Since joining TPG, I’ve come to understand the importance of earning airline elite status and what a positive impact it can have on the flight experience, including possible upgrades and lounge access.
I’m currently an American Airlines AAdvantage Gold member, American’s entry-level status, marking the first elite airline status I’ve ever held.
I’ve set my sights on reaching AAdvantage Platinum by next year, though, which requires earning 75,000 Loyalty Points by the end of February 2023. That gives me about four more months to qualify, which is why I have been looking for inexpensive ways to boost my Loyalty Points balance for the past few months.
In order to help me get over the qualification threshold, I booked a long-haul premium economy flight on American’s Oneworld partner, Finnair. My trip had me flying round trip from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN), with long layovers at Helsinki Airport (HEL). Sounds a bit exhausting, right? Well, who ever said elite status came easy?
Because I was flying two segments each way, my journey allowed me to compare Finnair’s premium economy on the airline’s two long-haul aircraft types, the Airbus A330 and the Airbus A350.
Despite the similarities of the premium economy cabins, seats and service on these two jets, there were some notable differences between the experience on my two flights, including seat layouts and the lavatory situation.
Here’s what I found, and why I’d choose the A330 over the A350 for Finnair’s premium economy experience.
I booked this trip in July after finding a deal on Google Flights for just under $1,500 round trip from Chicago to Singapore on October 17-23.
When flying from Chicago to Singapore, you can expect at least one layover, as there are no direct flights from O’Hare. I flew nine hours to Helsinki, followed by a 14-hour layover before another 13-hour flight to Singapore.
I booked my flight directly through Finnair and earned 2,998 Chase Ultimate Rewards points using my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, since the card earns 2 points per dollar on travel purchases. Those points are worth $59.96, according to TPG valuations.
As mentioned, I chose this flight to earn AAdvantage Loyalty Points, which you earn based on the fare class of your ticket and the distance flown when traveling on partners like Finnair. For this flight, the round-trip itinerary was a whopping 20,372 miles, for which I earned a total of 28,533 Loyalty Points plus a 40% bonus on the base miles due to my AAdvantage Gold status. That’s nearly all the way to AAdvantage Gold on its own, and almost a third of the way to Platinum.
Although this review does not cover my trip back to Chicago from Singapore, note that the return trip has a slightly longer flight time of 13 hours and 25 minutes from Singapore to Helsinki, followed by a 9-hour, 25-minute flight to Chicago.
Chicago-Helsinki: Finnair A330 premium economy
Upon arriving at O’Hare, I noted a very long TSA security line and headed straight to the Finnair check-in counter at the end of Terminal 5.
The gate agent checked my passport, vaccination proof and entry card, which were all required to visit Singapore at the time of my trip. She also added my TSA PreCheck Known Traveler Number to my reservation (Finnair doesn’t allow you to do so online) before printing boarding passes for both flights.
Thanks to the fact there was no line at the counter and the ability to use TSA PreCheck, the check-in process and security took roughly seven minutes total.
If you fly from O’Hare’s Terminal 5 this year, you’ll notice that it remains under construction.
Although the $1 billion enhancement project is nearly complete, some of the gates, including mine (M15), were not yet renovated. If you are flying from one of the M gates, don’t expect a lot of food options nearby. There is a Tortas Frontera, the airport outpost of Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in River North, which I would highly recommend thanks to the flavorful food they serve. There is also a Burger King.
At approximately 4:56 p.m., the gate agent announced that boarding would be delayed until 5:05 p.m. as they were still working to prepare the aircraft after the late arrival of the previous flight. After the delay, boarding began with passengers who needed extra time and then groups 1—3.
Premium economy ticket holders get priority boarding in group 3, which means you board about halfway through the process, before groups 4 and 5. This puts you in a good boarding spot — the plane is not yet crowded and you should still be able to find room for your bag in the overhead bin.
Cabin and seat
The premium economy cabin on the A330 contains 21 seats configured in a 2-3-2 pattern across rows 21-23. For the sake of comfort, I paid $63.60 for 21J, a preferred aisle seat in the first row of the cabin. Though this row lacks under-seat space, I wanted the bulkhead for the extra legroom. Otherwise, you can pay $47.90 for a standard aisle seat in the other rows, or select one of the other seats for free.
By happenstance, there were only seven passengers in the premium economy cabin, so we all had our own rows. This, plus the extra legroom from the bulkhead seat and the slightly smaller cabin size (compared to my second flight) made the section feel spacious. Even so, the seats themselves felt fairly tight.
My seat had a 38-inch pitch and was 18.7 inches wide. The recline was 8 inches — comfortable but not anything extraordinary.
Each seat had a headrest with adjustable wings and a 15.5-inch single-leaf tray table without a dedicated cupholder. There were individually controlled air vents above each seat, which meant you could adjust the temperature for your comfort level.
All premium economy seats had an overhead light and a reading light you could adjust to three brightness levels.
Although no seats in this cabin had footrests, I didn’t mind since I had room to stretch my legs and the leg rests were ergonomic and comfortable. Unfortunately, the armrests were immovable, which prevented me from turning the row into a makeshift lie-flat seat.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
Upon boarding, each seat had an amenity kit by the famed Finnish fashion brand Marimekko, which included an eye mask (with fabric a bit too rough for my sensitive skin), ear plugs, a mini toothbrush with toothpaste, and Swedish brand La Bruket chamomile and lavender-infused lotion and almond-coconut lip balm. Basic, noise-canceling Phitek headphones were also provided. The over-ear headphones were powerful enough to drown out conversations around me but I could still hear background noise. Passengers were also given Marimekko neck pillows rather than a standard, small airplane pillow.
My bulkhead seat had a larger inflight entertainment screen than those in other rows: 16 inches compared to just 13.
Entertainment options were plentiful, with 150 movies and 50-plus TV shows, ranging from rom-coms like “Definitely Maybe,” and classics like “Top Gun: Maverick,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Father of the Bride,” to movies made within the last decade like “Pitch Perfect” and new releases like “Elvis.” TV shows of note included “Real Housewives of New York City,” “Will & Grace” and “Friends.” While the inflight entertainment system was touchscreen, bulkhead seats have a remote to control it as well since the screens are farther away from the seats.
As we’ve covered before, Finnair inflight Wi-Fi can be spotty, which was also my experience. It disconnects after your device is inactive for a while, but if this happens, you can log back in and restart your session. That worked for me.
Wi-Fi was available for purchase for one or three hours or the entire flight as follows:
- 24.95 euros ($24.39) for the entire flight.
- 14.95 euros ($14.62) for three hours.
- 7.95 euros ($7.77) for one hour.
Based on a speed test, the Wi-Fi was significantly faster on my flight from Helsinki to Singapore (13.70 Mbps upload and 5.66 Mbps download speed) than on my flight from Chicago to Helsinki. Also, note you can only have Wi-Fi connected on one device, forcing you to choose between your phone, laptop or other electronic devices.
Speaking of devices, I could charge two at my seat simultaneously since there was one international A/C port plus one USB port per seat, both to the bottom right of the seat near where your legs go. This area is also obstructed for all premium economy seats since there are under-seat IFE boxes on this aircraft, though your legroom is not restricted in the bulkhead seats since you have nothing in front of you.
The last thing of note about this premium economy cabin is that it has just a single dedicated lavatory. For just 21 passengers, that should be sufficient, and on my flight with just seven passengers it was nearly always empty.
Food and beverage
Premium economy passengers on this flight receive two meals, one at the beginning of the flight and one shortly before landing.
The first beverage service occurred shortly after takeoff, with complimentary water, soft drinks, juice, Roche Mazet Merlot, Tourelle De Tholomies white wine and other alcoholic beverages. I sipped a Northern Blush, a gin-based canned beverage made for the airline, served with lemon and ice. Along with the first beverage service came a bag of peanuts.
Although I follow a gluten- and dairy-free diet, no airline currently offers a pre-ordered meal that is both gluten- and dairy-free. Therefore, I usually chance it by ordering a gluten-free meal or a vegan meal and eating what I can from those plates. For this flight, I ended up pre-ordering two gluten-free meals during the booking process.
Dinner was served approximately an hour after takeoff. The gluten-free meal was chicken with rice, broccolini and a side salad. Unfortunately, the chicken was doused in an unknown sauce that the flight attendant couldn’t confirm was dairy-free. I didn’t eat my meal as a result, but saved the Kind bar and a gluten-free dinner roll for later. As an alternative to the chicken, they offered me one of the two standard premium economy meals — crabcakes with lobster or veal with mashed potatoes and carrots. Because they did not have allergy information for either of these, I didn’t feel safe eating either one, but I did taste the rice and spinach accompanying the crabcakes.
As a post-dinner treat, passengers were offered Joseph Perrier Champagne Brut, which retails for around 35.54 euros ($35).
Our second meal, breakfast, came approximately two hours before landing. The main choice was an omelet with tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes. Although marked as gluten-free, it was not clear whether it was also dairy-free, so I did not eat it. For drinks, water, black tea and coffee were offered.
Despite being unable to eat either meal fully, I appreciated that the crew members attempted to accommodate my dietary restrictions to the best of their ability. It was a good thing I’d brought extra snacks aboard.
Although there were no dedicated premium economy flight attendants (they also served the economy section), that did not negatively affect the level of service in our cabin. I felt very well taken care of, especially when the flight attendants attempted to verify allergen information while providing alternative solutions during meal times. I particularly appreciated the abundance of bottled water available during the four beverage services and the bottled water at our seats upon boarding, since I try to hydrate throughout long flights.
I also enjoyed the friendly banter with the flight attendants, including the one who told me the story behind the North Blush, the beverage I had that pays homage to the (rather tart) lingonberries common in Finnish forests.
Helsinki-Singapore: Finnair A350 premium economy
My second Finnair premium economy flight felt familiar to the first, with a few key differences.
When I think about my time at Helsinki Airport compared to O’Hare, Helsinki stands out as a better experience overall for a few reasons. To start with, the security process at Helsinki is seamless, providing all passengers an experience akin to TSA PreCheck, while allowing you to carry full water bottles through security.
Secondly, the whole airport was spotless, including the check-in areas, the main concourses and the gate areas.
Walking to gate 45A after a long layover in Helsinki, I marveled at the mostly closed high-end shops and restaurants, before stopping at a snack shop in hopes of securing some vegan chocolate. To my delight, they had oat milk chocolate, which I had never seen at an airport before.
The gate was impeccably clean, bright and spacious, with a few charging ports against the wall and ample seating, including several designated handicapped areas.
After arriving at the gate, the boarding process was smooth, with one line for those with priority boarding like me and one for economy passengers without priority access. Once we passed through the initial gate, we sat for a few more minutes in the holding area before lining up (in no particular order) to walk to the jetway and board the plane.
Cabin and seat
For the second leg of my trip, I paid $63.60 for a preferred aisle seat in the center section (21D), though I was not in the first bulkhead row this time. The seat arrangement aboard the A350 was slightly different than the A330, with a 2-4-2 layout for 24 seats across three rows.
The seats offered the same legroom of 38 inches and were nearly 19 inches wide, though the legroom in non-bulkhead seats was obstructed by IFE boxes on the right-hand side of each seat, making it a bit uncomfortable for my 5-foot 10-inch frame. Next time, I would opt for bulkhead seats on both aircraft, since the non-front row seats feel most constrained by the IFE boxes.
Finnair’s A350 does not have individually-controlled air vents above each seat, but the crew kept the cabin very cool, which I appreciated.
Like the A330, seats on the A350 also had adjustable headrests and reading lights and one overhead light each. There were no footrests on any of the seats, but the padded leg rests made them comfortable.
Unfortunately, this aircraft lacked a dedicated premium economy lavatory, which meant you had to walk to one of the three lavatories behind the cabin in economy, or do what I did, which was walk forward through business class to use theirs at the front of the business-class cabin.
The business-class lavatory looked like the ones in economy, but had hand sanitizer, toilet seat covers and the same La Bruket products from the amenity kit.
Neither the economy lavatories on this flight nor the premium economy facilities on my first flight had hand sanitizer or seat covers.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
The premium economy amenity kit, inflight entertainment options (150 movies, 50-plus TV shows) and Wi-Fi in flight were nearly identical to the offerings on my flight to Helsinki,. The only difference was the lack of a remote for the 13-inch IFE screen since I wasn’t in the bulkhead seat this time.
Like the A330, the A350 seats also had 15.5-inch, single-leaf meal tray tables without dedicated cupholders.
The second difference in this seat was that the USB port was hidden in a small compartment below the IFE screen. I found that space very useful and tucked my glasses and AirPods in it while sleeping.
Food and beverage
Like my first segment, I had pre-ordered two gluten-free meals for my flight to Singapore. We received the same bag of peanuts during our first beverage service, with the same Roche Mazet Merlot and Tourelle De Tholomies white wine options, soft drinks (Coke products), and various juices. Although I attempted to order my flying beverage of choice, ginger ale, they were sadly out. Unlike the first flight, only cups of water were handed out rather than bottles.
The pre-ordered gluten-free dinner was salmon, which the flight attendant informed me had milk in it. I kept the raspberry scone for later because it did not appear to have any dairy, and they offered me one of the two economy meals — beef with a cheese curry or chicken with rice and cauliflower. I opted for the chicken. It was bland, but at least I could eat it.
The second meal service, lunch, took place about two hours before landing again, and we were offered water, black tea and coffee to start. The gluten-free option was chicken with rice and veggies, while the regular premium economy meal was gnocchi.
Neither of the meals was particularly flavorful, but again I appreciated that there was at least something I could eat. I liked that the airline is also one of only a few carriers using sustainable bamboo cutlery.
On my flight to Singapore, I very much appreciated the flight crew being aware of the meal’s allergen information since knowledge is power and it gave me peace of mind. Once again, there was no dedicated premium economy crew; the crew served both us and the economy cabin, which I think was reflected in their service. For example, I paged the flight crew after dinner and they never came. It also took them 45 minutes to collect our meals following breakfast.
Finnair premium economy: A330 vs. A350
When I compare my flight from Chicago to Helsinki on the Airbus A330 and my flight from Helsinki to Singapore on the Airbus A350, a few things stood out for me, including:
- The smaller premium economy cabin of 21 seats on the A330 versus 24 seats on the A350. Fewer seats and passengers made the cabin feel more spacious, as did the fact that the middle section of each row had just three seats on the A330 compared to four on the A350.
- The lack of a dedicated premium economy lavatory on the A350 was slightly inconvenient and detracted from the experience.
- The under-seat IFE boxes obstruct the legroom on both aircraft in the non-bulkhead seats.
- Perhaps due to the A350 being a newer aircraft with better humidity and pressurization and a quieter cabin, I felt far more jet-lagged after arriving in Helsinki than upon my arrival in Singapore (though this was likely exacerbated by the fact that I did not sleep at all on the way to Finland, so had been up for 30-plus hours at that point).
Though not specific to the aircraft, the fact that the second flight crew was knowledgeable regarding the allergens present in the meals available on board made a lasting impression on me, as it made the difference in whether I could eat the provided meal or not.
Although some of the soft products, including the amenity kits, were identical, the service varied in terms of attention to detail.
The little touches provided on each flight, including a hot towel brought to our seat shortly after takeoff, the chocolate offered as we arrived in Helsinki (though not on arrival in Singapore) and the cleanliness of the Helsinki airport, as well as the calm and friendly nature of the airport workers, are among the things I will think of when someone asks me about my first Finnair flight.
This trip marked my longest travel journey thus far and my first trip to Asia. Having experienced more than 65 hours in the air cumulatively, with nearly 22 hours of layovers in total, I probably would not choose this route again. For my next trip to Singapore or elsewhere in Asia, I would fly domestically from Chicago to a U.S. city from which I could take a non-stop to my final destination. I would also try to redeem points or miles to upgrade to business class for a better chance of being able to sleep thanks to a lie-flat seat.
That said, for flights from the U.S. to Europe or from Europe to Asia, Finnair’s premium economy seats and service are a solid, affordable option for folks who want a bit more than the standard economy flight experience but do not have the funds or points for a business-class ticket.