When Should You Upgrade to Premium Economy? 9 Airlines That Do It Right

A little bit of an upgrade can go a long way on some flights. Here’s when it’s worth it to shell out extra to go from economy to Premium Economy.

Four passengers in Premium Economy seats with one person sleeping with mask and blanket

Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy seats are some of the roomiest in the industry.

Courtesy of Air New Zealand

Economy class is exactly what it sounds like: a standard airplane seat with very few frills. Basic economy has even fewer. A lot of times that’s OK; we’ll put up with it just to get where we’re going. But sometimes we travelers want something better—say, a little extra legroom and little more dignity. That’s where airlines’ premium offerings come in. In some cases, that’s called Premium Economy; other times, though, the cabin class is an additional step up from that—closer to the business end of the spectrum than the coach end. The perks of this upper-middle part of the plane vary from airline to airline—as does the price—so we asked our staff and reporters to weigh in on which airlines offer a version of Premium Economy that is worth the cost. In my own travels, I recently tried out KLM’s “Premium Comfort” class, which is yet another level up for fliers. Here’s what we all had to say.

KLM’s Premium Comfort

KLM’s Premium Comfort cabin is something of a Goldilocks experience. It puts you—literally and figuratively— between the airline’s Premium Economy seats (which they call “Economy Comfort”) and business class, while delivering on several aspects of front-of-the-plane luxury at a lower price or points cost. I flew it recently on a long-haul from New York to Nairobi (watch my video review), with a stopover in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Each leg was more than seven hours and the first leg was a red-eye, so I really appreciated the extra space and amenities.

For Premium Comfort passengers, the special treatment begins even before you arrive at the airport, because you’re allowed two checked bags and two carry-ons plus an accessory, whereas economy (even Economy Comfort customers) get only the usual allotment of one checked bag, one carry-on, and an accessory. So go ahead and pack a couple of extra outfits before you leave home—or pick up several more souvenirs on your trip, as I did, without stressing about having to cram them all into your carry-on. At the airport, Premium Comfort passengers can go directly to the Sky Priority check-in line to drop off their luggage, join an accelerated SkyPriority TSA line, and then board the plane early. (Note that Premium Comfort doesn’t come with lounge access, but KLM is a sister airline of Delta so if you’re an elite traveler on that airline or have an AmEx Platinum Card, you can use some Delta lounges. Also note that Amsterdam’s Schiphol is, dare I say, a really fun airport to hang out in—with a museum, a library, and lots of food, power plugs, and relaxation spots—so you don’t even need a lounge.)

Onboard, you’ll immediately feel the benefits of the separated cabin and the plushier seats: nearly four more inches of legroom than Economy Comfort seats and about two additional inches of recline, plus an extra inch of width, an adjustable leg rest, a foot rest, wide armrests, and the same cushy pillow and blanket set provided to business-class fliers. For entertainment, you’ll get noise-canceling headphones, with which to enjoy the 13-inch screen (a couple inches bigger than in economy), a special Premium Comfort amenities kit, various in-seat power plugs, and a snake-armed reading light. At mealtime, Premium Comfort passengers are treated to their own menu and a free selection of alcoholic drinks, all served on real dishware with real silverware. (Don’t miss the stroopwafel ice cream—the Dutch know what they’re doing.)

The verdict: More than worth it! KLM’s Premium Comfort is a big step up from Premium Economy in space, comfort, and service. These are not lie-flat like KLM’s business-class seats, but the extra recline and leg-and-foot support of the Premium Comfort setup allowed me to get a decent night’s sleep on my red-eye and made this cabin my new favorite way to fly. —Billie Cohen, executive editor

Air New Zealand Premium Economy

I first flew Air New Zealand on a 13-hour overnight flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, and if my recollection is a bit hazy, that’s because I slept through much of it curled up in an exceptionally roomy seat in Premium Economy. With some of the world’s longest flights—most international nonstops exceed 10 hours—the Kiwi carrier has long competed on the amount of space it gives to passengers who aren’t sitting in the pointy end of the plane. (To prove it’s serious, it added a Skycouch option for economy fliers looking to lounge out on their flights.) In Premium Economy, that translates into soft recliner-style leather seats that are 19 inches wide, and an industry-leading 41 to 42 inches of seat pitch (the space between rows). But you might want to stay awake for the three-course meals and wide selection of New Zealand wines.Barbara Peterson, Afar’s special correspondent for air

Air France Premium Economy

Two of Air France's empty, black premium seats

Air France’s Premium Economy seats slide back without compromising legroom.

Courtesy of Air France

European carriers are notorious for monitoring carry-on bags, but Air France’s Premium Economy passengers get an increased allowance: two pieces plus a smaller item. The combined weight can’t exceed 26.4 pounds, which is not different from what most people would bring on a U.S. flight anyway, but I appreciate that flexibility. The most important perk in this cabin, however, is the seat: It’s set within a hard-shell structure that maintains legroom for the person behind you when your seat reclines. That’s what makes this one of my favorite Premium Economy products. Don’t discount the luxury of having your back neighbor stand up without grabbing your headrest for support.

While Air France is the only major airline to offer free champagne to every passenger on board, Premium Economy meals still feel like a slight improvement. In 2023, Air France introduced new meal offerings for Premium Economy customers by chef Frédéric Simonin (he has a Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant in Paris) for flights departing from Paris. An open bar makes it easy to kick back and relax with the latest movies via the (typically) 12-inch screen. It’s not business class, but Air France crew members do a solid job of making this feel like a special step up from the main cabin.Ramsey Qubein, contributor

American Airlines Premium Economy

A few rows of American's Premium Economy seats, empty and black

American’s Premium Economy comes with Casper-branded blanket and pillows on some flights.

Courtesy of American Airlines

For its Premium Economy, American uses seats similar to those in domestic first class; they come with about six more inches of space than what you’ll find in the main cabin, plus a footrest and a larger entertainment screen. I value the extra room, but sometimes, it’s the little touches that make the difference, like the Casper-branded blanket and plump pillow (both are more substantial than the unbranded ones in the main cabin) and the upgraded meal service (proper dishware, cutlery, a tablecloth, and different menu options from economy). It’s also nice to have a small table at the end of the armrest to place the free drinks that American offers all customers on most long-haul, international flights. Ramsey Qubein, contributor

Delta Air Lines Premium Select

Three rows of Delta Air Lines' Premium Select seats with passengers reclining

Delta’s Premium Select seats have more legroom.

Courtesy of Delta Airlines

For me, Delta’s Premium Select adds some space and comfort without breaking the bank. An entertainment screen as large as 13.3 inches, extra legroom (as much as 38 inches of pitch, which measures the point between a seat in one row and the same point in the next, depending on the aircraft), a memory-foam pillow, and a wider armrest add up on long flights. I’ve found that it’s worth the extra mileage or cash upgrade if I need to work on the flight. Those without a higher tier of Medallion status benefit from Sky Priority for faster check-in and boarding lanes. The meals are upgraded from the economy menu, there’s an amenities kit with tiny tubes of Grown Alchemist products, and beer, wine, and most cocktails are free. Ramsey Qubein, contributor

Emirates Premium Economy

Empty white seats with silver pillows in Emirates' Premium Economy with a standing flight attendant, dressed in white with face mask and round red hat

Emirates’ Premium Economy is closer to business class than economy.

Courtesy of Emirates

Emirates may be best known for its lavish first-class cabins with an onboard bar and shower suites, but the Dubai-based carrier also offers an impressive Premium Economy product. Officially launched in August 2022 and rolling out across more than 100 aircraft, Emirates Premium Economy is a significant step up from the main cabin—and, usually, with a reasonable price tag.

The details make it more akin to business class than economy. Travelers are greeted with cream-colored leather seats with cross stitching, a thickly padded calf rest, shiny polished-wood trim, and double-shuttered windows controlled by a button. Expect an elevated dining experience and plush bedding crafted specifically for Premium Economy passengers. For daytime flights where a fully-flat bed won’t be missed, this cabin is an excellent option for budget-conscious premium travelers.Chris Dong, contributor

Singapore Airlines Premium Economy

Side view of a gray reclining seat next to upright seat for Singapore Airlines' Premium Economy

On Singapore Airlines’ ultra-long-haul flight between JFK and Changi airports, Premium Economy is the entry-level seat class.

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

Last November, I flew from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Singapore Changi Airport on Singapore Airlines. At 9,537 miles, it’s currently the world’s longest commercial flight and takes 18 hours and 50 minutes to complete. With a Premium Economy ticket (which usually costs about $1,500) for this ultra long haul on an Airbus A350, I enjoyed a 19.5-inch-wide leather seat that came with a calf rest and footrest that allowed me to get comfortable. In terms of spaciousness, Singapore’s Premium Economy offers a 38-inch seat pitch (the distance between a row of seats), which is much more generous compared to the 31-inch U.S. economy average. The food was also excellent (recent menus have included the likes of pan-roasted chicken with grain-mustard sauce and stir-fried pork with spicy black-bean sauce), and the entertainment system had a generous 13.3-inch HD enabled touchscreen monitor, came with noise-canceling headphones, and had multiple plugs for my devices. Lyndsey Matthews, senior commerce editor

United Premium Plus

Rows of empty purple seats in United's Premium Plus

United’s Premium Plus seats provide extra legroom and free meals and drinks (alcohol included).

Courtesy of United Airlines/Wayne Slezak

For United loyalists, the airline’s Premium Plus seats are a welcome addition to the airline’s fare options. Available on transatlantic, transpacific, a handful of long-haul domestic routes (such as Newark to San Francisco), and a few routes in South America, it feels akin to a business-class seat on most of its other routes: large chairs with 38 inches of legroom, 38 inches of pitch, 6-inch recline, and adjustable footrests; different meal options than economy; complimentary alcoholic beverages; and an amenity kit. While you may occasionally find a good deal when purchasing it outright, it’s most worth it if you can score an affordable upgrade option—if it’s under $300 to upgrade or I can book or upgrade with miles, I generally go for it.Jessie Beck, senior manager of SEO and video

Virgin Atlantic Premium

I vouch for Virgin Atlantic’s Premium over any other—and not just because this is the OG airline that invented the idea (though, in 1992, it was known as Mid Class). Its primacy is because Branson’s baby understands better than any other that the PE experience isn’t just down to the roomier seat.

Sure, I love its leather armchair–like thrones, especially on the new A350, but I appreciate there’s no corner-cutting on fripperies. Virgin offers passengers in this cabin a glass of fizz before take-off, and meals are distinctive from economy’s F&B, served with proper glassware and plates; the amenity kit is nice enough that I take it with me every time.

Heads up that this is different from any of Virgin’s class names with “economy” in them: Virgin has split those into three variations—Economy Light, Economy Classic, and Economy Delight. Instead, Premium is the upgraded name for its mid-class cabin, shucking off any pesky associations with that lower class.Mark Ellwood, contributor

This article originally appeared online in 2023; it was most recently updated on May 30, 2024, to include current information.

Billie Cohen is executive editor of Afar. She covers all areas of travel, and has soft spots for nerd travel, maps, intel, history, architecture, art, design, people, dessert, street art, and Oreo flavors around the world. Follow her @billietravels.
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