Cathay Pacific Premium Economy – the frugalfirstclasstravel review

Hi Frugalistas!

Thanks for joining me for the latest installment in my airline review series – this time, Cathay Pacific Premium Economy, which I recently travelled for a trip to London courtesy of my employer.  A disclaimer at the start – while my employer paid for my ticket and arranged my flights, all opinions are my own personal views and do not represent the views of others unless otherwise stated.  I was joined on the outbound flight by my colleague L.

I have flown Cathay Pacific Business Class before and enjoyed the experience.  Having flown only Business or First Class to Europe in the last 25 years I was definitely curious to see how Premium Economy stacked up, and whether it is a genuine alternative to the far more expensive Business Class.

The Cathay Pacific Premium Economy seat ready for action

At the airport

At check in in Sydney we get off to a good start with a dedicated check-in counter and no queue, so I’m on my way with my express lane pass for immigration and security in no time.  L checks her bag and is delighted to discover she’s been given priority baggage handling when we emerge in London.

On the home flight from Heathrow again we get dedicated check in and no queue, but things are a little different.  I get the luggage nazi who insists my bag is far too big for carry on, and must be checked (it’s not, I’ve actually taken the same bag on Cathay previously, and it fits in the airline’s own luggage sizer, but no, it’s too big).  I’m outraged to see multiple passengers with multiple bags, and bags bigger than mine in all cabins of the plane once we board.  No priority baggage from Heathrow and I wait and wait while my bag arrives in Sydney.  No express lane pass in Heathrow either, so it takes a good 25mins to clear security……

Too big?  No, standard international carry on size, actually

There’s no lounge access for Premium Economy so we are at the boarding gate in time for the commencement of boarding on all four legs of the trip.  This is when things get really interesting.  Cathay markets priority boarding in Premium Economy in all its marketing materials, and we do get priority boarding between Australia and Hong Kong on both the inbound and outbound legs.  There’s no first class seating on the A330 planes operating between Hong Kong and Sydney, so we are invited to board with the Business Class passengers.

Between Hong Kong and London things are different – it’s a 777 with a First Class cabin, and it’s First and Business passengers who are invited to board first.  Premium Economy passengers board with Economy passengers, and because Cathay has a regimented boarding system that boards by row from the back of the plane we are actually boarded last – ie the lowest priority.

In flight

Seats in Premium Economy are slightly wider than Economy, with an increased seat pitch and back incline.  The seat incline mechanism is manual like in Economy and is stiff.  On two legs I need to get up wrench my seat back upright as it won’t right itself automatically.  The space between the rows is quite good until the person in front puts their seat back – with the extra incline you lose any additional space from the increased pitch, and it is still impossible to get out for a walk or comfort stop without your neighbour having to get up.  A tiny footstool attached to seat in front adjusts to a couple of heights but is not overly comfortable (front row of the cabin has footrests within the seat which give far more support to the legs and look a much better deal).  When it’s time to sleep, yes, the seats do recline a bit further (but not that much.  Their own website indicates the difference in seat incline is a mere 2inches).  L declares the seating arrangements as very similar to the Emirates A380 Economy offering she had traveled on recently.

Premium Economy cabin on the A330

Cathay’s marketing makes much of the pre-take off champagne and hot towels as per the Business Class offering.  One tray of pre-flight drinks is offered on the leg from London to Hong Kong, so six of the 34 patients in the cabin enjoy that service.  Nothing is offered to the remaining passengers until the meal service begins.

While meals are served Economy style on a single tray with plastic bowls and plates, a choice of 3 Business Class main courses (entrees) is offered.  The food is tasty and hot, and across the four flights we are offered a good variety of  both Asian and Western options.  A printed menu is provided at the beginning of each flight.  A choice of two whites and a red wine is offered at each meal, however, no top ups are offered, and inexcusably, the red is served chilled.

Delicious Business Class main course, served Economy style

An amenity kit of socks, earplugs, eyemask, toothbrush, and (single use size) toothpaste is offered in a nifty little fabric wallet.  Pillows are comfortable and the standard Economy class blanket is offered and leaves fluff all over my black top.

Service is polite, but not particularly attentive and is consistent with an Economy cabin.

The Verdict

I hate to say it, but I can’t get excited about the Cathay Pacific Premium Economy offering.  The service is inexplicably inconsistent between flights, and any advantage in the increased seat pitch or incline disappears as soon as the person in front reclines.  While the bag nazi at Heathrow was not a function of Premium Economy it turned me off completely.

I would certainly keep an open mind on Premium Economy on an alternate airline (such as BA or Qantas) where the seat pitch and incline is better than those of Cathay, but would not travel Cathay Premium Economy again.

At the end of the day, the bells and whistles of Business Class are there (sometimes), but at twice the price of an Economy ticket, it makes for a very expensive glass of champagne (when they serve it!)

I would love to hear others’ opinion on Premium Economy flights regardless of the airline.

Disclaimer:  the author’s ticket was paid for by her employer.  All opinions are those of the author unless otherwise stated.

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38 Comments on “Cathay Pacific Premium Economy – the frugalfirstclasstravel review”

  1. Pretraveller 28/10/2012 at 8:50 pm #

    Deciding whether to pay the extra money for a premium economy ticket is interesting, especially when you consider that it is essentially providing what economy class used to provide…

    I have always been bad at sleeping on airplanes, and a recent experience in Qantas Business Class on both a B747 and an A380 has confirmed that even with better seats I sleep poorly… Therefore when I next buy my own tickets I expect I will go for economy anyway, and have an aisle seat so I can get and walk around as I need to.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 28/10/2012 at 8:56 pm #

      I woulD certainly never buy a premium Econ seat assuming I would sleep better. I don’t sleep well on planes either and did do reasonably on this trip with a neck pillow for company. The biggest problem was where to put my legs to get comfortable. I’m only 5’7″ and had sore hips and knees for a couple of days…..

      Thanks for dropping by

  2. JohnCameron 14/11/2012 at 12:15 pm #

    The key on CX Premium Economy is getting a front row seat… More legroom and no seat in front of you invading your space.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 14/11/2012 at 7:14 pm #

      Yes I think so too. They did seem to have far more space, but unfortunately those seats were limited and I didn’t win the lottery on any of my flights.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment

  3. jk123 07/01/2013 at 1:52 am #

    Can’t speak for CX premium economy, but I did recently fly EVA Air premium on a flight from Phnom Penh to Toronto via Taipei. I would definitely recommend it as an alternative to Y class if one is actually paying for their ticket (I usually fly Canada-Asia routes J class on points). While it is certainly not equivalent to business class, the extra leg room, wider seats and recline/leg support is well worth the extra cost (about 50% more than economy). Sleep was definitely easier than it would have been in economy, though obviously nothing close to a flatbead. Combined with an Amex Platinum for lounge access, premium economy makes long distance flying survivable without completely breaking the bank.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 07/01/2013 at 8:58 am #

      At a 50% premium to normal economy it becomes a different game I think. I always take the view that if it costs twice the price it should be twice as good – which it wasn’t. The other thing I believe is that you should get what they say is included – which we didn’t.

      I’m encouraged that your experience was clearly better value than mine.

      Yes, I’ve got Platinum Amex too but only used it at LHR (I had someone traveling with me for part of the trip and went for a browse in the shops in Hong Kong instead).

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sure others will find your comments helpful.

  4. BlondeBrunetteTravel 01/02/2013 at 12:27 am #

    This was good info to have – I wouldn’t pay the premium to get such minor and inconsistent differences either. As a marketing person in my former life I still get chills when I read about how things are described one way and executed another – great way to shoot your own brand in the foot. And I’ve had a lot of similar bag incidents over the years and they’re so infuriating!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 01/02/2013 at 6:12 am #

      Yes, that was exactly my issue – I expect to get what I’ve paid for, particularly when it comes to comfort and amenity.

      Reading other forums I’m not the only one to have struck a CP bag nazi, but again it is the inconsistency that infuriates. The same bag didn’t get a second glance in Sydney.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. stedmaninfrance 12/02/2013 at 11:02 pm #

    Dear Frugal. What a very interesting read and helpful info too. I travel CX every year and last year I had a most unfortunate experience too:
    which left me outraged by the lack of service and care

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 13/02/2013 at 6:16 am #

      Wow, what a tale! What got me the most was that it just didn’t deliver what was promised – I don’t care what class or what price I’ve paid I expect the level of service the airline says comes as part of that fare.

      Thanks for sharing!

  6. eric 08/03/2013 at 11:50 pm #

    Went to LA end of last year with Air New Zealand Premium Economy SKY SEATS found it was great Coming home it was economy with a little bit more room just the opposite I am a big man 155kg so room is important .Have brought two seats on other trips to London only to find arm rest did not lift took a lot of talking to change seats Cathay Pacific were most un helpful so changed Airline

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 09/03/2013 at 7:34 am #

      Thanks Eric. Glad you found a premium product that worked well for you. A few other people who’ve commented on this post have also found other airline’s product good value. If you are used to buying 2 seats anyway the price of a premium ticket would certainly provide you with a better amenity.

      Thanks for adding to the collective wisdom on this topic!

  7. Tom 23/03/2013 at 11:19 pm #

    I’d agree with much of your review. Its not an affordable business class but a jumped up economy class. Food is OK, but I doubt its business class chow. I found the seating better than what I’ve experienced in economy and was able to sleep. Service, well its efficient but not friendly. One comment said Cathy employes efficient robots. Rumor has it they actually smile to first class passengers.
    I didn’t experience a bag Nazi but Cathay’s BBBs–bungling bag bozos–didn’t get my bag on the HK-London sector. Apparently the two hours between flights just wasn’t sufficient for them. Its promised for tonight but as my warm clothes are in the bag and the high in London is THREE DEGREES its fair to say I’m most miffed. What was that in Cathay’s spin about Priority Baggage??

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 24/03/2013 at 7:23 am #

      I have experienced friendly service in Business Class on Cathay, but their service is certainly not what I’m used to more consistently on other airlines. I’ve never flown Singapore, but of the Asian airlines, the service on Japan Airlines puts Cathay to shame.

      My colleague had hers put through on Priority to London, but coming back on my own mine wasn’t. It’s that kind of inconsistency I hate with any airline, regardless of the class.

  8. chris alcock 24/03/2013 at 9:34 pm #

    Interesting thing this “premium economy” concept. Seems that some airlines view it as “poor man’s business” while others regard it as “rich man’s economy”. CX is definitely in the latter category. Have just flown SYD-HKG in Premium as experiment… big mistake. Ordinary food, terrible wine and the guy in front of me put his seat back in full recline the minute the wheels left the runway which took away any advantage of the extra pitch. In fact I think it is probably worse than economy because of the extra incline. Complete waste of money.

    • bilbo 10/04/2013 at 2:59 pm #

      If the seat in front of you is inclined – and you also incline your seat, doesn’t that make up for it?

      • frugalfirstclasstravel 10/04/2013 at 6:41 pm #

        It didn’t. Claustrophobic and you lost any extra legroom advantage because the seats recline slightly more than a standard economy seat. To me the seating was like in Economy, just slightly wider. In the daytime the extra legroom was noticeable but as soon as the seat went back……

    • Chris Pickard 21/08/2014 at 5:24 pm #

      CX prem Econ is rubbish. Went SYD FRA via HKG & return May/Jun 2014. Did have 1st row one way & foot rest useless, recline button too stiff to move. The product is what economy should be. Staff ok, we had baggage nazi HKG SYD usd 200 for excess. How they got best airline beats me. Back to QF for us.

      • frugalfirstclasstravel 21/08/2014 at 6:44 pm #

        Yes Chris, I was somewhat mystified about them winning Best Airline in 2014. I figured it must have improved a lot. Maybe not….

  9. Dianne 15/04/2013 at 7:38 am #

    Another fan of EVA’s Premium Economy product, a must on long flights USA to Asia. I always choose EVA when paying for my ticket (vs. using miles for Biz Class). Your review of your experience on CX show the airline has really slipped lately.

  10. Nelson Yap 19/05/2013 at 2:22 am #

    Hi! love your site and the idea that you don’t need to pay an arm and leg to fly business, which is true! because you just need to be creative.

    I have read you reviews on the Etihad First and Business, and I am now looking forward to experiencing it myself in a few days.

    Anyway, this report was a great insight, you are not the only person who was not impressed by CX’s new PE offering.

    Cathay Pacific drummed up this new product but they should not have because they set out at the start to make it a Y+ product.

    Clearly they didn’t want to butcher their Business Class, so they really went through extra steps to ensure their PE was really really really basic.

    And I agree with you, when prices are 50% for PE over economy, I would probably fork out the extra 50%, but not when it is 100-125% more and CX PE fares between Aus – EU/UK are firmly around $5,100, when booked in advanced.

    Compared to Virgin Atlantic Sydney – HK – LHR, its $3,300. China Southern $3,000.

    I’ve flown Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia PE and both are economy plus rather than business lite. But the price difference between Y and Y+ were small, so I gave it a go. I would fly Y+ again if I couldn’t find bargain business class fares.

    For $5,100 you can snare a special Malaysia Airlines business return in advance. Or if you are like me, who signs up to newsletter and stuff, I was able to book an Emirates/Qantas business return to Europe for $5,600 for a friend flying Emirates 777/A380 on the way out, and returning in Emirates A380 to Dubai and Qantas A380 to Melb. It was a crazy special deal, and within hours the tickets were all gone.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 19/05/2013 at 6:57 am #

      Thanks Nelson for your kind comments and feedback. From Australia you can also pick up really cheap business class deals from the Korean and Chinese airlines, which make a lot of the PE offerings not only redundant, but a waste of money.

  11. Kevin Ryan 25/05/2013 at 11:46 am #

    Hi, I just had to repy to this blog, we flew Perth to Hong Kong,approx 7 hrs, Hong Kong to New York ,16 hrs, San Francisco to HK ,13 hrs then back to Perth , all on Cathay Premium Economy and experienced perhaps one of the hiccups reported in these blogs.
    ( we returned last week and paid our own way )

    For example , the seat position, i.e. the bottom of the seat does not change when the person in front reclines , the leg room remains the same , I flew from HK to NY with a guys in the seat in front reclined most of the way except for meals,I reclined mine slightly and was fine , the leg room hadn’t changed!

    The only problem we came across was boarding in HK we were put into the economy line when I queried this the Cathay employee had no idea what I was talking about .In Perth, NY,San Francisco and the second time on HK we were always boarded with business or first class passengers.

    Food was fine especially the Perth HK trips,service was attentive and we had drinks at each depature, two on the HK to Perth leg.
    The San francisco to HK leg we shared toilets with economy passengers but on the other legs there was a toilet in our area.

    In summary,good service,plenty of comfort and would fly that way again.

    I’m not in the travel industry and it was the first time we had flown Cathay , we usually fly Qantas (platium card) so was really surprised by the blogs, I don’t think we just struck it lucky on four flights.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 25/05/2013 at 12:44 pm #

      I’m glad your experience was more positive. This post is the most popular one on my blog and gets a lot of traffic. I think, given my negative review, it does attract a number of others who want to share their war stories too. The fact remains, and your comments reflect it too, that the offering is inconsistent – that was my greatest objection.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  12. George de la Torre 20/08/2013 at 1:01 am #

    Hi there, I’ve flown to Manila with Cathay Pacific on Premium Economy 4 times this past year.

    First of all, agree with your overall assessment! Read many other reviews regarding Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy product quality, subjective views out there – many just recited marketing points and provide no anecdote.

    I fly out of Boston, JetBlue to JFK, then Cathay Pacific, 777-300EX to Hong Kong, then whatever to Manila. The Cathay Pacific flights to Manila feels more like a school (dirty) bus trip, with nasty teacher aids…

    Well, my view, Cathay Pacific is struggling with services identity, is it just economy+, the plus sign only meaning 2 inches better? Or does “Premium Economy” is supposed to provide some level of “enhanced” experience?

    Unfortunately, only economy+ is what I got 4 times! Although my credit card balances got an enhanced experience paying an additional $1000.00 over economy fare…

    So, what does $500.00 per inch gets you with Premium Economy:

    -Inconsistencies, no two flights were a like, from the gate to in-flight services, staff confused and annoyed.

    -Laptop can only be used in front row seats, therefore have to plan my trip when these seats are available.

    -Flight Attendants’ attitude, it’s like Premium Economy section is a bump on the road between the walk from business class to economy, found myself saying sorry when trying to get attention.

    -Any benefit from extra leg room space in front (middle) rows gets seriously dampened by hordes of passengers flowing to the toilet, so end up keeping my feet in anyway. And, often need to grab my laptop before it gets swiped away when the corridor becomes two way lanes!

    -Premium Economy is often used to provide seats when economy is overbooked, so not much opportunity sitting next to an empty seat.

    -The food, overall fine, in line with economy+ level, nowhere near business class level.

    Obviously, Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy is not working for me, flown business class once, very nice, but just can’t justify the ticket cost.

    I’ve found another pathway to Manila from Boston, going to try, JetBlue to San Francisco, then Philippines Airlines to Manila. Philippines often has promotions with business class fares ($1200.00 one way), not much more than Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy ticket.

    I’m aware with Philippines Airlines issues, especially with dismal on time record. But, I’m focusing with onboard experience, if delayed, at least will be in business class lounge…

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 20/08/2013 at 12:19 pm #

      Thanks for your comments, based on your experience. I think we’ve all been very disappointed in the inconsistency of the service from the way the comments have run. I’ve never done it myself, but I do think there is some merit in certainly considering a cheap business class ticket rather than a premium economy. Certainly from here in Australia the cost of a standard premium economy ticket on Qantas/BA runs about the same as the Chinese carriers (and sometimes even the Korean carriers) business class offering. Even if that business class offering may not be the best one in the sky, it just has to stack up better on the cost/benefit equation.

  13. buildingmybento 25/11/2013 at 4:21 am #

    Cathay, except for the food, is one of the better options around, including in Y class. If I had to choose to use the premium economy cost difference to prolong my travels somewhere, I would.

    They randomly upgraded me on a flight from Jakarta to Hong Kong a few years ago, so they gain a bonus point for that!

  14. Lea 19/04/2014 at 5:46 am #

    Funny when I walked past premium economy to economy I was shocked. Premium economy is exactly the same as long haul economy USED to be. Now economy long haul is like economy short haul, and Cathay, apart from the entertainment is the least comfortable airline I have ever flown with and that includes the cheapest Air Asia X flight.
    To upgrade to this what I consider only slightly better product would have cost us more than twice – not worth it, not for two inches extra recline!!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 19/04/2014 at 8:43 am #

      I actually think buying a cheap business class ticket on a code share ;where you might not get all your mileage points) or on one of the cheaper Chinese airlines represents better value for money.

      • George 20/04/2014 at 12:26 pm #

        Yes, Philippines airlines (PAL) now has FAA category 1 status.

        FAA Category 1 (

        “Category 1 means the air carriers from the assessed state may initiate or continue service to the United States in a normal manner and take part in reciprocal code-share arrangements with U.S. carriers.”

        Therefore, PAL will start expanding service to US cities, like New York City, this will be disruptive to airlines like Cathay Pacific and force them to improve quality of services and stop this outrageous gouging of premium and business class prices.

        I’m not a PAL employee, just now fly with them from SFO to Mania via JetBlue BOS to SFO. Used to fly with Cathay Pacific from JFK to HK on premium economy, a horrible service and experience for double fare price over economy class.

        The PAL business class price is just a few hundreds of dollars over Cathay Pacific’s premium economy scam.

        Hope these upcoming Asian based airlines finally put an end to Cathay Pacific’s fleecing habits…

        Happy traveler these days…

      • frugalfirstclasstravel 20/04/2014 at 1:57 pm #

        This is exactly what I’m talking about – bus class on a less prestigious airline may actually be cheaper or a similar price.

  15. Vicki 18/09/2014 at 7:51 am #

    Agree that Cathay Premium Econ is inconsistent and disappointing. In the past 6 months, I have flown long haul premium economy on Qantas (HK return), Cathay (HK-Paris return), BA (Sydney-Singapore) return and Air NZ (Auckland-LA return). The ONLY one that was worth it in my experience was Air NZ – really, really different and a big step up from Econ. BA was a joke. If all airline’s PE was like Air NZ, it would be my perfect flight solution …….. If only 🙂

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 18/09/2014 at 8:02 am #

      Really great feedback for future readers Vicki. I think Air New Zealand is one of the most innovative airlines, so it doesn’t surprise me you’ve found their PE the best. Shame they don’t go everywhere we want to travel!

  16. willungawino 19/10/2014 at 4:39 pm #

    Really useful to know. I will have my first ever Business Class trip next year on Cathay to Rome (via HK) – sounds like I made the right choice forking out for Business over PE!

  17. Martin Locke 21/11/2014 at 11:05 am #

    Just booked PE with Cathay Pacific for trip to see family in NZ and am slightly apprehensive now having read reviews. Would have gone with ANZ (as before) which offer superb PE service but left booking too late to get the dates we wanted. Will see what happens …..

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 22/11/2014 at 7:41 am #

      Based on other readers’ comments, Air NZ and Eva Air certainly seem to be the leaders in PE. Given my experience is some two years old now, I’d love some feedback on your experience.


  1. The 2012 frugalfirstclasstravel year in review – my top 10 blog posts | frugalfirstclasstravel - 31/12/2012

    […] The runaway winner despite it only being published in October.  I just wish my most popular post could have been more positive.  I flew Sydney to London return (a total of four legs), and found the experience a bit underwhelming…..Read more about my experience here….. […]

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