Once upon a time, the guy who booked his plane ticket early was the lucky chap who laid claim to the window seat in the exit row. But today, first-come, first-served plane seats have gone the way of stewardesses, cabin smoking sections and paper tickets. In the past few years, we've rolled our eyes as airline after airline rolled out "perks" like priority boarding and preferred economy seating, taking away any chance that a fortuitous flier could achieve the best possible economy experience at no cost. Special for-fee seating and priority boarding programs are, no matter how you slice it, little more than greasy added fees for services that were once available for free.
That said, these programs are here to stay. So instead of scoffing at the idea that fliers have to pay for something that was once complimentary, let's move on, accept the status quo and find out how we can use it to our advantage.
Are priority boarding and preferred seating programs really worth our cash? George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, thinks so. Says Hobica, "With so many fliers carrying bags onboard now, you really have to fight for overhead bin space. And these perks are especially great for families. If you want to keep the family sitting together, and you don't want the kids sitting between two strangers, you can purchase the seats you want with some preferred seating programs."
Airline early boarding and premium seating programs vary widely, with some offering more value than others. Below, I dissect a handful of programs from the major airlines to help you decipher which ones are best for you.
American Airlines Your Choice
While attempting to book a flight on the American Airlines Web site, I received the option to buy the airline's Boarding and Flexibility Package, a product available under the AA Your Choice program. The package includes admission to group one of general boarding, the chance to fly standby on an earlier flight and a $75 flight change discount. Prices vary by flight, but my screen was telling me the add-on would cost $38 roundtrip per person for a flight from Newark to Chicago.
Additionally, AA passengers can opt for Express Seats, another perk rolled under American's Your Choice program. These seats are only available for purchase within 24 hours of departure on select flights. Book Express Seats and you'll get to sit in the front of the plane and board with group one general boarding. The cost of Express Seats varies by mileage, but I've seen rates ranging from $19 to $39 per leg.
The Verdict: For travelers who want to get on the plane early and secure some overhead space, it looks like American's Boarding and Flexibility package beats Express Seats in terms of affordability. But prices vary, so be sure to compare rates for your particular itinerary before buying anything. If you need to sprint away in order to make a connection, go for Express Seats, as the Boarding and Flexibility package doesn't offer seating near the front of the cabin.
Continental Airlines Extra Legroom Seats
With its Extra Legroom Seats program, Continental charges fliers for the privilege of sitting in the better parts of coach, such as in the exit row. Early boarding is not included. I had difficulty checking prices for this one, as you can only reserve an Extra Legroom Seat after you've purchased a ticket. According to Continental, "The fee to purchase an extra legroom seat varies based on a number of factors including the length of the flight and market. A lower price may also apply for extra legroom seats with limited or no recline." BoardingArea reports that Continental charged $59 for an exit row seat on a flight from Houston to Newark — which gives us at least some idea of how much these seats can cost.
Continental's Extra Legroom Seats program will be replaced with Economy Plus in 2012 when the airline merges with United. (Read more about Economy Plus below.)
The Verdict: Extra-legroom seats offer at least seven inches of space over regular economy seats, says the airline — and hey, that's a decent chunk of breathing room. But these seats don't come with early boarding. So is this worth 60 bucks? It all depends on the length of your legs, I guess. Plus, since Continental boards rear to front, those sitting in exit row seats, which are usually in the first half of the plane, won't have first dibs at the overhead bins.
Delta Economy Comfort Seats and Preferred Seats
On select international flights, Delta passengers can upgrade to Economy Comfort and take advantage of up to four inches of extra legroom, plus priority boarding in zone two, 50 percent more recline space, free alcoholic beverages and seat-back video screens on some planes. Prices range from $80 to $160 per segment.
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Economy Comfort isn't available on domestic flights. Most Delta domestic flights have Preferred Seats, which include roomy exit row seats and seats in the front of the plane — but they're not for sale to regular Joe flier. According to the Delta Web site, these seats are offered at no charge to "Diamond, Platinum, Gold, and Silver Medallion members, SkyTeam Elite and SkyTeam Elite Plus members, Alaska Airlines MVP and MVP Gold members, passengers that have purchased full fare Y or B class of service, and companions of preferred-seat eligible customers." (Can you say that in one breath?)
The Verdict: On a long international flight, it might be worth $80 to unfold one's legs just a few more inches. And the free drinks aren't a bad perk either.
JetBlue Even More Space
On select flights, JetBlue offers Even More Space, which grants fliers access to the roomier seats (38 inches of pitch) on the plane in addition to early boarding in select cities. Costs vary by flight. I checked prices for this program on a flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on the JetBlue Web site, and received the option to book Even More Space seats in the first rows or in an exit row for an additional cost of $20 on the way there and $40 on the way back — and that's per leg, mind you.
Even More Space sometimes includes JetBlue's Even More Speed program, also known as early boarding, which is only available in select cities (Even More Speed cannot be purchased by itself). So if you're worried about having to gate-check your precious carry-on luggage, this is a plus.
The Verdict: Sure, these seats are slightly roomier. But middle seats in the front of the plane are up for grabs at that extra price, and personally, I wouldn't pay $40 to sit in a middle seat unless it was wedged between two adorable kittens. Since these extra seats are charged on a per-leg basis, they can get quite expensive. The cost for Even More Space seats on all legs of my Charlotte to Fort Lauderdale itinerary, which included a stop in New York, was $120 total; this might be worth it for tall travelers who really need the extra seat pitch, but not so much for 5'3" yours truly.
Southwest EarlyBird Check-In
Southwest doesn't have assigned seating, but the airline divides passengers into A, B and C sections based on how early each passenger checks in within 24 hours of departure. The sooner you check in within that 24-hour window, the more likely it is you'll gain a coveted spot on the A team, which boards after elite fliers and passengers with special needs. Pay $10 for EarlyBird Check-In and you'll be checked in automatically and receive a boarding assignment 36 hours before your departure.
The Verdict: Because of Southwest's every-man-for-himself approach to airline seating, the $10 EarlyBird Check-In option is worth it if you're determined to snag a seat in the front in order to make a tight connection. Frequent flier John Deiner, Managing Editor of our sister site CruiseCritic.com, is a fan of the program: "I've been flying Southwest for years, and the one thing I hate about it is that you have to check in exactly 24 hours in advance or lose your shot at being among the first to board. I tried out the EarlyBird program on a recent trip to Vegas and loved it — I got on early, got my seat of choice in the emergency row, had copious amounts of overhead storage to choose from and didn't have to worry about checking in at a certain time."
United Airlines Economy Plus and Premier Line
Economy Plus seats offer up to five extra inches of legroom, for prices ranging from $9 for a flight from Chicago to Madison to $109 for a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. United also offers Premier Line, featuring access to priority check-in, priority security line at select airports and priority boarding, starting at $9 each way. When available, both products can be purchased either separately or together on the United Airlines Web site after you've reserved your flight.
The Verdict: Prices starting at $9 each way aren't too shabby when compared to other airline priority seats and boarding programs. United boards outside-in, allowing passengers with window seats to board first (once all the "elites" have gotten onto the plane), so try to get an Economy Plus seat with a view if you're looking to board early on without having to buy Premier Line.
US Airways ChoiceSeats
US Airways' premium seats program offers spots in the front of the plane for a price. But it's important to note that these seats do not provide more legroom than any other seats; they're simply in the front of the plane and include early boarding in zone two (after first-class passengers and most other elites have boarded). Prices vary. When I checked the US Airways Web site, I found ChoiceSeats available on a flight from New York to San Francisco, stopping in Charlotte, for $20 per leg. Here's the thing: There were some available seats in the front of the plane that were open, but they were middle seats sandwiched by $20 seats on either side. Looks like you could save $20 and still get off the flight early if you're comfortable squeezing into a middle seat.
The Verdict: Looking for legroom? Look elsewhere. Exit seating on US Airways is only available for Preferred Dividend Miles members, so those spots aren't generally up for grabs in ChoiceSeats. But if you're desperate to sit in the front of the plane, ChoiceSeats could be of value to you.