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Quick Points: Reserve premium economy seats for the price of a coach seat on select wide-body domestic routes

Dec. 09, 2022
7 min read
Row 21 Premium Plus on a United Airlines Boeing 777-300ER
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Although the Big Three carriers operate single-aisle planes — like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 — on most domestic flights, United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines fly twin-aisle jets on some of their most popular domestic routes.

Airlines generally fly wide-body jets on longer-haul flights, so they generally come with a better inflight experience (think: seatback TV, power outlets and larger overhead bins). But undoubtedly, the best part of these wide-body jets is the ability to reserve premium economy seating at no additional cost.

Here's what you need to know about getting a "free" upgrade to a premium economy seat on your next flight.

How to find "free" premium economy seats

Premium economy on an American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER. BENJI STAWSKI/THE POINTS GUY

Except for a few cases where the airline sells premium economy seats as a separate cabin (mainly long-haul flights to Hawaii), you can reserve domestic premium economy seats as United Economy Plus, American Main Cabin Extra or Delta Comfort+.

That means you can use your complimentary extra legroom seating — an elite status benefit — to reserve premium economy seats. You can pay to select these seats if you don't have elite status. Expect the same benefits and service you'd get if traveling in an extra legroom seat, but naturally, the premium economy seat is better.

When booking a flight, check the aircraft type that operates the flight. Pull up the seat map if you see a wide-body jet like an Airbus A330, A350, Boeing 767, 777 or 787.

UNITED.COM

If you know what to look for, you'll be able to tell if the seats are premium economy.

Seat map from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Dulles International Airport (IAD). UNITED.COM

For one, the seat configuration will be different than the rest of the economy cabin. On Boeing 777s, like the one above, a common premium economy seating configuration is 2-4-2 instead of the standard economy 3-4-3.

Additionally, in the case of United's Premium Plus cabin, the row numbers of the premium economy cabin (rows 20, 21 and 22) are significantly different from the rest of the Economy Plus cabin (rows 30-34, 40 and 41). On this plane, all blue seats, including those in premium economy, can be reserved as Economy Plus. That means Premier Silver members are eligible to get them for free at check-in; Premier Gold, Platinum, 1K and Global Service members can select those seats now without charge — and United's generous Economy Plus companion rules still apply.

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Related: What is United Airlines elite status worth?

American makes it a little trickier. You can't immediately tell from the row number that you're in premium economy, so pay close attention to the seating layout on the seat map. Premium economy is in a 2-3-2 configuration on this plane, as opposed to the standard 3-3-3 configuration on the rest of the plane.

Seat map from Miami International Airport (MIA) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). AA.COM

All orange seats, including those in premium economy, can be reserved as Main Cabin Extra on this flight.

Delta Air Lines, which tends to have larger premium economy cabins than United or American, designates some of its domestic premium economy seats as Comfort+. If your status entitles you to complimentary Comfort+, you can snag one of these seats free of charge.

Seat map from LAX to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW). DELTA.COM

If you're unhappy with the premium economy seat available when you book your flight or if all the premium economy seats are taken, set an ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG's parent company Red Ventures) seat reminder. If a seat becomes available, you'll get an email alert. ExpertFlyer has helped me get out of center premium economy seats multiple times.

Related: How to use ExpertFlyer alerts to snag a better seat

Premium economy seats vs. domestic first class

Premium Select on a Delta Air Lines Airbus A330-900neo. ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Now, the fun part.

Premium economy seats are significantly better than what you get with standard extra legroom seats. The seat is roughly in line with what you'd get on a single-aisle domestic first class seat.

Let's compare seat dimensions using United's fleet. These measurements come from United's website.

Boeing 777-200 Economy PlusBoeing 777-200 premium economyBoeing 737-800 first class
Pitch34 inches.38 inches.37 inches.
Width17.05 inches.18.5 inches.20.5 inches.
Recline4 inches.6 inches.5 inches.

As you can see, while the width isn't quite as much as what you would find on Boeing 737 in first class, the pitch and recline are more than what you'd find in narrow-body first class.

So let's go back to this example.

UNITED.COM

For $219, Premier Gold and higher members can reserve a premium economy seat — roughly equivalent to a first class seat selling for more than $1,000. Of course, the first class seat offers a proper meal, additional check luggage allowance, Premier Access and better service. Still, the two are roughly in line if you look solely at the seat.

United could change its equipment, possibly moving you to a standard Economy Plus seat, but from my experience, that happens only once in a blue moon.

Related: Why United’s expanded Premium Plus rollout isn’t exclusively good news

Domestic routes with wide-body jets

Here are some of the domestic flights on which United and American and Delta commonly have use wide-body services (at the time of writing). In our tests, you can reserve premium economy seats as extra legroom seats on these routes. As you can see, these are on high-traffic routes to, from or between hubs. These routes are subject to change.

United

  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Dulles International Airport (IAD), George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), O'Hare International Airport (ORD), Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) and Kahului Airport (OGG).
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to IAD, ORD, HNL and IAH.
  • Denver International Airport (DEN) to ORD and IAD.
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to IAH.

Note that United also operates multiple daily premium economy services from SFO and LAX to EWR, which United sells as a separate cabin.

American

  • Miami International Airport (MIA) to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), Tampa International Airport (TPA), LAX and ORD.
  • DFW to Orlando International Airport (MCO), Cancun International Airport (CUN), ORD and LAX.
  • Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) to CUN and PHX.

Delta

  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) to LAX, Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
  • LAX to DTW.

Related: Perfectly fine but nothing more: American Airlines premium economy across the Atlantic

Bottom line

In addition to a separate cabin located closer to the front of the plane, premium economy seats tend to offer an inflight entertainment system with a remote, a more generous seat recline, a small footrest and (my favorite) a tray table in the armrest that's wide enough that you don't have to play elbow war with your seatmate.

While your airline can always change its aircraft type, reserving premium economy for the price of an extra legroom seat is one of the best domestic flight secrets. The next time you see a wide-body jet on a flight that you're considering booking, remember that some extra legroom seats could be much better than the others.

Featured image by KYLE OLSEN/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.

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees