How to Snag the Best Seats

If you answer the question “How was your flight?” with “I didn’t land in the Hudson,” it’s time to raise your expectations about what you can do to improve your flying experience.

And if you think your options are limited, given the cost of upgrades, the difficulty of getting into elite flying programs, and the diminished state of airline perks, think again. If you know what to say, when to say it, and who to say it to, you just might have a nicer flight than most of your fellow passengers.

Ask and you may receive … an exit row

You may have noticed that exit row seats are seldom available when you book your ticket or when you try to check in online. Your best bet? Show up at the airport early, suggests travel writer Lisa Davis. If you can’t lock in an exit row seat at the airline check-in counter, make haste to your gate, she says, as “sometimes seats are saved by the gate agent for people with special needs,” and if the seats aren’t needed you can ask to be considered for one. And be nice, says Jonathan Alford, CEO of Ask the gate agent how he or she is doing, Alford says, and then ask “if there are any exit-row seats available. If they're really busy, just be polite and patient.” The earlier you can get to the gate the better, he says, adding that he’s gotten exit row seats “on about 25% or more of my flights just by asking — not as CEO of some travel company, [but] just by being a guy on the flight.”

Act like you care

If your sweet talk doesn’t work, a well-timed act of kindness might do the trick, suggests Traveling Mamas blogger and former flight attendant Beth Blair. “Paying attention to little things like a young family showing up last minute whose seats are spread across the plane can certainly help you get an upgrade,” Blair says. “Simply approaching the gate agent and saying you’ll be happy to move to another aisle seat if that will help the situation” can earn you a big thank you as well as a better seat, she says, noting that it worked for her on a recent flight. “First class was full but I did get bumped up to economy plus. People can be so stingy when it comes to seats and gate agents really appreciate an accommodating passenger.”

React fast for an “operational upgrade”

If you hear tell from your gate agent that your flight is full as well as oversold, Davis says you can “volunteer to be upgraded in order to free up your seat in economy class for someone on the standby list,” for what’s known as an operational upgrade. Elite status passengers slumming it in economy aren’t automatically first in line for these upgrades on oversold flights, she says, because “gate agents don’t always have time to check the flight’s manifest to see who has elite status, and thus, if you offer to give up your seat in coach for business or first class, the gate agent may just take you up on it because they’re running out of time.”

Volunteer, then squeeze

If your plane is overbooked and your airline is offering you a voucher to take a different flight, use your little bit of leverage to trade up to a better seat. Blair recounts a time when her flight was overbooked and “the airline was offering a $250 voucher to take the next flight, which was only one hour later. I said I was interested in taking the offer and asked if there was any room in first class on the next flight and bingo, it worked. I was on top of the world that day.”

Pitch for pre-boarding

While first, business, and elite status passengers pre-board, it is possible to unofficially join them. Discretion is key, and of course it doesn’t hurt if you have two or more kids in tow. The first time I asked a gate agent if she’d pre-board my family, she told us where to stand when the first of the official early boarders were called, and on her signal we joined them. Pre-boarding policies vary by airline and agent, but often a gate agent will comply with a polite request under these or similar circumstances, says longtime flight attendant Toni Vitanza, and if the agent does say no, don’t take it personally as the rejection “probably means the agent’s supervisor is standing nearby. An employee’s willingness to bend or break a rule is in direct proportion to the distance between that employee and his or her supervisor,” Vitanza says.

Play the parent card

Frequent business traveler Susan Black, a travel industry consultant who spends nearly a third of her time on the road, admits to playing the “mother card” if she’s trying to improve her chances of getting home faster. “On several occasions, when a flight has been delayed and I'm trying to get waitlisted on an earlier flight, I begin chatting with the gate agent about kids. I let them know that I check homework via e-mail and complain about the times I'm not there for an important school event. I then ask about their kids, and how their flying or shift takes them away from important school events. The results are astounding. When I bond with a mom I always miraculously get on the flight, and usually get an aisle seat in an exit row. When I speak with someone with no kids, I'm out of luck."

In the end, Alford offers, “you can't get anything if you don't ask, you'll rarely get anything if you're mean or expectant, and if you show genuine interest in the people helping you — say their names, ask where they're from, compliment them — your flight may very well be a little more comfortable.”

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