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How to upgrade from economy to premium economy without breaking the bank

July 19, 2022
8 min read
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Recently, I wrote about why I don’t think premium economy is worth the price tag. It’s certainly a better product than standard economy, but I think it’s only worth about 50% more money than economy. The problem is, cash fares for premium economy seats usually cost 100% to 200% more than economy.

If you pay three times as much for premium economy and you expect an experience that's three times as good, you will probably be very disappointed.

That said, there are ways to secure a more comfortable journey without breaking the bank. Here are three cheap upgrade methods.

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airplane seats
Japan Airlines Premium Economy. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

What is premium economy?

Premium economy is a cabin that sits between economy and business class (both in price and comfort). It usually comes with the following benefits over regular economy:

  • Priority check-in and boarding
  • Additional checked baggage allowance
  • A wider seat in a smaller cabin with more legroom and seat recline
  • Slightly elevated meal service
  • Additional points/miles and status credit earning

Some airlines also offer a welcome drink of sparkling wine, water or juice (no Champagne) as well as dedicated crew and bathrooms for your cabin, elevated amenities like a (very) basic amenity kit, and plusher blankets and pillows. This varies from airline to airline.

Why fight for the armrest when you can rest easy? The difference between cramped flying and classy flying is just a matter of points away with the free TPG App!

airplane seats
Finnair Premium Economy. (Photo by Finnair)

Upgrade with points and miles

If you have an economy award redemption and there is award availability in premium economy, you can pay the extra points or miles to upgrade to the higher class.

While cash fares can be two or three times the price, redemptions are much less. To upgrade on a one-way flight from London to New York City, you will need the following per person:

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On Virgin Atlantic especially, its great value to choose a premium economy redemption instead of a standard economy redemption.

Related: A fine mess: a review of Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy on the A330 from London to New York

If you have a cash fare in economy, check your fare class — some of the cheapest sale fares may not be eligible to upgrade with points or miles. If there’s award availability in premium economy, here are the upgrade costs:

  • British Airways: 13,000 off-peak/20,000 peak Avios to New York. The cheapest Q, O and G fare classes are excluded.
  • Virgin Atlantic: You can upgrade an Economy Classic or Economy Delight cash fare to New York for 8,700 standard/13,700 Virgin Points each way per person.

You will also need to pay some additional fees, taxes and surcharges for the higher class of service, but these are not as eye-watering as the amounts required for business class redemptions.

Related: Why are the fees, taxes and surcharges on Avios redemptions so high?

If there is no availability in premium economy now, check again closer to your departure as additional seats may open up. You could also use an alert tool like SeatSpy or ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to notify you if a premium economy seat becomes available.

Mileage upgrade options on United. (Photo by United)

Bid for a cash upgrade

Some airlines will offer eligible economy passengers the chance to bid on an upgrade to a higher class of service (such as premium economy). You may receive an email that invites you to bid and provides a scale of bid options for you to choose from. You will only have to pay the amount you choose if your bid is successful.

These bid platforms are notorious for encouraging you to bid a higher amount than you actually need to; they do this by ranking your bid as ‘weak’ or even ‘very weak.’ If the scale of bid options ranges from, say $239 to $597, anything less than $478 might be considered ‘weak.' In reality, it may be more than enough to upgrade.

Related: Guide to bidding for flight upgrades for premium seats

There’s no guarantee with these upgrades. If you offer the maximum upgrade bid from economy to premium economy, it’s very unlikely it won’t be accepted. However, you should check cash upgrade prices first as the maximum bid may be higher than the cost of paying for a higher fare outright. If plenty of people bid, low amounts may be rejected. If the flight doesn’t receive many upgrade bids, the airlne might accept lower bids. You won’t know how many other passengers bid or what amount they bid.

If you do want to bid to upgrade for the lowest amount of cash possible, I recommend bidding slightly more than the minimum amount. This will automatically put you ahead of all those who have only bid the minimum amount, and you may secure an affordable upgrade.

Related: Another Way to Book Business Class — Reader Success Story

China Airlines Premium Economy. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

Ask at check-in

Airlines may sell upgrades at a discount when you check-in, either online or at the airport. The closer to the flight departing, the less likely the airline is to sell a cash fare in the upgraded cabin. Thus, they may be open to the idea of offering it to an existing passenger for a discounted price.

The prices vary depending on the airline and route. At outstations, there may be a fixed price for all passengers, perhaps laminated on the check-in counter. The prices can be negotiable depending on who you speak to and how busy the flight is — it really depends on the airline and airport.

As a personal rule of thumb, I would not pay more than $24 per hour to upgrade from economy to premium economy; so, for a 10-hour flight, $239 would be the maximum amount I would pay to upgrade from economy to premium economy. To upgrade to business class, I would pay much more than this because it's a substantially better product.

Some airlines may even offer cash upgrades onboard. This will be announced while the boarding process is occurring, and a cabin crew manager will come around with a credit card machine to swipe the payments for anyone who wants to upgrade. I find this process to be exceptionally chaotic during boarding; it results in multiple people switching seats as the crew members try to remember who has upgraded and who has not.

If you want a relaxing start to an upgraded experience, I would recommend organizing your upgrade before you step on the flight.

Related: Which airlines can I book with Avios?

If you are a high-status member of the airline’s loyalty program and the airline oversold economy tickets, you may receive the odd operational upgrade to premium economy at no cost. Still, this is rare and not something you should expect.

airplane seats
(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

The value of premium economy will differ from passenger to passenger. It’s noticeably better than regular economy since it offers a wider seat with more legroom and more recline in a smaller cabin. You may also earn additional points and status credit/tier points if you upgrade with cash.

If you’re faced with the prospect of paying more than $1,000 extra for premium economy, consider upgrading with points or miles, bidding for a discounted upgrade or asking about prices at check-in.

Featured image by Featured image by Christian Kramer / The Points Guy
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.