The Seating Game
While you may not be able to get your boarding pass in advance these days as you could before security crackdowns, you can still get seat assignments months before a flight. And that's where strategy comes in.
If you're flying coach, you most likely have a single-minded goal: more room. United understood last year, when it announced that its most frequent flyers and full-fare coach passengers might be able to reserve more roomy seats in a new section called Economy Plus. And American is removing rows to expand legroom in the entire coach section of its planes.
If you're not lucky enough to be on of those reconfigured planes, begin by finding out if you can get a more spacious exit row. Many airlines won't pre-assign them. Remember, not all exit row seats recline. If the airline doesn't assign exit rows ahead of time, get to the airport in time to snare one. You have to be physically able to open those heavy doors in the event of an emergency, and young children can't occupy an exit row.
If that's not an option, find out which seats offer the most legroom. On some common aircraft, such as 737s, all rows are created equal. But wide-body planes such as 777s, 747s, and Airbuses usually have rows of seats along side lavatories or galleys. These can have as much as six feet in front of them, more legroom than first class offers. How do you find those prized seats? Ask an airline reservation agent to look at a diagram of the layout of the plane you'll be flying. Or check out the airline's web site. Some offer maps with seat configuration.
Some of those big-real estate seats might not be assigned except at the airport a couple of hours before a flight. In that case, be the first in line to check in. But have a back-up seat assignment already in your reservation record in case you don't score the jackpot.
Here are some words of caution. Some airlines reserve the front of coach or their best seats for members of their frequent flyer program's elite levels or for passengers holding full-fare tickets. Airlines will also keep their middle seat empty for more elbow room. Which is why you often board a plane and find empty middle seats in the first third of coach, while the seats in the back of the plane are all filled. If you're flying with a friend, ask for the window and aisle on a three-seat row. Middle seats are the last to be assigned, but if someone does get it, they're usually more than happy to switch with you or your traveling companion.
And, finally, if you find yourself scrunched up when boarding ends, move to a better seat immediately. Obviously you have to stay in your class of service, but seat assignments don't have the force of law. So like everything else involving flying these days, advance planning pays off. Keep your wits about you. Be courteous when asking a gate agent if there might be a better seat available. Don't be shy about staking out a better seat after everyone is on board. If you do get the worst seat in the house, try to take hourly breaks to stretch. Man was not meant to sit in a cramped position for hours with only a bag of peanuts to amuse him.
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