How to Fly Coach in Comfort
The ever-struggling airlines are slashing services, raising fees, and charging for formerly free amenities—such as food, checked luggage, and exit-row seating—at an alarming rate. Given the fledgling economy, leisure travelers are now battling over the cheap seats in coach with business fliers suffering from downsized expense accounts. It seems everyone is willing to suffer the miserable indignities of economy class in order to secure the cheapest tickets possible.
There are ways, however, to make the ride more comfortable, even in coach—whether it is patronizing airlines noted for customer service where it counts, angling for the perfect seat, or selecting minor upgrades à la carte.
No matter what your strategy for a comfy ride on board, the first important decision affecting your comfort is the airline you pick. So read on to find our top three picks for coach-class seats. And don’t book your next economy-class flight before reading all our suggestions on how to stay comfy in coach.
Choose your airline wisely
JetBlue offers a whopping 34 inches of “pitch” (airline-speak for legroom), compared with the standard 31 inches. And of course there’s free DirectTV on every leather seatback.
Southwest Airlines offers “more seat room in all its coach configurations than the major carriers,” says business travel expert Joe Brancatelli. And Southwest doesn’t charge for pillows, blankets, and in-flight snacks.
Virgin Atlantic was among the first to provide coach passengers with personal seatback entertainment screens (on-demand films, TV shows, and music) and comfort kits (slippers, earplugs, eye masks).
Pick your seats carefully
Check SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com: The legroom in an exit-row or bulkhead seat can be equivalent to business class on some airlines. However, more and more airlines are charging a premium for those coveted rows, and they do have drawbacks, namely narrower seats.
Seats to avoid: Any seat with its back against a bulkhead or in front of exit rows won’t recline fully. Stuck in the middle? “I’ll ask at the gate if there are any middle seats in between two people with the same last name,” says travel writer John DiScala, better known as Johnny Jet. They may well give up the aisle or window to sit together.
Check in online as early as possible
Pick your seat when you book: It’s usually possible to select seats online within 90 days of departure, but you have another shot to snag a decent spot when you check in for your flight.
The 24-hour rule: Checking in online at least 24 hours before boarding will ensure you get prime pick of seats. (Note that Spirit and AirTran now charge to pre-book seats.)
Open seating: Early check-in even works when you can’t pick a specific seat. With “open seating” (no assigned seats), passengers board in large groups; coveted group A, the first group to board, gets first pick.
Another reason to check in early: Airlines routinely oversell flights, and the first passengers to be involuntarily bumped from an overflowing flight are those who check in last.
Pay extra for comfort
Exit-row supplements: Every airline except American now charges extra for exit-row seats; the fees range from $5 to $75 depending on the airline and distance traveled.
Legroom: Several airlines are tinkering with special seats at the front of the plane, which offer four to six extra inches of legroom ($10 at JetBlue, $14 at United, $35 at Spirit).
Priority status: United is experimenting with a “Premier Line” program at some airports that starts at $25 and includes access to priority check-in lines, security lines, and boarding passes.
Be smart about frequent-flier miles
It’s about the perks: Save up your miles not for a free ticket but to achieve “elite status” on the frequent-flier program. This is your golden ticket to upgrades, priority boarding, and no-fee bookings of those prime exit rows, bulkheads, and other seats. Some airlines even waive checked-luggage fees. And of course, by becoming elite with one airline, you get the benefits on a whole family of carriers: One World, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance.
“Once you fly one airline in each alliance, you get the same perks on all,” says Johnny Jet. “You get on the plane first, get your bags on first, often get a special check-in line or security line, and are able to request an exit row or bulkhead at no extra charge.”
Bring your own food: “The quality of airline food is just so awful nowadays that even a simple sandwich from home is like a gourmet treat,” says guidebook guru Arthur Frommer.
Pack your favorite things: American Airlines flight attendant Valerie Ricci carries her own tea bags because “sometimes being more comfortable is just having the things you’re comfortable with, and I like my orange spice tea.”
Drink lots of water: Bring an empty water bottle and fill it at a fountain—after you go through security.
Pack your own entertainment
Time flies when you’re busy: Don’t rely on SkyMall and the in-flight movie to keep you occupied. The list of possible diversions is endless: personal stereo, favorite magazine, sudoku, or, suggests Arthur Frommer, “Some giant novel that you’ve always planned to read—War and Peace or the Naguib Mahfouz trilogy about Cairo.”
BYO headphones: Avoid paying the airline $5 for its crummy headphones; bring your own from home for free.
Wear noise-canceling headphones
Why? They muffle the common sounds and get rid of the plane’s ambient roar, making it vastly easier to hear the movie or your iPod.
Which ones? Top-of-the-line Bose Quiet Comfort headphones sell for $314, but cheaper brands do the job nearly as well for around $50–$80. (Read reviews in the “Road Warrior Resources” here.)
The earplug alternative: Good old-fashioned low-tech earplugs cost less than $2 at any drugstore. “The best kind are the really soft foam ones,” says Valerie Ricci. “They’re cheap, and they work.”
The stories of polite and friendly coach passengers charming their way into business-class seats are all but long gone, but there are other reasons to be nice when flying.
Little extras: “Be friendly with everyone, especially the gate agents and flight attendants,” says Johnny Jet. “Flight attendants notice such things and will go that extra mile to help make your flight more comfortable, even if it’s just slipping you an extra mini-packet of pretzels.”
Kindness promotes relaxation: “Being kind does help,” says flight attendant Valerie Ricci. “Even if you don’t get something particular in return, it puts you in a better mood, which helps you relax and enjoy the flight that much more.”
Try to get some sleep
Physical comfort will improve your odds of nodding off, and you can’t count on the plane having enough pillows and blankets to go around. Book a window seat (where there’s more room for your head), and pack the following in your carry-on:
Pashmina shawl: “They take up much less room than a blanket and pack easily,” says Valerie Ricci. “Rolling up a pillow or blanket and putting it behind your back can really help, especially in coach where there might not be as much padding.”
Horseshoe-shaped pillow: It keeps your head from falling forward, and Arthur Frommer swears it enables him to sleep on overnight flights. Eye mask: Johnny Jet says it’s a key to a good night’s sleep. “The good ones—big and fluffy—cost only about $10. I might look like a freak on the plane, but I’m comfortable.”