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Economy vs Economy Plus: What's the Difference?

Air travel has undergone some huge changes over my travel lifetime. All flights and travel arrangements were booked through travel agents. My early economy flights were a special event complete with snacks, meals, beverages, and in-flight entertainment (music playlists). Flight attendants provided blankets, pillows, and socks, allowing travellers to be cozy while resting in large seats with ample legroom. Airplane lavatories were equipped with toothbrushes, scented soaps and lotions. A traveller in front of me could recline their seat without affecting my comfort. The large suitcase (or two) that I carried (no wheels!) was included in the non-stop fare. I can only refer to old movies to imagine the luxury that happened behind the curtain of the first class cabin.

As competition and demand increased, airlines gradually made service and comfort reductions in order to be able to offer the most attractive fares. A basic economy fare flight on major airlines rarely includes complimentary food and beverage service on shorter flights. A checked bag is often not included in the fare. Credits may be offered for cancelled flights rather than refunds. All airline seats have become smaller with less legroom. Budget airline seats are even smaller, have less legroom, and may not recline. Few budget airlines have an in-flight entertainment system.

Most airlines use hubs to coordinate flights. Affordable longer non-stop economy flights are rarer than unicorn horns. Economy fares often include one or more stops with long lay-overs and require a fee for a checked bag and seat selection. Some budget airlines also require a fee for a carry-on bag. The size and weight of the luggage allowance has also decreased significantly. The cost to add luggage varies greatly and can be quite significant. The cheapest fares provide a non-refundable seat on the plane with everything else requiring additional fees.

Not surprisingly, many travellers find this pricing scheme maddening. We prefer a price to include what we consider basic needs: a refundable ticket, a checked bag, and seat selection or some combination of the above. This has led to airlines creating different levels of economy fares and a whole lot of confusion.

Most airlines now offer an Economy and an Economy Plus (or similar wording) fare. Some also offer a third level, Economy Premium. There are some minor differences between airlines but generally Economy is the most basic and least expensive and Economy Plus is offered at a price 5-15% more than basic Economy. Premium Economy is the most expensive of the economy fares, usually about double the basic fare but half of Business Class. The Economy fare level for most airlines is non-refundable (travel credits), and doesn't include a checked bag or seat selection. Fees for a checked bag at the time of booking range from $50CAD - $100CAD. Adding a checked bag to your flight costs increase closer to departure time, with some airlines charging up to $100CAD at check-in. The seats will be standard-sized seats in the main cabin.

Economy Plus is a step up. These are also non-refundable tickets that don't include a checked bag. They will often include options for discounted upgrades and a more favourable formula for collecting airline points. It may include seat selection and a reduced fee for a checked bag. On some airlines, Economy Plus has slighter larger seats which will be located closer to the front of the main cabin. Look carefully at the differences between the two service levels. A recent search on a major airline showed a price difference between economy and economy plus to be $65. The fee for a checked bag in Economy was $60 and for Economy Plus it was $30. For a traveller with a checked bag who is not interested in discounted upgrades or point collection, Economy Plus will cost more.

Economy Premium, where available, sits between economy and business class in terms of service and comfort. It usually has a separated cabin with larger seats and more legroom. Most rows include only 2 seats. If meal service is offered, passengers in Economy Premium will have different meal offerings than the main class cabin. Most of the major airlines will also offer amenity kits and priority boarding. Those flying in Premium Economy don't pay additional fees for seat selection or a checked bag, and they accrue airline miles at a better rate.

As discussed previously, I only fly economy. I don't want to spend twice as much (or more) than someone else on the same flight as me. I'm small enough that I don't require a larger seat, even if I would like one. Larger people are likely to put a higher priority on a bigger seat or more legroom, especially on longer flights. I can plan to make a long flight more bearable. When travelling solo, seat selection isn't a major issue for me, but if I have a companion, I would like to sit next to them. My suitcase is carry-on size for many airlines but is too big for budget airlines or regional airlines, so having the option of a checked bag is necessary. Take the time to read the differences between each of the economy class offered to choose what works best for your priorities.

How important is seat selection, checked bags, discounted upgrades, and better point collection formulas for you when deciding which level of economy you are willing to pay for? Is it worth the additional expense to upgrade to Economy Premium or Business Class? What are your thoughts? Share in the comments.


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