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Premium Economy: Worth the Extra Cost for Overseas Travel?

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Cathay PacificThere are several reasons to upgrade an economy class seat and international travel usually tops the list.  These days there are new creature comforts for the long-haul flights. Our gadget expert Phil Baker looks at Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy class to see if the added comforts outweigh the additional expense.

For those in the high-tech world of product development, travel to China has become as routine as a trip to Chicago or New York. New flights are constantly being added and more airlines are flying between the United States and Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo. In fact, if it weren’t for the groundings of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, there would be flights now running between San Diego and Tokyo.

With the increase in popularity of these routes come steep prices.

Business class fares that had been $2,500 to $4,000 a few years ago now range from $4,500 to $9,000. As a result many corporations are tightening their travel policies, and require their employees to fly economy, with its more affordable $900 to $1,200 rates.

As someone who’s made dozens of trips to Asia, nothing is more depressing than sitting in an economy seat for 15 hours. The seats on these international routes are no different from economy seats on domestic routes: extremely narrow, minimal leg room and little padding.

So it was with some trepidation that I recently planned a business trip to Hong Kong and China. I checked all of the airlines flying out of LAX and SFO, hoping to discover a bargain business class ticket. The closest I found was a United Airlines flight out of SFO for $4,500. But it was non-cancellable and only available a month in advance. A week later the fare jumped to $5,500 and at flight time was $8,000. Yes, he who hesitates suffers.

One of my favorite airlines for travel to Asia is Cathay Pacific, but its business class was a whopping $8,000 from LAX to Hong Kong, double the price of two years ago. While it offers some of the best business accommodations with its lie-flat bed, its coach is much like the other airlines.

Cathay has now introduced its “Premium Economy Class” that’s positioned between its economy and business classes. Premium Economy Class is available on many of Cathay’s long routes, including flights to Australia, Asia, Europe and Canada.

This isn’t the first attempt an airline has made to provide a premium economy product. EVA Air, a decent but drab airline headquartered in Taiwan, has offered its Elite class for many years. I’ve used it and it does provide more room, but you have to put up with EVA’s mediocre service and limited schedules. And you usually must stop in Taipei.

Cathay’s service cost about $1,600 round trip between LAX and Hong Kong, $700 more than economy. The big question I had was whether it was good enough to actually allow me to sleep and to work comfortably for the 15-hour trip.

Note that this class is far superior to “economy plus” seating found on United and other airlines that are often reserved for their frequent fliers. They offer extra legroom, but the seats are otherwise identical to economy. Also, compared to EVA, the Cathay seat was more comfortable, and the service much better.

The flight began on a positive note, with a separate check-in line at the LAX airline counter. The agent actually stepped forward from behind the counter to greet me at the front of the line and took my luggage. But I liked him a little less when he told me that my 21-inch international Rollaboard needed to be checked. The airline has a luggage weight limit of 17 pounds. Considering the suitcase weighed 11 pounds that meant just 6 pounds of clothes.

The security line at LAX unfortunately continues to be one of the worst of all the airports I fly. It’s disorganized, has long lines and many of the employees are surly. I was, however, able to use the premium line for first class and frequent fliers, but it still took about 25 minutes to get through.

At the gate, Premium Economy flyers board right after business class passengers and before the economy passengers. Onto the plane, and I passed by the giant first class “suites,” then the business class recliners, and finally into the small premium economy cabin, 30 seats in five rows in a 2-4-2 seat arrangement. No seat is more than one seat from an aisle.

The seats looked just like what you’d find on first class on many domestic airlines: large seats with plenty of width and distance between adjacent seats. Foot room was plentiful; seats were well-cushioned and comfortable, and reclined to almost 45 degrees with a small folding foot rest.

The seats have trays in their armrest and strong well-aimed overhead lighting. It has an entertainment system that uses a handheld-wired remote control to select from a range of hundreds of offerings including movies, audio, a map, a camera under the fuselage, and games. The display is not very sharp, but adequate. Noise cancellation headphones are provided or you can use your own. The choice of movies was current and included “Life of Pi” and “Argo.”

Food service was similar to business class with a choice of three entrees, wine and liquor. Drinks were provided prior to takeoff. Service was quite attentive throughout the flight, comparable to business class. There is one lavatory, although you can venture off your secluded island into coach to find more.

The seat was comfortable enough that I was able to sleep for 7 hours and had no backache at the end of the flight. One of the benefits of this ticket was that it could be canceled or changed for a $50 fee right up to flight time. With many of Cathay’s tickets, including mine, you can travel to another city from Hong Kong, and then back again, for no extra cost.

So was it worth the extra money? For me, it’s a definite yes. I arrived in much better shape than if I had flown economy. I was well rested and ready to go.

For more information on economy plus, premium economy and preferred seats, check out:

By Phil Baker for Phil Baker has more than three decades of experience in consumer and computer technology product development and program management. Check out his blog at