Why flying economy will always be my go-to on long hauls

Oct 23, 2019

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In all the travel I’ve done in my life, I’ve almost exclusively flown economy. Aside from a few last-minute upgrades at the airport (and only when they were a good bargain) and an upcoming trip in premium economy on Virgin Atlantic paid for with points, I am quite familiar with cattle class. Of course, I wouldn’t complain about a fancy seat and extra room to stretch my legs on a long flight. I do work for The Points Guy, and we are all about showing people how to fly in style for free. But, personally, a premium class is just not the option I look for on most trips.

The thing is, a few hours of luxury aren’t, to me, usually worth the money (and experiences I’d have to give up as a result) to fly closer to the pointy end of the plane. The benefits of economy were driven home to me again during my time on the TPG mileage-run challenge last month.

In case you missed it, the mileage run sent me and my colleagues Vikkie Walker and Samantha Rosen on a quest to earn as many miles toward airline elite status as we could during the week of Sept. 22. We were all on a tight $725 budget, so economy was the only thing in the cards for us.

After the story posted, I saw a few commenters say that we came off as a little elitist. All three of us, at some point, made some remarks about how flying in economy was a bummer.

I think we can all agree, readers and reporters alike, that flying in economy is kind of a bummer. At least by some measures. It’s definitely not the most comfortable way to get places. It’s called economy for a reason after all: the people who fly in the back are usually the most budget-conscious and aren’t necessarily looking for luxury in the sky. But that’s OK! Economy still has some definite advantages, including allowing lots of people to travel to new places without breaking the bank — or using (a lot of) their points balance.

(Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)
An acceptable amount of legroom for me. (Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)

For starters, I’m a full foot shorter than The Points Guy himself. Obviously, our respective heights are something neither Brian nor I can control, but in this case, being short is definitely a competitive advantage for me. At only 5’7″, even the tightest airline seats aren’t too much of a squeeze. And flying China Eastern, I actually found the legroom pretty generous. Even with a blanket stuffed into the seatback pocket, my knees remained un-grazed by the seat in front (though I’m not sure that Brian would have been so lucky in the same seat). Height aside, I have a few coping mechanisms that help me make the most of coach.

I try to board the plane as early as possible and put all of my carry-on luggage in the overhead bin. The extra foot room gained by not having a bag under the seat in front makes a considerable difference when it comes to making a long flight more comfortable.

(I’m not rude about it, though. I will put both my carry on and personal item in the bins if there’s room, but if it seems like things are filling up I’ll take my personal item back out to make space for others so they don’t have to gate-check a bag. Economy passengers, I feel, are all in it together and should help each other out when they can.)

(Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)
Plenty of overhead bin space on this flight. (Photo by Zach Wichter/The Points Guy)

I also do my best to get an aisle seat. Frequent travelers, obviously, have strong feelings when it comes to the great window-versus-aisle debate, but here’s my logic for why the aisle is the only way to go on a long-haul flight in coach:

  1. You can get up whenever you feel like. I find that getting up to stretch at least a few times on a long flight helps keep me from getting too stiff. (Pro tip: most aisle armrests can be raised if you press the release button underneath, usually near where the arm rest meets the seat back. It makes getting up even easier.) I also tend to feel a little claustrophobic if I have to get someone’s attention before I can get up, so I generally prefer the choose-my-own-destiny freedom that an aisle seat provides.
  2. On long overnight flights, you can’t really take advantage of the window anyway. Because airlines want to maximize the sleeping opportunities for their passengers, evening departures are usually dark-cabined, with mandatory window-shade closures strictly enforced. What’s the point of having to climb over people just to sit next to a blank wall?

Another thing I have working in my favor is I tend to sleep pretty well on planes. Again, I know that’s not the case for everyone, but I will say: NyQuil is your friend. On night flights over 10 hours, I always take something to help me sleep. On the way to Shanghai, it enabled me to catch seven hours of continuous shuteye. A good neck pillow, too, goes a long way toward making economy flights more comfortable.

My ability to sleep is another reason I like the aisle seat. I would feel bad waking someone else up if I had to go to the bathroom, but I don’t mind being woken up myself, because I can usually fall back asleep pretty quickly.

Above all though, I think the key thing to remember about economy is: you’re still going to get where the plane is going. Whether you love flying like I do or not (and to be sure, a love of flying also helps long flights seem more fun), the flight itself is only one part of the adventure. There are lots of ways to make the most of it, and you should find a setup that works best for you. Maybe, like my colleague Sam, that means using some of the money (or points) you saved by not flying first class to treat yourself to a spa day at either end of your trip!

Featured photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy

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