How to Escape Middle Seats and Find Better Ones

woman on plane-sunsetStuck in the middle seat, in a row that doesn’t recline, next to a screaming baby? Before frantically searching for an ejection button, check out these tips from Michelle Higgins in an article for The New York Times on how to upgrade to a better seat.

So-called premium economy—a roomier class of seats between business and coach—has long been offered by international carriers on transatlantic flights, she writes. But recently, domestic airlines have caught on to the concept. American Airlines, for example, now offers Main Cabin Extra seats with 4 to 6 inches of extra legroom. United Airlines is expanding its Economy Plus rows, also offering 4 to 6 inches of extra legroom. And Delta has introduced Economy Comfort, with an extra 4 inches of legroom.

Airlines save their best seats for their best customers, says Higgins. But even if you’re not an elite flier, there are still several ways to make yourself comfortable. Here are her strategies for finding the best seat:

DON’T SHOP FOR PRICE ALONE. Spirit Airlines and JetBlue both fly A320 aircrafts between Boston and Fort Lauderdale, FL, but seats are configured very differently. Most of Spirit’s seats don’t recline, while JetBlue’s are much roomier. Even though Spirit is often the cheapest, just a few dollars more will get you JetBlue’s free DirectTV at every seat and those much-coveted 34 inches between coach seats (almost 3 feet), compared with 28 inches on Spirit.

USE TECHNOLOGY TO FIND A BETTER SEAT. Most major airlines let passengers select seats when booking, so be sure to look at diagrams on the airline’s homepage to see which spots are open. Then cross-reference your findings with Web sites like SeatGuru or SeatExpert which show which exit-row seats won’t recline. To avoid a middle seat, sign up for free alerts at; once you select the seat you want (aisle or window), if one becomes available, you’ll receive an e-mail so you can grab it.

CALL A TRAVEL AGENT. Airlines’ websites don’t always show every available seat, but travel agencies that handle a lot of airline bookings often receive access to special codes or customer support desks that can unblock coveted seats. Travel advisers such as Virtuoso have special relationships with airlines, can see what’s available, unblock these seats and assign them to you.

BE OPEN TO COMPROMISE. If you’re traveling as a couple, one tactic is to reserve a window and aisle in the hopes the middle seat will stay empty. With planes currently so full, however, chances of that middle seat remaining open are rare. Another strategy is to sit across the aisle from each other, so that neither of you ends up in the middle.

PLAY THE NICE CARD. Being willing to switch seats (without complaining) so that families can sit together goes a long way in endearing you to flight attendants who are often so grateful for your help in appeasing passengers that they’ll comp you a drink, or even better, upgrade you to a prime seat if one becomes available.

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