High Comfort, Low Fare: Lufthansa's Premium Economy on the A330
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After a business trip to Germany earlier this year, I needed a way to get back home to New York City. I'd flown over to Europe on Air France’s premium-economy product, which disappointed me, and I wanted to try out a competing airline's premium-economy product to make a comparison. Since I was in Germany, it seemed only natural to give the country's flag carrier, Lufthansa, a try.
I was able to book a ticket on a nonstop flight from Berlin's Tegel Airport (TXL) to New York (JFK), a route that was unfortunately terminated just after I took the flight. However, Lufthansa uses its A330s on several routes to the US, including Newark (EWR) to Dusseldorf (DUS), Boston (BOS) to Frankfurt (FRA) and Charlotte (CLT) to Munich (MUC), so there are plenty of chances to fly on this aircraft on flights to/from the US.
I compared the mileage rates to the cash prices for this flight, and, surprisingly, found an incredibly cheap cash fare — just $740 — for a round-trip flight in premium economy. Even though I only needed a one-way flight, it was cheaper to book the round-trip ticket. It's not uncommon for premium-economy flights to cost over $1,000 round-trip, so I got a pretty sweet deal — especially since it was a nonstop flight. We can still use the return portion of the ticket.
Even if I wanted to book this flight with miles, it would have been a bit tricky, considering United MileagePlus simply doesn't offer the option to book premium-economy tickets with miles. There are other ways to do it, though, such as transferring Amex Membership Rewards to Aeroplan and redeeming 37,500 of them for a one-way premium-economy award, or transferring 35,000 Starpoints to Lufthansa’s Miles and More program, which would have gotten me the 40,000 miles (SPG gives a 5,000-mile bonus for every 20,000 points you transferred) required for a one-way premium-economy flight.
However, in this case, it made more sense to save those valuable points for another award ticket, considering how cheap the cash fare was.
Ultimately, I paid for the ticket with the Platinum Card® from American Express, since the card earns 5x points on airfare, making it the best card for these types of purchases. It earned me 3,700 Membership Rewards points, worth about $70, according to TPG's latest valuations. Alternatively, I could have paid with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns 3x points on all travel purchases. I credited my flight to United MileagePlus, and earned 3,968 miles — worth about $56 — for the one-way segment.
Checking-in online with Lufthansa was a breeze — I selected my seat online at check-in.
When the time came to fly, I took a taxi from Kreuzberg, the so-called Williamsburg of Berlin, and it didn’t take more than 40 minutes. Consider taking public transit if you want to save cash, though; Berlin has a cheap and reliable train system that makes getting around the city very easy.
Arriving at Berlin-Tegel, I immediately noticed how odd and outdated it is. First opened to commercial flights in 1960, it was never meant to grow into the restored German capital’s main airport. But years of delays, billions of euros in cost overruns and construction failures at Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER), which has yet to open, have left it as the city's main airport.
Each flight and gate in TXL’s Terminal A has its own check-in and bag-drop desk, which I found incredibly odd. The check-in desk for my particular flight didn’t open until 3:00pm, two and half hours before my flight.
But once check-in did open, there was an enormous line that moved at a snail's pace. There were only two agents working, and there didn’t appear to be any sort of priority check-in line for premium-economy passengers, but rather just for those in business and first class. At least premium economy came with two free checked bags.
Since I only had a carry-on, I thought I’d check in later and head to the lounge first. Yep, I headed to the lounge before security — all of the lounges in this terminal are before you pass through security and customs.
Premium economy doesn't get you access to the airline's lounges, so I checked my Priority Pass app and found that there was a lounge open to me in the terminal — the oh-so-(not)chic Berlin Airport Club Lounge. If you want to visit a Lufthansa Senator business-class lounge, you can buy access for 25 euros as a premium-economy passenger.
I have Priority Pass membership through my Chase Sapphire Reserve card, although plenty of other premium credit cards offer the perk.
The lounge was incredibly hard to find, and I saw little signage pointing to it — I actually walked the perimeter of the entire terminal before stumbling upon it. I could only find one tiny sign indicating the lounge’s location, tucked away in a hidden corner of TXL among all the shops.
The space was quite small and underwhelming. Fortunately, it wasn’t crowded at all, meaning there was no problem getting in (unlike at some other Priority Pass lounges).
With time to spare before my flight, I perused the food available in the lounge. It was slim pickings: apples, a bowl of Chex Mix, stale breadsticks and BiFi jerky. I would have preferred a food-and-beverage credit at one of the airport's restaurants, an option that Priority Pass is making more common.
I also could have gone with of these "gourmet" sandwiches. But I decided I'd be nice and leave them for the other lounge guests.
Being in the land of beer, I sampled a few Pilsners while I watched Netflix — the lounge's Wi-Fi was surprisingly strong.
Simply put, getting on the aircraft at TXL was a mess. First, I queued up outside the check-in desk because each gate had its own security line. After putting my bags through the X-ray machine and walking through a metal detector, I was stuffed into a poorly designed two-story holding area filled with hundreds of other passengers.
I had to sit in small, uncomfortable plastic seats while I waited to get on the airplane. I would not have been a happy camper had there been a delay and I'd been trapped in the area any longer.
Once it got underway, the actual boarding process itself was fine — first- and business-class passengers boarded before everyone else, of course. Premium-economy passengers didn't receive priority boarding, and I was lumped in with all the economy passengers. There weren't any boarding groups, either, which potentially could have made for a clustering of passengers near the jetway entrance. Luckily, no one was rushing to get on the aircraft, so I boarded after just a short wait.
I snapped a picture of the bird I'd be flying on, an A330-300 registered D-AIKN. It first flew in 2008 and has only ever been operated by Lufthansa. She was still decked out in Lufthansa's "old" livery, which was not surprising, since the carrier only recently introduced the new color scheme.
After grabbing my seat, I noticed flight attendants were bringing economy passengers up to the premium-economy cabin. Evidently, they'd purchased onboard upgrades to premium economy for $299. Not a horrible deal, but I'm not sure I'd be jumping at the opportunity to pay $300 only to get a slightly better seat on a daytime flight.
Cabin and Seat
Rolled out in 2014, the premium-economy cabin and seats still felt fresh and clean to me. I was seated in 26A, a window seat in the last row of the cabin. Unlike premium-economy cabins that are quite separate from other areas of the aircraft on some other carriers, this one didn't have that vibe. In fact, there was only an 18-inch plastic divider that hanged from the ceiling separating this cabin from economy.
Each seat is 18 inches wide and had 38 inches of pitch, much roomier than economy's 31-inch pitch.
The seats recline much more than regular economy seats do, too. To me, more recline means more comfort, and more comfort means a better chance that you'll actually be able to catch a few hours of shut-eye on a flight, and I was able to do just that.
Thick padding covered the seat and headrest and made for a much more comfortable experience than in economy and other premium-economy seats I've flown, like Air France.
I'm 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and had more than enough legroom. The tiny footrest that extended from the seat added welcome support for my legs. Like in some business-class or bulkhead economy seats, the tray table was hidden in the armrest. I'm a fan of this configuration because you don't have to worry about the person in front of you shifting around in their seat, meaning you avoid potential spills.
Seat 26A provided pretty sweet views and helped me get that cliché wing shot for Instagram.
The seat was truly comfortable, with plenty of recline, padding and legroom. I consider it to be a huge step up from economy.
Food and Beverage
I was welcomed onboard with a drink, a concoction of fresh OJ and mint that was perfectly sweet.
About 15 minutes after we'd taken off, flight attendants came around and offered Chex Mix. Soon after, the drink service began. I ordered a beer and sparkling water, both of which were served in plastic glasses, unlike the drinks served during the main course.
Premium-economy passengers received the same menu as economy; the only difference was that the food was served on china and drinks were poured into real glasses. The menu only offered two choices for the entree: chicken breast and pasta. Between drinks and the main course, flight attendants distributed hot towels.
I went with the pasta, which was dressed with a creamy white sauce and creamed spinach. It wasn't memorable but it tasted fine — my only complaint is that the portion was pretty small.
Accompanied by fresh bread and a salad with fresh mozzarella, the side dishes were better than the main course. Dessert, however, was a disappointment. The brownie, which was filled with nuts, was forgettable and felt lazy on Lufthansa's part, especially for a premium-economy meal. The ceramic plating and glassware did make the experience feel more premium, though.
From a service perspective, Lufthansa absolutely crushed it. Drink service was nonstop, and all the flight attendants seemed to be happy to be keeping us premium-economy passengers hydrated. They noticed me taking pictures and asked what I was doing. I told them I was an AvGeek, and they immediately offered to let me take pictures of the first-class cabin. They seemed truly proud of their product, and that love for the airline was definitely evident in their service.
The flight attendants came around offering more wine, beer and spirits throughout the flight and coffee after dinner. Three hours after takeoff, we got more fresh orange juice. Water was offered at least four times throughout the flight. Each premium-economy seat came stocked with water bottles, too.
Lufthansa's soft product really soared with its last meal service. An hour and a half before we landed, I was served delicious smoked salmon, arugula pasta and fresh fruit. I'm usually not a huge fish person, but this was so fresh and didn't have that overpowering ... fishiness. It tasted like the salmon was plucked straight out of the North Sea, dropped right onto my plate, and then melted in my mouth. I'd say this was the far and away best meal I've ever had on an airplane.
Overall, Lufthansa gets high marks for the food quality, plating and service, despite the unimpressive lunch.
A tiny amenity kit was provided to all premium-economy passengers. Mine contained an eye mask, socks, earplugs, a toothbrush, toothpaste and moist towelette. Nothing inside stood out from other premium-economy amenity kits, and the quality of the items wasn't particularly high, but they did the job. Flight attendants distributed non-noise-canceling headphones, each of which came with new foam covers to keep the each ear piece — and my ears — clean. Each seat also came with a small pillow and blanket.
In my opinion, Lufthansa has a stellar in-flight entertainment system. The 12-inch, high-definition screen displayed vivid colors and was easy to navigate. My version of the TPG shower test is what I like to call the TPG IFE test, rating the responsiveness of an IFE touchscreen. Plenty of airlines' IFE screens are utterly unresponsive, requiring you to tap the screen multiple times just to raise the volume a tiny bit. Lufthansa passed my newly-coined test with flying colors.
If you're one of those Blackberry people who aren't into touchscreens, you can use the tiny remote attached to the seat. That tiny button in the middle of the controller was touch-responsive and acted like a mouse — something I'd never seen on an airplane before. There was also a USB outlet next to the screen.
There were 243 TV shows and 123 movies to choose from, with plenty of newer selections like "Blade Runner 2049," "Dunkirk" and "American Made." Live TV included CNN, Euronews and Sport24. The live-tv service sputtered out a few times but came back quickly — annoying but understandable, since we were flying over the North Atlantic, after all.
There was a handful of games and podcasts to listen to as well. I appreciated the meditation and yoga videos — helpful for those who want to stretch or truly relax during their flight.
A unique feature any frequent flyer could appreciate was the warning on each film's description page: "Not enough time to finish your video," read the orange text for "Blade Runner 2049."
While Lufthansa had a great IFE system, my experience with its onboard Wi-Fi was the complete opposite.
We got internet access about 25 minutes after takeoff, and the prices were surprisingly affordable, from 9 euros (about $10.50) for one hour to 17 euros ($20) for a full-flight pass. You could also pay $10 for a separate service that would let you use messaging services like iMessage for the entire flight.
I paid for the 17-euro pass but quickly regretted my decision — the Wi-Fi wasn't even working. After a frustrating few minutes trying to reconnect, I finally could establish a connection, though it was abysmally slow and at many points wasn't working at all. I could send texts, albeit slowly, and barely could get basic web pages to load.
I thoroughly enjoyed Lufthansa's premium-economy product on its A330. The seats were genuinely comfortable and felt like a big upgrade over economy — a reasonable compromise if you couldn't afford business class. The soft product was solid too, including the food and service, and I'll never forget that smoked salmon. Other than the elusive Wi-Fi and odd boarding process, I would happily repeat my time with Lufthansa.