Economy vs Premium Economy: Is It Worth It? • Freedom Destinations

Economy vs Premium Economy: Is it worth it?

Qantas Airways in flight

I fell in love aged eleven. I was too young to really understand relationships, but I was fortunate that my parents had saved up enough to take me on my first long haul holiday, to visit family in Australia.

As we joined the boarding queue along the airbridge at Heathrow I knew that I was smitten. The feeling of anticipation, adventure, and nervousness, combined to create a young man with an addiction to travel.

As we stepped through the door on to the aircraft, we were greeted by the smiling air stewardess. The gentleman in front of us was shown to his left. Moments later, we received the same warm welcome but were indicated to move to our right. As we located our seats towards the rear of the plane, I was left wondering what had happened to the man that had turned left?

…..I had to wait a long time before I was able to find out.

Economy Class, Qantas
Economy Class with Qantas

Economy Class: The Basics

On that first flight I was travelling with Singapore Airlines in Economy Class. This is the class of travel that I expect most people are familiar with. Roughly 50% of all seats on intercontinental flights are Economy Class. The percentage is much higher for domestic and continental flights, but here we are concentrating primarily on long haul intercontinental services.

Flying Economy Class

Seat Pitch (distance between each seat back): 75 – 89 cm

Seat Width: 43 – 51 cm

Seat Recline: 25 – 30 degrees

Seat configuration: 3-4-3 (depending on aircraft)

Baggage Allowance: up to 23kg – 30kg

Back when I was eleven, the Economy Class seat on Singapore Airlines felt large and spacious. These days, Economy Class seating feels smaller and a little more cramped, but that probably says more about me, than it does the seats!

The service hasn’t changed much in the Economy Class cabin, but the on-board technology has. In amongst the limited menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner served on plastic trays at odd times, you can usually enjoy on demand TV and movies on a small screen in the rear of the seat in front, which makes the time pass quicker. You will also be provided with a small cushion, blanket and a basic amenity kit for freshening up.

The layout of the seating in Economy Class will differ depending on the make and size of the aircraft, but it is normal to expect at least a 3-4-3 configuration with 4 seats across the middle and 3 towards the window. These configurations are usually ideal for families and small groups that wish to sit together. At the very rear of the aircraft, even the larger aircraft, may narrow, so seating arrangements can change to 2-4-2 or similar.

Economy Class, Singapore Airlines
Economy Class with Singapore Airlines

Who are the best Economy Class airlines?

All airlines have an Economy Class on their aircraft, even if some airlines choose to call it something different. British Airways World Traveller is a good example of that. Virgin Atlantic have gone a step further and created three different fare types for their Economy Class. However, they are all essentially in the same cabin. Virgin Atlantic’s Economy Light is for passengers travelling with hand luggage only. Economy Delight, will get you little extra legroom without being in the Premium Economy cabin whilst Virgin’s Economy Classic, is comparable to most other airlines’ Economy Class.

So which airline offers the best Economy Class? In my opinion, this really needs to be broken down by travel route or destination, to make a fair comparison. When flying between the UK and the USA I have always favoured Virgin Atlantic’s Economy Class seats. Delta, American Airlines and British Airways are also good, but Virgin’s service always feels a little better for me.

Travelling to Africa and the Middle East there are lots of very good carriers. I have never travelled with Qatar Airways, but they always rate well in industry surveys. In my opinion, I think that it would be hard to beat Emirates Economy Class on whichever route you fly. Dubai Airport is a great hub for travelling around the world and the service is excellent.

My opinion on flights to Australia has changed over time. I would still look at Singapore Airlines Economy Class. They are always near the top of the industry charts; however, Qantas Economy Class has recently had a complete refresh and their new seats and cabins are very smart. In addition, Qantas now offer a direct flight between the UK and Perth, which works extremely well for those wishing to holiday in Western Australia.

For the Far East, you could choose one of the above if you want to travel via the Middle East, otherwise Thai Airways Economy Class continues to receive good reviews, so I would probably look at them for my next holiday to Thailand.

 Economy Class, Emirates
Economy Class with Emirates

What is the difference between Economy and Premium Economy?

My first experience of Premium Economy was on a business trip to the USA. I was travelling from London Gatwick to Orlando with Virgin Atlantic, but rather than turning left, I went upstairs! Because this is more of a tourist route, Virgin were running some of the older 747 aircraft at the time and had turned the whole top deck into Premium Economy.

The benefits of Premium Economy begin a little earlier, with a dedicated area for check-in or bag drop and you get to take more bags. Usually twice the number of checked in bags as classic economy!

Flying Premium Economy

Seat Pitch (distance between each seat back): 89 – 107 cm

Seat Width: 45 – 61 cm

Seat Recline: 30 – 35 degrees

Seat configuration: 2-4-2 (depending on aircraft)

Baggage Allowance: up to 2 x 23kg

There is no getting away from it, whilst Premium Economy is not to be compared with a Business Class seat, it is certainly a step-up from Classic Economy. A bit more legroom space and a bit of a wider seat does make for a little more comfort. Although the seat may recline a little more, if you are not used to sleeping in a sitting position, then this isn’t going to make a huge difference. Most airlines will also point out it’s a smaller cabin and often a more varied menu in Premium Economy.

World Traveller Plus, British Airways
World Traveller Plus with British Airways

Who are the best Premium Economy airlines?

Because these are my personal opinions and experience you are going to see some of the same airlines mentioned here as in the classic Economy Class, however there are some differences worth taking note of.

British Airways World Traveller Plus (BA Premium Economy) is worth looking at on most long haul routes from the UK; it is a significant step up on their standard World Traveller (Economy) Class.
For flights to the USA, Virgin Atlantic’s Premium Economy is worth the investment. Wider, comfier leather seats and a separate cabin are all plus points. Virgin Atlantic were one of the first airlines to really buy in to the Premium Economy market and they still set the benchmark. Delta Airlines Premium Economy class would be a good alternative.

For Australia and New Zealand, Singapore Airlines Premium Economy have always rated highly from within the industry and they remain one of my favourites even after all these years. Qantas Premium Economy has also seen the recent refit by the airline and the quality of the product has increased significantly. A special mention should also be made to Air New Zealand Premium Economy, for their excellent food and drink offerings, as well as their relaxed and welcoming service.

Emirates Premium Economy continues to dominate the Middle East market in my opinion. No other Middle East airline has invested quite so much in Premium Economy, and the number of destinations offered from their Dubai hub, including the Far East, Australasia and Africa make it a go to airline for much of the world.

Premium Economy, Virgin Atlantic
Premium Economy with Virgin Atlantic


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What is the difference between Premium Economy and Business Class?

Remember the gentleman that turned left? I hadn’t forgotten him, because he may well now look like me! 25 years later an opportunity came for me to upgrade a ticket to Business Class from London Heathrow to Perth in Australia, with Qantas, and I grabbed it! As I boarded the plane, I was greeted by the smiling air stewardess and with a knowing look, she ushered me to my left and I finally got to be that man!

For those who have never seen a Business Class cabin before, I can now tell you, as you board it is pretty similar to a Premium Economy cabin. Everyone is getting settled, stowing their bags and generally learning their surroundings. However, as you take off you really do start to appreciate the benefits of privacy, comfort and ultimately sleep!

Flying Business Class

Seat Pitch (distance between each seat back): 110 – 221 cm

Seat Width: 46 – 91 cm

Seat Recline: Fully flat beds (on most major airlines)

Seat configuration: 2-2-2 (or similar)

Baggage Allowance: up to 2 x 23 – 32kg (depending on route)

The Business Class experience can begin from your home, as some fares can include a transfer from your house to the airport. All Business Class fares will give you a separate check-in or bag drop at the airport and then access to a private lounge. The quality of the lounge offering will depend on whether you are starting your journey at one of the airline’s hubs (home) or just a visiting airline that may share with other carriers. However, if food, drinks and relaxing before a flight are important to you, then you can really make the most of your pre-departure lounge.

Where the Business Class difference is most noticeable is on night-time flights. If you have ever struggled to sleep in an Economy Class seat before and woken up with a stiff neck in Premium Economy, then Business Class flat beds are a game changer! When you want to go to sleep, you just need to catch the attention of the nearest flight attendant, who will make up your bed for you. After they have pressed the appropriate buttons to transform your seat, the attendant will add a further mattress, bed linen and pillows to make up a proper bed. A bed that can allow you to sleep in real comfort. There is still flight noise of course, but it is remarkable what laying flat can actually do!

Business Class, Emirates
Business Class cabin with Emirates

Who are the best Business Class airlines?

Whilst my own personal experience of flying Business Class remains quite limited, over the years I have spoken with many clients who have chosen to upgrade to Business Class, mostly for leisure holidays.

The Middle East airlines, such as Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways have really dominated this sector in the last few years. They have continued to invest in their Business Class product, such that their lounges, aircraft cabins, catering and general service are very difficult to compare with other airlines.

For the Far East, my old friends at Singapore Airlines Business Class continue to receive excellent reviews, as does Cathay Pacific if you are interested in routing via Hong Kong.

For Australia, only Qantas Business Class appears able to compete with the likes of Singapore Airlines and Emirates for long haul travel. The new look at Qantas Airways also includes their Business Class cabin and the flat beds and private areas are going to make a big difference to your Australia flights experience.

Interestingly the many routes between the UK and the USA do not receive the same high ratings for Business Class as many of the other routes. British Airways Club World (BA Business Class) struggles in comparison with the Middle East carriers, as does Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class (Virgin’s Business Class offering). Neither have won many awards lately. Having said that my Experience of Virgin Atlantic Upper Class has always been good, and the flat beds have enabled me to arrive back in the UK after a good sleep on overnight flights. Delta Air Lines Business Class should get a mention as their reviews are on par with Virgin and BA, but none of them stand out for me.

Business Class, Qantas
Business Class with Qantas

When is it worth upgrading your seat?

Now that you know how fortunate I am to have been working within the travel industry for quite some time, I can also help you get the best out of your airline experience. I can tell you that there are very few free flight upgrades. However, you can spend your money wisely to get the most from your upgrade.

Initially think about how long your flight is. Intercontinental flights may be as little as 6 to 7 hours. In this case you may consider an Economy Class option ideal. After you have eaten, maybe watched a film and read a magazine it will be time to disembark, so is Premium Economy worth the upgrade?

Consider yourself and your fitness. If you are tall or suffer from a bad back, then a few extra inches of leg room, or a flat bed, can make all the difference to your holiday.

You don’t have to pay to upgrade your flights in both directions. Consider the directions and timing of your flights. When travelling from east to west, you will be travelling with the sun on a daylight flight. When travelling from west to east you are travelling against the sun, so it is likely to be an overnight flight. Whilst you may not wish to upgrade both legs, it may be worth taking the option to upgrade just your overnight flight, especially if you need to sleep ahead of a busy day on your arrival.

It is possible to save money on your flight upgrades. Many airlines operate frequent flyer schemes that allow you to part-pay for upgrades with your points. If you are a frequent flyer, then it is worth choosing which is the best points programme for you.

Even without being a frequent flyer it is possible to reduce the cost of your flight upgrades. Flights from the UK are taxed by the UK government depending on the class of travel and destination of the flight. This can make prices relatively high. Flights commencing outside of the UK are taxed by the country of origin, which may be lower. Whilst an upgrade from Economy Class to Premium Economy on a flight from London to New York can cost hundreds of pounds, just recently a similar upgrade on an inbound flight to London has been possible for as little as £50.

Emirates Business Class Lounge, Dubai Airport
Emirates Business Class Lounge, Dubai Airport

Premium Economy: Is it worth it?

It would be great to think that I can afford to upgrade every flight I travel on, but like the majority of people, paying to turn left just isn’t possible most of the time. I do consider the upgrade to Premium Economy on certain airlines, but only when experience tells me I will get value for money. When I travel in Economy Class I will also choose the airlines with the best record and service to that destination. Sometimes the cheapest fare is not the best fare.

Even with my experience in the travel industry, I still book through a travel consultant rather than direct with the airline. Freedom Destinations’ Travel Consultant’s experience is often better or more recent than mine, so it is worth listening to their recommendations. If I am thinking about upgrading, I will ask them for their opinion. Use all the tools available to you make your next upgrade worth it.


Richard has more than 25 years of experience working in sales and marketing within the travel industry. He has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Africa and enjoys exploring National Parks and other wilderness areas.