How to snag a better airline seat without paying too much more (if anything)

Recently, there’s been some talk about making airline seats smaller. The good news is after the CEOs of American and Delta briefly squeezed their six foot-plus frames into coach seats, the talk stopped (at those airlines, anyway).

But face it, a lot of coach seats are not as comfy as we’d like. In the past, passengers were far more likely to gripe about ticket price, but these days, good deals are plentiful, so complaints tend to focus on the difficulty of getting an aisle or a window, especially now that some airlines make you pay a fee for anything that’s not a middle seat.


Let’s look at ways to get better seats for free, or at least without paying an arm and a leg.

Check your miles

Some folks are airline-mile fanatics, and can tell precisely how many they’ve accrued at any given moment. But I suspect most of us have no idea. Next time you fly, check with the airline; you might be able to bump yourself up to a better seat. At the very least, join your airline's miles program. After all, if there are two passengers vying for a one premium seat and one of the passengers is a member and one’s not, who do you think will get the upgrade?

Check your credit card

If you have an airline-branded credit card, you may get some nice perks for free, including a checked-bag, perhaps early boarding, and maybe even a premium seat. If you’re not sure, call the card people and ask them to spell it out for you.

Check your body type

If you are what some airlines refer to as a "Customer of Size" and one seat doesn’t quite do it, some carriers recommend you proactively purchase two seats. If you choose to do this, consider flying Southwest, because they allow these travelers to get a full refund for one of the seats once the trip has been completed.


Look for better seats 24 hours before departure

That’s when check-in for your flight begins: exactly 24 hours before take-off. At that time, go to your trip and start checking to see if better seats have been freed up (and this is fairly common). If you don’t see your ideal seat right away, change your seat to the best available one; ultimately, you may get the seat of your dreams. Or one you can live with.

Consider paying a little for a better seat

Many airlines offer different tiers of seats for different prices. For example, American offers ‘preferred’ seats on certain flights from $4 to $139, while its Main Cabin Extra seats can range from $20 to $280. Then there’s Spirit, which sells seat assignments starting at $5, while some of its Big Front Seats go for as little as $35 or so. Look at all the seat price tags; maybe it’ll be worth it, maybe not.

But then again, maybe.

But then again, maybe. (iStock)


Make your plea in-person

Sometimes, gate agents work miracles and if you’re nice and polite when you request a better seat. I’m sure many of these airline employees will tell you it’s impossible (and they may even laugh at your audacity), but I've seen such requests get honored. Never hurts to ask.