How to Fly Coach in Comfort

Narrow seats, no food—don’t fret! Here’s how to make the most of your economy-class flight.

See our slideshow on How to Fly Coach in Comfort.

Welcome to seat 22B. You’re wedged between a chatty couple, your seat won’t recline because you’re against the bathroom wall, your personal air nozzle and seat light are both broken, and the overhead bins were already full when you arrived. You read in the in-flight magazine that a can of soda will cost you $2, and the same stale ham sandwich that used to be free now runs $7. Oh, and you’ve already seen the movie. It was terrible. These days, it’s not easy being comfortable—and happy—in coach.

“Coach is commodity,” says business travel specialist Joe Brancatelli. “No matter what anyone from the airlines tells you, it’s sold totally and completely on price.”

The ever-struggling airlines are slashing services, raising fees, and charging for formerly free amenities—such as food, checked luggage, and exit-row seating—at an alarming rate. Given the flagging economy, leisure travelers are now battling over the cheap seats in coach with business fliers suffering from downsized expense accounts. It seems everyone is willing to suffer the miserable indignities of economy class in order to secure the cheapest tickets possible.

There are ways, however, to make the ride more comfortable, even in coach—whether it is patronizing airlines noted for customer service where it counts, angling for the perfect seat, or selecting minor upgrades à la carte. Finessing the frequent flier programs for perks is sure to improve your odds of having a comfortable flight, as will simply rendering yourself unconscious in dreamland (and avoiding the issue altogether). But before we get to the specifics, there are a few general commonsense tips that can make flying more comfortable in any class.

Valerie Ricci, a flight attendant with American Airlines for 25 years, advises everyone to travel light. “I watch people struggle with their luggage—lifting it, carrying it down the aisle, banging into other people,” she says. “If you want to be comfortable in coach, bring less on. You won’t have to have something under your feet, and it will make you more comfortable in general.”

Wardrobe makes a big difference, too. Long gone are the days when everybody dressed to impress on airplanes. “It sounds basic, but wear clothes you can move in and breathe in,” says Ricci. “Loose, stretchy fabrics might not be the most fashionable, but an elastic waist is more comfortable.”

For Matt Gross, formerly the New York Times’s Frugal Traveler, it’s about what you don’t wear. “As soon as we get airborne, my shoes come off and it’s a whole lot more relaxing,” he says. “Bring some slippers if you can—or just an extra pair of socks.”

No matter what your strategy for a comfy ride on board, the first important decision affecting your comfort is the airline you pick. So read on to find our top three picks for coach-class seats. And don’t book your next economy-class flight before reading all our suggestions on how to stay comfy in coach.

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