Top 10 Ways To Get A Better Economy Seat

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After the Twitterific fiasco I went through trying to secure KLM Economy Comfort seats for my upcoming trip to Cape Town while booking my flights through Delta last week, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at strategies for getting a better economy seat with the major airlines.

Delta's Economy Comfort seats onboard a 757-200ER.
Delta’s Economy Comfort seats onboard a 757-200ER.

The difference between a regular old coach seat and a premium one like Delta’s Economy Comfort, American’s Main Cabin Extra and United’s Economy Plus can be several more inches of legroom, pitch and recline – and the possibility of escaping a long flight of cramped, crumpled discomfort for…well, slightly less cramped, uncomfortable arrangements (let’s be honest, the airlines still pack you in tightly, but every inch counts).

Because even if you always fly business or first thanks to your miles, elite status, or travel budget, chances are you’re going to get stuck in economy sometime or another, and when you do, it’s best to be prepared and know how to maneuver your way into roomier quarters. Here are the things you can do to ensure you are.

1. Ask nicely: One of my mantras is, “it never hurts to ask.” After all, the worst a reservation agent, check-in agent or gate representative can say is, “no,” right? In fact, you should ask all of them until you get a yes. Granted, that might not always be enough – especially with fuller and fuller flights these days, but if you’re polite and cheerful and you catch someone on a good day, you never know.

2. Get someone with elite status to call: Among the many benefits of elite status is having dedicated customer service lines to call, and airline representatives will bend over backwards for their top-tier elites if they can. So if you know someone with at least a moderate level of elite status, ask them to call the airline for you and ask if someone on their elite desk can do them a favor and put you in a better seat. Again, this will depend on their status, the willingness of the agent, plane capacities and all those other factors, but if you have no elite status and your friend or family member does, their chances of snagging a better seat for you are much better. For instance, AAdvantage Platinum and Executive Platinum elites have complimentary access to Main Cabin Extra seats on American – as do even the lowest-tier Gold members until the end of the year – and on United, Premier Golds, Platinums and 1K’s have access to Economy Plus at the time of booking while Silver Premiers can choose them at check-in, so have your elite buddies put in a call for you and see what they can do.

Set up Expert Flyer seat alerts.
Set up Expert Flyer seat alerts.

3. Set up ExpertFlyer seat alerts: One of favorite features of Expert Flyer is Seat Alerts. Seat Alerts let you set up notifications when certain seats become available. You can specify up to 30 flights to monitor for availability of currently occupied or blocked seats in the cabin. You can choose if you want to be notified when a specific seat becomes available or you have the option of choosing any window, or any aisle and when a seat does come available, you’ll receive an email alert. This way you don’t have to be constantly checking the seat map to see if a seat will open up. Then when a seat you want does open up, you can call the airline or check the seat map online and try to get the assignment.

Most domestic airlines offer the opportunity to pay for Preferred Seating.
Most domestic airlines offer the opportunity to pay for Preferred Seating.

4. Pay for it: Often paying a small fee for extra legroom makes the world of difference on your flight and can be a fraction of the cost of an upgrade. This is what the major domestic carriers offer:

American Airlines: American offers the option of Main Cabin Extra for extra legroom and a Group 1 boarding pass, which means you board first, with prices starting at $8. You can request it when you make your reservation, add on to an existing one, or order at the airport self-service machines. Main Cabin Extra is currently available on all of the following AA planes: 777-300, 767-300, 757, 737 and the MD-80. Preferred Seats with standard legroom seats that are more favorably located throughout the Main Cabin are also available with prices starting at $4 per seat per flight.

Delta: Delta has Preferred seating – including bulkhead seats, aisle and window seats close to the front of the plane, and emergency exit row seats – that are available for non-Medallion members to buy and fees vary by seat location and flight destination. They can be purchased in advance or upon check-in. Delta’s Economy Comfort seats have up to 4 inches more legroom and include priority boarding, a location in the front of the economy cabin, and free beer, wine and spirits on international itineraries as well as from JFK to LAX/SFO/SEA. Economy Comfort are available at prices starting at $9 per seat per flight on all two-cabin aircraft, though prices can range up to over $200 depending on the length of the flight.

Southwest: The popular budget airline offers Early Bird check-in for a cost of $12.50 each way, meaning they will assign your boarding pass 36 hours before departure – 12 hours before general boarding positions become available – improving seat selection and the chance to get an A position, as well as giving you more access to overhead bins.

United Economy Plus
United Economy Plus offers more legroom and priority boarding.

United: Economy Plus seating offers extra legroom in the Main Cabin along with a position nearer to the front, and can be purchased either online at United.com or at the airport when you check in for a fee. Frequent flyers can also buy a subscription, which is valid for all segments in the subscribed region on all United and United Express operated flights where Economy Plus seating is available. Costs for Economy Plus OneTime vary depending by route and Economy Plus Subscriptions start at $499. For more details on the subscription, click here.

US Airways: US Airways has a section called ChoiceSeats, which are mostly window and aisle seats towards the front of Coach and may include exit rows. ChoiceSeats have the same leg room as other seats, but are closer to the front of the plane – so you’re among the first to get on when you board (with Zone 2) and among the first to leave when you land. ChoiceSeats can be bought for a fee at the airport or prior to arrival on line and on the phone. They are available on a per flight basis and fees start at $5 and vary depending on routes,  but if you have a connection you will have to buy one for each leg.

Virgin America Elite Seating
Virgin America Main Cabin Express has extra space.

Virgin America: Virgin America sells Main Cabin Express seats (different from Main Cabin Select) that are near the front of the Main Cabin and feature advance boarding in Group A and early access to the overhead bins. Passengers who purchase refundable fares and Elevate Gold and Elevate Silver members may select a Main Cabin Express seat assignment free of charge, but priority security is only available to Elevate Gold members, Elevate Silver members, and guests who pay the Main Cabin Express fee. Prices vary depending on the length of the flight, but start at $30. If you want to upgrade to Main Cabin Select, which is the first row and the emergency row in the Main Cabin with 6 extra inches in pitch, more legroom and free entertainment and food and beverages (including alcohol) as well as priority boarding and one free checked bag, you can do so starting 24 hours before departure for a fee of between $39-$159 per flight depending on the length.

Virgin Atlantic: Extra legroom is never more valuable than on a transatlantic flight, which is why Virgin America has the Extra Legroom option giving you 3 more inches starting at $30 per flight, up to $60 for LAX-Heathrow.  Seats can be booked in advance or upon check-in, but numbers are limited and early booking is strongly recommended, especially on longer flights.

The Amex Platinum Card.
The Amex Platinum Card gives you an annual $200 airline fee rebate, which includes seat assignment charges.

Don’t forget that the Amex Platinum card gives you an annual $200 airline fee rebate for the airline of your choice so that when you charge things like better seat assignments you get reimbursed in the form of statement credits.  This benefit is for all Platinum card members and runs on a calendar year – so if you don’t use it all by December 31, you lose it. If a little extra legroom isn’t enough, you can always use the rebate for a full upgrade. For all the options, read my prior post on Maximizing the Amex Platinum $200 Airline Fee Credit.

Tweeting an airline and being active on their social media pages can reap benefits.
Tweeting an airline and being active on their social media pages can reap benefits.

5. Leverage social media by tweeting: Being able to tweet an airline is a great asset when something goes wrong and you wish to lodge a complaint, but it can also be useful when you want to share good experiences and showing an airline some love can lead to preferential seating in the future. Here’s a handy hit list of the major airlines’ Twitter handles.

Virgin Atlantic is very active on Twitter.
Virgin Atlantic is very active on Twitter.

6. Be nice to the gate agent: When it comes down to it, you should always try to be nice to all airline employees, but especially the gate agent. They are there to help you and get the flight out on-time so if you don’t have the best seat, it doesn’t hurt to go up and ask them for a better seat. Obviously not if they’re performing boarding acrobatics trying to handle multiple late flights, disgruntled passengers or any other sort of operational crisis, but if everything is going according to schedule and the gate area is calm, get in line for the counter and wait your turn to ask. Often, gate agents are clearing last-minute gate upgrades, which usually frees up some desirable coach seats as their former occupants are bumped up to business or first class. Also if the flight is oversold, let them know you would be willing to volunteer to be bumped, because often times what happens is they end up not needing volunteers, and in some circumstances, the agent will take people off the volunteer list anyone and move them up to the front of the plane to free up seats in economy for the standbys. That’s pretty rare, but you might as well improve your chances if you have some flexibility with your flights.

It can't hurt to ask the flight attendant if you can move to a better seat.
It can’t hurt to ask the flight attendant if you can move to a better seat.

7. Ask the flight attendant: As boarding comes to an end, and you see some empty seats, ask the flight attendant if you can move to one of them. Some customers with assigned seats might not show up to the flight due to last-minute cancellations or missed connections so let the flight attendant know you would like to be reseated if possible and that you can be quick about it. Nobody wants to be the pushy passenger everyone else stares at, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease (not that you should be loud or rude under any circumstances) and if you don’t ask for it, it’s guaranteed someone else will. However, some airlines such as Virgin America they sell upgrades to better seats, even once passngers are onboard, so this wouldn’t necessarily fly there, and Delta is going to being selling upgrades to Economy Comfort on their international and transcontinental flights once onboard as well.

8. Check in at exactly 24 hours in advance: When it comes to getting better seats, many airlines hold them back for elites and to sell in advance, but come check-in time this real estate is fair game. Checking in exactly 24 hours in advance will give you first dibs at the seat map (though some airlines like United will only open them up even to their low-level elites at check-in so you might still have some competition). Also airlines tend to hold back the bulkhead seats until then since these are giving to customers with disabilities or small children, but if they are still available, they could be open for selection during check-in. Elite members may also be getting upgraded to a premium cabin, so some better economy seats may open up. Checking in early can’t hurt so you might as well give it a shot.

The American Airlines Elite Benefits Chart.
The American Airlines Elite Benefits Chart.

9.  Get Elite Status: Almost all carriers give elite members preferred seats for free at the time of booking, or in advance of the general flying public. There is a wide range of perks of benefits of being a frequent flyer even if you are traveling in Economy, here is a breakdown for the major domestic carriers.

American Airlines: AAdvantage elite members with Gold, Platinum or Executive Platinum get complimentary access to exclusive preferred seats and Main Cabin Extra (just until the end of 2013 for Golds wanting Main Cabin Extra), along with Preferred seating on Alaska Airlines. Preferred Seats are standard legroom seats that are more favorably located within the Main Cabin. Main Cabin Extra seats have 4-6 inches more legroom than standard seats, and if you don’t have elite status, you can score one by paying. Prices will range between $8-$108 per segment depending on the length of the flight. Customers with elite status and those traveling on full-fare, AAirpass or AAnytime Award tickets and active U.S. Military (and their family members traveling on the same reservation) have complimentary access to Preferred Seats. Otherwise they start at $4 and vary according to the flight.

Delta: Delta offers free Economy Comfort seats for Delta Diamond/ Platinum/ Gold Medallion, and Y, B & M fares (full fares) and a 50% discount for Silver Medallion or free for Silver Medallion starting at check-in (25% discount for Silver on international flights). For those flying with partner airlines, they offer Flying Blue Platinum/ Gold, and SkyTeam Elite Plus members. They also offer discounts to their airline partners’ elites like Flying Blue Platinum and Gold members and Virgin Australia Velocity Platinum members. See the whole price chart here.

Economy Comfort seats have up to 4 inches more legroom and up to 50% more recline on the JFK to/from SFO or LAX and ATL to/from HNL routes. Delta’s Preferred seats – in the exit, bulkhead, front cabin aisle and window – are free for all Medallion, and Y/B fares. M fare Economy Class tickets can select complimentary Preferred Seats at Check in. They are also free for SkyTeam Elite Plus/ Elite, Flying Blue Platinum/ Gold/ Silver, and Alaska Airlines MVP Gold/ MVP flyers.

Southwest: A-List and A-List Preferred Members automatically have their boarding position reserved 36 hours prior to their scheduled departure to receive the best available boarding position. This only applies for the member, not any travel companions even if they are on the same reservation.

United Elite Seating
United Economy Plus Seating chart.

United Airlines: MileagePlus members with premier status get complimentary access to Economy Plus seating with extra legroom (at check-in for Silver and at booking for all other levels), as well as for one companion (or up to 8 companions with Premier Platinum and Premier 1K).

US Airways: Dividend Miles Chairman’s, Platinum, Gold and Silver Preferred customers receive exit row seats free of charge.

Virgin America: Elevate Gold and Elevate Silver members may select a Main Cabin Express seat assignment free of charge. These seats are near the front of the Main Cabin and feature advance boarding in Group A and early access to the overhead bins. Gold members also get priority security access.

Virgin Atlantic: Gold Flying Club members get priority boarding and access to preferred seating.

10. Pay someone on board to switch: You need your own boarding pass and matching photo ID to get on a flight, but once you’re on the plane, it’s a free marketplace, so if you get a mediocre seat, why not try offering to pay someone who has a better seat assignment for their seat instead? If the price is right, they might just accept.

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