advertisement

Get comfortable. Your seat is where you spend your flight, and people have pretty strong personal feelings about those little squares of fabric and metal. Especially when the person in front of them reclines. Here's how to get the most out of your personal space.

Most airline sell more tickets than they have seats, and they save a bunch of seats for high-paying or frequent fliers until 24 hours before the plane leaves. The result is that you may not get a seat assignment when you book your ticket. This puts you in a dangerous position; you may end up with the least desirable seats, and folks without seat assignments are the first to get bumped off the plane. If you don't have a seat assignment, check in online 24 hours before your flight, which will give you the first pick of seats.

Fortunately, most airlines nowadays let you ogle the available seats as part of the booking process, before you buy your ticket. American Airlines even lets you check out free seats on any flight without going through the booking process.

There are a few exceptions to the general run of things. Southwest doesn't assign any seats in advance. Instead, they give you a card with your "boarding order" based on how early you checked in and how high your fare was. (This makes it especially important to check in on-line, 24 hours in advance, with Southwest.) Seats are first come, first serve based on boarding order.

The Delta and US Airways "shuttle" flights between New York, Boston, and Washington also don't have assigned seats, and those are even more chaotic -- whoever gets to the gate first, gets to board first.

Southwest's open seating policy has one big advantage, for families traveling with small children. Shockingly, no airline will guarantee you a seat next to your small child. But Southwest lets families board relatively early in the process so they can grab groups of seats together.

Seating Standards

Nowadays, the standard airline seat size is 17.2 inches wide, with 31 inches of seat pitch. (Seat pitch isn't quite the same as legroom, but it's okay to conflate the two.) That's smaller and narrower than when I wrote the first edition of Fly Safe, Fly Smart nine years ago, but there are some airlines and planes that offer a little bit more room in coach. Beyond these general suggestions, there are individual seats and rows in some planes which are better than others. We covered these last year in the column "How to Get the Best Seat on the Plane."

If you want more room, fly JetBlue. All of JetBlue's seats are wider and offer more legroom than the norm. They'll give you 34 inches of legroom for free -- some other airlines make you pay for that -- and if you pay a little more, you get 38 inches. JetBlue's seats are also an inch wider than the industry standard. Southwest's and Virgin America's legroom doesn't match JetBlue's, but both airlines are an inch better than the industry standard.

The worst seats in the air, meanwhile, belong to Spirit. This shouldn't surprise you; Spirit's entire business model is based around lowering fares by any means possible, so they try to cram extra seats on the plane. Depending on your plane model, Spirit's seats can be as cramped as 28 inches. Second place in the cramped-seat sweepstakes goes to Allegiant Air, which has a 30-inch seat pitch. A recent USA Today article reports that both airlines have installed non-reclining seats in at least some of their planes. AirTran's Boeing 717 planes also have that cramped 30-inch seat pitch, though their 737 fleet is at the industry standard of 31 inches.

Beyond these general recommendations, you can turn to SeatGuru (www.seatguru.com), the Web's top source of airline seating information. They have charts of every seat on every plane, with their favorite seats colored green. I always check SeatGuru as I'm making my seat reservations.

More Room For Your Money

You know about economy class and business class. But on some airlines, there's a middle class; people who pay a little extra to get slightly better economy-class seats. United and JetBlue have this idea right -- they've actually established an invisible middle class that lets you pay a bit more for more legroom. US Airways, Allegiant and Spirit do it wrong, charging to give you reservations for basically ordinary seats.

All airlines, and all airplanes, have bulkhead and exit row seats. Exit row seats have more legroom, but they're often quite cold and drafty, especially by the window. Bulkhead seats have nobody reclining in front of you, but you also don't have any under-seat storage in front of you for your personal items. All the major airlines allow elite frequent fliers to reserve exit rows and bulkheads in advance, but they'll release unreserved seats 24 hours before the flight -- so if you check in online, you'll get the best choices. (Do you sense a theme here?)

Remember, if you intend to sit in an exit row, you need to be above the age of 15, speak English, not be carrying an infant or a pet, and be strong enough to help lift a large door.

Allegiant is a super-low-cost carrier, so they charge for advance seat assignments -- and they warn that this may be the only way your family will get to sit together. Seat assignments are $11 per passenger, according to Allegiant's Web site.

Frontier calls their middle class "Stretch Seating," and it gives you five more inches of legroom. The price is $15-25 depending on how low your fare was to start with (on lower fares, you pay more for the extra legroom.) You have to buy the option at check-in, though; you can't reserve it in advance unless you've bought one of Frontier's most expensive tickets.

JetBlue already gives you more legroom than the competition, at 34 inches of seat pitch. For $10-60 more per flight (depending on the length of the flight), you can get "even more legroom" at 38 inches. Some of these seats are just the ordinary emergency exit seats, but I like the option of taking rows 2-5 on JetBlue's Airbus planes, which don't have the draftiness and inconvenience of emergency exit rows.

Southwest only has one class of seats. But their "Early Bird" option at least lets you get on the plane to choose your seat first. For $10, you'll get one of the first boarding positions assigned to you 36 hours before your flight.

Spirit even charges for carry-on bags nowadays, so it isn't surprising that they charge even for basic seat assignments. If you want to be able to pick your seat -- and not have it assigned randomly to you at the last minute -- it'll cost you $7 for a middle seat, $12 for a window or aisle, and $15 for an exit row, according to SeatGuru.

United's preferred-seat program, Economy Plus, was the first of its kind. Economy Plus seats are available on almost all United flights, even overseas, and cost $9-109 depending on the length of the flight. Economy Plus gives you up to five more inches of legroom depending on the aircraft United is using.

US Airways has "Choice seats" which actually aren't much of a prize; they're just the aisle and window seats in the front of the coach cabin. Even more annoyingly, you can't reserve them when you book your ticket; you can only buy them if you check in online, a day before your flight. Choice seats start at $5 and head up from there depending on the length of your flight.

Unusual Passengers

Americans have gotten wider in recent years, but airline seats have gotten narrower. Airlines say that if you can't fit into a seat with the armrest down, you need to buy a second seat. This is one of the few cases where they actually will guarantee that two seats you buy are next to each other, as you very well can't fit part of yourself into row 21 and part into row 33. There's no discount on the second seat, though you probably won't have to pay taxes on it. If you're lucky, the airline may even refund your extra seat fee after the fact, a choice they make based on whether there are other available seats on the flight.

The second-seat trick doesn't just apply to wide people. You can buy a second seat for fragile items, too; there are plenty of classical cellists who have received second boarding passes for "Mr. C. Ello."

In both cases, make your booking by phone. There are special codes that an airline agent needs to enter to make sure your second seat ends up allocated correctly.

Wide passengers can buy a second seat; tall passengers can upgrade to better legroom. But there's no guaranteed option for families with small children. Shockingly, airlines won't guarantee that you'll be seated next to your child -- even if your child is four years old. The airlines I spoke to said that if you and your four-year-old get seated apart, your only choice is to appeal to other passengers to switch seats. Hopefully, nobody will want to sit next to someone else's child if given the choice.

Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.

Talk with other Frommers.com Flyers on our Air Travel Forum.