Economy vs. premium economy: What’s the difference?

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When you’re choosing a seat on a plane, it can be difficult to decipher all the different options your flight has to offer. Given that many airlines have their unique names for cabins, even the most experienced flyers are bound to be confused.

If you’re not looking to spend a lot on your flight, you’ll probably choose economy seating. But the choice doesn’t stop there. So, what’s the difference: economy vs. premium economy? And what about economy plus? We’ve broken down all different types of economy seating here so that you can make the best choice on your next flight. 

As you can see, these Econompy Plus seats on United offer more room than your typical economy seat. (Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock)

Pricing 

In the most simple terms, premium economy seating is an upgraded version of standard economy seating, and the prices of each ticket will reflect just that. If you’re looking for cheap airfare and are willing to sacrifice things like extra legroom, economy is your best bet. If you can spend a little more it may be worth splurging for premium economy.

Economy seats will almost always be the cheapest option you see when booking a flight and can be as low as $15 or $20 for one-way domestic flights, depending on the route. For international flights, economy prices are around $400 on the low end and $600 on the higher end. Prices will rise and fall depending on the location, time of booking and airline.

Premium economy seats have higher price points. On domestic flights, these seats will start around $80 and go up to about $250 (one-way). On international flights, premium economy is in a separate cabin, so the price differences are more drastic. These seats usually start around $1300 and can cost up to $3000.

Although these price differences may seem extreme, booking with points and miles will allow you to upgrade your seat or book a better one all together without spending an extra penny. That’s why we love the miles & points hobby

Check-in and boarding

Most airlines board starting at the front of the plane and working their way back. Premium economy seats are in the front of the economy cabin (or in an entirely different cabin on some international flights), so passengers with these tickets will usually get to board ahead of those sitting in economy. 

That said, due to the coronavirus, boarding processes are a bit different at the moment. Airlines like United have begun boarding their flights starting from the back (economy) to limit passenger interaction onboard. So, while priority boarding was once a guaranteed perk of premium economy, that’s no longer the case. But deboarding procedures have not changed on any airlines, so you will still get off the plane first if you’re in premium economy.

The actual check-in process for economy vs. premium economy is pretty much the same. The only significant difference is that some airlines, like American, will offer premium economy guests one complimentary checked bag. Those in regular economy don’t get that perk unless they’re flying Southwest, where every passenger gets a free checked bag

Lounge access

Unfortunately, lounge access is typically reserved for business and first class passengers only. That means even if you book premium economy, complimentary lounge access probably won’t be in your future. There are some exceptions to the rule, like Japan Airlines, but this certainly isn’t the norm.

Passengers of any class can always pay for a day of lounge access, but the fees to get into a lounge are rarely worth the steep price unless you’re spending all day at the airport. And don’t forget that there are certain credit cards that offer airport lounge access!

Seats

You’ll likely notice the most significant difference between economy and premium economy when it comes to the actual seats. You’ll have more legroom, a wider seat, and an overall more comfortable ride in premium economy. Premium economy seats are also located more toward the front of the plane, so you’ll experience less turbulence. But, premium economy has the same layout as economy seats, meaning you could still end up with the dreaded middle seat. 

Economy seats are all the seats in the way back of the plane. By paying less, you’re sacrificing some comfort on your trip. You’ll probably have minimal legroom in an economy seat and be somewhat squished together with other passengers. On short-haul flights, though, they’re more than manageable. 

In-flight service and entertainment

The service and entertainment in economy vs. premium economy don’t differ too drastically. In-flight entertainment, like TV and movie selection, will be the same between the classes. But, premium economy seats might get complimentary WiFi or individual access to USB and charging ports for some airlines, while those in economy may not. 

What really changes in this category the quality of the service. Typically, there are a smaller number of premium economy seats available on each flight. This means the flight attendants assigned to this class will be able to serve passengers quicker and give them a more personalized experience by accommodating requests. In crowded economy cabins, this type of service usually isn’t realistic for flight attendants to achieve. 

Amenities 

In most cases, economy passengers will receive the basics on a flight. If it’s an international flight, economy passengers may get a blanket and pillow. On shorter flights, economy passengers probably won’t get much besides their seat. 

Premium economy is a step up from that. Passengers in that cabin will sometimes be given a better amenity kit for longer flights, with things like toothbrushes and toiletries included as well as the basics. But, neither cabin provides any amenities before passengers board, as is typical for business and first class travelers to experience. 

Food and drinks

On international or long-haul domestic flights, those seated in premium economy will likely get a fancier food and beverage menu that is different from the economy cabin. On some airlines, like Air Canada, premium economy passengers get complimentary alcoholic beverages for the duration of the flight, while those in economy class have to pay for spirits. 

The amount of complimentary food and drink economy passengers get depends on both the airline and the specific flight. For shorter flights, those in economy might only get a choice of snacks like pretzels or almonds. For longer flights, a more extensive menu will be offered. 

(Photo by Bignai/Shutterstock)

FAQ

Can I get upgraded from economy to premium economy?

On most airlines, passengers can choose to pay the additional cost (which can be anywhere from $30 to a few hundred dollars) to upgrade to premium economy at any point before boarding begins. 

Upgrading with points and miles (or just getting lucky and getting a seat upgrade) is a bit trickier. On some airlines, those who buy a basic economy ticket are not eligible for any kind of upgrade. If you’re considering upgrading your seat later, via cash or points and miles, make sure you purchase a seat in the main cabin (economy plus), and do your research for one that is eligible for upgrades.  

What is economy plus?

Economy plus is the happy medium between basic economy and premium economy. These seats are a little bit better than economy and in most cases, only costs a few extra dollars. 

If you want a bit of extra legroom and a more comfortable seat, without all the extra perks (and money) that come with premium economy, economy plus is the cabin for you. 

Is premium economy worth it?

It depends on your budget and your preferences while flying! Generally, if you aren’t a person that requires extra room while flying and you’re on a shorter flight, you’ll be more than fine in economy. But, if you value comfort more than price or you’re on a longer flight, premium economy will likely be worth it for you.

Bottom line

When it comes to premium economy vs. economy, the main differences are price, seats and service. Just a few rows separate the two classes, and in a lot of aspects, there isn’t much difference. But, if you’re willing to pay more, you will get more out of your flight experience. Whatever you decide, your experience will depend largely on your destination and the airline you choose, but now you’re equipped with the knowledge to choose the best cabin for you!

Alexandra Maloney is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, she covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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