Over the past decade, flyers in economy (also known as coach class) have lost a few perks, and we’re not talking champagne. We’re talking basics like free bags and free seats.
Oh, you still get a free seat, but on some airlines the freebie is most likely to be a middle seat. There are ways around this, though. Sometimes it means paying extra, but these charges can be reasonable. Here are some strategies that will help you get a more comfortable seat for less.
How to Get More Comfortable Seats
This is just a sampling of what some airlines offer, but most airlines will show you all these options and more during the booking process (or at check-in) to entice you into paying fees. Take a look, and see if any are worth it to you. If you’re not sure how seats are set up on your carrier, SeatGuru can show you seats on every aircraft flown by every airline.
1. An Extra Seat for Free
Unfortunately, this seat deal is only for those brave enough to admit they’re big enough for two and it’s only available on Southwest. Go to the airline’s Customer of Size policy for details, but essentially you book and pay for two seats for a trip; afterwards your money will be refunded (and you will get the refund even if the flight is sold out). Don’t worry about Southwest’s open seating plan when boarding, either; nobody will snag your second seat because the airline will give you a “Reserved Seat” document to hold it.
2. Seat-Selection Fees
Some airlines do not allow economy passengers to select any kind of seat, and this includes most passengers on Spirit and those who fly Delta’s cheapest Basic Economy class (see ‘Last Class’ – A Sub-Economy Seat You Might Want). Instead of selecting a seat, one is randomly assigned to you and if you don’t mind a middle seat, fine. Otherwise, pay a little more and you’ll get at least a better situated seat, such as an aisle or window or one closer to the front of the cabin.
- American: The airline’s “preferred seats” are priced from $4 and get you an aisle or window that might not otherwise be available.
- Delta: The cheapest Basic Economy tickets only have seats assigned after check-in; to choose your own, you must travel the next tier up called Main Cabin, which also allows the purchase of “preferred seating” (prices vary, but are about $19 on a coast-to-coast flight).
- Southwest: The best way to get the best single seat on this airline is by paying the $15 EarlyBird fee. This moves you toward the front of the boarding line; the first to board get first crack at the most popular seats.
- Spirit: Basic seat selection costs from $1-$50.
3. Roomier-Seat Fees
It’s nearly impossible to provide exact prices for so-called premium seats because airlines typically charge varying rates, usually based on length of flight.
- American: A seat with up to six inches more legroom (plus priority boarding) is available for those who pay for Main Cabin Extra. This can cost as little as $20 on some flights, but book carefully: The fee can jump to nearly $200 on others.
- JetBlue: This discounter’s seats are relatively roomy compared to, say, Spirit, but you can get a few more inches of legroom by paying for an Even More Space seat, priced from $10 and up.
- Spirit: The airline offers its Big Front Seats starting at $12, but the price can rise to $199 again, depending on destination.
- United: An Economy Plus seat may cost only $9 – or it could cost up to $299 – so it might make sense for short hops only. If you like it and fly a lot you can pay a yearly subscription fee, but you'd better really like it since this fee can zoom to $1,099.
4. The Cheapskate Method
You’re stuck near the lavatory and want to be close to the front – or maybe you’ll settle for an aisle or window farther back, but you don’t want to pay an extra dime. You may luck out through sheer persistence.
In the days before departure, keep going back to your reservation and click on the seats tab to see if any more have become available (it happens). If you see something you like, grab it; otherwise, keep returning and definitely do so at check-in time (24 hours before departure). If you still don’t see the seat you want, visit the airline’s kiosk at the airport or see if you can have a quick chat with a sympathetic gate agent. You’ll never know if you don’t try.
For other ways to save on flying, see The Cheapest Way to Buy Two or More Airline Tickets and Airline Ticket Prices: What a Difference a Day Makes.
Rick Seaney is the CEO and cofounder of FareCompare.