Just because you’re in the back of the plane doesn’t mean you can’t fly in comfort.
Q: How can I get a good seat on my flight if I don’t have elite status? —Anne R., Bozeman, Mont.
A: As airlines reduce their schedules and pack more people onto planes, economy passengers are increasingly feeling the pinch. Adding insult to (squashed-knee) injury, carriers also reserve covetable window and aisle seats for high-ranking loyalty-program members. But you needn’t get stuck in the middle. Here, some ways to find a better seat.
Choose your flights by cabin layout.
Seatguru, our favorite online airline-seat-map compendium, has recently added a new flight-search function that lets you filter results by comfort as well as the usual factors (price, duration, etc.). Mining the site’s trove of cabin data to assess both seats and in-flight amenities, Seatguru offers you an overall “G-Factor” rating of “Love it,” “Like it,” or “Live with it” for each flight—and tells you how much it will cost to trade up for a plane with more legroom or a seat-back entertainment system.
Buy a better seat.
Most major airlines have added (or are in the midst of adding) roomier seats in their main cabins. Called “premium economy”—or some variation—these seats come with extra legroom and other perks, depending on the airline. But are they worth it? It all comes down to how much you’re paying. The cost of trading up can range anywhere from $8 to $129 per flight, depending on the carrier and when you buy the upgrade. In recent tests of domestic airlines, we found that upgrading to premium economy at the time of booking usually tacks from 14 percent to 40 percent on to the cost of an economy ticket—well below the price of a business-class fare, but a significant outlay nonetheless. (Note that the price sometimes decreases as the flight date approaches.) On international carriers these seats are significantly nicer and more spacious—though considerably more expensive. As usual, loyalty pays off: most domestic airlines offer complimentary premium seats to elite fliers.
Check back—again and again.
Though some carriers, notably American Airlines, let you buy “preferred” seats (window and aisle seats near the front of the plane) at the time of booking, others (such as Delta) reserve a large portion for upper-tier loyalty-program members. As these frequent fliers get upgraded, however, their economy seats are released to the public. Check 24 hours before your flight to see if anything has opened up, again when you arrive at the airport, and finally at the gate. You may have to pay—but not always. You can also off-load this responsibility to the website Expertflyer, which will send you an alert when better seats become available.
Spend your miles.
You can upgrade using miles, but there are some hitches. Some lower-fare economy tickets are not eligible for upgrades, or require significantly more miles than full-fare tickets do. What’s more, you’ll often have to chip in cash as well as miles. American Airlines charges between $100 and $700, round-trip, to move up to business class; United’s co-pay ranges from $150 to $1,200, round-trip, depending on your fare class and the length of flight. Also, always keep your preferred carrier’s alliance partners in mind. You can often spend your miles to upgrade on their flights, too.
Purchase an upgrade.
Certain airlines let you simply buy an upgrade to another cabin. Fliers on US Airways can trade up from economy to first class for $100 to $200, round-trip, starting 24 hours before departure. Virgin America allows you to upgrade to Main Cabin Select or first-class seats for between $78 and $598, round-trip, beginning 24 hours (for Main Cabin Select) and six hours (for first class) before your flight. Just be sure to be among the first to call. These deals go quickly.
Know Your Plane Models
For long-haul flights, look for the spacious double-decker Airbus A380, used primarily by Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and Lufthansa. New smaller aircraft, including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB, have larger windows, HD video screens, and lower cabin pressure. Most booking websites, including Kayak, list plane details in the results.
Consider the Airline
“Some airlines, such as American, are now squeezing ten seats per row into a Boeing 777 where nine used to be the standard,” says Gary Leff, aviation expert and founder of BookYourAward.com. He says that Asian carriers, in general, have more comfortable cabins (both more space and amenities), followed by European airlines—something to keep in mind for long-haul flights.
Check the Seat Configuration
The quickest way to see the cabin layout for a specific flight is on SeatGuru’s app (free; Android, iOS) or website (which recently launched a flight-search function). Detailed maps indicate whether there are lieflat seats in business, if you should expect less legroom because of an equipment box, and which seats to avoid so you don’t end up near the lavatories—or get repeatedly bumped by the service cart.
Use the Right Booking Tools
On Routehappy.com, you can search by factors such as nicer planes, entertainment, fast Wi-Fi, and roomier seats. A “happiness” score—like Hipmunk’s “agony” index and SeatGuru’s G-Factor—is used to rank flights. Want to know if the food is palatable on a specific British Airways route? Or if United’s Economy Plus seats have outlets? Check out Flyertalk.com forums for reviews from fellow fliers.
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