Or at least avoid the bad ones.
Long gone are the days when sweet talking the gate agents at the airport would get you an upgrade, so this isn’t about moving from coach to business class without paying for an upgrade (if you know how to do that let me know!)
Even within the same class of service, there are better and worse seats. The worst may be smelly (next to a kitchen or toilet), busy (used as a passageway), unusually cold, without a view, uncomfortable (narrower or with less legroom than others), non reclining, or in some other way sub-standard.
I recall years ago travelling from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Vancouver, Canada on Malaysian Airlines, a journey of something like 20 hours with a short stop in Taiwan. Being on business for Dell in Asia, I got to fly business class (we had to fly coach to Europe!) and I had a business class seat upstairs on a Boeing 747. After boarding, I got to my seat and for some reason that I still can’t figure out why, I reclined my seat while we were still parked a the gate. It moved about 1” then stopped. I figured something must have temporarily blocked the recline, so I fished around and figured out that the seat was hitting the flight attendant’s jump seat right behind mine. In other words, the seat wasn’t meant to recline. Not looking forward to 20 hours of sitting bolt upright, I had to create a bit of a stink to get them to move me to another seat. it is actually not unusual to have coach class seats that don’t recline, often these are just in front of emergency exits, or at the end of the cabin, but there are also better and worse business and first class seats.
Contrast my Malaysian experience with our Madrid to Chicago flight today. Although we are flying coach, we have about four times the leg room of regular seats and no one wandering through our area. How? We’ve got the exit row over the wing. And this isn’t an accident. Last night when I checked in, I specifically chose these seats.
There are a few websites that give you good info about seating on planes. The one I like best is www.seatguru.com. Once you enter your airline and plane type, it will show you a seat map color coded in white (normal), green (preferable seats), yellow (warning, such as a very cold seat) or red (avoid). For many flights it will also show you the location of seat based power points if the plane is equipped with them. If you want to use a laptop on a long flight, this can be very important.
How can you find out the airplane type? Seatguru now has a feature where you just enter your carrier and flight number and it will find the aircraft that should be used. Alternatively, go to the website of the airline and look up your reservation or the flight schedule and you should find the information. Worst case, you can call the airline and ask. Sometimes they call this “equipment” and use a code, e.g. 346 means an Airbus A340-600.
If you use the seat map in conjunction with your airline’s online reservation management system, you can pick your own seat and avoid the bad ones. These days when I make a reservation with an airline, the first thing that I do after the reservation is booked is go online and reserve my own seat, using seatguru’s recommendations. You might be surprised how many times you get given a poor (yellow) or bad seat (red) by default.
The best seats are usually exit row or bulkhead seats and these are often not available to reserve far in advance. Some airlines restrict reserving these seats to their premium passengers. When I fly American Airlines, as long as my travelling companions are on the same record as me, I can book all of us in the exit seats or seats close to the front of the cabin. If someone is on a separate reservation, I can’t.
Most airlines will make the exit seats available about 24 hours before your flight, so it is a good idea to check in online for your flight as early as you can (usually 24 hours before) and check the seating maps again so you can snag the good seats.
So, with a little forethought and a few minutes of online work you can have many hours of greater comfort in the air.