When flying on United Airlines, is it worth paying to upgrade to premium economy versus economy seats on long-haul flights? I always think of premium economy, like economy seats of the 1980s when air travel seemed more glamorous. Today, airlines squeeze so many seats in a row that even with my small 5 foot 7 height, I find that my knees bang the seat in front, and claustrophobia sets in very quickly, particularly if the passenger on either side of you is large. Traveling in economy is a means to get from A to B, but it is not pleasant, and the lack of elbow room makes it difficult to work on a laptop. For this reason alone, I feel that premium economy is worth the extra cost.
United Airlines is one of the best Premium Economy airlines in the world, with exclusive and spacious cabins. Seats are wider, but the seat recline is poor compared to other Premium Economy products. Legroom is increased, and you also have your own adjustable footrests. You also get soft goods (pillow & blanket), premium food, and inflight amenities. Compared to other international carriers, United’s new Premium Economy is better than Air France and similar, if not slightly better, than Lufthansa.
The launch of United’s new Premium Plus class was one of the best bits of aviation news for airline travelers in 2019. The United Premium Plus seats are purple and are rolling out across United’s long-haul international widebody fleet, which includes transcontinental domestic routes.
The new seats will be present on most 777s and all their brand-new 787-10 aircraft. Premium Plus is currently offered on trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific, and South American routes. These routes include Newark to Hong Kong, Mumbai, Tokyo, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Dublin, Barcelona, and Tel Aviv; San Francisco to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Beijing, Auckland, and Tel Aviv; and Washington Dulles to Brussels, Paris, and Tel Aviv. These planes with Premium Plus also have the newest Polaris Business Class.
1. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Price
If the price is your biggest factor when making the decision on which class to fly in, you should probably choose to fly economy. After all, the entire plane will reach its destination, whichever class you sit in.
Having said that, particularly for overnight flights, being stuffed in a sardine-tin, with little space to move and next-to-no recline, means that sleep is difficult.
Certainly, when I have flown in economy, if I do manage to nod off, the fact that my head then drops to one side because of the lack of seat recline means that I almost always wake myself up.
The result is that you can feel pretty grotty after an Economy flight when you get to your destination. This means that you are potentially ruining the first day of your trip because you have not spent the extra on upgrading your flight.
So even if the price IS your biggest factor, Premium Economy can mean that you avoid wasting a day of your holiday, which may ultimately be worth more than the price difference. Premium Economy is also significantly cheaper than flying in business class, usually 65% less expensive than a business class fare.
How much extra is Premium Economy on United? Premium Economy is typically 30%-90% more expensive than flying in economy. Expect to pay up to double the price to fly in Premium Economy.
By comparison, business class can be as much as five times as expensive as economy and up to 3 times as expensive as Premium Economy, putting United’s Premium Plus Premium Economy at an extremely interesting price point for most travelers.
2. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Loyalty Program
In terms of loyalty programs, United operates MileagePlus Frequent Flyer Miles, its Frequent Flyer loyalty program. It is a fairly good frequent flyer scheme. You get more miles if you fly in Premium Economy because you are spending more money.
3. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Check-in & Hold Baggage
From dedicated check-in to priority boarding, enjoy priority treatment throughout your journey if you are flying in Premium Economy, which is a major advantage over flying economy.
United Premium Plus customers get an enhanced luggage allowance with two free checked bags per person. This is a valuable perk.
4. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Lounges
United offers excellent lounges. As with most airlines, a United Premium Economy ticket doesn’t include lounge access. You can also use your Priority Pass or pay to access to airport lounges, but they won’t necessarily be the same United Airlines lounges that business class passengers access. There is no advantage to flying Premium Economy in this respect, as neither Economy nor Premium Economy passengers get access to the excellent United Business and First Class airport lounges unless they are frequent flyers and premium members of United or Star Alliance airline loyalty schemes.
5. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Toilets
Unfortunately, Premium Economy passengers share the same two lavatories with the Economy Plus section. The amenity kit you get in Premium Economy is decent, with socks, a toothbrush, and eyeshades. You don’t get this kit in economy.
6. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Seat
There are usually only three rows of Premium Economy Purple seats and many fewer than Polaris Business Class seats. This tiny, intimate Premium Economy Cabin means that you don’t have to fight for hand luggage space in the overhead bins, and you get to board and exit the plane faster than those in economy.
Highlights of United’s Premium Economy include their superb (IFE) in-flight entertainment and comfortable seats, which you can stretch out and sleep in. The level of comfort between Economy and Premium Plus Economy is significant and larger than the difference between Economy and Economy Plus (which United still offers).
You get a large leather reclining seat with a footrest and a lot more space. On United’s Boeing 777-200, the seats are set up in a 2-4-2 configuration, which is eight across compared to 10 across in economy. You get approx 5-7 inches of extra legroom, around two extra inches of seat width, and free food and alcoholic drinks.
The seat is wider (19 inches in Premium Economy versus 17 in Economy Plus), and the pitch is 38 inches vs. 34 inches in Economy Plus. Their Economy seat has less than 32 inches of pitch, so it really is very tight, and the recline is 6 inches in Premium Economy vs. 4 inches.
The Saks Fifth Avenue pillows and blankets are the same as in Polaris. There is also more in-seat storage. The armrests between the Premium Economy seats are also wide, so your elbows have space.
Premium Plus seats are closer to the front plane doors so you can exit the plane more quickly. For me, the extra elbow room in the Premium Economy seats enables me to work more comfortably on my laptop, making the width worth paying for.
7. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Seat Recline
The United Premium Economy seat recline is not a whole lot more than in economy, but the leg rest and a footrest make up for this, and there is plenty of legroom. Most Economy seats have a recline of 4-6 inches, so any increase is an advantage. Still, the lack of much extra recline is a real downside of the United Premium Economy offering.
8. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Entertainment
In Premium Economy, the monitor for entertainment is larger at 13.3 inches vs. economy’s 9-inch offering, although the catalog of movies and TV shows is the same. United has a good library of on-demand movies and TV. You also get those noise-canceling headphones in Premium, and the in-seat power and USB work. In economy, the screens are smaller, and you don’t get noise-canceling headphones.
9. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Flight Attendants
United flight attendants serving in the Premium Economy cabin have more time for you than those serving in the United Airlines Economy cabin, so Premium Economy wins.
10. Economy vs. Premium Economy: Food
You get free drinks and free food in United Premium Economy. The menu offering is enhanced, and the food is decent.
The food is better than economy but not as good as business. It is not served on plastic plates; the meal comes on one tray, which is more similar to Economy Class in presentation.
The food selection includes optional on-demand snacks and free drinks, including alcohol. Overall, the food is much better than economy.
I would say that the United Premium Economy is a good product and worth paying the extra if you can afford it. United’s Premium Plus Premium Economy is a major improvement in terms of comfort but lacks a decent recline. Premium Economy does not offer a lie-flat bed like United’s Polaris Business Class. Business class will always be the better choice if your budget can stretch to it.
But business class can be as much as five times as expensive as economy and up to 3 times as expensive as Premium Economy, putting United’s Premium Plus Premium Economy at an extremely interesting price point for most travelers. I have flown in Premium Economy and would not hesitate to fly it again.
Below, you will find our most recent flight reviews on United Airlines in business and first class – you can draw your own conclusions on their current and future business class products:
United Airlines Business & First Class Reviews
This trip report reviews my transatlantic flight on United Airlines B787-9 Dreamliner Polaris Business Class from Paris to San Francisco. This flight took place in August 2017 from Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG) in France to San Francisco International Airport… Read More.
I flew domestic to Hawaii in Polaris First Class on United Airlines Boeing 777-200 from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in California to Honolulu International Airport (HNL) in August 2017. I have already detailed the best airlines to fly First… Read More.
In this trip report, I review my flight in Polaris Business Class (including the new seats) on United’s Boeing 777-300ER from Hong Kong (HKG) to San Fransisco (SFO). This flight cost just over $7,000 USD one way and earned 35,130… Read More.
United launched its new Polaris Business Class in December 2016, replacing their BusinessFirst; and Polaris First replacing Global First cabins. Read More.
You can now fly the complete United Polaris Business Class experience on the Boeing 777-300ER. This is the first United aircraft to feature the United Polaris hard product; their new all-aisle access, lie-flat seat. Read More.
In this trip report, I review United Polaris First Class Frankfurt to San Francisco (SFO) on a Boeing 747-400. United launched its new Polaris First Class, replacing its Global First cabins. United Polaris First will eventually be phased out and… Read More.
In this article, I review the United Airline Premium Service (P.S.) or Business Class on the B757-200 New York Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX). Read More.
United Airlines has launched its new United Polaris business class, which will culminate in a new fully flat business class seat next year (read our article about the new United Polaris seat including more photos). Read More.
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