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As part of TPG’s summer intern trip to Maui, each of our interns flew an initial leg from New York-JFK to LAX on a different domestic carrier (American, Delta, United and JetBlue) in order to compare the economy or premium (extra legroom) economy products on this major transcontinental route. Newly promoted TPG Assistant Editor Matthew Zuzolo flew Economy Plus on United’s p.s. (Premium Service) 757-200 — and here’s his review of the experience.
Booking the Flight
On most major domestic carriers, standard economy prices for JFK-LAX flights are generally $150-$200 each way. As you’ll see in the screenshot below, you can usually score the one-way JFK-LAX flight for $159, as long as you book at least two weeks in advance:
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for United’s Premium Service business-class product, you’ll pay much less ($1,196 round-trip) if booking a return flight rather than a one-way.
For United’s JFK-LAX route, there are two possible one-way redemptions in economy — 12,500 miles + $5.60 or 25,000 miles + $5.60, depending on award availability.
However, if you want to fly in Economy Plus, you’ll either have to pay approximately $100 cash each way as a one-time purchase or as part of an Economy Plus subscription that starts at $499 per year, or you can take advantage of your United elite status to book an upgraded seat, either when you make the reservation or at check-in (for Silver elites). When an Economy Plus upgrade is purchased, PQDs (premier-qualifying dollars) are awarded to the traveler (rather than the purchaser), as long as the traveler includes his/her MileagePlus number on their booking.
My total itinerary for this trip was from New York (JFK)-Los Angeles (LAX)-Maui (OGG). Including an upgrade to Economy Plus, my total was $696.50. Here’s the fare breakdown:
Round-trip tickets: $538.01
Taxes and fees: $45.49
Economy Plus upgrade: $113 (purchased online, a few days before my flight)
Terminal 7 and Check-In
My flight departed from JFK’s relatively quiet Terminal 7, where check-in, security and boarding are generally a breeze — and certainly were on this trip. The regular security lane was especially fast, with no wait at all.
On this trip, I chose to avoid baggage fees by sticking with a carry-on. Otherwise, United would have charged me $25 for my first checked bag and $35 for a second, but these fees are easily avoidable if you have a MileagePlus Explorer Card or United elite status.
Note that while I flew from JFK, United is moving all of its p.s. (transcon) service to Newark as of October 25, so you’ll likely fly in and out of EWR instead.
Cabin and Seat
This flight was my first experience with a premium economy product, and I was pleasantly surprised.
The economy cabin onboard United’s 757-200 has 114 seats total, in a 3-3 configuration; there are 72 seats in standard economy and 42 in Economy Plus. Economy Plus seats have 36 inches of pitch (compared to standard economy’s 31 inches) and a width of 17.3 inches (the same as standard economy). Because I’m 6 feet tall, I was already excited to have the extra legroom, but my row (and a few others) in Economy Plus also had an empty middle seat — score!
Meanwhile, standard economy was almost completely occupied. The narrow-body plane already felt a bit cramped for such a long flight, so I imagine that if I’d been seated in standard economy, I would have felt pretty cozy. I had no intention of sleeping on a daytime transcon, but it’s nice that United provided a pillow and a fleece blanket for this six-hour flight.
Catering and Amenities
This route offers decent Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi — albeit for a cost of roughly $40 (or $16 if you purchase a pass in advance through Gogo’s site). This is definitely on the pricey side, but surely a key perk for the many business travelers who fly this route. My Internet speeds varied throughout my flight, but they were generally fast enough for me to get some online work done.
United offers meals for purchase in the Economy cabin, but be aware that the airline only seems to stock a limited number of meals. Because the meals are offered to Economy Plus passengers first, standard economy passengers aren’t guaranteed an in-flight snack — so you might want to pack your own.
For me, the in-flight food was one of the best parts of my flight. I was very satisfied with the one hot menu option available — a hearty sliced-sirloin sandwich with a creamy blue cheese spread, caramelized onions and arugula — and would gladly spend $9.95 on it again. Depending on your particular United flight on this route, you might end up with meal options like a cheese plate, chicken salad and/or a Thai curry chicken bowl.
As part of the meal and beverage service, there were also some snack options like Pringles (which I felt made the perfect pairing with my sandwich), Chex Mix, Brownie Brittle, pita chips and hummus, etc., all priced at $4-$5 apiece.
The (free!) on-demand in-flight entertainment options included a bunch of relatively recent movies and TV (to see the options available during the month of your flight, click here) shown on a 9-inch seatback touchscreen, and United offers earbuds for sale if you forget your own. Each Economy Plus seat on this aircraft includes a 110V power outlet and USB port to charge electronics, as opposed to the usual two outlets per row in Economy — which was especially helpful for me, as I worked for several hours during the flight.
Though United’s transcon Premier Service is best known for its lie-flat seats in BusinessFirst, flying the carrier’s Economy Plus for only about $100 more than standard economy is a perfectly comfortable, and far more affordable, way to get across the country. United’s standard economy seats afford very little space, and come with the risk of feeling crowded and missing the opportunity to purchase an in-flight meal. After spending six hours in Economy Plus, I ultimately arrived in Los Angeles feeling comfortable, well-fed and ready to continue my journey on to Maui.
What’s your favorite way to fly between New York and Los Angeles? We’d love to hear your comments or questions below! Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.