News.com.au reporter John Burfitt compares six airlines' premium economy offerings to see if it's worth splashing the extra cash

First class might be fabulous, and Business bigger, but the airline cabin getting
the most attention these days is premium economy.

Premium has taken leaps and bounds in recent years, as I discovered on a recent international trip when, so uncomfortable with a lumpy business bed, I instead found an empty seat in premium and slept all the way home.

Premium's a step up from the cattle class of economy, but doesn't demand the top dollars of business — and so it's within easier reach for the flyer who needs that extra space.

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"It is obvious premium has stirred interest with Aussie travellers — on kayak.com.au, we have seen an increase of 37 per cent year-on-year for premium searches," Kayak's senior director Amy Wei says.

Among all the promises of bigger seats, larger legroom, smaller cabins, better meals, and extra luggage, the reality is not all premium offerings are created the same.

Always check the advance fares for great deals, or using points to upgrade eases the cost.

Air New Zealand

The facts: Pitch — 104cm, Width — 49cm, Recline — 22.8cm

The double armrests in Air New Zealand's premium economy class might settle those elbow tussles once and for all. Photo / Supplied
The double armrests in Air New Zealand's premium economy class might settle those elbow tussles once and for all. Photo / Supplied

The Kiwis set the bar high in recent years, winning many Skytrax Premium awards, but his year came in second to Qantas. But that final score must have been tight!

The leather seat offers an armchair experience that you sink into, and a generous recline adds to comfy experience. The 12.7cm double armrests between seats do make a difference, allowing each passenger to have their own space.

The dining menu is a big step up and the wine list is fine, but what makes this premium stand out is the crew, with a friendly tone that's never over the top.

Where Air NZ has it all over the others is the cost. Brisbane to San Francisco in premium is around A$2550 ($2821), with economy around A$1350 ($1493). Even with a connection through Auckland, it's far cheaper.

Verdict: If space and comfort at a value price is your thing, go with the Kiwis.

Qantas

The facts: Pitch — 96.5cm, Width — 49.5 — 58cm, Recline — 22.8cm

Premium economy on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a game-changer. Photo / Supplied
Premium economy on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a game-changer. Photo / Supplied

Qantas recently took out the Skytrax World Airline Award for Best Premium Economy, knocking Air New Zealand off its perch. There's just such a sense of space to this cabin as well as the seat, which on the new Dreamliner is almost 60cm across.

With the four rows of the 2-3-2 configuration, it also means there is one less seat per row to deal with than in economy. It's clear from the moment you sit down you've made a big step up.

Thicker seat padding makes for a cosier ride, the recline drops away at the back to create a restful position, and a plush headrest pillow allows your head to genuinely sink into it. The thick duvet completes the cosy setting.

There's also the additions of a pre-take off drink, a fine menu, and a bigger screen to watch all those movies on.

The luxury does come at a price — Sydney to LA premium return is around A$5110, and economy around A$1200. Melbourne to London premium return is A$4000, with economy around A$1300.

The verdict: Qantas premium is what business used to be like.

Virgin Australia

The facts: Pitch — 104cm, Width — 49.5cm, Recline — 22.8cm

Virgin Australia set the bar high last year with its new premium cabin, with more legroom and fewer seats. This has been dubbed "Business Lite", and it's not hard to see why, as Virgin offers almost 10cm more legroom than Qantas and in a smaller cabin.

While the length is indeed superb, the width is a surprise with a 2-4-2 configuration, so there's four people across the middle. The arm rest between seats is the same width as economy, so you can expect similar elbow battles over who gets the arm rest.

The ribbed seating makes for a soft landing, with a thick headrest that folds to securely cushion the head. When stretching out, all that leg room means there plenty of space to get into a relaxing position.

Meals are served on business class crockery, there's Nespresso coffee and no one's going to complain about a sky-high cocktail menu. A self-serve pantry allows for sipping and snacking throughout the flight.

Melbourne to LA premium is around A$3000, compared to economy at around A$1670.

The verdict: Long, smart and sleek, but just keep your elbows in.

Cathay Pacific

The facts: Pitch — 96cm, Width — 49.5cm, Recline — 20cm

Cathay Pacific's premium economy class offers more than 20 specialty meals for people with dietary preferences - and best of all, the food's actually good. Photo / Supplied
Cathay Pacific's premium economy class offers more than 20 specialty meals for people with dietary preferences - and best of all, the food's actually good. Photo / Supplied

Its harsh green colour scheme can be tough on the eye, but the premium cabin is a winner with a 2-3-2 configuration, so it's less crowded than the others.

The comfort factor with the seat is good, with extra cushioning offering an easy place to settle in, and the double armrests means everyone gets enough arm space.

The meal is a business-level meal and it's delicious, but it's the perfectly polite Cathay crew that are a standout. Coupled with all the extra space, the service is where you can feel the difference.

A Sydney to Hong Kong premium is around A$4290, while economy is A$2350. Melbourne to London premium is around A$3950, while economy is A$2400.

Verdict: Space and service are in top form, but it's not always easy being green.

Eva

The facts: Pitch — 96.5cm, Width — 49.5cm

The premium economy class on Eva Air's B777. Tick, tick, tick. Photo / Supplied
The premium economy class on Eva Air's B777. Tick, tick, tick. Photo / Supplied

At present, Brisbane is the only Australian city Taiwanese airline Eva flies to, and premium is only available for trips from their Asian ports. But if looking for a bargain premium deal for longer trips out of Asia, Eva is worth a look.

Eva's premium is a big cabin of 56 seats, so it does get busy, but the seats are spacious and comfortable, the food is good and the service is fine. Why this is worthy of attention is the great premium deals available from Asia, like Bangkok to London at around A$1900 or Taipei to New York for A$2150.

Verdict: Mixing up carriers when connecting in Asia can land a bargain.

Lufthansa

The facts: Pitch — 96.5cm, Width — 48cm, Recline — 20cm, Seats — 21 — 28cm

Lufthansa doesn't fly to Australia anymore, and its excellent premium economy offering makes that a real shame. Photo / Supplied
Lufthansa doesn't fly to Australia anymore, and its excellent premium economy offering makes that a real shame. Photo / Supplied

"What a shame Lufthansa no longer flies into Australia," was my first thought after settling in to the premium seat from Dubai to Munich. True, there's no separate cabin with premium the front rows of Economy, but there's a big difference in the standard of meal, the service and best of all, a seat that provided comfort all the way.

But this comes at a price — Lufthansa from Singapore to Frankfurt is around A$2700, with economy at A$1500.

Verdict: Lufthansa, come back to Australia — this premium is worth the upgrade.

* All prices quoted are for return journeys in Australian dollars in the same period in early February 2018.