Image: Charm the gate agent
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Sometimes it's the little things — being friendly to agents, showing up in an elegant outfit — that determine who gets bumped to first class when there's room. "It's rare, but it does happen," says Hobica. "If you're standing there in a three-piece suit, they're certainly going to pick you over the guy in gym shorts
updated 9/16/2009 12:26:05 PM ET 2009-09-16T16:26:05

There are plenty of cheap shortcuts to a better travel experience.

Wearing an elegant outfit can open doors in business — and in business travel. Richard Rheindorf learned this firsthand, when he sported a well-tailored suit while waiting to board a flight from San Francisco to Vancouver. Even though the coach cabin wasn't oversold, the ticket agent bumped Rheindorf to first class. "You looked the part," the agent told him.

"It's rare, but it does happen," says George Hobica, president and founder of "If you're standing there in a three-piece suit, they're certainly going to pick you over the guy in gym shorts."

Dressing up for a flight — and charming gate agents — works on occasion, but there are more sure-fire ways to score the best airplane seats. Whether it's knowing a plane's layout, requesting an exit-row seat or obtaining high status in a frequent-flier program, there are myriad routes to avoiding that non-reclining seat next to the back lavatory.

To uncover the most effective methods, we polled a roster of travel experts including Matt Daimler, founder of; Joe Brancatelli, founder of; Patrick Evans, spokesman for STA Travel; and Hobica. They agreed: All seats are not created equal. There are tremendous differences even among coach seats on the same plane, not to mention other airlines and classes.

"Obviously there are seats that are more comfy than others," says Hobica. "Pinpoint a seat and buy intelligently."

Game of inches
Flying coach always seems to entail sitting with knees at one's chest, squeezed by the encroaching bodies of corpulent neighbors. Though it may not seem like it, there are many ways to avoid this scenario. For one, know your airlines. Different carriers configure their planes differently; though most offer 32 inches of legroom, some, like JetBlue, offer 34 inches for the same price.

To get even more space, reserve a spot in an exit row. These seats typically offer six inches more legroom than the typical coach seat, and they're often the same price. Airlines usually release these seats via online check-in 24 hours before departure; some, like JetBlue, sell them for a modest premium.

"For about $10 more, you can get an exit row seat with 38 inches of legroom — that's more than some airlines' first class," says Hobica. "Personally, I always buy the exit-row seat."

Another tip: Know your airplanes. There are tremendous differences even among the coach seats on a single plane; the disparity between different jets operated by different carriers can be even greater. Web sites like and Daimler's offer color-coded seat maps that reveal which seats have the best amenities.

"Some airlines on certain seats have power outlets and seatback televisions," says Evans. "That's not always indicated on an airline's Web site."

Image: Airport crowd
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With crowded airports the rule, not the exception, travellers need to know the best ways to find precious space when they fly.
JetBlue and start-up carrier Virgin America offer seatback televisions for every passenger on every flight. On other airlines like Allegiant and Southwest, video entertainment is notoriously hard to find.

Cheap upgrades
Another method of escaping coach's doldrums is to obtain an upgrade to business or first class. Doing so needn't be terribly costly — upgrades on domestic flights can be had for as little as $50 per trip segment.

"The world of upgrades has opened up," says Brancatelli. "Traffic is now so low that there are premium seats going begging."

Slideshow: Awful airlines The easiest strategy for moving up is to take advantage of frequent-flier programs, all of which are free to join. Once you've opened an account, try to obtain status within the program. Many carriers — Delta, for example — offer tremendous perks to their most frequent fliers. Credit cards like the American Express Delta Reserve card will help you gain status within the program in addition to earning travel miles.

"Fly one airline and fly it a lot," recommends Hobica. "You'll start getting a lot of upgrades."

The brashest travelers, however, sometimes get upgrades by doing something less savory: Making an offer the ticket agent can't refuse. Daimler recalls a friend who was flying from New York to Germany on a $500 coach ticket and asked the gate agent what would it take to get an upgrade.

"One hundred bucks in cash got him into business class," says Daimler. "On the way back, he tried again, but the Germans weren't having any of that."


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