Is United Airlines premium economy worth it on long flights?

United Airlines introduced premium economy seats, known as Premium Plus, in early 2019 as a bridge between its economy and business classes. Now found across the airline’s entire wide-body fleet, the Premium Plus experience includes priority check-in and boarding, a free checked bag allowance, additional leg and elbow room compared to coach, a more extensive recline and a host of other small extras.

I’m not a fancy flyer. I’ve got Premier Platinum status with United’s MileagePlus program, largely thanks to all the trips I’ve taken for work over the past year, but I only ever book economy seats. One of the perks of my status is a complimentary upgrade to an Economy Plus seat with extra legroom at the time of booking. With that in mind, I never saw a need to pay for more.

A United Boeing 767-300ER at Newark International Airport. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

However, I needed a round-trip flight from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Athens International Airport (ATH) in Greece for a new cruise ship debut, and it turned out the be the perfect opportunity to review United Premium Plus.

Because of the demand for premium economy tickets this spring and summer, I was only able to book it on a nonstop route from Athens to Newark for my return trip. On the outbound journey to Athens, I booked Premium Plus from Newark to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). The final leg, from London to Athens with Aegean Airlines, was in economy.

So, what did this budget traveler think of United’s Premium Plus product after two long-haul flights between the U.S. and Europe? Check out my thoughts below, along with information on how to book United Premium Plus, what you can expect to pay and more.

How to book premium economy on United Airlines

United’s Premium Plus cabin on a Boeing 767-300ER. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Passengers wishing to book Premium Plus seats with United can purchase them using money or redeem MileagePlus miles for them, or they can put in for upgrades from economy using PlusPoints.

Depending on departure times, routing and airline partners involved, I’ve seen Premium Plus fares between Newark and Athens range from about $1,900 to $4,800 round-trip. For my round-trip flights, TPG paid $3,441 ($2,603 plus $837.65 in taxes and fees), including the economy leg with Aegean from London to Athens.

The booking earned me 7,344 MileagePlus miles (4,080 base miles plus 3,264 bonus miles), 1 Premier qualifying flight and 816 Premier qualifying points for my outbound flight, and 19,296 miles (10,720 base miles plus 8,576 bonus miles), 1 PQF and 2,144 PQPs for my return flight based on the fare classes of my tickets.

Sometimes United’s Premium Plus actually costs less than economy, as these fares show. UNITED AIRLINES

In my flight research for this trip, I discovered that Premium Plus seats sell out quickly due to high demand. If you’re set on snagging one, book early. Pricing seems to have no rhyme or reason, either. Sometimes seats in United premium economy are available for less than the cost of a regular economy seat.

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In this example, United’s Premium Plus fares are only $50 more than standard economy fares. UNITED AIRLINES

When Premium Plus does cost more than economy — which is most of the time — the price difference varies widely, ranging from just $50 to $2,400 more.

Sometimes United’s Premium Plus fares are significantly more expensive than regular economy, as shown here. UNITED AIRLINES

As far as miles go, I found Premium Plus awards between Newark and Athens range anywhere from 300,000 to 360,000 miles round-trip. Based on TPG’s valuations at the time of publication (following a major devaluation by United), those miles are worth between $3,300 and $3,960. That makes booking Premium Plus with miles, rather than cash, a better option for some of the airline’s more expensive routes.

Examples of United fares purchased with MileagePlus miles. UNITED AIRLINES

Here’s how the highest and lowest United premium economy fares I was able to find between Newark and Athens compared to the highest and lowest economy- and business-class fares, both in terms of cash and miles over the next several months.

  Economy  Premium Plus  Business class
Cash price (round-trip) $1,274-$4,041. $1,942-$4,828. $3,986-$16,010.
United MileagePlus miles (round-trip) 43,900-120,000 plus $5.60-$34.30 in taxes and fees. 120,000-180,000 plus $5.60-$32.20 in taxes and fees. 175,000-395,000 plus $5.60-$41.50 in taxes and fees.

My own ticket’s taxes and fees were much higher, likely due to my stop through London.

Checking in to premium economy on United Airlines

When I arrived at the airport in Newark, I made my way to the Premier Access check-in area on the third level at Terminal C, which Premium Plus tickets allow passengers to access. I had already checked in via the airline’s app, but a United agent quickly tagged my bag (Premium Plus confers two free checked bags of up to 50 pounds each) and sent me on my way to my gate. My flight was set to depart at 11 p.m., so there were no lines either at the economy counters or at the security checkpoints, meaning that the priority check-in really didn’t do much for me. However, it would absolutely be useful to someone who’s checking in at a peak time.

After security, I headed to the United Club Lounge at Newark’s Terminal C, where I grabbed a snack and some coffee. Unfortunately, Premium Plus bookings offer only discounted — not free — access to United Clubs on select routes when purchased at booking or before travel. However, I was able to enter for free as a perk of my Chase United Club Infinite Card.

After a 90-minute delay, the flight began boarding. Although Premium Plus entitles travelers to board with Group 2, I boarded with Group 1 because of my Premier Platinum elite status. I was also in Group 1 for my return flight, but I didn’t board until the end of Group 3 because I wound up with the dreaded “SSSS” on my boarding pass (following a one-day visit to Turkey during my cruise) and was forced to undergo an extensive check of all my belongings at the gate.

How comfortable was premium economy on United Airlines?

A 2-2-2 Premium Plus seat configuration on a United Boeing 767-300ER. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

The Newark-London leg of my trip was on a Boeing 767-300ER with Premium Plus seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, with four rows of six seats across for a total of 24. Here’s how they stack up against the economy- and business-class cabins on the aircraft.

Economy Premium Plus Polaris business class
Layout 2-3-2. 2-2-2. 1-1-1.
Seat pitch 31-34 inches. 38 inches. 77 inches.
Seat recline 3-4 inches. 6 inches. Fully flat.
Seat width 18-18.5 inches. 19 inches. 20.4-22.7 inches.
Screen size 9 inches. 13.3 inches. 16 inches.
Seats 22K and 22L on a United Boeing 767-300ER. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

The Athens-Newark flight was on a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner, where the 21 seats were arranged in a 2-3-2 layout in three rows. Here’s how they compare to seats in the other sections.

Economy Premium Plus Polaris business class
Layout 3-3-3. 2-3-2. 1-2-1.
Seat pitch 31-34 inches. 38 inches. 78 inches.
Seat recline 3-4 inches. 6 inches. Fully flat.
Seat width 17.3 inches. 19 inches. 20.5 inches.
Screen size 10 inches. 13.3 inches. 16 inches.
The Premium Plus cabin on a United Boeing 787-10. (Note that this photo is not from the specific 787-10 flight in this article.) ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

On both flights, as on all flights that have Premium Plus seating, the Premium Plus section is located between Polaris business class and economy.

Bulkhead seat in Premium Plus on United’s Boeing 787-10. (Note that this photo is not from the specific 787-10 flight in this article.) ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

On the first flight, aboard the 767-300, I was in an aisle seat (22K) along the side of the cabin. The first thing I noticed after stowing my carry-on in the overhead bin was that the footrest made it impossible for me to fit my personal item — a backpack — under the seat in front of me. That meant I was forced to take up two overhead spots. To make it worse, I found the footrest to be useless, as the clearance between it and the seat was so small that it squished the tops of my feet.

The footrest on my outbound flight was basically useless, thanks to its immobility and low clearance between it and the seat. It also rendered the underseat storage space unusable. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

It was also at an uncomfortable height and not very maneuverable.

The legroom and seat width were decent on both of my Premium Plus flights. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On my return flight aboard the 787-10, I was in the front row (20A), against the bulkhead, which meant I had no footrest but, again, had to put two items in the overhead bin. On the plus side, when I found myself accidentally stuck in a window seat (I prefer aisle seats), I still had enough legroom to walk right out of the row to use the restroom without having to step over or otherwise bother the person sitting next to me.

On both flights, the seats’ cushioning was comfortable, and the extra room and wider space between armrests were great. There was also a window dimmer instead of a shade to control the amount of daylight. The recline was more generous than in standard economy, but the seats still don’t go back far enough to allow me to get quality rest (I need a lie-flat for that). The recline is enough, however, that when the person in front of you reclines, it becomes difficult to get out to use the bathroom.

United’s Premium Plus seats are more comfy than the ones in economy, but they don’t recline all the way. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Additionally, the seats’ leg rests didn’t fully extend, holding legs at a strange angle that, for me, cut off circulation. I found it more comfortable to simply position my legs as if I were in a standard economy seat.

The larger tray tables at United’s Premium Plus seats offer ample space for working. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

The extra legroom, additional seat width and larger tray table, which made it much easier for me to work, were definitely an improvement over economy. However, I still wasn’t convinced that those things alone made Premium Plus worth the much higher price than economy.

The Premium Plus cabin shares bathrooms with regular economy. However, passengers had no trouble using the ones just behind the curtain in business class. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

As for restrooms, Premium Plus shares bathrooms with the standard economy cabin. There were four of them at the back of the 767-300, while on the 787-10, there were three between the two sections of the economy cabin and another two at the very aft of the plane. However, I was able to use the ones in business class on both flights with no problem at all.

Amenities in United Airlines premium economy

All Premium Plus seats on both my flights were stocked with a Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and lightweight blanket. There were also Away amenity kits, including Sunday Riley hand lotion and lip balm (score!), an eye mask, socks, earplugs, a toothbrush with toothpaste and a cloth Away bag with a zip closure. Passengers also received headphones to use with the entertainment systems.

Premium Plus seats have entertainment screens that are about 3-4 inches larger than in economy, and which you can control with a retractable remote (though retracting it was difficult on both flights). The United-branded headphones for inflight use worked fine but did not have great sound quality.

United’s Premium Plus seats have larger televisions with touchscreens and remote controls that retract. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

The seats’ wonderfully oversized tray tables were difficult for a newbie like me to locate initially, but I found mine in my aisle-side armrest and figured out how to deploy it with the press of a button with utensils on it. It measured 17 inches wide and 10.5 inches long, and it folded in half in case I didn’t need the full amount of space.

Tray tables at United’s Premium Plus seats pop out of the outer armrest for each passenger. A button releases them; they can be difficult for new passengers to discover at first. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On my outbound flight, my TV screen was on the back of the seat in front of me. Entertainment selections included a list of movies — both newer releases and older favorites — TV shows, music and games, as well as a real-time flight tracker.

The Premium Plus TV screen at Seat 22K on United’s 787-10. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On the return flight, when I was in the front row behind the bulkhead, my seatmate and I had to ask the flight attendant how to pop the screens out from below the seats, where they were located in a center console between us.

The television screens for United’s Premium Plus bulkhead seats are hidden beneath the center console. They’re released with a latch and flip up for use. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

Each seat had its own USB port and universal electrical outlet. However, you practically have to be a contortionist to plug anything in, as the ports are located near passengers’ elbows and semi-enclosed by the armrest console. Plus, the power to both was nonfunctional on my outbound flight. A kind flight attendant allowed me to borrow her charging brick, which was a lifesaver.

Each of United’s Premium Plus seats has its own USB port, power outlet and two-pronged headphone jack. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On the return flight, the seatback pocket space — or, in my case, the wall-mounted pocket — was minuscule. I was barely able to fit a bottle of water and my book, let alone all of the other stuff I usually cram in there.

This photo demonstrates the amount of legroom in United’s Premium Plus bulkhead seats but also shows just how small the storage pockets are. (For anyone concerned, I haven’t forgotten my manners; my feet aren’t touching the wall or the pocket.) ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

My United Club Infinite Card earns me 4 miles per dollar on United purchases, including inflight Wi-Fi. Additionally, I get 25% back as a statement credit for inflight Wi-Fi purchases made with my card. So, instead of costing me $18.99, it cost me $14.25, and I scored 76 miles.

I found the connection to be strong for the duration of the flight. Although speeds understandably weren’t quite as fast as on land, there wasn’t much lag — impressive, compared with other international flights I’ve taken recently.

How was the food in United Airlines premium economy?

Premium Plus is supposed to include elevated meal options compared to coach, but the only thing that seemed higher-end was the fact that food was served on actual plates with metal silverware, as opposed to the flimsy trays with plastic cutlery found in economy.

The food itself was edible but unmemorable. I didn’t receive a menu on either flight. Instead, passengers were verbally told what was available, but it wasn’t always clear what, exactly, the options were.

The first meal of my outbound flight in United’s Premium Plus consisted of chickpeas in sauce, couscous and a cold noodle salad with peppers. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On my outbound flight, there were two meals. For the first, which began shortly after takeoff and ended about half an hour later, I was offered a choice of beef or vegetarian entree. I went with the latter, and it featured couscous and chickpeas in a savory red sauce. There was a side of cold noodles with peppers, a roll with butter and a small birthday cake-flavored cookie for dessert.

An hour or two after our first meal, a snack was offered; I chose a small bag of almonds.

For the second meal, which was served about an hour before landing, I had a choice of eggs with some sort of red sauce or waffles with berry syrup. I went with the waffles, which were the tastiest thing I ate on any of my flights on this trip. Included were a croissant with butter and jelly, orange juice and plain yogurt with oranges and grapes.

For the second meal of my outbound flight in United’s Premium Plus, I chose waffles with berry sauce and plain yogurt with fruit. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On the return trip, roughly over an hour in, flight attendants began meal service, offering passengers a choice of chicken or a vegetarian option for the first meal. I avoided meat again, but the joke was on me, as the airline served some sort of faux mystery meat with vegetables.

The first meal of my return flight in United’s Premium Plus was a bit of a dud. It was the vegetarian option, and although it didn’t taste bad, nobody could tell me what it was. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

When I asked what it was, the answer was, “I’m not sure. There was no description.” I suspect it was some sort of undercooked white root vegetable. The flavor was surprisingly good, with a consistency like pineapple but less stringy. It came with carrots, mashed potatoes, a side salad, a roll with butter and some of the most delicious chocolate truffles I’ve ever tasted, from Mathez’s The French Taste snack line.

This prepackaged cheese and cucumber sandwich with fruit in United’s Premium Plus was surprisingly tasty. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

For the subsequent snack and lighter meal, which was served shortly before landing, I chose a bag of chips and a cucumber-and-cheese sandwich on a roll with a side of fruit — orange and pineapple slices with some grapes. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the sandwich, despite its simplicity.

In premium economy, beer, wine and spirits are free, while only beer and wine are free for passengers in standard economy on long-haul international flights with United. The flight attendants handling meal service on the outbound flight asked if I wanted wine (red or white). I declined. However, I never saw a regular drinks cart come by to ask if I’d like something else. I brought a bottle of water with me, so I didn’t bother to ask for anything else. Drinks were served twice on the return flight.

Is United Airlines premium economy worth it?

There’s no question that United’s premium economy product is better than the experience in economy. However, for me, the minor upgrades in terms of space and slightly more polished meal service aren’t worth the extra amount United charges for Premium Plus. Although I enjoyed the larger tray table and the extra legroom, I’m fine with the extra few inches I get in Economy Plus, which I can select for free with my elite status when flying in coach.

A view of the Atlantic Ocean from a United Airlines Premium Plus window seat. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

My answer would be different if it were one of the rare, but not unheard of, situations where the Premium Plus seat was less expensive than or negligibly more expensive than regular economy. But in this case, the additional cost wasn’t worth the extra recline, the cumbersome footrest, the uncomfortable leg rest and the unwieldy swivel entertainment screen on my return flight.

Although I enjoy free checked bags, priority boarding and United Club access thanks to my blend of elite status and a United credit card, if you’re just an occasional United passenger, the perks conferred by flying in Premium Plus — Group 2 boarding, free checked bags and discounted lounge access — could materially improve your experience. You’ll just have to decide for yourself how much more you’re willing to pay over economy for those perks.

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