety of dining options, including a welcome drink, hot towel, and enhanced meal service.
  • Cost: Round-trip tickets from San Francisco to Hong Kong in January start at $1,947.08 versus $1,068.08 for standard coach, a premium of 82.3%.
JAL's Sky Premium seats are even more spacious than their older Sky Shell seats.
JAL’s Sky Premium seats are even more spacious than their older Sky Shell seats.

JAL

Japan Airlines is another carrier with international premium economy, but sadly, you’ll only find this product on 777-300ER and select 777-200ER aircraft.

  • Pre-flight: If you depart from Tokyo, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, or Sydney, you can take advantage of dedicated premium economy check-in (or use business class check-in lanes at other airports). In addition, outbound passengers leaving Tokyo-Narita can access the JAL Sakura Lounge in Terminal 2. Finally, your bags will be delivered with those of first and business class passengers, ensuring that you’ll be on your way quickly.
  • Seat: Japan Airlines actually has two different types of premium economy seats. The older Sky Shell seat is found on flights between Tokyo and Australia and Asian destinations, with 38 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width. The newer Sky Premium seat is found on 777-300ER aircraft flying to North America and Europe, with 42 inches of pitch and 19 inches of width. Each seat also has power outlets for your portable electronic devices to retain their juice.
  • Amenities: Both types of seats include on-demand entertainment, though Sky Premium has a 12.1 inch screen (compared to 9 inches in Sky Shell), one of the largest in the industry. Food service is the same main meal as economy with additional snack and drink options, and the amenity kit is the same as in business class.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights from Chicago to Tokyo in January start at $2,345.15 versus $1,379.15 in regular coach, a premium of 76.6%.
Premium economy on Qantas gives you more comfort and better dining options and is found on A380 and 747 planes.
Premium economy on Qantas gives you more comfort and better dining options.

Qantas

Australia’s flagship carrier provides a premium economy service on its 747 and A380 aircraft, giving you some nice options for getting down under in comfort. Here are the details:

  • Pre-flight: As a premium economy passenger, you’ll enjoy priority check-in and boarding, though extra baggage allowance is only given on flights to destinations other than the Americas.
  • Seat: The Recaro seat has 38-42 inches of pitch, and gives you an additional 1.5-2 inches of width, while an adjustable headrest and footrest add to your comfort. You can also stay charged up with power outlets and USB connectivity.
  • Amenities: The touch screen TV measures 10.6 inches, giving you access to an array of on-demand entertainment. You’ll also enjoy complimentary amenity kits and a welcome drink upon boarding. The contemporary menu is designed by Australian restaurateur Neil Perry, and is paired with a selection of premium Australian wines. You can also take advantage of self-serve snack and beverage services during the flight.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Sydney in January start at $3,833.12 versus $2,223.12 for regular coach, a premium of 72.4%.
Premium economy on Virgin Atlantic is found on their entire long-haul fleet.
Premium economy on Virgin Atlantic is found on its entire long-haul fleet.

Virgin Atlantic

Sir Richard Branson’s airline, known for its quirky style, provides a premium economy class across its entire long-haul fleet.

  • Pre-flight: Enjoy dedicated check-in and bag drop along with priority boarding and (where available) priority baggage handling.
  • Seat: Virgin Atlantic’s style shines through in their dark purple leather seats, with 38 inches of pitch and a width of 21 inches, the latter of which ranks among the best in the industry. The headrest, footrest, and lumbar support ensure a comfortable flight, but you can also stay productive with in-seat power (though the type of outlet varies depending on the aircraft).
  • Amenities: Start your flight off right with a complimentary welcome drink and newspaper upon boarding, and peruse the extensive in-flight entertainment offerings in the seatback TV. The airline’s trademark purple appears again in the amenity kit, and the multi-course meal includes your choice of hand-selected wines and after-dinner liqueur.
  • Cost: Round-trip flights from New York (JFK) to London Heathrow in January start at $1,513.70 versus $817.30 for regular coach, a premium of 85.2%.

Other airlines

There are several other airlines that offer premium economy service, but I didn’t include them in this comparison mainly due to the limited routes and/or aircraft on which the product is available. However, if you typically fly any of the following carriers, be sure to check out their premium economy offerings:

  • Air Canada: Only provided on 787 and select 777-300ER aircraft
  • Lufthansa: Only available on select A380 and 747 aircraft (though it will be rolled out to the entire long-haul fleet by summer 2015)
  • Turkish Airlines: Only available on 777-300ER aircraft (though it does provide an industry-leading 46 inches of pitch)

Please share your experiences flying international premium economy in the comments below!

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