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Is Premium Economy Worth the Extra Cost?

virgin america main cabin selectAs the air travel experience has steadily become more of an ordeal, an upgrade to "premium economy" class becomes ever more enticing. A little extra legroom, expedited security and even free drinks beckon us to open our wallets, just to assuage the mounting sense of dread that the simple act of booking a flight conjures these days.

But as we nickel-and-dime ourselves into a tentative comfort zone, what are we really getting for all that extra cash, and is it actually worth it?

The primary and most obvious benefit of purchasing a premium economy seat is increased legroom (and sometimes a bit wider seat), but the complete package can include much more, with significant variation from one airline to the next.

At the low end, United's Economy Plus upgrade offers pretty much only a bit more legroom, while Virgin America's Main Cabin Select offers larger seats, complimentary food and drink, priority check-in and security screening where available, priority boarding, and a free checked bag.

What Is Premium Economy?

Premium economy class is a relatively new class of service within the airline industry, offering an alternative to economy class that isn't as expensive as upgrading to first or business. It usually refers to a section toward the front of the economy seating area in which the rows are spaced farther apart, and in some cases the seats are wider. Many airlines have also added other amenities to premium economy over time, primarily as these same amenities were unbundled from "regular" economy fares; these include free or "premium" beverages, priority check-in, earlier boarding, additional checked bags and other services as noted below.

Historically, the first premium economy seats were offered on EVA Air in the early 1990s; United's program started in 1999, and in the early 2010s, Delta and American followed suit as what I call the "Great Unbundling" gained serious momentum. The trend is slowly spreading to international airlines, with carriers such as Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines adding premium economy options over the past couple of years.

Premium Economy Offerings by Airline

Here is a roundup of the premium economy offerings of the major U.S. domestic airlines, as well as a sampling of international carriers. It is important to note that exactly how much extra legroom you get may vary even within the same fleet, depending on the type or age of the aircraft, whether your flight is a codeshare or not, and other factors. With that in mind, here is a general outline by airline.

Alaska Preferred Plus Seating: Up to an additional eight inches of legroom, early boarding and a free premium in flight drink. There is also a Preferred level, which is available when purchasing refundable economy seats -- this seems only to appear during the actual booking process, while the Preferred Plus appears to be available only at check-in. Prices are dictated by mileage flown and range from $15 - $50.

American Main Cabin Extra: Up to six inches additional legroom and Group 1 preferred boarding. American also offers Choice Essential (offering a checked bag and Group 1 boarding) and Choice Plus (which includes no change fee, additional miles, a beverage and same-day flight changes) at the time of booking. Prices typically range from $20 - $159.

British Airways World Traveller Plus: Extra legroom, plus wider seats that recline farther than standard economy seats and have larger personal entertainment screens. The fare also includes two free checked bags and an amenity kit with a toothbrush/toothpaste, socks and an eye mask. In a quick search of transatlantic flights, premium economy fares were anywhere from $165 to nearly $1,400 more expensive than regular economy fares (each way).

Delta Comfort+: Priority boarding, dedicated overhead space, extra legroom, free snacks and drinks, and complimentary premium entertainment. Prices typically range from $19 - $180.

JetBlue Even More Speed: Offers four to eight inches of additional legroom, early boarding and expedited security screening in select cities. Prices typically range from $19 - $99. Note that JetBlue's standard economy seat pitch of 33 - 34 inches is already two or three inches more than most other airlines.

Lufthansa Premium Economy: Seven inches of additional legroom, two free checked bags, and various in-seat amenities such as separate armrests, a larger personal TV screen and a complimentary water bottle. Prices for international flights on the itineraries we checked ranged from about $250 - $1,500 each way.

Singapore Airlines Premium Economy: Six inches of extra legroom and a half-inch of extra width, as well as a special menu, priority boarding and check-in, and an amenity kit. Prices for transpacific flights on the itineraries we checked were approximately $237 - $1,000 extra each way.

Southwest Business Select: Priority boarding (guaranteed A1 - A15 boarding position), Fly By (expedited security lines at participating airports), a premium in-flight beverage, refundable fares, same-day changes and double Rapid Rewards on purchased flight. Southwest also has an Anytime fare level that includes refundable fares and same-day changes. All Southwest fares include two free checked bags. Note that Southwest does not specifically offer extra legroom since it does not assign seats, but instead assigns boarding order.

United Economy Plus: Additional legroom only; priority boarding, screening and other amenities are available separately and at extra cost. Prices for Economy Plus typically range from $19 - $200. United offers an annual subscription offering unlimited upgrades when available; prices start at $499.

Virgin America Main Cabin Select: Additional legroom, priority boarding and security screening, free live TV, free food and beverages, and one free checked bag. Prices typically range from $39 - $159.

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The Great Unbundling

As you can see above, some airlines offer a pile of benefits for a typical premium economy seat, while other offerings are much more limited. As a result, you need to be aware of what is available on your actual flight.

To take United's Economy Plus as an example, all you really get is a bit more legroom, and sometimes it's not that much. On a recent 10-hour transatlantic flight, I could have paid $159 each way to go from a very tight 31 inches (I would like to have taken a measuring tape to that 31 inches) to a semi-tolerable 34 inches. And it didn't get you priority boarding at all.

On another recent booking for a short, 75-minute flight, I saw Economy Plus upgrades in the $35 - $45 range, but most folks can make it through an hour in the air with a little less seat pitch.

On the same flight, however, United's Premier Access -- a completely different product that does not include legroom but instead offers expedited check-in lines, expedited security access (at select airports) and priority boarding -- cost $75.

Here's hoping other airlines will not follow suit and start unbundling their premium economy offerings as well; $318 roundtrip is a lot of money to pay for three inches of extra room for 20 hours in the air and nothing more.

Not All Premium Economy Seats Are Created Equal

american airlines premium economy main cabin extraAs noted above, the actual additional legroom you will get can vary considerably. For example, in the case of a codeshare, you might be flying on a different airline, which obviously will have different seating arrangements, seat pitch, overhead space and more. For example, a recent booking from Newark to Chicago on American was actually an Alaska Airlines codeshare flight; American allowed travelers to book its Main Cabin Extra upgrade, but didn't really have any control over the actual experience in flight, as it doesn't own the plane.

Even on a single flight, the quality of the seats designated as "premium" can be very different. Most airlines place their premium economy seats at the front of the economy cabin (Virgin America has an entirely separate cabin for them), but subsequently make little or no distinction between middle, window and aisle seats in this area, despite a clear difference in the desirability of those seats. Additionally, the seats in front of an exit row may have limited recline but are still sold as "premium" seats because they do offer a bit more legroom.

Thankfully, many airlines price these a bit differently, and you can save a few dollars on a limited recline seat or a middle seat -- though I recently saw a mere one-dollar difference between a premium aisle seat and a premium middle seat. If a premium middle seat were the only option available, I think most travelers would opt for an aisle or window in the back of the plane at no extra charge, no?

Finally, many premium economy seats are bulkhead seats, which not everyone likes due to the inability to keep your stuff under the seat in front of you. You will want to check your actual seat assignment carefully.

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Check Business-Class Prices...

I have read traveler reports about instances in which the lowest-priced business-class seat was only about $100 more than the premium economy seats on offer (the airline was Air Canada). The difference in comfort and convenience will likely be considerable for the entire flight experience, from check-in to deboarding, so business class is well worth a look.

...or Even First-Class Prices

On a recent booking on a short, 75-minute flight, the airline booking system offered me an upgrade to first class for $98 roundtrip. Granted, the misery index on a very short flight isn't that high, but for $98 many of us might find it worthwhile to upgrade to first class.

When to Purchase

An analysis by Seatguru found that if you book well in advance, premium economy is about 85 percent more expensive than a regular economy fare, while it's only 10 to 35 percent more expensive on flights booked closer to your departure date. An important reason for this, obviously, is that the base fare goes up as you get closer to your departure date, so the upgrade decreases as a percentage of your overall cost.

That said, many airlines will drop prices on premium economy fares on the day of travel if these seats remained unfilled. The best times to check for this are online within 24 hours of your flight time, and again just before you leave for the airport.

Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Airlines?

Other Considerations

There may be other reasons beyond extra legroom to purchase premium economy fares. Here are a few:

- If your carry-on is large or contains fragile, expensive or sensitive items. Even if the premium economy fare does not include early boarding, sitting closer to the front of the plane generally means you board sooner. Thus, if your carry-on contains fragile, expensive or sensitive items that you would never gate-check, it may be worth the money to make sure you have an overhead space for your stuff.

- If you have a tight connection. If you need to get off your first plane as quickly as possible to catch another flight, paying a little extra for a seat near the front can be a smart use of your money.

- If you have work to do. Getting a lot of work done in a regular economy seat is almost impossible these days. If you know you are going to be working on a laptop, the few extra inches of space may be the difference between being able to see your screen or not.

- If you want to sleep. Extra legroom is not critical to catching a nap inflight, but it doesn't hurt.

- If you are tall. You probably don't need us to tell you that some extra legroom may be helpful for tall folks, but there you go.

Do you upgrade to premium economy when you get the chance? Let us know in the comments below!

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.

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