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Is Premium Economy Seating Worth the Extra Cost?

If you’re planning a summer trip across the Atlantic or the Pacific, you know how unpleasant those long flights can be in the confines of an economy seat sized to accommodate jockeys and Russian gymnasts. A few lines offer relief from that sardine-can crowding, but at prices that might give you pause.

Here’s a current rundown of summer premium economy fares (and regular economy fares for comparison) from all the airlines that offer genuine premium economy from the United States. By “genuine” premium economy, I mean seats that offer extra legroom and extra seat width. Most lines include upgraded cabin service and generally better in-flight entertainment hardware, as well.

My fare quotes are all for a round-trip, July 1 to 15, and cover fares and all applicable taxes, as quoted in late March. I cite fares for nonstop flights between Chicago and each line’s primary overseas gateway, except in cases where the airline does not serve Chicago or does not fly nonstop. (Don’t you hate that everyone always quotes fare from New York and nowhere else?)

  • Air France, Chicago to Paris: Regular economy $1,422, premium economy $2,300.
  • ANA, Chicago to Tokyo: Regular economy $1,382, premium economy $2,147.
  • British Airways, Chicago to London: Regular economy $1,543, premium economy, $2,206.
  • EVA, San Francisco to Taipei: Regular economy $1,202, premium economy, $1,662.
  • JAL, Chicago to Tokyo: Regular economy $1,579, premium economy, $1,979.
  • Icelandair, Minneapolis-St. Paul to Oslo: Regular economy $1,154, premium economy $1,692, flight requires stop and change or planes in Reykjavik.
  • Qantas, Los Angeles to Sydney: Regular economy, $1,105, premium economy, $2,448.
  • SAS, Chicago to Copenhagen: Regular economy $985, premium economy $1,903.
  • V Australia, Los Angeles to Sydney: Regular economy $1,145, premium economy $2,146.
  • Virgin Atlantic, Chicago to London: Regular economy $1,250, premium economy $1,979.
  • For reference, I also checked “Biz Seat” business class on Open Skies, Washington to Paris, at $1,746, a better product for a lower price than on Air France—go figure.

Fares and fare differences from other U.S. gateways should be relatively consistent with these figures.

In addition, KLM and United Airlines offer less-than-genuine premium economy cabins with a few inches of extra legroom, but the same narrow seats—and the same cabin service—as regular economy, while Continental sells extra-legroom exit-row seats. Typically, exalted-level frequent flyers and travelers on full-fare economy tickets can move up to these seats at no charge, and travelers on other economy fares can move up by paying an extra fee, which typically varies by route and on-the-spot demand. No other U.S. line offers premium economy overseas—either the United-style sort-of product, or the genuine article.

For some reason, the price premium for a premium seat varies substantially from one airline to another:

  • The lowest price premiums, 23 percent on EVA and 25 percent on JAL, seem low enough to attract a sizable minority of leisure travelers dreading a long transpacific flight in a cattle car.
  • Quite a few lines charge price premiums in the range of 45 percent to 60 percent, which is high enough to give you pause when you consider what else that money would buy.
  • The very stiff premiums of 87 percent on V Australia, 93 percent on SAS, and 122 percent on Qantas lead me to believe that these lines aren’t interested at all in attracting leisure travelers looking for a break on comfort. Instead, they’re probably targeting business travelers whose companies forbid business class.

Several of the fares I cite in both classes are labeled as restricted “sale” fares that may or may not be available by the time you start planning your trip. In a few cases, I could have found slightly lower regular economy fares by altering the travel dates by a few days or accepting connections.

A parting comment: I can’t believe that the big lines will be able to keep to the very high fares they’re currently quoting for midsummer tickets in regular economy. But your guess is as good as mine.

Do you plan to purchase premium economy seating for your future overseas flights? Have you purchased it before, and do you find it worth the price tag? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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