7 things that surprised me on my 1st premium economy flight
Is premium economy really worth the price? I’ve heard many different opinions about the product from my colleagues at TPG. To be honest, I was initially skeptical given how similar the product often looks when compared to economy, despite the huge difference in price. However, I decided to take the plunge on a recent Iberia flight from Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) to El Dorado International Airport (BOG) in Bogota, Colombia.
Here are five things that impressed me from my first premium economy flight, and two things that didn’t.
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Value as a redemption
The reason I booked a premium economy ticket was due to the lack of award availability in economy on my travel dates. I could find award availability in economy on the way home from Colombia, but not on the way there. After some research, I decided to go for a premium economy award ticket using British Airways Avios on Iberia from Madrid to Bogota, as it offered way better value than buying a cash fare in economy.
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned since starting at TPG is that you can save big by flying from mainland Europe instead of from the United Kingdom. This is because the U.K. has incredibly high air passenger duty taxes and fees, and they increase with the class of service and distance. Looking for flights from other hubs in Europe is a great idea if you want to find a good deal — especially if you can book a cheap one-way Ryanair or easyJet flight to another hub, or even take the train to a European airport that doesn’t charge the same amount of fees.
I decided to fly from Madrid rather than my home in London. I spent 59,700 Avios and 258 pounds (about $276) in fees, taxes and surcharges on a MAD-to-BOG nonstop ticket (premium economy out and regular economy on the way back). At the time of booking, the cash fare for the same ticket would have been 1,785 pounds ($1,907). I also checked the cash fare for a return flight in economy, which would have set me back 1,356 pounds ($1,448). I would never pay almost 400 pounds more to fly premium economy one-way, but since it was a redemption, I felt it was good value.
I only had to pay 18,750 extra Avios to fly premium economy instead of economy. I earned the Avios through a British Airways American Express Premium Plus Card, with most of the points coming from a limited-time welcome bonus of 40,000 points. A Marriott hotel stay boosted my balance by another 10,000 points — once I transferred the points from my Marriott Bonvoy account to my British Airways Executive Club account. Using British Airways’ shopping portal for online purchases was also a great source of Avios; this is especially true on Booking.com, where you currently get 8 Avios per pound spent when you go through BA’s shopping portal.
The Iberia Airbus A350 aircraft had a 2-3-2 configuration in the premium economy cabin, and I chose the window seat on the last row — 15L.
The seat itself is 19 inches wide, versus the roughly 17-inch seats found in economy. I didn’t know this at the time of flying and was surprised when I found out. I almost couldn’t believe how much wider it felt. The big armrests and extra legroom made it feel a lot more spacious — there are 37 inches of space between the rows, which is 20% more than in economy. I’m used to flying in economy, and premium economy definitely felt much more spacious by comparison.
The recline is where this seat really shines: You can sit back almost 40% more than in economy. This was the closest thing I’ve ever gotten to lying down on a plane (so far!).
Unfortunately, I didn’t maximize the potential of this improvised “flatbed” until halfway through the flight. I had no idea that you could adjust the footrest and elevate it to get even more comfortable; I only realized this when I woke up and saw my neighbor comfortably sleeping in an almost flat position. Be aware that it takes up a lot of your space if the person in front of you reclines fully. It would be hard to have a laptop on your table or use it in other ways if this is the case. During the meal, my neighbor had this issue, as the person in front of her was fully reclined.
Related: Travel etiquette: The final word on the right to recline
I feel it is worth calling out some plane etiquette here: Put your seat upright during meals to allow your fellow passengers to eat properly and comfortably.
I’ve heard that airlines often serve the exact same food in premium economy as in economy, only on china instead of plastic trays. I was interested to see if this turned out to be the case here too. With no physical menu available, the flight attendant vaguely asked me whether I’d like “rice or meat” for my meal. This quickly reminded me that I was not in first class, and I felt my excitement take a plunge. The meal choice felt more like a game of roulette than a premium flight service, so I decided to play it safe and go for the nondescript rice option.
Luckily, the meal turned out to be delicious. It was a creamy Spanish-inspired risotto with mushrooms and parmesan. The dessert was a Manchego cheesecake, which was very tasty as well. I also got a small bottle of sauvignon blanc to go with the meal, which added a bit of class. I found out later that the second “meat” option would have been homemade gnocchi with braised oxtail in a cherry tomato sauce, which sounds incredible. It would have been nice to know what the other option was, especially since the meal turned out to be one of the key differences I paid for. The premium economy meals come from the same kitchen as the business-class meals. Iberia’s catering partner Do & Co prepared the meals. Do & Co also caters for Turkish Airlines, which serves some of the best food in the airline industry.
Compared to my economy experiences, this premium experience definitely offered an upgraded meal with a lot more flair and taste. The fact that it was served on china and not plastic also made the whole experience better.
Bedding and amenity kit
The fleece blanket I received was very soft and a lot bigger and more comfortable than you’d expect in economy. The same goes for the pillow. I’m not sure what kind of amenity kit business-class customers receive, but personally, I couldn’t think of anything that would make my journey more comfortable.
The amenity kit had all the necessities for a long-haul flight including a sleeping mask, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste. I also got noise-canceling headphones which made a big difference while watching movies. The comfy setup, combined with the amazing recline, put me right to sleep.
Related: 9 ways to use your amenity kit once you get home
For me, the fact that I managed to sleep so well was almost worth the upgrade to premium economy itself.
Checked baggage allowance messaging
When I booked the Iberia flight via British Airways’ site, it clearly stated that the premium economy ticket included two bags. Checked baggage is included with all Avios redemptions regardless of the class of service. So, I was very confused when I checked in online the day before and the Iberia booking site — as well as my boarding pass — stated that luggage was not included. At this time, it was late evening, and I had tons of things to fix before my flight; the last thing I needed was hours stuck waiting in a dreaded phone queue to speak to customer service.
I didn’t even know who to contact — BA, which I booked my flight through, or Iberia, the carrier I was flying with? I gave up and decided to take my bag as hand luggage given the travel chaos surrounding checked bags at the time. A large number of bags were lost or delayed this summer, so maybe this was the aviation gods trying to send me a sign.
I knew my bag was over the weight limit. When I say that, I mean it was way over the limit — both in terms of weight and size. I could hardly carry it for more than 10 minutes without breaking my back. I decided I would just figure it out on the go. If I got stopped, I could always refer to the fact that my original booking had luggage included. Fingers crossed.
Weirdly enough, no one ever asked about the carry-on size on any of the Iberia flights or on domestic flights in Colombia. I just wish the messaging about my included luggage had been consistent from Iberia.
Sadly, the most disappointing aspect of the entire flight was the crew. In economy I usually have the opposite experience. As someone who’s a regular flyer with Ryanair and easyJet, I know how a great crew can make a low-cost flight seem like an adventure. On this flight, it was the complete opposite.
Throughout the entire flight, it consistently felt like the flight attendants really didn’t want me or my fellow passengers to be there at all. I respect that the crew works long hours, and it's difficult to maintain a bouncy friendly demeanor after a long shift. However, passengers should still be able to feel like they can ask questions or order drinks freely, and a smile goes a long way (even if it’s through gritted teeth!) in taking any travel experience from bad to good.
During the meal service in particular, I was surprised by the impatient crew member who served me. She only announced the meal choices as “meat or rice” without any other details. Even after I asked politely what was hiding beneath the foil, she quickly brushed me off and told me that she had “no idea.” For a premium ticket, that’s not an acceptable level of service.
I didn’t expect caviar and Champagne, but I did expect politeness. On top of the inability to explain the meal options, there was nothing premium about the service provided, and this should be a focus for Iberia if they want to elevate the experience.
My TPG UK colleagues said they had also experienced awful service on their Iberia flight. Check out the full experience here:
Overall, I had a good experience flying premium economy on Iberia. For someone who has only ever flown in economy, this felt like a real treat. The amount of space, the great recline and the quality of the food made the experience a big upgrade from economy. The soft bedding and the amenity kit were also unexpectedly nice touches. The only really negative part of the experience was the bad service from the crew. I’ve honestly felt more welcome flying with Ryanair on journeys that cost a fraction of this one.
What I enjoyed the most was how rested I felt upon reaching my destination — I’ve never felt better after a long-haul flight. This, combined with the fact that it was cheaper to redeem Avios for premium economy than buying a cash fare in economy, made me feel very happy with my choice of flying premium economy. I would definitely fly premium economy again if I stumbled across a similar deal, and I’m now curious to try this service on other airlines. I’ve heard Emirates’ premium economy product is amazing, and I would be keen to see how this compares to my experience with Iberia.
There’s just one problem: Flying regular economy will always feel like I’ve been shortchanged now that I know what’s hiding on the other side of the curtain.