What Is Premium Economy? Is It Worth The Extra?

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Premium economy is now a common appearance on many long-haul flights. It offers a great upgrade from economy class, particularly as economy seating gets ever smaller and more cramped. While it lacks the luxuries and of long-haul business and first class, the fare price is less eyewatering and makes it a realistic proposition for more fliers.

This article takes a closer look at this fourth cabin, with plenty of details about what to expect, and which airlines offer the best premium economy experience.

Premium economy Qantas
Premium economy offers a separate, more spacious cabin (seen here on a Qantas A380). Photo: Qantas

What is premium economy?

Premium economy is the latest cabin to be added by many long haul airlines. It fits between economy and business class, essentially offering an upgraded economy class experience.

With economy-style seating and similar service offering, it is certainly closer to economy than it is to business. However, its competitive pricing can make it very affordable. Overall, it is an excellent way to get a bit more comfort on long flights.

Which airlines offer premium economy?

Premium economy is increasingly appearing in the cabins of long haul airlines, though not necessarily all routes or aircraft. The following list is an overview of the main airlines operating it around the world.

In Europe, Air France-KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, Norwegian, and Virgin Atlantic operate it extensively across their fleets and long haul routes. Alitalia, Finnair, Iberia, and TAP Portugal introduced it later, and operate it on some aircraft types.

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finnair premium economy
Finnair introduced premium economy in 2020 (on the A350). Photo: Finnair

It is a similar story in Asia, with most’ flag carrier’ airlines now offering premium economy on long haul flights (Thai Airways is one notable exception). Many (such as Cathay Pacific) also offer it on some regional flights.

In the US, premium economy got off to a late start. Over the past couple of years, it has expanded rapidly and is now offered by American Airlines, Delta, and United.

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In South America, LATAM has adopted it widely, but you won’t find it on other carriers.

The Middle East is a notable exception. None of the largest carriers (Etihad, Emirates or Qatar Airways) offer premium economy yet. Emirates, however, is due to be the first to launch this, hopefully in late 2020. Expectations are that this could be a step up from what’s offered on many other airlines.

Remember, when looking at booking options, not all airlines call it premium economy. Just like with other travel classes, many airlines have their brand or product name. For example:

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  • British Airways calls it World Traveller Plus
  • Virgin Atlantic calls it Premium
  • On Delta, it is Premium Select
  • With United, it is Premium Plus

When did premium economy start?

A quick bit of history for those that are interested! Premium economy is a relatively recent introduction. The first premium economy came in 1991 on Taiwanese airline EVA Air, with its ‘Evergreen Class.’ Virgin Atlantic soon followed as the second airline to bring us this class. The cabin came about from a desire to improve on the increasingly packed economy cabins, and with growing numbers of frequent flyers who would pay for this.

EVA Air 747
Premium economy made its first appearance with EVA Air in the 1990s. Photo: ltdccba via Wikimedia

Interestingly, its introduction followed a similar story to how business class came to exist. Up until the 1970s, most airlines offered just economy class and a more premium first class. Qantas split this up in the late 1970s with a third class that became business class.

This, likewise, started with an improvement of the economy concept, as passengers were traveling more and demanded a bit more space and comfort. British Airways, Pan Am, and TWA all followed in the early 1980s.

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British Airways Super Club
British Airways created ‘Super Club’ as an improvement to standard economy. Photo: British Airways

What’s the difference between premium economy and economy?

Premium economy is a separate cabin of service. It comes with its own ticket type (and associated booking/inventory codes), as well as different seats. Usually, there is also an improvement to food and drink and other services as well.

It is different from some other options you may see with airlines for improved economy seating (such as Main Cabin Extra on American Airlines). This is usually just a slightly better seat in the main economy section, perhaps with extra legroom, more cushioning, or some additional amenities. It is not a separate cabin, nor would it be a different ticket type. It is usually offered for an additional fee on top of economy, or given free to some members of frequent flyer programs.

United Premium Plus
True premium economy is always a segregated cabin from economy (this is United Premium Plus). Photo: United

Premium economy seats

The most important upgrade from economy class is a better seat and more space. This is what is going to make the difference on a longer flight, so check what is offered before you book. Some airlines have the same offering across all aircraft, while others differ. A great way to check each airline and aircraft type is using the seat maps and guide at SeatGuru.

Most airline’s premium economy seats include:

  • Additional legroom. This is usually around 38 inches seat pitch (compared to a standard of 31-32 inches in economy class)
  • Wider seat, usually 18-19 inches, but up to 21 inches with some airlines
  • Additional seat recline, usually an extra 2-3 inches over economy class
  • Adjustable leg and headrests
  • Larger entertainment screens
  • Power and USB sockets
BA World Traveller Plus
Seats are larger and more comfortable. Photo: British Airways

Premium economy service

Premium economy offers an improved airport experience and inflight service as well. This will not include the luxuries of business class, such as airport lounge access or premium food and alcohol. Offerings differ between airlines but often include:

  • Additional checked luggage allowance
  • Access to dedicated airport check-in desks
  • Priority security screening and boarding
  • Improved food and drink over economy class
Cathay Pacific premium economy meal
Meal service is generally improved over economy class. Photo: Cathay Pacific

What is premium economy like on airlines?

Like all classes, there are differences in the premium economy cabin across airlines. It will always offer better seating and more space than economy class, but seats and service can vary. We take a look here at a selection of the main airlines offering a premium economy class.

Premium economy on British Airways

Aircraft Seat Pitch Seat Width
A350 38 inches 18.7 inches
B747, B777, A380 38 inches 18.5 inches

(All seat data based on information at SeatGuru).

British Airways introduced premium economy, called World Traveller Plus, in 2000. It has improved the offering several times since then, and it is now offered on all long haul routes.

The latest update to seating was made in 2018, with a new World Traveller Plus seat installed on the new Airbus A350 and some Boeing 777 aircraft. It also improved service with new menus, washkits, cushions, and blankets.

This has helped the differentiation from economy class and made it a more desirable upgrade. At the same time, British Airways has made economy class (World Traveller) more cramped. It introduced 10 abreast seating on the 777, for example.

BA World Traveller Plus
BA World Traveller Plus on the A350. Photo: British Airways

The seat you get will depend on the aircraft. There are older versions of World Traveller Plus, as well as the new product on the A350. The older seats still offer the same space and legroom – this is 38 inches on all aircraft – but they will have smaller screens, and less adjustable head and leg rests.

Premium economy on Virgin Atlantic

Seat Pitch Seat Width
A350 38 inches 18.5 inches
B747, B787, A330-300 38 inches 21 inches

Virgin Atlantic was one of the first airlines to introduce a premium economy cabin, back in 1992. And it does it well. It was rated first for premium economy in the Skytrax World Airline Awards in 2019.

Today it operates a stylish premium economy cabin, branded as Premium, on all its aircraft. This had a revamp with the new A350 aircraft, and more routes will see this product from 2021.

Virgin Atlantic competes with British Airways on many routes, and it makes sense to compare the two airlines premium economy cabin. Simple Flying did this in 2018.

Overall, the offering on Virgin Atlantic is better. The main difference is a larger seat on all but the A350 aircraft. This is 21 inches wide across most of the fleet, compared to 18.5 inches with British Airways. It may not sound like a big difference, but it matters when you are in the seat for so long! This has changed with the newer A350, though; this offers a reduced width of 18.5 inches. It’s a nice, new seat, but it is smaller.

Virgin Atlantic Premium
Virgin Atlantic Premium on the A350. Photo: Virgin Atlantic

Service and food are similar on both airlines, but Virgin Atlantic does have a snack bar available for self-service refreshment, something British Airways only offers in business class.

Note that Virgin Atlantic also offers Economy Delight seating. This is just standard economy seating, in the main cabin, but with slightly increased legroom (34 inches) and premium check-in and boarding.

Premium economy on American Airlines

Seat Pitch Seat Width
B787-8, B777-300, and A330-200 38 inches 18.5 inches
B777-200 and B787-9 38 inches 19 inches

Airlines in the US introduced premium economy later than airlines in Europe and Asia, focussing instead on enhanced seating options within the economy cabin. In general, cabins and service tend to not be as good as European or Asian airlines.

American Airlines was the first to introduce it and the first to make it available on its entire long haul fleet. This was done by mid-2019, giving it more premium economy capacity than any other US airline.

The seating is very similar across all aircraft. Configuration varies and is either 2-3-2 or 2-4-2. Seat pitch is 38 inches and width either 18.5 or 19 inches. With 10 abreast on the 777 and nine on the 787 in economy, the extra space is very welcome. Service is slightly improved over economy, and meals are served on china rather than plastic.

American Airlines also has an enhanced offering in the economy cabin, known as Main Cabin Extra. This is just standard economy seating arranged with slightly more legroom. As with other US airlines, this may lower the appeal of premium economy if you can get a bit more space for a much lower price, or even free.

American Airlines Main Cabin Extra
American Airlines also offers Main Cabin Extra. Photo: American Airlines

Premium Economy on United

Seat Pitch Seat Width
B777 38 inches 18.5 inches
B787 38 inches 19 inches

United’s Premium Plus cabin went on sale from late 2018, with introduction throughout 2019 on Boeing 777-200, 777-300, and 787 aircraft.

The cabin is similar on all aircraft, with eight across seating (two less than in economy) arranged 2-4-2. With a width of 18.5 or 19 inches and a pitch of 38 inches, the seats are very similar to other US airlines.

United Premium Plus
United Premium Plus. Photo: United

United is unusual in offering Premium Plus on some domestic routes as well. This is on the 787-10 aircraft, currently on a few longer routes. It also offers Economy Plus seating as an upgrade to economy, with extra legroom seating.

Premium Economy on Delta Air Lines

Seat Pitch Seat Width
A350 38 inches 18.5 inches
B777-200 38 inches 19 inches

Delta launched its offering, called Premium Select, on the A350 in 2017. It has since been added to some 777-200 aircraft and is available on many (but not all) international routes.

The offering is similar to American Airlines and United. It is arranged in a 2-4-2 layout, with 38 inches of legroom and a width of 18.5 or 19 inches. Delta provides Tumi amenity kits, a Westin branded blanket, and a noise-canceling headset to its premium economy guests.

Premium Select on Delta
Premium Select on Delta. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Delta also offers an upgraded economy seating option, known as ‘Comfort+’. With Premium Select not available on many Delta routes, make sure you don’t mistake this for a true premium economy offering.

Premium economy on Air Canada

Seat Pitch Seat Width
B777 37 inches 20 inches
B787 38 inches 19 inches
A330 38 inches 18 inches

Air Canada offers premium economy on all its Boeing 777 and 787 and Airbus A330 aircraft. It is available on all longer international routes, and some domestic and US routes.

The offering is generally better than the main US airlines. Air Canada is the only North American airline to make into Skytrax’s top 10 premium economy products (it was number 5 in 2019).

The seats are larger than the standard. On the 777, they are 20 inches wide (second only to Virgin Atlantic’s 21-inch offering), but this drops slightly on the 787.

Air Canada premium economy
Air Canada premium economy on the Boeing 787. Photo: Air Canada

Premium economy on Cathay Pacific

Aircraft Seat Pitch Seat Width
A350 40 inches 20 inches
B777-300 38 inches 19.5 inches

Cathay Pacific offers a premium economy cabin on most of its long haul flights. This is also offered on many of its shorter and regional flights, depending on aircraft.

With exceptional service and cabins, Cathay Pacific is an excellent airline in all classes of travel. And with economy class being made denser (Cathay Pacific is fitting its 777 aircraft with 10 abreast economy seating), the extra space in the premium economy cabin is even more worth it.

The 777 and A350 have different cabins, both arranged in a nice 2-4-2 layout. While the A350 is a newer product and offers more width and legroom, the older 777 cabin is not bad. The older seat is more padded, and the premium cabin has its own lavatory (shared with economy on the A350). And despite being slightly narrower, there is some extra space next to the window seats.

Premium economy Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific premium economy on the 777 aircraft. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific offers regular promotions in premium economy (more often than it does for business class). If connecting via Hong Kong to another Asian destination, check the different connection options as some onward flights may offer a premium economy cabin as well. Cathay Pacific is well known for changing aircraft or configuration on these routes, however, so don’t rely on it.

Premium economy on Singapore Airlines

Aircraft Seat Pitch Seat Width
A350-900ULR, A380, B777 38 inches 19.5 inches
A350-900 38 inches 19 inches

Singapore Airlines has an excellent premium economy product. It was ranked second at the Skytrax World Airline Awards in 2019 (with the airline also winning second place in airline rating overall).

Premium economy is offered on all long haul flights on the A350-900 and 900ULR, A380 and 777-300 aircraft. Seats are at the larger end, with a width of 19.5 inches across the fleet. As in other cabins, Singapore Airlines excels at service. It offers excellent food and drink options, champagne on boarding, and the ability to pre-order meals.

Singapore Airlines premium economy
Singapore Airlines premium economy seat. Photo: Singapore Airlines

The general layout is 2-4-2 on all aircraft, but there is an excellent feature on the A350-900ULR. This operates to the US with only business and premium cabins. On this aircraft, three rows at the rear of the cabin offer single seats by the windows, with large storage bins next to them; excellent options for solo travelers.

Premium economy on Air New Zealand

Aircraft Seat Pitch Seat Width
B777-200 41 inches 18.5 inches
B777-300 41-42 inches 20 inches
B787 41-42 inches 19 inches

Air New Zealand offers one of the best premium economy cabins. It was ranked third by Skytrax in 2019 (and won in 2018). It also won Tripadvisor’s traveler choice award for premium economy in 2019.

Like the other top-rated airlines, it offers a larger seat than the average, up to 20 inches on the 777-300. But it sets itself further apart with one of the largest seat pitches of any airline – at least 41 inches on all aircraft. This makes a huge difference on long haul flights, and Air New Zealand offers a very comfortable flight.

Frequently asked questions about premium economy

How much more expensive is premium economy?

This is, of course, critical when deciding if premium economy is worth buying. We have compared fares a few times at Simple Flying, and shown premium economy selling at around twice or more the economy price. 

The website SeatGuru looked at price differences and found, on average, that premium economy was 85% more expensive than economy. But interestingly, when booked close to departure, this dropped to only 35% more expensive.

BA Fares
An example of pricing differences for British Airways. The increase to a business class fare is much higher. Image: British Airways

But there are significant variations in pricing. Airlines will often offer excellent value premium economy sales. With British Airways, for example, fares during sales are sometimes only slightly higher (down to around £100 extra each way). And if economy class is heavily booked, fare differences can sometimes be minimal.

BA World Traveller
As economy class gets denser, premium economy stands out even more. Photo: British Airways

Is it an alternative to business class?

Premium economy is designed to sit between economy and business class. The product, however, is much more similar to economy class, and the price should be too. Business class offers more, including lounge access at the airport, lie-flat seats/beds, and improved food and drinks.

Business class offers much more premium service and seating. Photo: Simple Flying

Is premium economy worth it?

If you can get it for the right fare, then yes.

Airlines can make a lot of money out of premium economy. It offers benefits that cost them very little and seating that only takes up a small amount of extra space. When it is offered for close to double the economy fare, it is probably the airlines that are winning. But if you can get it for 15-30% more, then it is much better value. 

Airlines offer regular sales and promotions, and these can be great value in premium economy. Take a look also at our guide to finding low airfares globally.

But with economy cabins becoming denser and more uncomfortable, the extra space and smaller cabin can be a great way to travel. That has a different value to different people.

Remember, too, that you will generally get a higher baggage allowance and earn more air miles, with a premium economy ticket. This has value for some as well.

Can you buy an upgrade to premium economy?

Yes, but it is generally poor value. Many airlines let you upgrade using miles or cash by one cabin. With the price difference higher between premium economy and business than it is between economy and premium economy, buying a premium economy ticket and upgrading it to business class can be much better value.

Frequent fliers should also note that a free (or ‘operational’) upgrade when the airline oversells the cabin is also generally offered one cabin up. So if you are booked into premium economy, this would be into business class.

Do you get lounge access?

Unfortunately not. As we have said, premium economy is more of an upgraded economy rather than a ‘light’ business class. Tickets will often include premium check-in, and maybe priority security and boarding at the airport, but not lounge access.

There is one notable exception to this. Japanese airlines Japan Airlines and ANA both offer access to their business class lounges with a premium economy fare. These airlines, unfortunately, are not as generous with sales or discount offers in premium economy. They do both offer excellent premium economy cabins though, with seating wider than the average, and excellent service.

Japan Airlines A350
Fly premium economy with Japan Airlines or ANA, and you will get lounge access included in Japan and some overseas locations. Photo: Airbus

What mileage do you earn?

One of the advantages for frequent fliers is that premium economy fares often earn higher mileage than economy fares. This differs between all airlines, and the difference will be largest with airlines where mileage is awarded based on distance flown rather than the price paid (at the moment, most non-US airlines work this way).

With these schemes, mileage is awarded based on the fare bucket/code. Premium economy tickets will often earn 100% or more of the miles flown. For economy class tickets, it can be much lower.

British Airways Avios earning LHR-LAX
Earning Avios on British Airways is distance-based, and all premium economy fares earn 100% or more miles, compared to 25% for the lower economy fares. Image: British Airways

Can you redeem mileage for premium economy tickets?

In general, yes. All airlines offering premium class will allow you to use miles for it, just as you can with economy and business class. And it will be priced between the two. All airlines offering premium class will allow you to use miles for it. There was a time when it was not available with some of the US airlines, but this has now changed (although it is still sometimes not possible with other alliance partner airlines).

As with economy redemptions, though, check the value if you redeem miles this way. Taxes can be high, and it may not offer good value compared to the cash fare available. It may only be around 30% to 50% more miles to redeem for a business class ticket.

There are lots of different premium economy cabins, and many differences between airline offerings and service. This guide has given an overview, but it would be good to hear your experiences in the comments.

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