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How to snag an exit-row seat when flying U.S. carriers

Dec. 21, 2020
16 min read
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Whether you are 6'7" like TPG founder and CEO Brian Kelly, or you simply want more space, you might want to book an exit-row seat for your next flight.

With tight seat pitch in economy on many airlines, travelers covet exit-row seats for the extra legroom they often provide. Many airlines allow flyers who have elite status to select exit-row seats for free either at booking or at check-in. But there are often ways for non-elites to snag these seats as well.

Although exit-row seats have their benefits, there are also downsides. For example:

  • Exit-row seats are often narrow due to fixed armrests
  • The tray table and entertainment screen may extend from the armrest and be uncomfortable to use on exit-row seats
  • Exit-row window seats often only have partial armrests, limited window views and limited legroom due to the exit door design
  • Aircraft designed often located lavatories near exit-row seats on wide-body aircraft
  • Seats in the first of two exit rows generally won't recline

So, consider the tradeoffs. And, of course, you can only sit in an exit-row seat if you're willing and able to assist in case of an emergency. But, if you'd decided you want an exit-row seat, today I'll discuss how to snag one on 10 popular US-based airlines.

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Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines A321neo at New York JFK (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Alaska's website states that only Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan elite members can reserve exit-row seating in advance. Non-elites can check-in as usual and then ask any customer service agent at their departure airport about exit-row availability. But, doing so is only likely to get you an exit-row seat occasionally.

Non-elites looking to snag exit-row seats in advance will want to fly Alaska's A321 aircraft. On this aircraft type, Alaska usually classifies exit-row seats near the plane's rear as Saver seats.

Exit-row seats bookable as saver-level seats on Alaska Airlines A321 from Seattle to New York JFK (Screenshot courtesy of Alaska Airlines)

You can search your route on Alaska's website and click "Preview Seats" under each option until you find one with exit-row seats bookable as Saver seats. But, you'll be out of luck on most Alaska flights since I only found exit-row seats available as Saver seats on the A321.

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If you need extra space but can't snag an exit-row seat on Alaska Airlines, you could purchase a Premium Class seat after selecting a Main or Saver fare. Although Premium Class usually doesn't include exit-row seating, it does provide four extra inches of legroom and a complimentary drink.

Alternatively, if you have elite status with another airline, you might be able to status match and challenge to get Alaska Airlines elite status. Doing so would allow you to select exit-row seats on most Alaska Airlines flights while you work to earn status with Alaska Airlines.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on Alaska Airlines

Allegiant Air

Allegiant Air charges between $0 and $80 to select a seat during booking. However, on most routes I checked, the price to reserve an exit-row seat at booking was between $16 and $29.

If you don't purchase a seat while booking, you can purchase a seat before check-in using the Manage Travel page. Or, you can purchase a seat during online check-in. But, Allegiant won't change your seat assignment at the airport or once you've pointed your boarding pass.

Related: Southwest vs. Allegiant: What it’s like to fly a low-cost airline during a pandemic

American Airlines

American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER landing at New York JFK (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

American Airlines classifies most, if not all, exit-row seats as Main Cabin Extra seats. The following elite members can snag Main Cabin Extra seats for free:

  • American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro and Platinum members (at booking for the member and up to eight travelers on the same reservation)
  • Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald members with elite status on British Airways, Iberia, Finnair or Japan Airlines (at booking for the member and up to eight travelers on the same reservation)
  • AAdvantage Gold and Oneworld Ruby members with elite status on British Airways, Iberia, Finnair or Japan Airlines (within 24 hours of departures when seats are available)

If you don't have elite status with American Airlines or select Oneworld partners, you can still pay to select Main Cabin Extra or Preferred seats, including exit rows. Plus, Main Cabin Extra seats come with complimentary beer, wine and spirits on flights with full beverage service.

The legroom of this exit-row window seat on American's 787 is slightly restricted since the aircraft wall curves inward right before the exit door. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Prices vary for Main Cabin Extra seats depending on the route. But, prices are seemingly the same regardless of date or whether you get a window, aisle or middle seat. For example, for a flight from Chicago (ORD) to Los Angeles (LAX), exit-row seats cost $95. And for a short hop from Washington (DCA) to Portland (PWM), exit-row seats cost $43.

Exit-row seats bookable as Main Cabin Extra seats from Chicago to Los Angeles. (Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

You can pay to select seats even when flying on an American Airlines basic economy ticket. Unfortunately, American Airlines is seemingly blocking most exit-row seats on its widebody aircraft. So I was unable to check exit-row seating costs on transcontinental and long-haul international flights.

Related: A beginner’s guide to American Airlines economy seats

Delta Air Lines

Delta planes in Salt Lake City (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Delta’s designates most exit-row seating in the economy cabin as Preferred Seating. But, you can also snag extra legroom in Delta's extra-legroom Comfort+ seating, which the carrier technically sells as a separate class of service. And you can purchase Preferred or Comfort+ seating on any Main Cabin ticket.

All Delta elite status levels get complimentary Preferred Seats and Comfort+ upgrades, although Comfort+ upgrades will clear at different times for different status levels. But, if you're flying on a Delta Basic Economy fare, you're not eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades to Preferred or Comfort+ seating.

Delta A350 exit-row seats (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

On the Boeing 767-400, a widebody jet Delta uses on many transcontinental, European and South American routes, exit-row seats are only available in one row and sold as Preferred Seating. I checked the JFK to LAX route on several dates and the buy-up to a Preferred exit-row seat was $159. However, the cost of a Comfort+ seat with extra legroom ranged from $139 to $179. So, many passengers looking for extra legroom might prefer the Comfort+ seat over the exit row.

Exit-row seats bookable as Preferred Seating on Delta (Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

For a short-haul route from Atlanta (ATL) to Savannah (SAV) on Delta's Boeing 717-200, you can select exit-row seats with limited recline on a Main Cabin fare for no additional cost. However, for flights on this route operated by Delta's CRJ900, exit-row seats (including some with limited recline) cost $9. Alternatively, you can select Comfort+ seats with extra legroom on both aircraft types for a modest amount that ranged from $14 to $19 on several dates I checked.

Exit-row seats bookable for no additional cost on Delta 717-200 (Screenshot courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Related: Delta Air Lines extends seat-blocking through March 2021

Frontier Airlines

Row 1 Stretch Seating on Frontier Airlines (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Frontier Airlines sells Stretch Seating that has five to seven more inches of legroom than standard seats. Stretch Seating costs between $35 and $70 per flight. Frontier says that purchasing seats at booking provides the best price.

Frontier's aircraft generally have Stretch Seating in the first couple rows that provide 36" of legroom and exit-row seating that provides 38" of legroom. There are two consecutive exit rows on some Frontier aircraft, but Frontier only marks row 13 as Stretch Seating. After all, row 12 has extra legroom but isn’t pre-reclined. So, if you don’t mind not being pre-reclined, row 12 may present an opportunity to get extra legroom at a discount.

Related: 7 takeaways from Zach Griff's first Frontier Airlines flight in over four years

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Hawaiian sells exit-row seats as Extra Comfort Seats on Airbus A321 and A330 routes and as Preferred Seats on all neighbor island routes. Hawaiian Pualani Platinum and Pualani Gold elites are eligible for upgrades to Extra Comfort and Preferred Seats at the airport based on availability.

However, you can purchase an upgrade to Extra Comfort and Preferred Seats at booking or after booking as long as you didn't buy a Main Cabin Basic fare. A Preferred Seat on a neighbor island flight costs just $10 per passenger each way. But, Extra Comfort Seats on A321 and A330 routes vary in cost.

Related: 5 reasons to fly Hawaiian Airlines to Hawaii


JetBlue Airbus A321 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

JetBlue's exit rows are all sold as Even More Space seats, which have up to seven inches more pitch than standard JetBlue seats.

The cost to reserve an Even More Space seat varies based on route and seat location. For example, exit-row Even More Space seats on JetBlue's Boston (BOS) to Los Angeles (LAX) route cost between $99 and $101. Meanwhile, exit-row Even More Space seats on the New York (LGA) to Boston (BOS) route cost between $30 and $32.

Options to purchase seats on a JetBlue flight from New York LGA to Boston. (Screenshot courtesy of JetBlue)

You can also use JetBlue miles to reserve an Even More Space seat. Unlike on many airlines, JetBlue elites don't receive complimentary upgrades to Even More Space seats. However, JetBlue elites do get discounted prices when using miles to reserve Even More Space seats.

Related: The complete guide to the JetBlue TrueBlue program

Southwest Airlines

On Southwest, you'll have your pick of any open seat when you board. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Southwest does boarding and seating a bit differently. No one is assigned a seat, so there's no way to reserve an exit row. Instead, you merely select whatever available seat you want when you board.

Southwest determines boarding order by the order you sign in when check-in opens 24 hours before departure. But, even if you check-in immediately, Southwest elites and those who purchase a Business Select fare, Upgraded Boarding or EarlyBird Check-in will be ahead of you.

If I check-in precisely 24 hours before departure or purchase EarlyBird Check-in, I'll usually be able to snag an exit-row seat. But, I might end up in a middle seat or have to argue with someone who is attempting to save a seat.

So, if you're serious about making sure you get an exit-row seat, you'll want to purchase a Business Select fare or upgraded boarding — which is often available for purchase at the gate before boarding. Business Select fares are usually substantially more expensive than other fares, but upgraded boarding is often available for $30 to $50. And cardholders of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card get four upgraded boardings per year when available.

Related: Everything you need to know about the best seats on Southwest Airlines

Spirit Airlines

(Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

TPG founder and CEO Brian Kelly enjoyed Spirit when he flew in an exit row from Havana to Ft. Lauderdale in 2017. Regular seats, including exit-row seats that provide up to 10 inches more legroom, cost between $1 and $50 to reserve. The specific cost varies based on route and seat location.

In some cases, Big Front Seats will be a better value than exit-row seats. Big Front Seats cost $12 to $150 when purchased in advance and $25 to $175 when purchased onboard. These seats provide 36" pitch and 18.5" width, which makes them similar to domestic first-class products offered on other U.S. carriers.

For example, here's what seat costs currently look like on a flight from ORD to LAS in May:

Options to purchase seats on a Spirit flight from Chicago to Las Vegas (Screenshot courtesy of Spirit)

Big Front Seats and exit-row seats sometimes sell out. So, it's best to purchase your seat early if you're sure you want the extra space.

Related: Why having the Spirit Airlines credit card isn’t crazy

United Airlines

United A320 exit-row seat (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

United Airlines allows you to reserve some exit-row seats that the airline designates as Preferred seats. Additionally, you can also purchase extra-legroom Economy Plus seating. If you buy a United Basic Economy ticket, you can pay to reserve Preferred exit-row seats at any point or Economy Plus seats at check-in.

The cost to reserve Preferred or Economy Plus seating varies. For example, for a United 757-200 flight between EWR and SFO in May, exit-row seats range from $19 to $139. The first row of exit-row seats is classified as Preferred seating due to limited or no recline and costs $19 to $29 to reserve. The second row is classified as Economy Plus seating and costs $134 to $139.

Options to purchase seats on a United flight from Newark to San Francisco (Screenshot courtesy of United)

Or, for a flight from EWR to BOS in May, an exit-row seat will cost you between $25 and $26 on United's 737-700.

Options to purchase seats on a United flight from Newark to Boston (Screenshot courtesy of United)

United MileagePlus Premier members get complimentary access to Economy Plus and Preferred seats. All MileagePlan Premier elites can select Preferred seats for no charge at booking. And Premier Gold and higher members can snag Economy Plus seats at booking, while Premier Silver members can select Economy Plus seats at check-in. You can also purchase an Economy Plus subscription from United if you fly the airline frequently but don't have status.

Since United elites and subscription members will snag the best seats as departure nears, it's best to purchase exit-row or Economy Plus seats when you book if you know you want the extra room.

Related: 6 flyer-friendly improvements United should consider implementing next

Bottom line

If you're tall or simply want extra legroom, exit-row seats can make your economy flight much more comfortable. As shown in this guide, almost every airline will charge you to reserve exit-row seats. Of course, you can always try asking nicely for an exit-row seat at the airport. Although asking will sometimes net you an exit-row seat, it's better to plan ahead and pay if you want to guarantee yourself an exit row.

Be sure to understand the details of the seat you're paying to reserve, though. If there are two adjacent exit rows, usually the seats in the first row won't recline. Some aircraft may have exit doors that restrict the legroom of the passenger in the exit-row window seat. Other airlines, like United, discount the price of these sub-optimal exit-row seats, while others will sell them at full price. And, remember: some airlines sell seats that may be more comfortable than exit-row seats at a similar price — such as Spirit's Big Front Seat. So be sure to check all your options before simply assuming the exit row is the best place to sit in economy.

Featured image by (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.