Pick Your Seats Carefully
Check Online: This may seem like a daunting decision, but several services are simplifying the search. Veteran SeatGuru.com’s color-coded airplane maps make it easy to spot the roomiest seats farthest from the bathroom on long- and short-haul flights. The site’s new Guru Factor (or G-Factor) “comfort rating system” grades the in-flight experience with the tags “love it,” “like it” or “live with it,” with scores based on legroom, comfort (defined as type of seat, seat pitch, width and recline), Wi-Fi, in-flight entertainment and more.
SeatExpert.com also has charts, albeit more simplified ones. Keep in mind that the legroom in an exit-row or bulkhead seat can be equivalent to business class on some airlines. However, more and more airlines are charging a premium for those coveted rows, and they do have drawbacks, namely narrower seats.
Routehappy, meanwhile, tracks more than a dozen seat “Happiness Factors,” from legroom and chair width to layout and connection length. Finally, Hipmunk.com initially sorts your search results by “agony” factor, which is a combination of the price, duration and number of stops. The only inconvenience is that none of these three sites are booking platforms, so you’ll have to take your favorite routes and reserve them elsewhere.
Seats to Avoid: Any seat with its back against a bulkhead or in front of exit rows won’t recline fully.
Stuck in the Middle? “I’ll ask at the gate if there are any middle seats in between two people with the same last name,” says travel writer John DiScala, better known as Johnny Jet. They may well give up the aisle or window to sit together.—Reid Bramblett and Bree Sposato
Snag Your Seat Immediately Upon Booking Your Flight—Or 24 Hours Before Boarding
Choose your seats as soon as possible, and check back once a month to make sure your seat hasn’t been changed. Sometimes, plane models change and automatically move you for operational reasons. Checking back may also help you notice seat openings from unexpected cancellations (this is especially true the week of travel). At the 24-hour marker, airlines sometimes start moving elite flyers into first and business class, allowing you to pounce on bulkhead, aisle or extra legroom seats.
Download Seat Alert Apps
If you’re unable to get a good seat upon booking, don’t give up hope—there are two great apps made for just that. Trip organization app TripIt Pro’s new Seat Tracker tool allows Pro members ($49 per year) to log in, create an alert for a future flight, select their criteria (a window seat in the exit row, for example) and the number of seats if traveling with company (up to four) and then receive a text or email if the seat(s) open up. The more affordable option is ExpertFlyer, which offers monthly membership (from $4.99 per month), but also allows you to sign up for one seat alert at a time for free. You won’t be able to actually book a seat when it becomes available—for that, you’ll have to turn to the airline’s own site.
Check in Online as Early as Possible
Pick Your Seat When You Book: It’s usually possible to select seats online within 90 days of departure, but you have another shot to snag a decent spot when you check in for your flight.
The 24-Hour Rule: Checking in online at least 24 hours before boarding will ensure you get prime pick of seats. (Note that Spirit and AirTran now charge to pre-book seats.)
Open Seating: Early check-in even works when you can’t pick a specific seat. With “open seating” (no assigned seats), passengers board in large groups; coveted group A, the first group to board, gets first pick.
Another Reason to Check in Early: Airlines routinely oversell flights, and the first passengers to be involuntarily bumped from an overflowing flight are those who check in last.
Pay Extra for Comfort
Exit-Row Supplements: Many airlines—currently including Delta, Northwest, US Airways, Spirit, and AirTran—now charge for exit row seats; the fees range from $5 to $75 depending on the airline and distance traveled.
Legroom and Premium Perks: Several airlines are tinkering with special seats at the front of the plane, which offer four to six extra inches of legroom ($10 at JetBlue, $14 at United, $35 at Spirit). If you’re willing to pay a fee or use loyalty points, more than 40 percent of U.S. flights offer “extra legroom economy” seating with extra legroom and a few perks, such as free drinks, early boarding and so on. United offers a “Premier Access” program at some airports that starts at $9 and includes access to priority check-in lines, security lines, and boarding passes. “Premium Economy” is a mostly international concept and is a great option for longer-haul jaunts.
But flyers don’t always need to pay for a little extra room. According to Routehappy, 13 percent of domestic flights have spacious seats in regular economy class. Southwest has the most flights with the site’s “Roomier” designation (on some of its 737 fleet), but that’s on only 31 percent of its flights overall. JetBlue and Virgin America have smaller networks and fewer flights, but every seat is a “Roomier” one; 96 percent of Alaska Airlines flights have “Roomier” seating, too.
—Reid Bramblett and Bree Sposato
Tony Kurdzuk/Star Ledger/Corbis
Skip the Lines
For frequent travelers, the Clear Card—at $180 per year, plus $50 for a spouse or child—may be well worth the investment. It lets you jump TSA security lines at select airports, including San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Denver, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Texas, and Westchester, N.Y. Another, more affordable option may be the TSA’s PreCheck program, which gives eligible flyers an expedited pass through security by letting them walk through a traditional scanner without removing their laptop, coat, shoes, belt or watch. It’s a new program, so it’s available only through seven participating airlines at certain terminals in about 40 airports so far—but is expected to reach more than 100 airports next year.
Never be that person—there’s one on every flight—trying to cram his oversize bag into the overhead bin as other passengers bottleneck in the aisle, sighing and shifting. Do yourself (and everyone else) a favor by mastering the art of the carry-on. First, choose a functional bag with pockets no more than about 9 x 22 x 14 inches, if possible. Pare your items down to the essentials, keeping in mind you can likely buy supplies in your destination; bring layers instead of a bulky coat, for example; conserve space by rolling your clothes or zipping them into airless baggies; and stow any medications and electronics in an easy-to-reach pocket.
Be Smart About Frequent-Flier Miles
It’s About the Perks: Save up your miles not for a free ticket but to achieve “elite status” on the frequent-flier program. This is your golden ticket to upgrades, priority boarding, and no-fee bookings of those prime exit rows, bulkheads, and other seats. Some airlines even waive checked-luggage fees. And of course, by becoming elite with one airline, you get the benefits on a whole family of carriers: One World, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance.
“Once you fly one airline in each alliance, you get the same perks on all,” says Johnny Jet. “You get on the plane first, get your bags on first, often get a special check-in line or security line, and are able to request an exit row or bulkhead at no extra charge.”
According to Jet, most airlines grant their lowest level elite status to travelers who hit the 25,000-mile mark—that’s just five flights from NYC to Los Angeles. United doesn’t reward those members with exit rows like it used to, but Delta and American do. Even if you’re not a frequent flyer, some airlines, such as U.S. Airways, will let you move to the exit row upon checking in 24 hours in advance. “But the best way to get the best seat in coach,” advises Jet, “is to ask the gate attendant if there’s an open seat next to you. If you’re an elite frequent flyer and they know the flight isn’t going to sell out, they’ll block out the seat next to yours if you ask nicely. I always bring three boxes of chocolates when I fly to get rock star treatment: one for the gate attendant, one for the flight attendants and one for me.”
—Reid Bramblett and Bree Sposato
Bring Your Own Food: “The quality of airline food is just so awful nowadays that even a simple sandwich from home is like a gourmet treat,” says guidebook guru Arthur Frommer.
Pack Your Favorite Things: American Airlines flight attendant Valerie Ricci carries her own tea bags because “sometimes being more comfortable is just having the things you’re comfortable with, and I like my orange spice tea.”
Drink Lots of Water: Bring an empty water bottle and fill it at a fountain—after you go through security.
Pack Your Own Entertainment
Time Flies When You’re Busy: Don’t rely on SkyMall and the in-flight movie to keep you occupied. The list of possible diversions is endless: personal stereo, favorite magazine, sudoku, or, suggests Arthur Frommer, “Some giant novel that you’ve always planned to read—War and Peace or the Naguib Mahfouz trilogy about Cairo.” Before you leave home, download one or two movies onto your own device, bring an e-book or the real thing and make sure all of your batteries are charged. In the U.S., the top airlines for entertainment and perks in coach are JetBlue (think TV, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and free snooze kits with earplugs and eye masks on overnight flights) and Virgin America (expect TV, leather seats, mood lighting, Wi-Fi, power outlets and a touchscreen meal and drink ordering system). Abroad, Singapore Airlines is known for larger-than-average LCD screens and amenity kits filled with a toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, earplugs and an eye mask. Don’t mind if we do.
BYO Headphones: Avoid paying the airline $5 for its crummy headphones; bring your own from home for free.
—Reid Bramblett and Bree Sposato