The most common question I get from THF Consulting clients is:  “what’s the difference between economy plus and premium economy?  There is none, right?”  While the names are quite similar, they’re not interchangeable; in terms of quality, the latter is miles ahead when it comes to the hard product… and in theory, the soft product too.  The two nevertheless are better than regular economy, but that’s not always clear on paper.  In order to maximize your purchasing power as a traveler/your higher flyer potential, it’s important to be aware of those differences so that you always know what kind of airfare you’re buying.

What’s in a name?

The misconceptions surrounding the economy plus – premium economy debate are exacerbated by the fact that the airlines offering these products refer to them each with different names.  There’s no standard language like there is with premium cabins — it’s pretty clear what you’re getting when you buy a ticket in “Business Class” — and instead there is so much marketing jargon.  In the United States alone, you have:

  • American Airlines, with Main Cabin, Main Cabin Preferred, Main Cabin Extra, and Premium Economy.
  • Delta, with Comfort, Comfort Preferred seats, Comfort+, and Premium Select.
  • United, with Economy, Economy Preferred seats, Economy Plus, and Premium Plus.

On top of all this, these carriers all offer “basic economy” products too, which further complicates things for everyday passengers (but that’s for a different article).  Even United, which has pretty straightforward naming conventions, inadvertently muddles its products.  What’s the difference between Economy, Economy Preferred, and Economy Plus, and how do they differ from Premium Plus?  Unless you’re deeply-in-the-know when it comes to United’s (or AA’s, or Delta’s, or…) tiers of economy class, it’s easy to get confused.

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Two sets of exit row seats on American Airlines.  These are considered Main Cabin Extra, the those in front are Main Cabin Preferred, those behind are Main Cabin, and none are Premium Economy.  Any of them could be considered Basic Economy.  Confused yet?

The difference:  class of service.

To discern economy and economy preferred and economy plus from premium economy, it’s best to think of them as two different classes, with economy and and economy preferred and economy plus as one, and premium economy as another.  It’s analogous to the way that you might think about business class and first class being alike-but-separate entities.  Sure, there are some similarities — both first and business class usually feature flat bed seats, for instance — but distinctions between the two are glaringly obvious at first glance.  The same concept applies to the cabins further back; to help illustrate this, consider a run-of-the-mill economy class seat on United Airlines…

United Economy
It’s tight, but not as tight as it may seem right here.

…and compare that to United’s Economy Plus offering.  The difference is nearly unnoticeable.

United Economy Plus
A slightly more spacious seat that’s still extraordinarily unremarkable.

The latter seat offers more legroom than the former — about three inches, which is standard across all economy plus products — and locations that are further forward in the cabin, but that’s about it.  Economy preferred offers “better” seats and nothing more. Otherwise, the passenger experiences are indistinguishable, and so it’s fair to consider these as more-or-less the same.  United’s premium economy class seat on the hand though is in a league of its own…

Premium Economy United Seat First View
Look at how much wider this seat is compared to the previously pictured ones!  Plus there’s a lot more padding too.
United Premium Economy
Seriously, this is far more luxurious.

…and the airline markets it and prices it as such.  Think of it as a domestic first class seat, but on an international and/or longhaul flight.

How does premium economy further distinguish itself?

The hard product is the most-obvious differentiator between the two classes of service.  Premium economy seats are so much bigger than their counterparts, although more space isn’t the only selling point.  Most airlines go even further to enhance passenger comfort in premium economy.  United, for example, built in adjustable footrests…

United Premium Economy Footrest
This might look janky, but it feels really quite study.  Do note that the legroom behind it is kind of cluttered and there’s not a lot of space to spread out.
United Premium Economy Footrest in Action
The footrest hard at work!  It’s geared more towards shorter customers who might not be able to touch the floor with their feet.  Taller folks might notice a weird angle when they bend their legs.

…as did the Spanish flag-carrier Iberia, although those are mounted at the ends of leg rests.  The set up looks like something you would see at a dentist’s office, and while that might not sound comfortable, it serves its purpose more-than-adequately.

Iberia Premium Economy Legrest
This is even more janky-looking than United’s offering, but it’s still just as functional!

And then there’s Cathay Pacific, which features a seat that, when fully reclined, looks like a La-Z-Boy.  For an ultra-longhaul flight to or from its hub in Hong Kong, it’s a major improvement over regular economy class.

Cathay Pacific Premium Economy
Cathay Pacific’s uber-comfortable premium economy seat.

Premium economy may not always look the same — it all depends on the airline offering it — but it undoubtedly sits above economy plus on the class-of-service totem pole.  In no universe could something like this…

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Main Cabin Extra seats on American Airlines.

…Ever be legitimately compared as an equal to this…

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A stock image of Premium Economy on American Airlines.

Is that it?

Not entirely.  In addition to significantly more comfortable seats, pretty much all carriers market an improved soft product as part of their premium economy offerings.  “Come for the extra space and improved recline” an airline might beckon, “and stay for the good food served with real silverware.”  In the best case scenarios, they deliver on these promises.  Iberia serves particularly delicious meals with proper knives and forks and plates that all “clink” when they’re used.  Combine that with an excellent hard product and you have yourself a genuinely luxurious-yet-affordable flying experience (that you can read more about here!).

Iberia Premium Economy Meal
Ravioli, warm bread, and actual silverware.  What a great meal this was!

But sometimes, the meal is much more “economy” than it is “premium.”  I’m looking at you United and Cathay Pacific.

United Premium Economy Meal
This pasta fortunately tasted much better than it looks, but this is hardly “premium.”
Cathay Pacific Premium Economy Dinnerware
The congee, fruit, and yogurt are fine for premium economy breakfasts.  The industrial-grade plastic cutlery is less so.
Cathay Pacific Premium Economy Water Cup
A literal cup of water is nearly insulting in a premium cabin.

At least premium economy cabins are, across the board, smaller than regular economy AND are book-ended by bulkheads; they feel more private that way.  Typically there’s a better flight-attendant-to-passenger ratio too which theoretically makes for better, more attentive service.  So, while the dining experience may be far from restaurant quality, at least the environment that you eat your meal in will feel more exclusive.  That at least makes a difference (albeit not a very big one, but still…).

How do I book a seat in premium economy?  In economy plus?  What if you fly Delta?

On most every airline, buying a seat in premium economy is like buying in any other class of service.  In other words, instead of choosing economy class or business class at the time of booking, you’d choose premium economy.

United Premium Economy Fares
Choose one of the options boxed in red to book premium economy (on United Airlines, but the same concept applies to others)

Seating yourself in economy plus (or economy preferred) is a little bit more complicated, but not terribly so.  To do that, you have to buy a ticket in regular economy and then, during seat selection, pay to sit in one of the better seats.  If you have elite status, this fee is waived.

United Economy Plus Selection
Choose an economy plus or a preferred seat for a little bit extra cash after you’ve booked your regular economy ticket.

Delta does this whole process a little bit differently.  Rather confusingly, it considers BOTH premium economy AND economy plus to be separate classes of service.  If you have elite status and you book regular economy, you’ll subsequently be upgraded to economy plus sometime before your departure date, if not immediately after your reservation is confirmed.  If you don’t have status, you have to pay as you would otherwise to get a better seat (although you’d “upgrade” and then choose a seat in the economy plus section.  It’s a lot less straightforward compared to other airlines.).  Preferred seats, like those in exit rows, are free and available at the time of booking, but they’re available only to status-holders.

Delta Premium Economy Fares
You choose between economy plus (boxed in orange) or premium economy (boxed in red) during the booking process when you fly with Delta.

The “too long; didn’t read” answer:

To sum it all up:

  • Economy plus and premium economy are not one in the same.
    • Economy plus is regular economy but with a few extra inches of space.  The passenger experience is otherwise the same.
    • Premium economy is its own class of service.  It’s a bridge between regular economy and business class, and by any and all metrics, it’s quite similar to first class on domestic flights in the United States.
  • You would book a flight in premium economy, whereas to get in economy plus, you would first have to book regular economy and then pay extra to select a seat in economy plus (unless you’re an elite member OR flying on Delta).

Hopefully this article clarifies the difference between premium economy and economy plus.  If it didn’t, let me know by commenting below or emailing here or here and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.  Fly higher!