It seems like a straightforward choice when booking a plane ticket: economy or business class?
In recent years, though, the options available to passengers have grown far more plentiful—maybe even borderline overwhelming—as airlines have introduced more fare classes and cabin types.
At one end of the spectrum are basic economy tickets, which come with lower prices but strip away many benefits once taken for granted, like a full-size carry-on bag or seat selection.
You've had a few years now to familiarize yourself with that particular category.
Lately, the part of the plane that has seen the most subdividing is in between coach and the prime seats up front.
On top of offering economy seats with extra legroom, as many airlines have done for years, a handful of U.S. carriers and more international airlines now make available an entirely separate “premium economy” cabin on certain routes.
This in-between option gives passengers a taste of business class luxury, but stops short of the full experience—not to mention the full cost.
“It’s a more spacious seat with more padding. ... The meals and alcohol options will be better than those in the main cabin. However, you won't get fine dining or a lie-flat seat like you would in business class,” explained AwardWallet senior editor Ryan Smith, an avid traveler who’s visited more than 190 countries.
Each of the three legacy U.S. airlines (American, Delta, and United) began offering premium economy in the last several years, adding the cabin to new and newly renovated aircraft.
Today, you’ll most often find the premium economy option on large jets flying internationally, as well as on a handful of domestic transcontinental routes, depending on the airline.
There's also a good chance you'll encounter a premium economy option on many international airlines. Air France offers the enhanced experience on its international flights. KLM launched “Premium Comfort” last year. Dubai-based Emirates just marked one year offering the cabin category on its Airbus A380 aircraft, noting “demand … has exceeded expectations” thanks to premium economy's appeal to a "broad range" of travelers.
Emirates customers aren't the only ones interested in premium economy.
“Premium leisure demand remains very strong across the board,” United Airlines chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella told analysts last month, echoing a trend toward high-end accommodations that companies throughout the travel sector have reported as travel has boomed the last two years.
If you're considering boosting your own in-flight experience above standard economy, though, you might still be wondering what the differences are between the various options—and which ticket is right for you.
Premium economy vs. extra legroom seats
As a starting point, you'll want to sort through the growing array of options in the middle of the plane and price spectrum.
A big part of that analysis: learning the difference between extra legroom seats (which go by names along the lines of economy extra, main cabin plus, and so on) and a true premium economy ticket.
Main cabin plus or extra legroom tickets are typically part of coach but, as you might have gathered, they have extra legroom. You’ll find these seats specifically labeled as “Main Cabin Extra” on American, “Comfort+” on Delta, and “Economy Plus” on United.
Generally, they cost marginally more than a full-fare economy ticket—perhaps as much as a few hundreds dollars more on a longer international trip—and might come with earlier boarding, dedicated overhead bins, and perhaps a couple extra perks like free drinks.
Airlines often allow certain elite status members to select these seats for free.
Depending on the airline, you may be able to book your place in one of these extra legroom seats by simply picking a nicer spot on the plane via seat selection.
For example, in the below screenshot of the seat selection page for a flight from New York to London on American Airlines, Main Cabin Extra seats are the higher-priced orange ones. As you can see, they start at $89 on this particular flight.
(Screenshot of seat selection for an American Airlines flight)
On the below United flight from Chicago to Amsterdam, you’d have the option to select an Economy Plus seating bundle for an extra $247.
(Screenshot of Economy Plus seating options on a United Airlines flight)
Premium economy seats, on the other hand, are typically divided off in their own cabin.
Premium economy passengers don’t just get more legroom—the seats are often bigger and more comfortable, offering foot- and leg-rests. The dining options are markedly better than in coach, sometimes more closely resembling the meals served in business class.
And the prices reflect this.
On an autumn flight from New York to Paris aboard Delta, for instance, you’d pay $2,606 round-trip for a Premium Select ticket. That’s just under half of the $5,447 (ouch!) for a ticket in the airline’s highest-end Delta One cabin.
(Screenshot of prices for a Delta Air Lines flight from New York to Paris)
For comparison, a Delta Comfort+ ticket would cost $1,406—about $454 above a main cabin ticket.
There are cases, however, where middle-cabin premium economy prices are much closer to those of the seats up front. On the below September flight from New York to London aboard American, you’d pay just 13% more to jump from premium economy to business class.
(Screenshot of prices for an American Airlines flight from New York to London)
As is always the case with airline ticket prices, everything depends on supply, demand, and the particular flight.
“Pricing can vary widely by route, season, popularity, and airline,” AwardWallet's Smith pointed out, noting instances where premium economy fares trend more closely to an economy ticket or inch toward business class prices.
For that reason, he suggests passengers check out the benefits of premium economy for themselves to decide whether it’s worth the added cost.
If it’s just a little legroom you want, a main cabin extra/plus/etc. ticket might cut it. If getting a good night’s sleep and better food are your priorities, it may be worth springing for premium economy if the price is right.
And here's a possible cost-saving trick for the road: “See what the airline offers at check-in time online the day before your flight,” Smith suggests. “You might be able to choose a seat in premium economy for an upgrade fee, and this might be cheaper than buying a seat directly.”