July 2, 2004 -- A little bit of legroom goes a long way. That was Matt Daimler's thought when he started SeatGuru.com back in 2001. Three years later, the site is the number-one place to look for inside tips on where to sit on 21 different airlines, from JetBlue to Qantas.
Now run full-time by Daimler's wife Susan, SeatGuru is more than just a chart of airlines' legroom -- it tracks which seats recline, which ones are near the bathroom, which ones have power ports and even which ones let you best see the movie screen.
For example, if you're flying a Delta Boeing 767 overseas, you might want to grab row 15 -- those economy-class seats have extra legroom and are in an extra-quiet little mini-cabin of three rows. And if you're taking any flight on JetBlue, you'll probably want to get a seat in rows 13-25 -- they often have more legroom than seats in the front, and row 26 is too near the bathroom.
To use SeatGuru, you need to know what kind of plane you're flying. JetBlue only has one cabin configuration, but United has 23. Most online travel agencies will show you the plane type you'll be flying on when you're making your reservation. You can also call your airline's 800 number and ask a customer service what kind of plane you'll be on; it's no secret.
Playing Airline Musical Chairs
There's one catch: sometimes airlines don't play fair. First of all, some airlines have multiple seating configurations for the same plane. United, for example, has two different 737-300 layouts they call "US Market 1" and "US Market 2." There's no way to figure out which "market" you're in online -- you have to call United's reservations phone number and ask them.
To add to that, airlines tend to switch out planes without notice based on which flights are at or near capacity, which planes are having mechnical trouble, or where there are weather delays. "That can be frustrating," Susan Daimler says. For instance, "The Airbus 319s, the 320s and the 321s can all be switched out for each other. You'll have picked the perfect seat on the 320, and when they switch it for a 321 you'll find your perfect seat doesn't exist."
There's nothing you can do about that, and airlines can switch the planes right before flying. So your best bet is to make yourself a cheat sheet before you head to the airport, Susan Daimler says. Write down the seats you want on all possible planes for your airline and destination. Then, when you get to the check-in counter, double-check that the plane is what you think it is. If it isn't, ask for a different seat based on your cheat sheet.
Airlines' seat-booking policies can also be pretty confusing. Airlines release seats in chunks over time, so you can book your flight six months in advance and be told that only four seats are available. That's not actually true, of course -- it's just that the airline is only letting you reserve those four seats that far in advance.
Your best bet for getting a great seat is to use airlines' online check-in options, Susan Daimler says. Many airlines let you print out your boarding pass on your home computer 24 hours before you fly, and then drop your luggage off at a kiosk near the airport's check-in counter. That way, you can grab the exit row a full day before you fly, and hours before anyone starts checking in in person.
Finding the Best Economy Seat
For economy class fliers, two airlines stand out above the rest, Susan Daimler says. The back half of JetBlue's planes, and American's "More Room in Coach" planes (about 75% of their fleet) have more leg room all around, she says. Otherwise, finding the best seat is a plane-by-plane -- and often row-by-row -- decision. Check out the maps on Seatguru.com to find the best seats.
When you're flying internationally in economy class, pay more attention to amenities rather than legroom, Susan Daimler advises. Seat-back video screens with wide entertainment choices, great service and tasty food can distract you from cramped seating. You may be able to eke out an inch or two of extra legroom by picking the right seat on the right plane, but your flight will go much faster if you can choose from 20 video channels, as you can on Cathay Pacific flights, or watch satellite TV as you can on JetBlue.
For more wisdom from the Daimlers and seat maps for 21 airlines, head on over to www.seatguru.com.
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