Premium economy vs. business class: Are the differences worth an upgrade?

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Travel

You may not remember the “golden age” of travel, but you probably remember when the main cabin in most airplanes was referred to as “coach.”

That sounds a bit more appealing than the term “economy,” which is thrown around quite a bit more nowadays.

As airlines seem to continue to make economy class more painful on long journeys, they’ve also continued to improve the seats most of us walk by on the way to our cramped economy-class seat.

Watching your favorite movie, listening to music or meditating may all be effective ways to deal with the current economy-class experience. However, a walk through business class may have you wondering if you can afford to fly in a more comfortable seat.

For decades the only option on most international flights would be upgrading to business class. More recently, many airlines have added a new product on long-haul flights that they refer to as premium economy (or a similar name unique to their airline).

More seating options translate to more price points and a wider variety of benefits. That may be great in theory, but it’s important to understand what to expect in premium economy or business class. Let’s take a look at both.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free biweekly Aviation newsletter.

What does premium economy get you?

Premium economy cabins are much more widely available on international flights right now, especially on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

One of the biggest benefits of premium economy is space. The typical premium economy seat isn’t that much bigger than an economy-class seat.

Where you’ll see the biggest difference is the spacing between the seats around you. Typically you’ll have a sizable armrest between you and the seat next to you. This means you’re unlikely to inadvertently knock elbows with your seatmate.

You’ll also notice more legroom. The chances your knees hit the seat in front of you when in premium economy are pretty slim. On top of that, you’re less likely to get someone pulling on your seatback to get out of their seat (though there’s always that one passenger …).

Upgraded meal service is also another benefit you’ll see in virtually all premium economy cabins.

As airlines begin to adjust their offerings after the worst of the pandemic seems to be behind us, premium economy meals have become a bit more appealing.

It’s important to set reasonable expectations, though. This is still airline catering. On longer flights, you should expect an initial hot meal. Many airlines offer similar menu items in both business class and premium economy.

In premium economy, you probably won’t have multiple courses and may not have china and silverware. However, the food should be better than what’s offered in economy class (if an economy-class meal is even offered).

Most airlines offer a second small meal or snack prior to landing on longer flights, though you’re unlikely to be offered any other sort of food during the flight.

The rest of the benefits of premium economy are unlikely to be game changers but are nice to have. Airlines typically offer priority check-in and boarding, but seldomly offer lounge access.

An increased baggage allowance is pretty common, as well as bonus miles on paid tickets. Additionally, in most cases, you’ll get a pretty basic pillow and blanket.

Related: How to upgrade from economy to premium economy without breaking the bank

What does business class get you?

The business-class experience often starts before you set foot on a plane. As you might expect, priority check-in and boarding are available in most cases.

You’ll also likely have access to a lounge prior to your flight, as well as in between some connecting flights. Business-class lounge experiences vary widely, from paltry, picked-over offerings to a la carte menus and vintage Champagne. It’s worth putting in a bit of research on these perks before picking your flight.

Business class on international flights is generally the best seat on most airlines. There are a few airlines that still offer a true first-class product (looking at you, Lufthansa) but business class is usually as good as it gets.

Lie-flat seats and plenty of space are the standard today for business class. Most often, each passenger will have direct aisle access, though a few new products, such as TAP Air Portugal’s new A320neo business class, will require window seat folks to climb over someone to get to the lavatory. Large flat-screen TVs feature a wide variety of entertainment during your flight.

Bedding offerings are more luxurious than premium economy. A duvet and pillow are table stakes. In some cases, such as United’s Polaris class, you’ll find cooling gel pillows and other extras.

In short, if you can’t sleep with the typical business-class bedding offerings, you probably just can’t sleep on planes.

Meal service is more luxurious than in premium economy. The first meal of the flight will usually consist of multiple courses and may even include extra treats such as caviar and dessert carts.

There are usually a number of fine wines to choose from and decent-to-excellent Champagne is on offer.

Service overall in the business cabin will be higher-touch than premium economy. Flight attendants will likely check in and offer refills on drinks multiple times during meal service.

A second meal service is usually offered on longer flights and is very similar to the second meal/snack served in premium economy.

Business-class passengers normally enjoy an increased checked baggage allowance and receive an amenity kit when they board.

These kits contain essentials such as eye masks, ear plugs, toothpaste and combs. Sometimes, the kits are worthy of a place in your luggage, such as the ones manufactured by Rimowa.

Finally, business-class fares usually earn considerably more miles than premium economy fares — and for good reason. You may be paying twice as much to fly in the pointy end of the plane.

Related: Are these airlines really the best and worst for business-class travel?

Price difference between premium economy and business class

It can be pretty pricey to rent some extra space on your next flight. While it hasn’t always been the case, the current differences between economy, premium economy and business-class fares are some of the largest we’ve seen in quite some time.

At a high level, you can expect to spend at least 50% more than economy class to upgrade to premium economy.  In many cases, expect to pay 75% to 100% more.

Also, it can cost at least 75% more to sit in business class than premium economy on most long-haul fights, with many popular routes costing double to bump up to business class.

We checked fares for popular destinations in Europe such as London and Paris from U.S. cities including New York and Washington.

Economy-class tickets ranged from $500 to $800 round-trip. Premium economy fares ranged from $1,100 to $1,600. Business class was as cheap as $2,600 round-trip but increased significantly for flights with more desirable routing options.

If you are considering premium economy or business class, make sure you pay for the ticket with a credit card that earns bonus points for booking airfare.

The Platinum Card® from American Express offers 5 points per dollar on airline tickets booked directly with an airline or through Amex Travel. And, with Bilt Rewards’ new “Rent Day” promo, you can earn 4 points per dollar on all travel purchases made on the first day of the month.

Related: 7 business-class travel tips and tricks from 1 first-timer to another

Bottom line: Should you upgrade?

By current standards, it can be quite pricey to buy up to premium economy or business class on your next flight overseas.

There are a couple of key factors to consider when making your decision. The length and timing of your flight should definitely be a factor.

The longer your flight, especially on an overnight flight, the more value you’ll get from extra space. This is obviously more valuable if you purchase business class and can get a good night’s sleep lying down, though you’ll likely pay handsomely for the privilege.

If you’re flying from New York to Iceland on a short red-eye, the steep premium for business class makes a lot less sense.

How much it costs to upgrade should also be a key consideration.

Paying double the cost of an economy-class ticket for a slightly better meal and a bit of extra legroom can put a serious dent in your future travel budget.

Lastly, one other factor to consider is whether there’s a more affordable path to that upgrade.

Some airlines, such as Hawaiian Airlines, allow you to bid for an upgrade to a premium cabin. Also, sometimes you can use miles to upgrade to premium economy or business class much more affordably than the cash alternative.

Upgrading to premium economy or business class usually makes the most sense on the longest flights.

You won’t generally find too much of a price difference based on the length of your flight. That means you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck on long flights to Europe, Asia and South America.