When is premium economy worth it?

Dec 12, 2019

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One of the biggest trends in aviation is the evolution of premium economy, which can mean anything from just extra legroom to a dedicated cabin with its own standards of hard and soft product. Would premium economy be a good choice for your next trip? Here’s a handy checklist to help you decide.

What airline are you flying?

Premium economy is a work in progress and the experience varies widely from airline to airline. In deciding if premium economy is worth it, check out flight reviews to find out if you’re looking at business class in all but the seat or economy at twice the price.

Here are some reviews of popular premium economy cabins:

The seat layout could also make a big difference. Some airlines have a 2-3-2 layout for premium economy while others make it a decidedly less roomy 2-4-2. Seat availability at time of booking could be the key: I would hate to pay an upcharge for premium economy and still end up with a middle seat. This is a situation where you should check ExpertFlyer before booking to make sure a seat you like is open for you.

photo by Katie Genter/TPG
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Who are you flying with?

If you are traveling with a lap infant, you might do better in premium economy than business because some premium economy seats are on a bulkhead that might have a bassinet. You’ll also pay a lot less for a lap infant in premium economy than business as airlines charge up to 10% of the full-retail fare for a lap infant.

Most younger kids will do fine in premium economy over business class. For one thing, kids aren’t going to enjoy the fancy meal and the free-flowing premium alcohol that is a big draw for the pointy end of the plane. Kids are also used to sleeping upright in car seats, as any parent who wedges their nap-resistant toddler into the car will attest. On the other hand, if you are traveling with an elderly person or someone who has physical issues such as chronic back pain, getting there in comfort is key.

(Photo by Dangubic/Getty Images)

Can you sleep in a La-Z-Boy-style seat?

We recently celebrated Thanksgiving and in our house, the meal is traditionally followed by a recliner nap. For us, catching ZZZs in a semi-upright position is easy. If you are in the same boat, you’ll probably do fine in premium economy for even an overnight flight. If you absolutely can’t sleep without a real bed, the lie-flat seat in business is likely mandatory if you need to sleep. Keep in mind that even business class doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a lie-flat seat as TPG writer Lori Zaino recently learned the hard way.

How long is your trip?

If time is your least flexible resource, the less discomfort you have, the better. I recently flew to Asia for a week-long trip and chose premium economy rather than standard economy to hit the ground running. If my time on the ground in Asia had been longer, I would have been more comfortable with being less comfortable during my flight. I would have allotted at least a day for recovery before scheduling any activities and banked my savings for a long massage.

Are you upgrading or downgrading?

If you are a coach flyer, premium economy could feel downright luxurious. You’ll appreciate the larger seat, more expansive legroom and a better recline. For some, business-class extras like Champagne and fancy meals aren’t worth the hefty surcharge. I know many flyers love business-class amenity kits but some premium economy amenity offerings are worth coveting in themselves. Maybe you already have lounge access from a credit card or from airline status. If you just want a more comfortable flight, PE could be your sweet spot.

And a flyer who normally chooses business for overnights could do just as well in premium economy for a daytime flight. If you’re not going to sleep, consider saving the cash or miles for those overnight flights where the lie-flat seat makes a difference.

EVA Air premium economy amenity kit. Photo by Katherine Fan/The Points Guy
EVA Air premium economy amenity kit. (Photo by Katherine Fan/The Points Guy)

How much does it cost?

The one consistency in premium economy pricing is inconsistency. It’s really hard to give blanket advice when prices are so varied. However, one common theme in the routes I checked is that premium economy provided a better value if you were paying cash rather than spending miles. That seems to hold whether the airline has a fixed awards chart or has thrown it out the window.

For instance, I recently inquired about upgrading a cash coach ticket from CDG to IAD on Air France. I bought the ticket using the Delta Vacations deal for a rock-bottom price of 12,000 miles each way.

I was quoted a 45k (one-way, no taxes) upgrade fee for premium economy but only a 60k fee for business. Fifteen thousand Flying Blue points have a value of $180 per TPG valuations. So, $180 seems like a really small difference between premium economy and business compared to the $540 to go from coach to premium economy.

The same held true for flights purchased outright with Flying Blue. Here’s what came up when I searched for the same flight. In this case, the cash equivalent prices, including taxes, are $479.65 for coach, $857.11 for premium economy and $996.83 for business. That’s only $139 difference between premium economy and business. In that case, I would either suck it up in coach or go for broke in business. The medium option just doesn’t make sense to me.

For the same flight, the difference between the cash economy price and the cash premium economy price was $420, while the price differential between premium economy and business was a whopping $1,864 (prices 1/2 round-trip). In this case, I would definitely be better off in premium economy if I were paying cash for the entire ticket. Paying cash for premium economy in this case is even a better deal when you consider the economy fare is a “light fare” (V class), which doesn’t include baggage and only earns 25% of miles flown.

The premium economy fare books into A class, which earns 150% of miles flown. On the CDG to IAD flights, that’s a difference between 965 SkyMiles or 5,792 SkyMiles. That’s a difference worth $58 per TPG valuations. (Source: WhereToCredit.com)

To get another data point, I tried to book from JFK to EZE (Buenos Aires) using AA miles. What I got was comical. As you can see, coach went down as low as 16.5k AAdvantage miles but premium economy didn’t budge under 145K on any days I checked.

I decided to next try booking the same flight with cash, using a round-trip flight. Using this comparison, the round-trip coach ticket at 33k AAdvantage miles looks like a deal, but the premium economy ticket at 290k decidedly does not!

(Screenshot via AA.com)

Bottom line

Premium economy has become my go-to for flights of more than six hours. On the cost/comfort scale, the more comfortable experience is enough for me to enjoy a long-haul flight. But I’m the lucky person who can sleep well without a lie-flat bed and I don’t necessarily appreciate the little luxuries that business class provides. I also have lounge access via my Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card® from American Express so my departure and layover experiences are already upgraded. Unless the difference between premium economy and business is marginal, I’m more likely to spend less so I can travel more often. The one big caveat: It needs to be a true premium economy product and not just coach with a bit of extra legroom.

Want to learn more about premium economy? Here are some resources:

Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy

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