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How to get a better airline seat without paying extra

It seems fees are everywhere, but it may not cost you much -- or anything at all -- to get a seat where you'll be more comfortable.

By MSN Smart Spending editor Aug 14, 2013 2:22PM
This post comes from Angela Colley at partner site Money Talks News.

MoneyTalksNews logoEveryone knows the seats in first class are roomier than in coach, but did you know that not every seat in coach is created equal?

Seats may be narrower in the back of the plane, and some seats may have more “pitch” — the space between your seat and the seat in front of you – than others. Get the wrong seat, and you’ll have less legroom, more fights for the armrest with the guy next to you, and possibly a worse flight than someone sitting in one of the choice coach spots.

To make matters worse, most airlines now set aside seats for elite customers and for those who are willing to pay more up front for a seat with more space and priority boarding.

If you’re a nervous flier – or just tired of being shoehorned into increasingly cramped airline seats – there are ways to get more space without upgrading to first class or paying more for the better seats in coach.

The best seats

What separates a good seat from a bad seat? Here are some guidelines:
  • The best seats are the window or aisle seats toward the front of the plane. Avoid the middle seat, where you could be sandwiched between two oversized folks. This is particularly true if you’re traveling alone.
  • If you’re a nervous flier, The Independent Traveler says those sitting over the wing feel less turbulence.
  • Emergency exit rows generally have more legroom than a regular seat. However, keep in mind that no one under the age of 15 can ride in the exit row. So if you’re traveling with kids and you want them sitting next to you, this is not an option.
  • You may also get more legroom if you take a seat in the first row, directly behind the separating wall. As an added bonus, no one will be able to lean back into your laptop or turn around and talk to you during your in-flight nap.
How to get them
Compare planes and seats online. To increase revenue, some airlines have added seats to their planes, so a cheaper flight may be more cramped than a flight aboard the same plane flown by another airline. How can you tell before you buy and board? Use sites like SeatGuru, SeatExpert or, which rate seats on the planes of each airline for roominess, features and drawbacks.

Woman using computer on airplane © Compassionate Eye Foundation, Lifesize, Getty ImagesJoin the frequent-flier program. Many airlines set aside their best coach seats for their premium or elite members. If you frequently travel on the same airline, sign up for the frequent-flier program, then enter your number when you buy tickets. Once you’ve earned premium status, you’ll have free access to better seats.

Book early. That will give you more selection to choose from among the seats not set aside for the elite customers and those willing to pay more.

Use a travel agent. Travel agents may have access to better seats than people who book their own flights online. You’ll have to pay to use a travel agent, but the price is often only $20 to $30. Bonus: Consider the time you’ll save by not having to search for and book the flight yourself.

Get a better seat later. If you end up booking a middle seat, sign up for a site like If a better seat opens up, the site will notify you immediately, and you may be able to change your seat selection. However, check with the airline before you do to make sure you won’t be charged for the change.

Plan ahead with travel buddies. If you’re flying as a couple, book the window seat and the aisle seat. Since the middle seats are unpopular, perhaps no one will book that seat. But don’t count on it. When was the last time you flew on a plane that wasn’t full?

Suck it up and pay the price. If all else fails, you can always pay for a better seat in coach. Expect to pay anywhere from $10 to more than $100 depending on the airline.

Last-minute options

If you’re down to the wire and facing a cramped middle seat for a long cross-country flight, you may still be able to turn things around. When check-in starts, any unreserved seats go up for grabs, so you can log on to the airline’s website and perhaps select a better, unclaimed seat. Typically, check-in starts 24 hours before departure, but you’ll have to act fast – seats go quickly.
If all else fails, turn on the charm. A smile and a nice conversation with the gate agent, flight attendant or even another passenger might get you a better seat. I’ve given up my seat before because someone asked nicely. Give it a shot.

More from Money Talks News:

Aug 14, 2013 4:52PM
I recently flew Delta from Atlanta to Europe.  My in laws and grandchildren were in the Elite row, but I was in coach.  Turned out there was an empty seat next to my grand daughter in the elite section.  After we had been in the air a while, the seat was obviously vacant, so I went and sat next to her and we were playing some games to pass the time.  Along comes a middle aged blonde stewardess and tells me that I can't sit there because I did not pay the upgrade price.  I've been around long enough to know that there was no point in explaining that the seat was going to fly all the way to Europe empty anyway and my moving was not adding to the airlines costs.  So I went back to my seat and the granddaughters came back a few times to talk to me until the same stewardess told them not to stand in the aisle.  Later I went back to the bathroom/kitchen area just to stand and stretch my legs a bit.  I put my knee on one of the jump seats for a few minutes, and you guessed it- the same stewardess told me that it  was HER seat.  I survived the 9 hours to Europe with the happy thought in my mind that she will be suffering from the effects of  menopause for a LONG time.
Aug 20, 2013 4:25AM
I'm getting sick and tired of men sitting down and then spreading out like they own all the seats.  Do not tell larger persons not to spill over until you stop people from spreading out over two seats.  Keep your legs in your section.  You are not entitled to the arm rests on both sides. Keep your person in your seat and get out of mine.
Aug 22, 2013 7:27PM
Flew  Ft. walton bch to Portland Maine a few years back. A middle aged lady limps on board with a cane keeping her leg completely straight out into the isle.When the stewardess tells her to put her leg under the seat the lady exclaims " Can't you see i'm crippled. With that the stewardess gives her a vacant 1st class seat...but when I got out of the airport to the rental car desk comes "miss crippled" swinging her cane and walking just fine...if my wife wasn't with me I would have tripped the bitch on the way out !
Aug 15, 2013 11:53AM
Or, I have seen (most recently - American Airlines) active duty personnel flying in uniform be bumped to empty first class seats.  Class move American!  I had paid extra for the first row behind the First class divider wall on that flight  - very comfortable and, bonus, we had no 3rd person take the middle seat, so ended up with the most enjoyable flight we've ever experienced.
Aug 14, 2013 2:43PM
Aug 14, 2013 4:37PM
I don't know how some people fit into an airline seat they are so large (nice way of saying obese).  On one flight, a man took the window seat but his body spilled over into the middle seat, I was in the aisle seat and prayed that no one would try to sit in the middle seat ... thank God no one did.  I don't blame the airlines for wanting to charge double they are, after all, occupying two seats and the seats are uncomfortable to begin with.  I weigh 95 lbs. and on some airlines I have little wiggle room.
Aug 22, 2013 7:54PM
I spent  15  years flying   for hobby related  activity.    It used to  be comfortable,  pleasant  and reasonable,   Then  came 9/11  and   it   quickly  went down  hill.  More hassles  checking  in,    smaller seats,   less room for luggage,   no  meals  or drinks,  cranky   staff.   and delays beyond belief.    2011  I  bought a  Class B RV   2012  I retired   from  work  and my hobby.  Now travel  is on  my terms.  Comfort,  no  hassles,  and  no  darn  TSA.
Aug 22, 2013 8:13PM
I thought this article was supposed to tell how to get a better airline seat without paying extra; it doesn't:

1.  Comparing planes and seats online is only going to show you what we already know:  the seats at the front of coach (i.e., UA's Economy Plus, etc.) have more room....and cost more, as a result.  You want one, you have to pay for it.

2.  Racking up enough miles in a frequent-flier program to get to a premium level isn't free; it costs money in tickets or fees (i.e., reward-credit card annual membership fees).

3.  Booking early does give you more selection, but only in the cabin you buy in.  It doesn't help you get a better seat in the back of coach, where all the seats are the same.  Yes, you can argue that you can get an aisle seat, but who cares when the neighbor is spilling into your seat and the service carts are banging into whatever body part of yours is hanging in the aisle to get more room?

4.  "You'll have to pay to use a travel agent...."  Well, then I guess you're paying extra, aren't you?

5.  Get a better seat later by checking with the airline to see if they'll just give you one for free if it opens up?  Right.  That's about as likely to happen as not paying for checked bags or food on your flight because the airline wants to help you out.

6.  This suggestion (flying with a buddy and booking the aisle/window seats "in hopes" that no one will book the middle seat) is ludicrous.  No, it doesn't cost more, but it's just dumb because it never happens.  If the seat is empty, then a walk-up or an airline employee traveling stand-by will be put in it.  As the author says, negating her own suggestion, "When was the last time you flew a plane that wasn't full?"  Never.  Next....

7. "Suck it up and pay the price."  There we go; the first bit of accuracy and truth this author has written in the whole article.  Unless you can afford to fork out the money for an Economy Plus, Business, or First Class seat, there is no way around the hell of flying in uncomfortable plane seats anymore.  The airlines have made sure of that so they can squeeze every penny of revenue out of every flight.  
Aug 22, 2013 8:06PM
You want  a good seat, you want comfort, pay for the damm seat, because by the time you finish listen to this bull crap story, everyone would trying to do the same thing...............................
Aug 22, 2013 7:33PM

Bad experience on Spirit Air no matter where the seat was.

Aug 22, 2013 9:58PM
Chili Dog farts will always get you a little extra elbow room.
Aug 20, 2013 4:16PM
Aug 22, 2013 9:30PM
I had a middle seat a couple of years ago on a 4-1/2-hour domestic flight. The extremely overweight guy on the aisle rested his arm, which was double the size of my thigh, on the arm rest. For the entire flight, the back of his arm rubbed back and forth across my boob--how humilating. The seats are so narrow now that even my 125-lb body uses up most of the seat, so there was no escaping his arm.
Aug 22, 2013 11:32PM
I'd rather sit next to a larger person than two parents who pass out and their toddler crawls all over me!
Aug 22, 2013 10:43PM
The airlines are so money hungry that they want to charge extra for the emergency exit seat. Is it my fault that I am 6'3" tall. So flying is going to be miserable for me in most cases. And I do let the person know in front of me that they will not be able to recline because my knees are already against the back of the seat, so it may be a miserable flight for that person also. But I will say this on a positive note. I have flown Southwestern a few times this past year and found that I had more legroom on those domestic flights than most airlines have on international flights (unless you pay for an extra legroom seat). Now I wish Southwest had international flights.
Aug 22, 2013 8:40PM
 Some of these comments are so funny....Thanks.... i need to laugh
Aug 22, 2013 9:12PM
It's been a long time since I flew on a plane with unoccupied seats. Even in transatlantic flights, it feels like a can of sardines. Glad to report though, flight attendants are becoming better persons.
Aug 22, 2013 10:56PM
Last time I flew I reserved a seat that became the place to sit on the plane. I'm not sure why because it was not a prime location. First a family who, apparently, had to select seats separate from each other wanted it so they asked me to switch. I didn't want to because I had an aisle seat and they had one farther back on the plane. However, I agreed and moved. Next thing you know another family who were partially seated on the row in front of them started hassling them to move from the same seat so they could sit there. All I could think was "Why does everyone want THAT seat?' I'm glad I moved because after the first request I probably would have lost my temper with the second family and gotten myself kicked off of the plane.
Aug 23, 2013 2:48AM
just saying, 20 year united FF member. Booked travel from Hawaii to LA with preferred reserved seat ( aisle) 9C. upon check in had seat 35E ( center).( WHAT??)  When I shared frustration & showed Itinerary  to agent I was informed that it was a "request" and was not a guarantee. I further was frustrated as I had a very small window for connecting flight, & the 35 would probably miss connect. She was ever so kind to move me to row 7( center ) and waive the $65 upgrade fee... ( 6" extra leg room )
Wow, it was great to be up front, else I would have missed my connect. However it was still a center seat, with less than accommodating seat mates. 5 1/2 hr flight totally uncomfortable, red eye & no sleep..
As a person that travels a lot for business, I know the ins & outs as written here. But sometimes it appears no matter your strategy, the customer service has gone out of the airlines, & we the consumer are at their mercy.
United used to be my preferred, but Hawaiian does have ALOHA...I will rethink my next mainland flight. ( many other issues with United not shared here )

Aug 23, 2013 1:23AM
Never have to worry about what seat I get because all airlines are required by ADA to give me a seat that is both on left side and an aisle because when I have a flight longer than 3 hours I need a wheelchair to be able to exit aircraft and am unable to bend my right leg.
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