Premium Economy: ahhhh air travel for less money

3 January 12

| It’s Worth It |

Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy ad

Notes from the Green Travel Guru’s flight log… I am planning the perfect getaway when I get that familiar sinking feeling: To make this trip I face more than 12 hours of flying time, shoehorned into cattle-car class, otherwise known as coach. In other words, a bum-numbing test of my endurance for which I may need days to recover fully. Then it’ll be the same dismal experience flying home. Deep sigh. This vacation, as much as I need it, could leave me more tired than when it began….

There has to be another way. Flying Business Class, maybe. I check the fare. Oops … more than four times my coach seat. For most of us, unless your employer is footing the bill or you’re lucky enough to catch the occasional sale, that’s just out of the question. And unfortunately my rewards miles account can’t get me into that pricey cabin, either— even though I have points to spare. Free Business Class tickets are increasingly hard to find, and so are confirmed upgrades from paid coach tickets into Business Class. Why? Too many miles chasing too few seats.

But then I find my answer to this very real travel predicament. It’s called Premium Economy.

Becoming a “standard product”

Premium Economy cabins are being offered on long-haul flights by more and more airlines, including Air Canada, Air France, Air New Zealand, ANA, British Airways, JAL, Qantas, SAS, Singapore, Thai and Virgin Atlantic. On jetliners like the 747 and 777, Premium Economy is a fourth class, in addition to traditional First Class, Business Class, and coach. A few airlines have come up with their own name for this new cabin—like Premium Voyageur on Air France and World Traveller Plus on British Airways—but most stick to the easy-to-understand Premium Economy.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy Spaceseat

Air New Zealand: Premium Economy Spaceseat

One of the most recent converts is Cathay Pacific, which recently announced that it will begin offering this option later this year. Cathay’s Chief Executive John Slosar explained the decision by saying Premium Economy is becoming a “standard product everywhere.”

Yet many Americans may be unaware of the trend, because no U.S. carrier had this option before Delta Airlines started offering it on many planes in its long-haul fleet in 2010. Look for other laggard U.S. airlines to do the same or lose out in the highly competitive skies.

A measure of comfort

So, what exactly does Premium Economy offer passengers compared to standard coach? The advantages start at the airport. Premium Economy passengers typically have their own check-in counter, and they can use the expedited security lines.

By any measure, the most important feature is more comfort, particularly a wider seat with more legroom, often 6 or 7 inches more than in coach. The seat also has a decent recline—meaning you can push the seat back to relax or sleep. Some, like those on Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy “Spaceseat,” also slide forward several inches for an even better sleeping position. In addition, many seats have adjustable headrests, leg rests and lumbar support.

These welcome features can transform your flying experience on transcontinental marathons, and are similar to what U.S. air carriers currently call “First Class” on their domestic fights. They’re also virtually identical to the inaugural Business Class seating on international carriers 20 years ago.

Worth the price?

Another genuine Premium Economy benefit is its own cabin, usually located behind Business Class and in front of coach. Because most carriers typically allocate no more than 30 to 40 seats to Premium Economy, the small, separate cabin is private and quiet. Other welcome perks usually include an upgraded meal service and free beer, wine or liquor, better entertainment options, and laptop power ports.

Air France Premium Voyageur

Air France: Premium Voyageur

And let’s not forget that because many airlines have just introduced Premium Economy, these passengers will be sitting in new seats at the peak of their comfort, not worn-out coach seats deflated after millions of miles.

So what’s the catch? We are talking about the airline industry, and we have a right to be skeptical. In particular, what about the fares? Are they reasonable? Or is Premium Economy simply another way to extract more money from you?

Upgrade bargains

The answer depends on several factors and your willingness to seek out the best fare. The price of Premium Economy seats varies widely by airline, and at each carrier, those fares are constantly going up or down in response to the demand on each flight.

One example. If you bought a ticket on January 3, 2012 on one Air New Zealand flight departing on January 25, 2012 from Auckland to Los Angeles, these would be your options: Coach—US$759; Premium Economy—US$1,324; Business Class—US$2,783.

You decide if the additional cost is worth the extra ease and comfort.

Flexibility equals savings

Believe it or not, Premium Economy seats sometimes cost little more than coach. Grab ’em.

The best strategy for the best fare starts with flexibility. If your schedule permits, adjust your travel dates to get the least expensive fares.  Remember, too, that some airlines offer the unsold seats to passengers at check-in at a reasonable price. Always ask.

How about your frequent flier miles? Good news: they can often land you a seat in the Premium Economy cabin. Fewer passengers compete for these seats compared to prized Business Class tickets. Try to get a free seat or use your miles to upgrade your paid coach ticket. The additional cost in miles for the upgrade can be a real bargain, depending on the airline.

The last hurdle

The last hurdle to jump is finding out exactly what features a Premium Economy ticket offers on your flight. Tip: don’t rely on the airline’s website. You will get pretty pictures of smiling passengers and not much more. Instead, go to one of the free websites like SeatGuru, which tell you exactly what you will get on your carrier’s different planes. This is where your healthy skepticism about the airline biz becomes justified. You will find that not all Premium Economy cabins are equal. Thus seats in Delta’s new Economy Comfort Class, for example, have two inches less “pitch” (legroom) than is offered on many other carriers, while Turkish Airlines offers a whopping 46″ inch pitch in its Economy Comfort cabin, which translates to 10 to 12 more inches of legroom than the Premium Economy seats elsewhere. You’ll also find info on which airlines have the most comfortable seats and good in-flight service.

Here’s the bottom line (after all, we are talking about the well-being of your posterior!): “If you are used to traveling Business Class and you fly Premium Economy, you will be disappointed,” says Matt Bennett, publisher of the online newsletter First Class Flyer. “If you’ve usually flown coach, do your homework before getting the ticket to have a much better experience at a reasonable price. You’ll never want to fly coach again.” Our advice: Spend the extra money, spare your body another cattle-car ordeal, then save with a bargain for your accommodation at your destination.

  • Lifestiles57

    Wow premium economy who knew?! That was not available the last time I made the jump between the US and Europe I was so stiff and sore I didn’t want to do much when I arrived! It kind of takes the pleasure out of the trip! I have since found another way to save and have more control of your travel needs, get travel rewards for use on future travel, And be your own booking agent! It’s like a “Sams club” for travelers a Travel club where you can travel for 4 &5 star at 2&3 star prices.

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