With daily Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Sydney, Vietnam Airlines' premium economy service offers travellers a better-than-economy seat at an affordable price, without shelling out for a higher-cost business class ticket.
Included in the fare: priority check-in and a bigger seat with 10 inches of extra legroom over 'regular' economy and a more generous recline, although don't expect to see an improved inflight dining experiece: this is very much an economy experience delivered in an upgraded seat.
Australian Business Traveller brings you this review following a recent flight home from Vietnam Airlines' bustling Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon hub.
- Frequent flyer program: Lotusmiles, SkyTeam alliance – but you may prefer to use Alitalia Millemiglia or Delta Skymiles instead as these top-tier flyers receive lounge access and more with Virgin Australia in addition to SkyTeam member airlines.
- Codeshares: Booking this flight under the Qantas (QF) codeshare flight number could instead deliver Qantas Points and status credits in the Qantas Frequent Flyer program.
- Chauffeured airport transfers: Available on arrival in Ho Chi Minh City as part of a temporary promotion for premium economy passengers for bookings made until May 31 2017.
- Checked baggage allowance: 40kg, plus an extra 10kg for SkyTeam Elite frequent flyers (15kg for Lotusmiles Gold) and a higher 20kg boost for SkyTeam Elite Plus cardholders (25kg for Lotusmiles Platinum).
- Carry-on baggage allowance: 2x115cm bags, each weighing up to 7kg (14kg total).
- Priority check-in, boarding: Yes to priority check-in, but there was no mention of premium economy at the boarding gate – only business class and economy. We joined the business queue and weren't turned away.
- Priority passport control, security screening: Not offered as part of a premium economy ticket. Fast-track 'Sky Priority' passport control is available here to SkyTeam Elite Plus members, but not priority screening.
As is standard, a premium economy ticket on its own doesn't include airport lounge access: a perk normally reserved for business class travellers.
That's unless you pair your premium economy boarding pass with a top-tier SkyTeam Elite Plus frequent flyer card, which opens the doors to the Vietnam Airlines Lotus Lounge in Ho Chi Minh City, located upstairs after international passport control. We did just that and found a calming atmosphere with various zones available for working, dining and relaxing.
Once on board, Vietnam Airlines' Boeing 787 premium economy comes in a 2-3-2 layout spanning just five rows. There's plenty of room to stretch your legs with a generous seat pitch of 42 inches (107cm) – that's 10 inches more than in economy – and ample room in the bulkhead (row 10) seats also: A recline of up to seven inches (18cm) can be had by pulling the appropriate lever, while a leg rest can be unlocked in much the same way. You'll find control buttons for your overhead reading light, inflight entertainment and crew call bell on the inside of the seat... ... while your entertainment screen folds up from within the armrest... ... and also houses a handy USB charging port for smartphones, plus a headphone jack: In between each seat is a shared cocktail shelf, but do resist the temptation to pull the 'lift' buttons unless you want your screen to appear: Finally, each passenger has their own AC power outlet – handily located around the front of that shelf (facing away from you) to keep cables out of the way. On the eight-hour overnight journey from Vietnam to Sydney, we were able to sleep for around 4.5 hours – certainly not what we'd usually fetch in business class being 6-7 hours on similar flights, but an acceptable result for premium economy in a seat with more legroom than offered by most other airlines.
Here's where the inflight experience drops the 'premium' feel and becomes just like economy: there are no drinks offered before take-off, and instead of the hot towel provided in business class, cabin crew simply deliver a packaged refresher towelette as you take your seat.
Once in the air, supper is served on an economy-style tray with plastic cutlery, plastic plates and a bread roll plonked on top, aside an agar salad with three-layer pork (top right) and a Vietnamese-style sweet soup for dessert (bottom right): The main course comes wrapped in foil, with a choice of fish with fettuccine, chilli, lemongrass and a saffron Mornay sauce (but no hints as to what that fish might be), or a grilled pork loin with garlic soya sauce and steamed rice.
We chose the latter, and while we'd not award any extra marks for presentation, the meal was surprisingly tasty and was a good portion size for a late evening meal. Wine, beer, spirits, juices, soft drinks and teas are also available, but the beverage list provided doesn't include a proper wine list, nor details of the actual spirits and beers on offer.
Upon asking which white wines were available on our flight, the crew responded only that "we have a white and a red". Naturally, we chose the 'white', whatever it was. Continuing with the 'economy' vibe, meal trays were very slow to be collected: ours remained in front for around half an hour after finishing the meal, with some travellers returning their own tray to the galley so that they could head to sleep.
Bottled water is provided as the cabin lights are dimmed, with breakfast served precisely two hours before landing.
Along with fresh fruits, plain yoghurt and another bread roll, the options were steamed pork with ginger and fried egg noodles, or scrambled eggs with chives, a pork sausage and grilled tomato: again served under foil. We chose the eggs but found them rather bland while the sausage wasn't much better – so after a few bites, we were done. All things considered, this is far below the standard that most travellers would expect from premium economy, so it's best to think of this as being "economy with a better seat", rather than "business class service without the flat bed".
The inflight menu was also heavily unbalanced with three out of four main courses containing pork – pork loin for dinner, steamed pork for breakfast or eggs with a pork sausage – with the dinner side dish also a pork salad.
Without the usual "chicken or beef?" option, pre-ordering a Halal or Kosher meal for this flight could be a good idea if pork isn't part of your normal diet.
Entertainment & Service
Fold out your 10.6-inch inflight entertainment screen to enjoy a range of movies, TV shows, games and audio tracks... ... although content selections are rather limited: particularly the TV shows where we found nothing of interest.
The 'economy' experience continues with cabin crew distributing poor-quality headphones that require some assembly before use and which distorted the sound with too much treble, making some spoken words difficult to understand: Every movie we accessed was also heavily censored – and while it's common for airlines to remove foul language from flicks, this is the first time we've seen décolletage redacted as well: At the front of the premium economy cabin are also three bulkhead-mounted screens showing the flight's progress on the moving map, but these remained turned on and at maximum brightness for the duration of the flight, including overnight when the cabin lights had been switched off. We'd fortunately packed a spare eye shade which allowed us to sleep even with this bright light directly in front, but without it, we'd have struggled to doze off at all.
Speaking of amenities, Vietnam Airlines promises premium economy passengers "high quality sleeping kits made from the finest materials and accented with elegant designs" on its website, with "personal care bags which include essential amenities... for travel exceeding 4 hours."
Despite these claims, no amenity kits or goodies were provided beyond a plain-coloured pillow and blanket found on our seat at boarding time, with the blanket being the same as Vietnam Airlines offers in economy on short Vietnamese domestic flights.
So, with everything except the seat being no better than economy, how do Vietnam Airlines' premium economy fares stack up against your other options?
As it turns out, it's an incredibly affordable way to fly, with an entry-level 'premium economy standard' ticket actually cheaper than an 'economy flex' fare, and only $180 more than 'economy standard': For business travellers whose plans may change, 'premium economy flex' is only $105 more per flight than 'economy flex' on the Sydney-Ho Chi Minh City route, so even if your company will only spring for a flexible economy ticket, you could always pay the extra yourself to secure an upgraded seat.
At these prices, Vietnam Airlines' Boeing 787 premium economy is quite good value, but rings true the classic phrase "you get what you pay for".
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Vietnam as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.