Breaking, horrifying news coming out of Europe today: a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 came down earlier today en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur while flying through Ukrainian airspace. U.S. intelligence officials, according to the Wall Street Journaland other news outlets, are saying that the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members; three of the passengers were infants. There are no survivors.
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.
Firearms and hazardous materials are turned over to local law enforcement officials. For safety reasons, liquids that can’t go through security—even in sealed containers—must be thrown out. For other items, the TSA either sends them to a contractor for disposal or donates them to a local nonprofit. Some of these charities will, in turn, resell items and use the proceeds to support their own programs. The TSA makes clear that none of this resale money goes into its own coffers.
Booking a great fare to Europe has become increasingly difficult. Here’s how to bring down the cost of your next transatlantic flight.
First there is the question of timing. According to Kayak, the most-affordable airfares to Europe last year were booked eight to 10 weeks before departure—so you should start researching tickets at least three months out. You’ll find even better prices if your travel dates are flexible. As a general rule, European fares rise for travel beginning in the second week of May and don’t fall again until September. Expedia reports that the least expensive months to fly to Europe are February, March, and November. If you can, look for tickets that depart for Europe on either a Tuesday or Wednesday and return on a Tuesday; they tend to be lower, according to Kayak’s research. (See “Fare Finders,” below, for our favorite sites for finding European airfares.)
Q: Are there any foods that will help me fight jet lag? —George Frank, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A: Even more than foreign-transaction fees and data-roaming charges, jet lag is the bane of international travelers. Resetting your internal clock to a new time zone can be a days-long process. Fortunately, there are ways to ease yourself onto a new schedule—and what you eat and drink can play a key role.
A perennial favorite for American travelers, Europe can also be one of the most expensive places to travel. First and foremost, you need to find a good transatlantic ticket, which can be challenging, since taxes, fees, and carrier charges can easily tack an additional $600 onto the average fare. In “How to Find the Best Fares on European Flights,” I outline strategies for landing the best flights. Here are some other ways to find value in Europe.
Pick the right destination.
Your dollar goes further depending on where you are—and what currency you’re using. The best values usually lie outside the euro zone. According to Hotels.com’s annual Hotel Price Index, Warsaw had the most-affordable luxury hotels in Europe in 2013, with an average room rate of just $124 a night. Budapest, Istanbul, and Prague also all had top rooms for less than $250 a night. (By contrast, Paris’s luxury rooms went for $504, on average, and London’s for $430.) This squares with the Economist’s Big Mac Index, which offers a quick (and playful) look at the relative cost of countries by charting the price of the ubiquitous McDonald’s burger around the world. According to this metric, the Polish zloty is undervalued by a full 35 percent against the U.S. dollar; the Czech koruna (undervalued by 25 percent), Turkish lira (19 percent), and Hungarian forint (17 percent) also offer bargains for Americans.
Most good restaurants in the United States expect to turn over a table two to three times each night—that means they anticipate a party of two will stay for about an hour and 45 minutes (four-tops are usually allotted two hours). So once you’ve paid your bill, try not to spend the next hour nursing your final sip of wine. Internationally, diners enjoy a more leisurely pace. In Italy, for instance, experts say it’s virtually impossible to overstay your welcome. In countries from Australia and China to Argentina, meals typically run a full two to three hours. If you don’t know the protocol, look to the waitstaff for cues. They’ll let you know when your time’s up.
As a general rule, yes, as long as you keep your items in the sealed plastic bag from Duty Free. Some countries (South Africa and Argentina included) will confiscate liquids over 3.4 ounces in secondary, at-gate security checks; duty-free items, however, should be exempt. Until recently, if you had a connecting flight in the European Union or the U.S., you would have to either stow your purchases in your checked bag as you switched planes or toss them. But the introduction of new liquid scanners in the EU and the relaxing of such rules in the States (thank you, TSA) mean that you can now carry these items on board.
Another victory for passenger rights is in the works. The DOT is planning to strengthen its regulations regarding how airlines—and, for the first time, online search engines, such as Google—display the ancillary fees that count for an increasing portion of your overall ticket cost.