Premium Economy passengers should know what they are buying

premium economyUnited Airlines is beginning to talk about a new product called “United Premium Plus.” Many travelers desperate for a bit more comfort when they fly are probably thinking, “Doesn’t United already have ‘Economy Plus’ or ‘Premium Economy’? What’s the point other than the name?”

The answer, in this case, is… a lot.

First of all, airline seating is one of those things in the industry that can change completely, for better or worse. (For a major example of for worse, the United 777 change from 9 seats abreast in coach to 10.)

While for years United has had seats for which they charge extra, they are basically the same seats as the rest of the coach cabin, spaced further apart for more legroom. Yet the price difference can be substantial. I’ve seen over $150 extra for transcontinental flights, and more than $200 extra per international flight.

On the other hand, airlines like British Airways, Lufthansa, and Virgin Atlantic have a Premium Economy product that is a wider, fancier seat with extra amenities. Virgin even greets Premium Economy passengers with a glass of Prosecco and a nicer amenity kit, along with a separate check-in and extra baggage allowance. In fact, some of these Premium Economy seats feel a lot like what first class passengers get on domestic flights in the US.

The new United product, which will be rolled out starting in late 2018, sounds like it will be a lot more competitive with the foreign carrier offerings, which vary in price and are based on how full the flights are but can be in the $200 additional range roundtrip, No word yet what United’s premium will be compared with other airlines.

Things change so quickly that this post is not really intended to be a guide to the different seat offerings, but more a caution to be aware of potential differences.

Virgin America used to sell “Main Cabin Select,” which was basically exit row or bulkhead seats with extra legroom, but also a bigger baggage allowance, early boarding, and the food and drink passengers wanted. (Alaska Airlines, alas, got rid of the product.)

Click here to subscribeIn some cases, economy class seats have different widths, which isn’t affected by purchasing extra legroom. The airline’s new “Polaris” configured planes have fancier seats in business class, but coach class seats that are one inch narrower than the old planes, and a 3-4-3 configuration instead of 3-3-3,

Other domestic airlines like American and Delta have, at this time, two premium economy products: a domestic offering which just involves extra legroom, and, in Delta’s case, “dedicated overhead bin space” and separate cabin and seats on some mostly international flights. One issue for passengers: It’s not always obvious which planes have the seriously different seats, so some sleuthing or a good travel agent may be required.

To make things even more confusing, some airlines simply charge an additional cost for aisles or windows in the forward part of the coach section, with zero extra legroom. They claim these seats are worth more money because they are “preferred.” (Although, in some cases, more than half the economy windows and aisles on a given plane might fall into this category.)

Again, one thing certain about the travel industry is that things constantly change. However, before paying serious and potentially non-refundable money for a so-called premium or plus seat, make sure you know what you’re paying for.