Is Premium Economy Worth The Money?

Is Premium Economy Worth The Money?
Airlines are finding it harder than ever to make money, so the introduction of premium economy cabins is an obvious step to try and wring a few more dollars out of intercontinental travellers. But can they justify the inflated price tags?

There’s no point in pretending that I’m approaching the topic of premium economy from a totally neutral viewpoint. Given that the typical premium economy seat costs around twice the amount of an economy place, I’ve long taken the view that you might as well succumb to the knee-ache and get cheap. At the end of the day, given the choice between one slightly more comfortable trip to the other side of the world and two trips, I’ve always (and probably will always) choose the latter.

That said, I never look a gift horse in the mouth. So when Qantas offered me a no-strings-attached upgrade to premium economy on a recent trip between Singapore and London, I didn’t argue. (Nor did I get much chance to: I didn’t find out about the upgrade until after I’d been through Customs, and my seat changed twice between then and when I actually boarded.)

Qantas isn’t the only airline offering a premium economy option in the local market: BA had premium economy seats on the kangaroo route (AU-UK) well before its Oneworld partner did, and Air New Zealand also sports its own premium version. There are subtle differences between the offerings: BA gives PE customers exclusive toilets, while Qantas A380 PE customers are on a different floor of the plane. But the essential idea is the same: a bit more space and slightly better food service, without paying the truly extravagant premiums associated with business class.

As a six-foot-tall man, I’ll never argue with more leg room. But what else do you get for the money? On Qantas, the first answer is: a slightly bigger, in-your-armrest screen for watching the in-flight entertainment. That’s nice, but the screen in question on a 747 (which I flew) is still a bit less impressive than the A380 equivalent. (Presumably, PE customers on the A380 do a little better.)

The meals are served on separate plates, rather than the all-in-one economy tray — but the food itself is exactly the same. You also have a wider choice of bottle-only wine, but you can generally ask for a second (plastic) bottle even in economy. And you can leave the plane a tad earlier at the other end, but a determinedly fast walker will manage that once they’re off the plane anyway (I’d outstripped the whole PE cabin and most of business well before we hit immigration at Heathrow).

So what it really comes down to is the leg room and pitch. There’s no denying that not having to breath in slightly when the person in front reclines their seat is a plus. But there’s also no denying that, at the end of the day, sleeping in any economy-class seat on a plane is a poor substitute for a real-life bed. And the difference is very measurable. So while I’ll never turn down an upgrade, I doubt I’ll ever pay the extra money.

Had your own good (or bad) experience in premium economy? Share the encounter in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman would feel a lot guiltier about global warming if he owned a car. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • I once rode in something called Business Economy on Qantas ( a free upgrade ), a business class seat with economy service. Actually it was worse than economy service, because they just forgot to bring me any food at all, even when prompted.

    However it was the only time I’ve flown internationally with enough leg-room and as a result I was actually able to sleep comfortably.

    I’m only slightly taller than you but quite thick-set, so in coach my knees go straight into the seat in front, even when splayed to maximum. Those exercises that they promote to exercise your lower legs are impossible as I don’t have room.

    I never get how they manage with rules for the wider exit-rows, which I always volunteer for. It’s usually some tiny, exceedingly old and feeble sitting there, and when the hostie asks if they can help in an emergency, (a few times if their hearing aid is switched off) they say “yes dearie, just like in the war.”

  • Just got off a plane this morning thinking the same thing. Virgin airlines premium economy is even less different to economy.

    one tip i would give people regarding exit rows, don’t do it. More legroom but the seats don’t recline back!

  • I think it’s Tiger, but one airline actually charges extra if you want an emergency exit row seat (i.e. you want the extra few inches of legroom). I think $20 or $40, but I can’t remember. Just remember hearing someone else complain about it 🙂

    • not only do exit row seats not recline fully, at the rear of the plane, the front exit row seats more often than not have no personal tv screen, or are difficult to get to, along with a half-sized tray table. plus, you may have a queue of people waiting outside the lav next to your seat.
      however, it varies with the type and arrangement of the aircraft — the current generation A340’s don’t suffer from these problems typically.

  • I’ve flown Qantas A380 Premium Economy SYD to LAX a few times now and I love it. That said, I think all other flights are ruined forever after I was upgraded to A380 business last flight and managed to get a solid 8 hours sleep in the lie-flat bed.

    I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t give A380 economy a go if work weren’t footing the bill, though. I’ve heard good things about V Australia’s Premium Economy, which is currently around $2,500 SYD to LAX return.

  • Perfect timing, i’m going off to the states in september, if i can find an affordable flight on the right day, and was wondering about prem eco, V Aus has some premium deals for $830 on the way back (vs $1300 for regular the day before) but i think ill take the $435 regular flight, even though id love the extra room being a 6 footer myself.

  • Got to agree… paid for the expensive seats when work is paying but there is no way that I see the value when it is coming out of my own pocket. I’m 6’5″, but obviously tight.

  • many airlines are starting to charge more for exit row seats, so this seems a good option;
    however, with the unprecedented discount airfares we’ve seen lately, it’s probable you could pay much more than twice the discount economy rate for premium economy.
    if on the other hand, you’re paying full economy fare because your company paid / you bought it with frequent flyer miles / you made a last minute booking, the cost difference for a premium seat would be far less.

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