There’s almost no way around it these days, but economy or coach seating on most airlines is cramped and uncomfortable. The seats are narrow, with little to no leg room, especially if you are tall. Drinks beyond basics, snacks, and entertainment will also cost you these days, and other than Hawaiian Airlines, no domestic carrier offers free meals in economy any more. First or business classes offer all these amenities, and more, but most can’t afford or don’t want to pay the premium for those seats, which can be anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars more per ticket.
There is another option though. Many, if not most, airlines have added a second or third class of upgraded seats on flights, after first class and/or business class: premium economy. Each airline seems to have their own name for this class of seats, but they are generally a bit wider than regular economy seating, have a few more inches of leg room, and provides several amenities at no cost, things like premium in-flight entertainment; beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks; snacks, and so forth. Also, premium economy offers early boarding, right after first/business class, and because the seats are located nearer to the front of the plane, passengers can disembark and get on their way more quickly at their destination as well.
The price of a premium economy seat typically falls between first/business and regular economy, usually closer to the economy price. But, is the extra cost worth it?
I say that for a long flight, either cross-country or overseas, the answer is an unequivocal yes, especially if you start with a good economy fare. Those few extra inches of legroom and the slightly wider seat makes a real difference in comfort, and the extra amenities add to what otherwise can be a long and (sometimes) dreary experience.
The price for an upgrade to premium economy will depend on which airline you’re flying, and whether you purchase the upgrade at the time of booking or later, often when you check in online or at the airport before boarding. The upgrade price may also depend on the distance of the flight, and whether the flight is domestic or international, or overseas, i.e. to Hawai’i.
The easiest and least expensive way to upgrade is to use the miles you’ve accumulated in an airline’s frequent flyer program. This is airline specific though, and unlike an upgrade to first or business class, a premium economy upgrade is not always available as a mileage reward. However, if you’d rather save your miles for other trips, there are other ways to upgrade and still save:
- Add an amount into your travel budget upfront to cover any possible upgrades. Depending on our destination, I always add around $150 per person to any trip’s budget to cover upgrades to premium economy, and then search and wait (and hope) for economy fares well below the maximum I’ve allowed for airfare. If you don’t end up upgrading, you’ll have that much extra available on your trip or to put toward future travel.
- As a rule, don’t purchase upgraded seats when you buy your tickets. Purchase regular economy seats first and do upgrades later. With a couple of exceptions, I have always gotten a better price if I make my upgrade after an initial purchase of regular economy fares (be sure to check the airlines rules though – some airlines don’t allow upgrades from super saver fares or mileage award flights). For example, when I purchased our tickets for next year’s Tokyo trip, the price difference between a round-trip economy seat versus a premium economy seat was $310 per person at the time of purchase. However, after I paid for round-trip economy seats, I went back the next day to the airline’s website and changed our seats to premium economy for just $158 per ticket, a savings of $152 for the upgrade. It’s not possible to upgrade early with all airlines; with some I’ve only been able to do it at check-in (either online or at the airport). One advantage to being able to upgrade earlier rather than later is having a wider choice of seats – when I’ve done upgrades at check-in, seat selection has usually been somewhat limited and scattered, although flight attendants always have made an effort to seat families together.
An upgrade to first or business class will obviously cost more than premium economy, both in miles or money. Still, the cost might be worthwhile, even just for one leg of a trip. If you’re not using frequent flyer miles, waiting to upgrade later rather than at the time of initial ticket purchase will again maybe save you more. The upgrade to first class on the flight I took from Seattle back home to Lihue last August was $150 at check-in (and worth every penny). The cost for that same first class seat purchased upfront would have been several hundreds of dollars more than what I paid for my seat in economy.
Depending on where you’re going and your travel budget, my opinion is: Make the upgrade, especially for a long flight. Consider it money well spent.