Published February 25, 2010
NEW YORK - You wanted that spacious seat in the exit row but someone beat you to it. Or you reserved a seat online, but checked in for the flight and found your seat was given to another passenger. There's a trick to getting a coveted seat and preventing it from being given away.
Here are some suggestions on how to get the best seat and hold onto it.
SPACE TO STRETCH
You're booking a flight online, and you want to get the best seat possible. But it looks like the coveted emergency exit row is full. Not necessarily, says Matt Daimler of SeatGuru.com.
Seats in the exit rows generally open up only 24 hours before a flight. So you can't get them when you book, but you can snatch them when you check in online. But you'll want to check in as soon as possible: there are cases in which frequent fliers can get preferred access.
And remember, emergency exit rows are not ideal for families. Passengers have to be at least 15 years old to sit in these rows.
If you are lucky enough to grab an emergency exit row seat, select a seat in the second row, Daimler says. In planes with two rows for emergency door access, the front seats generally don't fully recline.
Another option for extra space? The bulkhead seats. These are the seats at the front of each section of the plane - so you won't have to deal with anyone reclining in front of you. But not all bulkhead seats are created equal.
Because the bulkhead seats face a wall, some often offer space for the knees but not enough space to stretch your legs. Some planes - generally those with a first-class section -have a cut out in the wall that allows for your legs to extend.
Bulkhead seats in first-class often are not desirable seats because they don't offer enough legroom. This is why sometimes, Daimler says, you might find a better seat in coach.
BY THE NUMBERS
When booking a seat, pay attention to a little number the airlines call seat pitch, especially if you're tall. The legroom factor, which generally hovers around 31 inches for domestic flights, is listed on SeatGuru.com for numerous aircraft types at every major airline. You can also check other small, but important details, such as whether the seat you're about to book is too close to a restroom.
Some seats within a single plane cabin have different seat pitch. By way of comparison, United's economy plus section has more legroom than its regular seats, but about the same as JetBlue's standard seats.
"So many people shop by price (when choosing a flight)," Daimler says. "This is when a little homework really goes a long way."
You're preparing for a long flight, and you're hoping to move up to business or first class? There aren't any magic bullets here. The keys: Fly a lot and be nice.
The most effective way to raise your chance of an upgrade without paying through the nose is to join frequent flier programs and rack up points, says Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights.
Aside from that, a potential upgrade will require a little charm. Many people underestimate how much power that overworked gate agent actually has, says Counter. An agent has the power to choose whom to upgrade, and in some cases, whom to bump. So make airline workers your allies: When you reach the gate, ask the agent if any seats have opened up in the front of the plane.
For a fee that ranges between $50 and several hundred dollars - much cheaper than the difference in price when you book - you'll be able to move on up.
ODDBALL SEAT ISSUES
Sometimes you book on a travel site like Expedia or Orbitz, but you check in the day before your flight and you don't have a seat. Why does this happen?
According to an Orbitz spokeswoman, most airlines only allow about 75 to 80 percent of their seats to be booked before flight time. If you're booking too close to your flight, you might be out of luck.
The remaining seats are issued at the airport on the day of departure. Airlines will then move people around to accommodate families who aren't seated together or people with disabilities and special needs.
Another reason you might not end up with the seat you booked? Sometimes an airline will change an aircraft at the last minute due to weather or an operational issue. If the aircraft changes, seat assignments may need to be adjusted.
Some airlines also keep more seats or rows for premium travelers. You won't always know which seats these are when you book. This is especially common on seats on a codeshare flight - where one airline sells tickets but the flight is operated by another. (Example: you booked a US Airways ticket but the flight is actually operated by United.)
How can you prevent it? There isn't a lot you can do to avoid being moved around by an elite frequent flier. But to ensure you have the seat you booked on a travel site, visit the airline's Web site after you book. If the site doesn't reflect your seat request, call the airline and see if you can make a reservation over the phone.
It wouldn't be the airline industry without extra fees. Counter of TripAdvisor says passengers should be prepared for a new charge on the horizon: a seat selection fee. Allegiant and Spirit already do this. United and JetBlue charge for roomier seats.
The one time a seat fee didn't work? In the summer of 2001, when American removed some seating from the cabin and announced it would charge extra for "more room throughout coach." It didn't fly. The airline reinstalled extra rows of seats in 2005.