Premium Economy: The Answer to More Legroom at Coach Prices

The biggest pain of air travel today? After the often frustrating security screening experience, many passengers say it’s those cramped airline seats in coach. They are just too small, forcing passengers to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with no legroom.

 FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney and Editor Anne McDermott reveal more tips to finding better seats for less.

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Until recently, the only alternative was to fork over thousands of dollars for roomier seats in first class or business class, which isn’t a solution for those intent on finding the cheapest flights. And those willing to spend hard-earned miles on upgrades know they are not always available. Now, there’s another way.

New Airline Class: Premium Economy

Today, many airlines offer a fourth class of service: premium economy, or what I prefer to call “merchandised economy”. You will pay a fee for this better-than-coach class, but you may find it’s worth the money especially on long-haul flights such as cross-country or international travel.

List: Airlines with Better Seats for a Fee

Most of these airlines offer merchandised economy seating at time of booking, at the airport via agents and kiosks and sometimes at the gate or even onboard the plane. In some instances, these premium seats are not available until 24 hours before departure, but check with your airline for specific restrictions.

American Airlines: Your Choice Preferred Seats

  • What: Window and aisle seats toward the front of the cabin.
  • Price: Starts at $4 each-way; free to elite miles members, active military and full fare coach passengers (note: not to be confused with Preferred Plus Seats which are available for free to elite miles members 330 days before departure).

Delta Air Lines: Economy Comfort

  • What: For most long-haul international flights only, early boarding plus roomier seats that recline more than standard economy seats and give you “up to four inches additional legroom”. Include free alcoholic drinks, too.
  • Price: Prices vary (in spring 2011, it cost $80-$160 each-way); complimentary for elite miles members and Y, B and M class fares.

Frontier Airlines: Stretch Seating

  • What: Up to 5 extra inches of legroom in the front rows of 170 aircraft.
  • Price: Starts at $5 each-way, free to elite miles members.

Hawaiian Airlines: Preferred Seats

  • What: Certain bulkhead and exit row seats, plus early boarding and a headset; available only on flights within the U.S. or between Hawaii and the mainland.
  • Price: $25 each-way; complimentary to some elite members.

JetBlue Airways: Even More Space

  • What: More spacious seats in the front of the cabin and exit rows, plus early boarding.
  • Price: $10-$65 each-way, depending on route.

Southwest Airlines: EarlyBird Check-In

  • What: A better boarding position which means a better shot at an aisle or window on this “no reserved seating” airline.
  • Price: $10 each-way; free to Business Select and elite miles members.

Spirit Airlines: Big Front Seats

  • What: Wider seats in the front of the aircraft with more legroom in a 2X2 configuration; not available on all planes.
  • Price: Varies from $12 to $199 per seat depending on route and whether seat is reserved in advance.

United/Continental Airlines: Economy Plus Seating

  • What: Seats with up to 5 inches of extra near the front of the economy cabin; available on all United aircraft and some United Express carriers and it will be offered on its Dreamliners (Boeing 787’s), which are scheduled to go into service next year. The program will also be expanded to Continental in 2012.
  • Price: Starts at $9 each-way or you can purchase a year’s worth of Economy Plus for $425; free to elite miles members.

US Airways: ChoiceSeats

  • What: Same amount of legroom but toward the front of the cabin; includes earlier boarding; available on all flights except US Airways Shuttle.
  • Price: Prices vary depending on length of flight, time of flight and destination; free to elite miles members.

Virgin America: Main Cabin Select

  • What: 6 more inches of legroom than main cabin plus priority check-in; free food and drink, too.
  • Price: $39, $69 or $129 depending on whether it’s a short, medium or long haul flight.

Have you purchased premium economy seating? Tell us about your experience on Facebook.

More from Rick Seaney:

Not First Class or Coach: The New Virtual Class

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Published: August 31, 2011