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Top Airlines to Fly International Economy Class

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While many frequent flyers daydream about aspirational premium class awards, there are plenty of international economy options that will get you from A to B happily and at a fraction of the cost. Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen looks at some of the best options.

Let’s be honest; we’d all rather be sitting in the front of the plane (in first or business class) than in the back. Unfortunately, that isn’t always an option, as high prices or lack of availability can thwart even the most experienced points and miles enthusiast. Fortunately, many international carriers offer a solid economy class product that puts domestic economy to shame. Today, I’ll highlight those airlines that allow you to travel in (relative) comfort.

Just because you're in coach doesn't mean that your flight will be miserable!
Just because you’re in coach doesn’t mean your flight will be miserable! Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

As you read about the various products listed below, keep in mind that the in-flight experience can vary significantly across fleets, routes, and even on a single plane. If you sit in a bulkhead seat, you’ll likely have a much better flight than someone in the middle seat of the last row with no recline. The food and service may be terrific on your outbound trip, but awful on your return.

As a result, it’s helpful to research your plane ahead of time so you know what’s in store. Many resources can help with this, including:

  • The airline’s website, which can tell you what to expect generally during your flight;
  • SeatGuru, which offers seating charts with notes and reviews for a wide array of carriers and aircraft configurations;
  • FlyerTalk, which can answer just about any question you have about your flight experience if you’re willing to sift through all the information available there.

So while your overall experience can vary from one flight to the next, some carriers offer consistently higher quality. These are my picks for the airlines that offer the best all-around economy class products.

Air New Zealand's Skycouch is a unique aspects of their economy class product
Air New Zealand’s Skycouch is a unique aspect of the airline’s economy class product.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is a great option for reaching Oceania, and the economy class across it’s entire long-haul fleet is terrific. All planes include on-demand entertainment and Kiwi-inspired cuisine accompanied by a selection of New Zealand wines. The 787 and 777-300 also include the ability to order food directly from your seat.

Even more importantly, these two planes offer the Economy Skycouch, a set of three seats with leg rests that swing up to create a couch/bed in the sky. These are ideal for a couple or family to stretch out and lounge. Though the Skycouch doesn’t quite compare to the lie-flat seats in business premier (and the extra space does cost more), it’s a great option to make the most of a relatively cramped coach cabin.

ANA

All Nippon Airways is one of just 7 airlines to earn a five-star rating from Skytrax, and while the luxurious first and business class cabins play a large role in this, so does the quality of the economy class product. Most of ANA’s long-haul aircraft include fixed shell seats to ensure minimal intrusion into your space when your neighbor reclines.

All planes include entertainment on demand, and aboard newer aircraft (like the Boeing 777-300 and 787 Dreamliner), you can stay powered up with universal power ports or stream your personal entertainment with an in-seat USB port. You can also indulge in a variety of fresh food and drink options that change regularly (see this link for current and upcoming menu selections). Be sure to try ANA’s signature “Aromatic Kabosu” a refreshing blend of tart green citrus and sweet honey.

It may not look like much, but Asiana's economy class is quite comfortable
It may not look like much, but Asiana’s economy class is quite comfortable.

Asiana

As another recipient of Skytrax’ five-star rating, Asiana Airlines offers a consistent economy product (dubbed Travel Class) on all wide-body aircraft. Seat pitch is at least 33 inches, and individual televisions come loaded with a variety of the latest movies and TV shows to keep you entertained throughout your flight.

Meal services include the Korean mainstay Bibimbap, but also Asiana’s twist on the traditional dish called “Ssambap,” and an extensive wine list chosen with the help of well-recognized international sommeliers. All planes provide in-seat AC power, and basic amenity kits (including slippers) are provided for all flights on long-haul routes to the Americas and Europe.

Cathay Pacific's economy cabin gives you a variety of dining options
Cathay Pacific’s economy cabin gives you a variety of dining options.

Cathay Pacific

You may notice a trend here, as Cathay Pacific is yet another five-star Skytrax airline. All economy seats throughout Cathay’s long-haul fleet give you 32 inches of pitch, and are at least 17.5 inches wide, with fixed shell formats to maintain your personal space when other passengers recline their seats.

Each aircraft includes in-seat power, and on-demand entertainment from the airline’s award-winning StudioCX (provided in 10 languages) looks great on the 9-inch touchscreen TV. Meal service gives you a choice of cocktails and regional main dishes to satisfy any palate, and the warmth of the multilingual crew will ensure a comfortable and enjoyable flight.

See TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen’s review of his economy trip on Cathay Pacific between Bangkok and Hong Kong last year.

Emirates economy class
Stay productive or entertained on Emirates

Emirates

The jewel of Emirates’ long-haul fleet is the opulent first class cabin on the A380, but the airline’s economy class cabins provide a good deal of comfort as well. Enjoy up to 2,000 channels of programming on ice, the airline’s award-winning in-flight entertainment system. Indulge in gourmet meals designed to reflect the unique cuisine of your destination, washed down with a selection of wines, beers, spirits, and other hot and cold beverages.

The comfortable seats include power outlets, and in-flight WiFi (available for an extra charge) allows you to stay productive at 35,000 feet. Check out TPG COO Leigh Rowan’s review from last month for a first-hand account of flying in Emirates’ economy cabin (with a toddler, no less!).

Etihad

Not to be outdone by its Middle Eastern rival, Etihad also provides a solid economy class product, which many TPG readers will be experiencing due to the airline’s Christmas Day fare sale! Your comfort begins with a full-size blanket and amenity kit, complete with a reversible “Do not disturb/Wake me for meals” eye mask. You have three meal options and a diverse menu of beverages and snacks to keep you full throughout the flight. Etihad’s E-BOX entertainment system provides over 750 hours of on-demand programming viewable on screens that are at least 10.6 inches wide, or you can watch live TV on one of several channels, including one devoted to sporting events.

The combination of service and amenities make Korean Air's economy cabin a great option for your long-haul flight to Asia.
The combination of service and amenities make Korean Air’s economy cabin a great option for your long-haul flight to Asia.

Korean

While most recent press has focused on the nut rage incident (and the on-going fallout), Korean Air has a terrific in-flight economy product. All wide-body aircraft have power outlets at every seat, along with personal touchscreen TVs that measure up to 10.6 inches on newer planes. The amenity kit on long-haul flights includes slippers and a toothbrush kit, and you can even request wake-up service at a designated time.

Traditional Korean food forms the basis of the in-flight dining, though you can also enjoy Western, Chinese, or Japanese options, depending on your destination. The wine list includes selections from France, Chile, and Australia, and a variety of snacks like samgak kimbop and makkoli rice cakes ensure that you stay full on longer flights.

Qatar Airways

The third member of the ME3 airlines is another carrier with a solid economy class product (and has also earned a five-star rating from Skytrax). The seats across the entire long-haul fleet give you 32-33 inches of pitch, and Qatar’s A380 and 777 aircraft offer some of the widest seats in the sky at 18.9 inches. The seat back TV gives you over 1,000 entertainment options, but you can also stay productive with in-seat power (and WiFi on board 787 and A380 aircraft). The cuisine is varied and focuses on fresh ingredients, while the many beverage selections will satisfy any taste. Finally, your kids should enjoy the complimentary SpongeBob Squarepants kit or lunch box.

When you travel in coach on Singapore, you still enjoy the service of the world-renowned Singapore Girl
When you travel in coach on Singapore, you still enjoy the service of the world-renowned Singapore Girl

Singapore Airlines

Singapore regularly appears on lists of the world’s best airlines, and while we’d all love to experience Suites Class on the A380, long-haul economy class still allows you to enjoy the hospitality and service of yet another Skytrax five-star airline.

The seat design maximizes space between you and your neighbor, even when the seats are reclined. You can stay productive with in-seat power or use the 10.6-inch personal TV to browse the 1,000+ entertainment options on KrisWorld, the airline’s in-flight entertainment system. Economy class menus include a blend of Asian and international dishes specially chosen to reflect the distinct flavors of the airline’s destinations, and a variety of beverages and snack options make it nearly impossible to go hungry (or thirsty) onboard.

I have flown Virgin Atlantic economy class between the U.S. and London several times, and it's a comfortable way to cross the Atlantic.
I have flown Virgin Atlantic economy class between the US and London several times, and it’s a comfortable way to cross the Atlantic.

Virgin Atlantic

Sir Richard Branson sought to create a unique, contemporary airline when he started Virgin Atlantic, and this clearly shows in the carrier’s long-haul economy class. Sip your welcome cocktail as you browse the menu with three-course meal options, and enjoy a free amenity kit packed with all the essentials you need. The personal seat-back TV is packed full of entertainment options, and if you’re flying with the family, K-iD backpacks include goodies to keep your little ones occupied throughout the flight.

Bottom line

We often focus on tips and strategies for snagging those (sometimes) elusive first and business class awards, but economy class on many international carriers allows you to arrive in style without breaking the (mileage) bank. Even more importantly, economy awards tend to be more readily available, even with partner airlines.

See also:

What are your favorite international economy products?

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