Is flying premium economy worth it?

IS IT WORTH IT? The Premium Economy seat, itself comes with a premium of around 50-60 per cent on top of standard economy.
IS IT WORTH IT? The Premium Economy seat, itself comes with a premium of around 50-60 per cent on top of standard economy.

Is it really worth paying a few extra hundred to improve on cattle class? 

Attainable in-flight nirvana, or a complete rip-off compared with a hotel splurge? Is it just making cattle class pay extra for the same service and legroom they had a few decades ago, before low-cost carriers made those attributes user-pays?

Airlines' premium economy options attempt to bridge the canyon of difference between the canned sardines and the constantly improving business cabin. The ever-scientific Stuff Travel poll recently found the audience evenly split on whether premium economy is worth the extra hundreds.

IN-FLIGHT FOO0D: Menu options are ‘enhanced’ for Premium Economy passengers.
IN-FLIGHT FOO0D: Menu options are ‘enhanced’ for Premium Economy passengers.

Antipodean travellers are well served if they want to treat themselves, with Air New Zealand and Qantas winning first and second place for their premium cabins at the 2013 Skytrax awards.

Travel agents are mixed on who buys these seats, with Flight Centre saying premium economy is popular with businesses. House of Travel said it was a hit with wealthier leisure travellers who prioritised comfort, but did not want to sell the house for a lie-flat seat.

Not all airlines' premium economy offerings are created equal, with Asia-Pacific carriers tending to have flashier standard benefits (better food, booze and service, more luggage, noise cancelling headphones and amenity kits) than United States airlines, which can give only an extra 2-4 inches of legroom (airlines quote the sizes in inches). Always research thoroughly but value comes down to how much you care about your seat, sleep and personal space.


Seat: 36-42 inches of pitch (legroom) and a width of 17-20 inches with extra recline. This, as well as seat design, varies depending on the aircraft or route. The Spaceseat, which is on the Auckland-LA route, offers the best in comfort and value. It's in leather and in a spacious 2-2-2 configuration, but the airline won't be bringing the innovation on its new Dreamliner. Otherwise you'll be in a 3-3-3 configuration.

Routes: Los Angeles, London, San Francisco, Honolulu, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Perth, Tokyo, Shanghai, all ex-Auckland.

Markup: You'll pay 80-110 per cent more in most cases, but there were some heavy discounts in my airfare surveys, so research widely online for deals.

Best extra: Enhanced meals and drinks won the airline Best Premium Economy Catering at the 2013 Skytrax awards.


Seat: 38 inches of pitch, except on the Airbus A380s where it's a generous 42 inches. There is less variability in the premium economy cabin, with a 19-inch seat width and extra recline a staple. The separate cabin is in a 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 configuration. All travel would be via Australia, but Qantas does not offer premium economy on the Tasman leg and neither does alliance partner Emirates on any flight, so be aware and precise when booking.

Routes: It's all via Australia, but Hong Kong, LA, Singapore, Bangkok and more.

Markup: Bang on double for routes surveyed, but there is heavy discounting, with one example only 60 per cent more, which could be worth it on an overnight long-haul flight.

Best extra: In-seat calling and texting.


Seat: 34 inches of pitch is the lowest of the four, and potentially only a measly 2 inches more than economy seats, but on longer-haul flights the standard 38 inches of legroom applies. The seats have a 19-inch width, in leather, extra recline and in 2-2 configuration for trans-Tasman flights

Routes: Guaranteed premium economy will be to Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi, but double-check partner airlines (Etihad, Delta etc) don't bump you back to economy.

Markup: Virgin has the greatest variance in price for the upgraded offer. A flight to Perth was only 45 per cent more than economy. A flight to London with premium economy until Abu Dhabi is only a tiny 13 per cent ($220) more than cattle class, but to LA it was 110 per cent more expensive. So check carefully.

Best extra: Premium lounge access on certain trans-Tasman routes. Followed closely by free pies throughout.


Seat: Its 38-inch pitch is an extra 6 inches of legroom. The width is 19.5 inches, configured in a 2-3-2 shut-off cabin. Two extra inches of recline than economy and the seat includes a footrest, the closest you're going to get to a bed.

Markup: Twice as much on the Auckland to Hong Kong route and similar markups to onward destinations.

Routes: Hong Kong, ex-Auckland and then 200 cities in Asia Europe.

Best extra: Champagne on arrival, so you feel like you're flying first class (albeit momentarily).

Sunday Star Times