Avoiding the Coach Crunch
Q: Is it just me, or have the airlines somehow managed to make economy class travel even more uncomfortable than before? Have they squeezed in extra rows? I just flew from New York to San Francisco on American, and got stuck at the back, where the plane narrows, so it's even more crowded. Didn't American have a "more room" program with more space between the seats? I silently vowed to myself, "Never again!" Can you give some advice on how to best afford a roomier seat in business or first class? Do some airlines offer better legroom in economy class?
A: American, unfortunately, phased out its extra room in coach seating. Currently, the only major airline that sells economy seats with some extra leg room at no extra cost is JetBlue, which spaces the seats at the back of the plane with a few extra inches. By the way, JetBlue's new regional jets, which they use on several new routes, offer two by two seating (no middle seats) and more legroom than most regionals, so don't be afraid to fly on them. Otherwise, yes, it does appear from my personal experience that airlines are squeezing seats in more than ever, as they struggle to become profitable and, in some cases, emerge from bankruptcy. (Have you noticed that the seats are thinner and less cushy, too?).
Here are some other ways you can avoid the economy class space crunch.
- Use Miles: With economy cabins so crowded and uncomfortable, and with coast to coast flights still available for $200 round-trip when there's a sale, I think the best way to use frequent flyer miles these days is to upgrade to first or business class, rather than to buy economy fares. Depending on route, the fare you paid, and airline, mileage upgrades "cost" as little as 10,000 miles each way. Delta, for example, upgrades for 5000 miles from full fare coach or 10,000 miles from "select" discounted fares on routes with the between or within the Continental US, Alaska, and Canada. See chart.
- Airline specials: From time to time, airlines have very good deals on business and first class. Just look under the specials section of your favorite airline. Recently, Virgin, British Airways, and Continental were offering amazing deals--up to two-thirds off--their business class fares to Europe, even for peak summer travel.
- First / business class consolidators like 1stair.net: Another strategy is to buy first or business class fares from consolidators. 1stair.net specializes in low cost business and first class fares at savings of 50% or more.
- Fly Midwest Airlines Signature Service: This airline has all first-class seating--every row of the plane--on some routes, all at economy class prices.
- Fly Airtran: If you're flying somewhere on their route network, Airtran offers very inexpensive confirmed upgrades to their roomier business class. Pay between $40 and $140 and you can upgrade from any full price coach fare at time of purchase. And as a special promotion, Airtran is offering first come, first served upgrades from any fare, not just full fare coach. Spirit Airlines also sells business class seats at a discount.
- Last minute upgrades: United and sometimes US Air will now and then offer last minute upgrades on any coach fare when you check in, either using an automated kiosk or a ticket agent. Sometimes these upgrades are to first class, other times to "economy plus," which offers a few extra inches of leg room and seats nearer the front of the plane. In fact, United sells a year of economy plus access for $299 for you and a guest (seating can be confirmed at time of ticketing, but is subject to prior sale).
- Exit Row Seats: Northwest offers the chance to buy an exit row seat, with more leg room than you'll find even in first class, for $15. I upgraded recently on a flight to Detroit and it was the best $15 I spent that week. Upper-tier frequent flyers can upgrade in advance for free; mere mortals (I'm one of them) can only upgrade within 24 hours of flight time upon payment of the fee.
- YUP and QUP fares: On many domestic routes, most airlines offer what they call Y UP (as in upgrade) and Q UP fares. These are full fare economy fares that can be upgraded at the time of purchase to confirmed business or first class. They cost more than regular coach fares, but far less than normal first class fares. Call your favorite airline or travel agent for details.
- Attain upper levels of frequent flyer programs: Frequent flyers already know this route to a comfortable seat. Many airlines will award free or low-cost space-available upgrades to their very best customers, so it really does pay to fly often and to give all your business to just one airline.
- And it doesn't hurt to dress nicely: A friend of mine was flying on Air Canada from San Francisco to Vancouver recently, and the gate agent handed him a first class boarding pass even though he had bought an economy ticket. He asked why he was being upgraded, and she told him, "Well, you're very nicely dressed and the station manager put you in first class." Simple as that. No, it doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen. Especially when flights are oversold or canceled, airlines tend to re-assign their best customers to first class if there are no seats left in economy. These are called "operational upgrades" in airline speak, and are usually handed out by the agents at the gate. And if you're an upper level frequent flyer and there's only one seat left in first class but a lot of people with the same frequent flyer status are waiting at the gate for upgrades, it seriously doesn't hurt to stand out as the nicest, friendliest, and best dressed customer. All else being equal, why wouldn't they choose you over the others?
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