Where’s My Seat? Or: Why Do I Have To Sit THERE!!!

by Donna on February 24, 2012

Securing a decent seat on an airplane has been a problem for decades, probably since deregulation.  Along with consolidation, increased fuel costs, and lingering financial issues dating from 9/11, airlines figured out there is money to be had in those preferred seats and they developed strategies to decide who sits where.  Some might even say they have gotten greedy, realizing there is no reason to give away coveted seats when customers will pay for them.  So is there any way to get a seat where your tray isn’t pushed into your abdomen by the fellow in front of you, or your kneecaps aren’t bruised, or you don’t have to do a lap dance to get to the bathroom?

The short answer is maybe.  They long answer is if you care about where you sit, there are homework assignments.  The work starts when you book your ticket.  Airline robots typically assign seats starting at the back of the plane.  To get a seat closer to the front use the website seat map or call the airline once you have your 6-digit confirmation.  In any case, get a seat assignment, even if it is a middle seat.  You can work on changing that later.  Not sure about where to sit?  Check out www.seatguru, seatmaestro.com, or expertflyer.com.  You can look up seat configurations on every aircraft your carrier is using or see what seats are occupied.  But remember—airlines sometimes change the aircraft.  If the aircraft goes from a 2-3-2 configuration to 3-3, your 10B seat might now be a middle seat instead of a coveted aisle.

Should you pay for a special seat?  That depends on your comfort level.  The low-cost carriers such as Airtran and Jet Blue charge a nominal amount for a better seat and preferred boarding (first access to coveted bin space).  Usually free drinks are thrown in.  United has “economy plus” on selected aircraft, giving 5 extra inches of space in seats at the front of economy.  This costs anywhere from $50 to $120 per segment, depending on length of travel.  Given the option of not having someone’s head in my lap, I have opted for the extra room on a long international flight.

What about all those seats blocked off when you made your reservation six months ago?  Those seats are held for the airline’s elite frequent flyers.  If not used, they will be released 24-72 hours before boarding.  Check the website, and get online as soon as check-in opens.  You might snag one of those seats.

If your favorite seat is not available online, get to the airport early.  Be nice to the agent at check-in and be specific about your request.  They really do try to help.

How to know what seat you want and whether some are worth the extra cost?  That’s largely a personal preference, but there are a few things to note.  First of all, exit rows have more leg room, but there is no “under the seat in front of you” space, and all bags have to be stored during takeoff and landing.  Also, the seat might be narrower due to the tray tables stored on the side instead of a drop down from the seat in front.  Nervous about flying?  Then you want a seat over the wing, the most stable part of the aircraft.  On a long over haul flight you might want a window seat to rest your head, as long as periodic bathroom visits aren’t necessary.  If you have a short layover, an exit row near the front gets you off and running to the next gate.

Regardless of where you sit, remember getting there is only the beginning of your trip.  The good stuff is just starting.


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