If your biggest complaint about airline travel is the seats, you are not alone. Uncomfortable seats are a worse fate than even high ticket prices and long security lines, according to the 4,300 of you who responded to our Air Travel Survey. And when we asked you which amenity would most improve your in-flight experience, “more legroom” was the clear winner. So I thought I’d offer up a few of my own tried-and-true tips for snagging better seats. You can get more legroom by paying extra, of course, but that’s not the only solution.
1. When choosing between flights, pick the aircraft with the roomier seats.
Seat width and pitch (a measurement of leg room) vary by airline and aircraft, as well as within the plane. So, when you’re choosing a flight, it’s smart to compare the seat sizes on the aircraft you’re choosing among. Coach-seat width is usually 17 or 18 inches, and pitch is usually 30 to 31 inches, but it can vary considerably, especially internationally. Jetblue has some of the comfiest seats in the air because they are often 18 to 18.25 inches wide, with a pitch of 32 to 33 inches. (Jetblue seats also have individual TV screens and 36 channels of live TV.) The easiest way to suss out seat sizes (as well as in-flight amenities and entertainment) on the airlines and aircraft you’re considering is via SeatGuru’s comparison charts.
2. Select your seat at the time you book your airline ticket.
Don’t just accept any seat assignment. Look at the seat availability map for the flight you’re booking. At the same time, go to SeatGuru and pull up the airplane seat map for your flight so you can look into the pros and cons of the seats that are still available.
3. Pull up the airline’s seat availability map again periodically before your flight.
Seats may open up, especially within a couple of days of your flight, as some business travelers cancel and as others with elite status get upgraded to business class, leaving behind preferred coach seats. Look also for seats that open up next to empty middle seats; you might switch to one, hoping that the empty middle seat will remain empty.
4. Check in online as early as you can.
Check in as close to 24 hours ahead as possible. That’s because 24 hours ahead is when even more passengers with elite status get upgraded, leaving preferred coach seats empty. It’s also when certain seats with more legroom (e.g., exit row and bulkhead) can be booked. That exit-row seat may cost you, but by now you may well have decided it’s worth the $50.
5. Ask the gate agent if a better seat is available.
A lot of last-minute seat changes happen at the gate. Families with children get moved so they can sit together, elites get upgraded, and sometimes the entire aircraft gets switched, resulting in everyone’s seats being reassigned. If your flight has empty seats, the gate agent often has the ability to move you next to one. Whenever I ask to be moved next to an empty seat, I find it helps to point to my laptop and explain that it’s crucial I get work done on the flight and that I need the elbow room as well as the ability to raise my laptop screen upright (which is something you can’t do in back-of-the-plane seats when the passenger in front of you reclines). It’s a rare gate agent who doesn’t care about helping business travelers stay productive in flight.