Thinking of upgrading your ticket to those extra-legroom seats at the front of the main cabin? That’s exactly what your airline wants you to do. In the past few years, domestic and international carriers alike have been rolling out more of these stepped-up economy seats, even as they cram more people farther back in the cabin. Whether you take the bait will depend on how much you’re willing to spend—and how much you just can’t stand the back of the plane.
The domestic scene.
First consider the quality of the seat. All the major domestic carriers offer four to six more inches of legroom, and all but United throw in the perk of early boarding as well. Wider seats are, alas, a rarity, though a few transcontinental Delta flights come with more recline. The premium economy standout, domestically, is Virgin America. The carrier’s Main Cabin Select seats give you 38 inches of pitch (the distance from one row to the next), as well as a free checked bag, priority check-in and boarding, and complimentary food and drinks. They can come with a hefty price tag, however: up to $399 more for a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. JetBlue’s Even More Space seats also rise above the pack, with 38 inches of seat pitch and expedited security privileges.For any flight where you’re thinking of upgrading, it pays to check the cabin layout and the user reviews on the website Seatguru. Even premium economy fliers can wind up next to an unwieldy bulkhead.
Weighing the price tag.
On domestic flights, the fee for premium economy seats varies widely depending on the length of your trip. For shorter hops, say, from Newark to Chicago, it can add as little as $18 to a round-trip American Airlines ticket. For transcontinental flights on major domestic carriers, the seats could put you out anywhere from $130 to $200 round-trip. (On certain Virgin America flights, they may cost more than the base fare itself.) On some carriers, the price also fluctuates depending on how far out you book. Waiting until the last minute sometimes pays off—but not always.
To add to the confusion, you often can’t see how much an upgrade will cost until you actually go through the booking process and get to the seat-selection page. What’s more, since these are not distinct fare classes on domestic carriers, they don’t show up in searches on websites such as Kayak and Expedia. (One exception: Virgin America.) If you want to compare prices, you have to do a lot of legwork.
If you have elite status with a carrier, you can usually get premium economy seats for free or a 50 percent discount. Another way to bring down the cost is through a membership. United Airlines now offers annual Economy Plus packages, which get you unlimited upgrades for a year. The domestic subscription, which starts at $499, can easily pay for itself in just three transcontinental trips. (Global packages start at $699.)
Stretching out abroad.
Offering more than just a few extra inches of seat pitch, premium economy on foreign carriers is an entirely different experience—more akin to a fourth cabin class. For example, British Airways’ World Traveller Plus seats from New York City to London are in a curtained-off section that has a dedicated crew; wider, plusher seats with more legroom; and business-class meals. I found them recently for as little as $468 extra, round-trip. On a similar Virgin Atlantic flight, the roomy, leather Premium Economy seats (which include dedicated check-in and bag-drop services) were $540 more. That’s a significant outlay, but you’d pay more than six times as much to upgrade to business class. It’s also worth noting that for $4,201, the comparable premium-economy ticket on American Airlines would have cost roughly double those of its U.K. competitors.
Other European carriers with excellent premium-economy cabins include Air France (wool blankets; feather pillows) and Turkish Airways (a whopping 48-inch seat pitch). Lufthansa’s new seats—with seven more inches of legroom than in economy—launch in November (available to book now).
The most tempting time to splurge, of course, is on long-haul flights to Asia and beyond, which is why airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand, and Qantas have lavished so much attention (and money) on these seats. It shows. Air New Zealand’s extra-wide, podlike Spaceseats put many business-class cabins to shame. They can cost up to $2,000 more than an economy ticket from Los Angeles to Auckland. But those 13 hours in flight will feel pretty darn good.
7.5% Increase in the number of Virgin Atlantic passengers flying Premium Economy from 2012 to 2013.
$721: Average price difference between economy and premium economy tickets for a round-trip Cathay Pacific flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, booked at least three months in advance.