How to Get the Best Airline Seats Without Paying Extra

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Everyone knows the seats in first class are roomier than in coach, but did you know that not every seat in coach is created equal?

Seats may be narrower in the back of the plane, and some seats may have more “pitch” — the space between your seat and the seat in front of you — than others. Get the wrong seat, and you’ll have less legroom, more fights for the armrest with the guy next to you, and possibly a worse flight than someone sitting in one of the choice coach spots.

To make matters worse, most airlines now set aside seats for elite customers and for those who are willing to pay more up front for a seat with more space and priority boarding.

If you’re a nervous flier – or just tired of being shoehorned into increasingly cramped airline seats – there are ways to get more space without upgrading to first class or paying more for the better seats in coach. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has some tips to get the better spots without paying extra. Check it out, then read on for more.

The best seats

What separates a good seat from a bad seat? Here are some guidelines:

  • The best seats are the window or aisle seats toward the front of the plane. Avoid the middle seat, where you could be sandwiched between two oversized folks. This is particularly true if you’re traveling alone.
  • If you’re a nervous flier, The Independent Traveler says those sitting over the wing feel less turbulence.
  • Emergency exit rows generally have more legroom than a regular seat. However, keep in mind that no one under the age of 15 can ride in the exit row. So if you’re traveling with kids and you want them sitting next to you, this is not an option.
  • You may also get more legroom if you take a seat in the first row, directly behind the separating wall. As an added bonus, no one will be able to lean back into your laptop or turn around and talk to you during your in-flight nap.

How to get them

Compare planes and seats online. To increase revenue, some airlines have added seats to their planes, so a cheaper flight may be more cramped than a flight aboard the same plane flown by another airline. How can you tell before you buy and board? Use sites like SeatGuru, SeatExpert or SeatPlans.com, which rate seats on the planes of each airline for roominess, features and drawbacks.

Join the frequent-flier program. Many airlines set aside their best coach seats for their premium or elite members. If you frequently travel on the same airline, sign up for the frequent-flier program, then enter your number when you buy tickets. Once you’ve earned premium status, you’ll have free access to better seats.

Book early. That will give you more selection to choose from among the seats not set aside for the elite customers and those willing to pay more.

Use a travel agent. Travel agents may have access to better seats than people who book their own flights online. You’ll have to pay to use a travel agent, but the price is often only $20 to $30. Bonus: Consider the time you’ll save by not having to search for and book the flight yourself.

Get a better seat later. If you end up booking a middle seat, sign up for a site like ExpertFlyer.com. If a better seat opens up, the site will notify you immediately, and you may be able to change your seat selection. However, check with the airline before you do to make sure you won’t be charged for the change.

Plan ahead with travel buddies. If you’re flying as a couple, book the window seat and the aisle seat. Since the middle seats are unpopular, perhaps no one will book that seat. But don’t count on it. When was the last time you flew on a plane that wasn’t full?

Suck it up and pay the price. If all else fails, you can always pay for a better seat in coach. Expect to pay anywhere from $10 to more than $100 depending on the airline.

Last-minute options

If you’re down to the wire and facing a cramped middle seat for a long cross-country flight, you may still be able to turn things around. When check-in starts, any unreserved seats go up for grabs, so you can log on to the airline’s website and perhaps select a better, unclaimed seat. Typically, check-in starts 24 hours before departure, but you’ll have to act fast — seats go quickly.

If all else fails, turn on the charm. A smile and a nice conversation with the gate agent, flight attendant or even another passenger might get you a better seat. I’ve given up my seat before because someone asked nicely. Give it a shot.

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Comments & discussion

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  • bigpinch

    I don’t fly much. I can’t afford it. But when I have to I have found that booking a flight with the help of AAA has a real advantage. I can book way in advance (and pick a good seat) for the cheapest price. Then, I can buy travel insurance from AAA just in case my plans fall through; I don’t risk losing the price of a non-refundable ticket. The extra cost of insurance doesn’t add as much to the cost of the ticket as it costs if I buy it closer to my departure date.