Is the Upgrade Worth It?

img_1113-e1441902545316-750x1000There’s almost no way around it these days, but economy or coach seating on most airlines is cramped and uncomfortable. The seats are narrow, with little to no leg room, especially if you are tall. Drinks beyond basics, snacks, and entertainment will also cost you these days, and other than Hawaiian Airlines, no domestic carrier offers free meals in economy any more. First or business classes offer all these amenities, and more, but most can’t afford or don’t want to pay the premium for those seats, which can be anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars more per ticket.

There is another option though. Many, if not most, airlines have added a second or third class of upgraded seats on flights, after first class and/or business class: premium economy. Each airline seems to have their own name for this class of seats, but they are generally a bit wider than regular economy seating, have a few more inches of leg room, and provides several amenities at no cost, things like premium in-flight entertainment; beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks; snacks, and so forth. Also, premium economy offers early boarding, right after first/business class, and because the seats are located nearer to the front of the plane, passengers can disembark and get on their way more quickly at their destination as well.

The price of a premium economy seat typically falls between first/business and regular economy, usually closer to the economy price. But, is the extra cost worth it?

I say that for a long flight, either cross-country or overseas, the answer is an unequivocal yes, especially if you start with a good economy fare. Those few extra inches of legroom and the slightly wider seat makes a real difference in comfort, and the extra amenities add to what otherwise can be a long and (sometimes) dreary experience.

The price for an upgrade to premium economy will depend on which airline you’re flying, and whether you purchase the upgrade at the time of booking or later, often when you check in online or at the airport before boarding. The upgrade price may also depend on the distance of the flight, and whether the flight is domestic or international, or overseas, i.e. to Hawai’i.

The easiest and least expensive way to upgrade is to use the miles you’ve accumulated in an airline’s frequent flyer program. This is airline specific though, and unlike an upgrade to first or business class, a premium economy upgrade is not always available as a mileage reward. However, if you’d rather save your miles for other trips, there are other ways to upgrade and still save:

  • Add an amount into your travel budget upfront to cover any possible upgrades. Depending on our destination, I always add around $150 per person to any trip’s budget to cover upgrades to premium economy, and then search and wait (and hope) for economy fares well below the maximum I’ve allowed for airfare. If you don’t end up upgrading, you’ll have that much extra available on your trip or to put toward future travel.
  • As a rule, don’t purchase upgraded seats when you buy your tickets. Purchase regular economy seats first and do upgrades later. With a couple of exceptions, I have always gotten a better price if I make my upgrade after an initial purchase of regular economy fares (be sure to check the airlines rules though – some airlines don’t allow upgrades from super saver fares or mileage award flights). For example, when I purchased our tickets for next year’s Tokyo trip, the price difference between a round-trip economy seat versus a premium economy seat was $310 per person at the time of purchase. However, after I paid for round-trip economy seats, I went back the next day to the airline’s website and changed our seats to premium economy for just $158 per ticket, a savings of $152 for the upgrade. It’s not possible to upgrade early with all airlines; with some I’ve only been able to do it at check-in (either online or at the airport). One advantage to being able to upgrade earlier rather than later is having a wider choice of seats – when I’ve done upgrades at check-in, seat selection has usually been somewhat limited and scattered, although flight attendants always have made an effort to seat families together.

An upgrade to first or business class will obviously cost more than premium economy, both in miles or money. Still, the cost might be worthwhile, even just for one leg of a trip. If you’re not using frequent flyer miles, waiting to upgrade later rather than at the time of initial ticket purchase will again maybe save you more. The upgrade to first class on the flight I took from Seattle back home to Lihue last August was $150 at check-in (and worth every penny). The cost for that same first class seat purchased upfront would have been several hundreds of dollars more than what I paid for my seat in economy.

Depending on where you’re going and your travel budget, my opinion is: Make the upgrade, especially for a long flight. Consider it money well spent.

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15 thoughts on “Is the Upgrade Worth It?

    • Laura says:

      I wouldn’t do an upgrades on flights less than five or six hours, but over that the upgrade is definitely worth it. We flew Hawaiian RT to Phoenix earlier this year, and there were no upgrades available other than first class, but the economy seats were more than comfortable with plenty of leg room (for us anyway), so it also depends on the type of aircraft.

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    • Laura says:

      When I’ve booked at check-in (within 24 hours of my flight), there have always seemed to be lots of seats premium economy seats available, but when I actually board they’re all taken, so they must sell out quickly. I’m guessing that most people, like me, wait to do it at check-in or closer to check-in to get a better price.

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  1. Hawaii Planner says:

    If you are traveling with others, it’s hard to wait to upgrade & find seats together. But, if you’re willing to not sit together, or are flying solo, I typically check in on the web site to see how many premium economy seats are available & wait to upgrade until it’s getting close.

    Also, if you have status (typically gold or higher), you get upgraded for free to premium economy at time of booking. Another reason to consolidate status for international travel onto one flight. For the first time ever, I got upgraded (for free) to business, but that was a short flight from Seoul to Tokyo. The seat area was HUGE!

    Totally worth it to be able to stretch out.

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    • Laura says:

      I would much rather book the upgrade earlier rather than later for the choice of seats, but on every flight I’ve watched the flight attendants do a fantastic job of getting families seated together that purchased scattered upgraded seats. Sometimes though later is the only chance you get for upgrades. United is one airline I know that only allows you to upgrade at check-in, at least for overseas flights. Not sure about other airlines’ policies though.

      Thanks for the tip about status! We are working toward earning status with Hawaiian, but still have a ways to go. Not all Hawaiian flights offer premium economy though – it wasn’t available on our trip to Arizona this past spring. Thankfully the economy seats were comfortable.

      I couldn’t believe the difference in size and comfort when I flew first class this past summer. I’d only flown first once before (flying solo as a teenager and United upgraded me to first for free for who knows what reason, but it was wonderful). My flight home from Seattle was a revelation!

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  2. Laurel says:

    This is good info…thanks! I didn’t realize it was cheaper to upgrade after the purchase.

    We were lucky enough to be upgraded to Delta’s Comfort Plus seats on our trip to the Big Island last week (both ways on the longest legs). What a treat…it made the flight so much more comfortable, especially the red eye.

    My DH has permanent Silver status on Delta based on 2 million+ lifetime miles flown (!!). Silver doesn’t buy you much anymore, but we also purchased our vacation package from Costco travel and didn’t have the option to upgrade airline seats. So when we got the emails from Delta 48 hours before our flights, we were thrilled. Also, there were several seats in Delta Comfort open at that point and we were able to position ourselves in the row behind 1st Class, which is also pretty spacious on leg room. But you do have to watch the service in 1st Class and try not to be too envious. 😉

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    • Laura says:

      I’ve only had it happen twice where the cost for premium economy upfront has been the same or less than doing the upgrade later. For one it was a new route was opened, and for the other the lower price only lasted a day and then went right back up to the higher price. Otherwise, it’s always cost less (for me, anyway) to purchase the upgrade later.

      One you experience how much more comfortable it is to fly in a premium seat, it’s hard to go back. I think most premium economy seats give you about 5″ more legroom – it’s surprising that that small amount makes such a difference.

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    • Laura says:

      I was quite surprised to be able to upgrade so early after buying tickets, but I think that Delta is pushing their new comfort level and this is one way of encouraging customers to upgrade. I’ve almost always had to wait until check-in to upgrade (and the prices always seem to be better at check-in anyway).

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  3. Angela Michelle Thibert says:

    Just looking at those seats make me cringe!! I had to endure a 8 h flight from Toronto to Barcelona in economy… let me tell you it was awful. and i vowed right then I would never subject myself to that again when doing big international flights LOL

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