As the economy improves, airlines keep merging and cutting capacity. That means planes are becoming fuller than ever. This year airline departures are down three percent, yet the load factor - how many seats airlines fill - is up to 83.6 percent. That means it’s harder and harder to get a good seat, or even just a window or aisle, these days.
However, there are more ways than ever to ensure you don’t get stuck in the worst middle seat in the back of the plane. Here are some of my tried and trusted methods of securing the best seats - even for free.
1. Ask your airline as soon as ticket is booked
If you book an airline ticket and then figure you’ll pick your seat later on, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Not only will you likely get a less-than-ideal seat, but you also increase the odds of getting involuntarily denied boarding (read: when the airlines oversell a flight, those without seat assignments are more likely to get booted if they can’t get enough volunteers).
Always try to pick the best possible seat online, and if you book via an online travel agency, attach your loyalty program number and then log into the airlines website to see what seats are available. If nothing is available, call and ask to get an assignment. If that fails ask at the airport at check-in and at the gate. Many seats are blocked off to accommodate disabled passengers or those with babies (the much-coveted bulkhead seats are often blocked because the baby bassinets hook into the bulkhead). If the gate agent doesn’t need those seats, they can give them to you, usually for free.
If all else fails, you can even ask the flight attendant nicely if they see an empty premium seat if they can move you to it once the boarding door is closed.
Pro tip: Tweet your airline to see if they can assign you a better seat. I recently did this with great success when flying KLM and Delta.com wouldn’t let me choose seats.
▪ Alaska: Twitter: @AlaskaAir
▪ American: Twitter: @AmericanAir
▪ Delta: Twitter: @deltaassist
▪ JetBlue: Twitter: @JetBlue
▪ Southwest: Twitter: @SouthwestAir
▪ United: Twitter: @United
▪ US Airways: @USAirways
▪ Virgin America: Twitter: @VirginAmerica
▪ Virgin Atlantic: Twitter: @VirginAtlantic
2. Find a friend with elite airline status
Have a friend who has elite status call the airline and see if the elite customer service agents can assist you. I’ve done this before and even though the elite passenger is supposed to be sitting with the passenger, agents will often assign a preferred seat as a courtesy for free.
3. Set up seat alerts online
Use Expertflyer.com to set up seat special alerts. The service has a free trial and you can set alerts to let you know the minute a better seat opens up on the plane so you can snatch it before anyone else.
4. Be willing to pay for a better seat
If you’ll be miserable in a coach seat (I always am at 6’7”) it may make sense to just pay for a better seat to get the peace of mind knowing you won’t be wedged in like a sardine. Often you’ll also get preferred boarding and other perks when you pay for these add-ons.
American Airlines offers Main Cabin Extra for extra legroom and a Group 1 boarding pass with prices starting at $8.
Delta has Preferred seating – including bulkhead seats, aisle and window seats close to the front of the plane, and emergency exit row seats – that are available for non-Medallion members to buy and fees vary by seat location and flight destination. Delta’s Economy Comfort seats have up to 4 inches more legroom and include priority boarding, a location in the front of the economy cabin, and free beer, wine and spirits on international itineraries as well starting at $9 per seat per flight.
Southwest offers Early Bird check-in for a cost of $12.50 each way, meaning you can get an A boarding position and beat the rest of the pack for prime seats and coveted overhead bin space.
United’s Economy Plus seating offers extra legroom in seats in the front of the Main Cabin. They also sell yearly subscriptions for unlimited Economy Plus starting at $499.
US Airways doesn’t have premium economy seats, but they do offer ChoiceSeats, which are mostly window and aisle seats towards the front of Coach and sometimes even exit rows starting at $5.
Virgin America offers Main Cabin Express seats (different from Main Cabin Select) that are near the front of the Main Cabin and feature advance boarding in Group A and early access to the overhead bins. Starting at $30. If you want to upgrade to Main Cabin Select, which is the first row and the emergency row in the Main Cabin with 6 extra inches in pitch, more legroom and free entertainment and food and beverages (including alcohol) as well as priority boarding and one free checked bag, you can do so starting 24 hours before departure for a fee of between $39-$159 per flight depending on the length.
5. Check in early
Check in at exactly 24 hours in advance: Airlines often release seats once online check-in opens, so if you’re the first to check in you can get your choice of seat.
6. Pay someone on-board to switch
If you are out of options, try offering someone on board cash or drinks if they’ll switch with you. Sometimes people will do it for karma alone, but offering a little incentive never hurts.
7. Apply for elite status
Most airlines give priority seating to even their lowest-tier elite members. Even if you don’t fly a ton, there are also a lot of credit cards out there that award cardholders with elite miles based on sign-up and spending, so you can often spend your way to elite status
Brian Kelly is the founder of the website The Points Guy, which teaches people how to maximize credit card rewards and travel points.