You probably know the basic airplane seat hierarchy: First class, business class, exit row, proles. Coach-class airplane seating is so sad and grim that it's always best to try to game the system. That could mean upgrading with frequent flier miles, reserving an exit row on your day of departure, or hoping that elite status will give you a gentle bump up to the front cabin.
But even if you're an infrequent flier who doesn't get access to the choice seats, there are some ways to get a slightly better seat than everyone else's. I put my head together with Matt Daimler, founder of SeatGuru (www.seatguru.com) and the world's greatest expert on airline seating, to come up with some seats and planes to keep an eye out for.
Before you pick your seat, you've got to know your plane. Usually, your plane model will be listed on your reservation or on your travel agency website; if it isn't, you can call your airline and ask. Then you can look at the seat maps on SeatGuru to pick your favorite seat. Some airlines have multiple configurations of some planes. SeatGuru explains which configurations are used for which routes, but sometimes you just have to try to match up SeatGuru's various maps with the seat assignment map that you get during the online reservation process.
Daimler had some general guidelines, beyond the specific seats I picked. Watch out for galleys if you like to sleep, he says -- frequent light and activity in the galley areas can kill a peaceful rest. And keep an eye out for "crew rests," seat rows which may have a lot of extra room because they're used for the crew to take breaks on long-haul flights. If those planes are used for shorter domestic flights, the seats may be reservable by ordinary folks.
Here are my favorite coach-class seats on 10 popular planes, trying to avoid exit rows when I can.
AirTran mostly flies Boeing 717-200 planes. AirTran is a pretty egalitarian airline, so I'll just pick a well-located coach seat. Seat 11C is quiet, has a good view, is near the front and is part of a two-seat pair with no middle seat.
Sometimes picking the "right seat" is just about being in a well-balanced location on the plane. Flying an American Airlines 767-300, seats 24 C/G are at the perfect distance for seeing the movie, far enough from the gallery and lavatories, towards the front, and -- bonus! -- they have power ports.
On a Delta 767-300 flying internationally, go for seats in row 17. These seats are in a "minicabin" that's a bit set apart from the body of the plane and can be a little quieter. On some planes, the window seat has a pointy bit which can make it difficult to sleep when the seat is reclined, though.
Frontier Airlines has quite a few Airbus A319 planes. On those, seats 11A/F are the way to go -- they aren't technically exit row seats, but they're just behind the exit row and there's actually no seat in front of you, giving you terrific leg room.
JetBlue has the best deal in the sky for folks who want more legroom; they let you reserve "even more legroom" seats with 38-inch pitch for $10-30 more per flight. I'll pick row 3 as my favorite -- it's close to the front, but unlike in row 2 you aren't right behind a row of standard seats who are more likely to recline.
On Delta/Northwest 747-400 planes, you want seats 64 A/K. Most of the time, sitting in the back of the plane sucks, but not on overseas flights with these Northwest planes. Because the plane has started to curve, there's empty space left by these window seats for you to stash bags or stretch your arms. Rows 63 and 65 also have empty space, but if you're in 64, there's nobody ahead or behind your empty space, either.
Southwest Airlines fliers know the magic of seat 12F on the airline's 737-300/700 planes. This is an exit row seat where there's no seat at all in front of you, so you have massively more leg room. It does get cold by exits during a flight, but at least you can stretch your legs.
Spirit Airlines is not widely known for their comfort or service, but you can improve your life on their Airbus 319 planes by picking row 3 (or 4, if there's no coach class row 3). This is a bulkhead row, but the important point is that there's no physical bulkhead, just a lot of leg room. Spirit charges for seat assignments, but at least the $12 for these seats is less than the $15 exit row charge.
United Airlines' Boeing 777 Worldwide 2 layout is used on flights to Europe and Asia. On those planes, you want to be in 21 H/J -- a two-seat pair with extra legroom, because it's right behind seats the crew uses to nap in. The seats are also pretty far from both the lavatories and the galleys.
Finally, a bunch of airlines fly Embraer ERJ-145 planes on shorter routes, including Continental Express, American Eagle, and US Airways Express. If you're flying alone, it's good to know that the A seats on these planes are all by themselves -- there's nobody next to you. I'd pick seat 5A for the best balance of being near the front, quiet, but away from the gallery and door.