Dragging your wheelie down the aisle past business class and premium economy, toward your final resting place in steerage, doesn't have to feel like entering Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell. If you choose your airlines and aircraft wisely and then engineer your way into their coach cabins' best seats, the amount of extra comfort you can get might surprise you.
The most pleasant airplane experience my family of four has had, for instance, was a Continental flight from Barcelona to Newark last December. If you're wondering how on God's green earth a nine-and-a-half-hour confinement on that one-aisle winged sardine can known as a 757 can possibly be described as anything remotely resembling "pleasant," I have one word for you: AVOD.
Audio Video on Demand has now been installed on all of Continental's 757-200s. Each passenger gets their own 9-inch screen with up to 25 movies that can be started, stopped, paused, rewound or fast-forwarded at will. I watched two movies back-to-back — good films that I'd actually wanted to see in theaters but had missed.
The well-chosen computer games and easy-to-use touch-screen controls amounted to the equivalent of a built-in baby sitter for the kids. There was even an interactive Berlitz World Traveler program for learning foreign languages.
Thanks to my seat's AC power port, which did not require an adapter, I plugged in my laptop the same way I would at home. And, miraculously for a 757, my knees did not dig into the seat in front of me — apparently because Continental's Spectrum Seat (from BE Aerospace) affords more knee room, not to mention a "comfort cut" tray table and multi-position adjustable headrest.
In times like these, when planes aren't flying full, even if you can't choose your airline and aircraft you can at least choose your seat. My family's outbound flight to Spain did not have AVOD, but it did have something key: empty middle seats. I was able to snag six seats for my family of four.
How? The aircraft was a 767 — a two-aisle plane with a 2-3-2 seating configuration. My family had been assigned to two of the two-seat rows, but at the airport, when I learned the flight wasn't full, I asked the Continental agent to move us to the aisle seats in two of the three-seat rows.
Middle seats tend to be filled starting from the front of the aircraft and moving toward the rear — which means that if your flight isn't full, you're likely to get an empty seat next to you if you request an aisle seat in the center section in the back. My family and I ended up with two three-seat rows to ourselves.
How else can you get comfortable in coach?
Fly at off-peak times
There are more likely to be empty seats, which means you're more likely to be able to arrange for one next to you. Midweek and midday flights tend to be off-peak, though that's not the case for all destinations. Use Orbitz's Flexible Search tool to find the lowest fares within your travel window — these will also be the emptiest flights.
Consider flying aircraft that have the fewest middle seats
I love 767s because there's only one middle seat per row. This means that your chances of getting one are less than on any other two-aisle aircraft: A 767 can be 86 percent full before anyone gets stuck in the middle.
Two-aisle planes tend to give you bigger seats, more legroom, and larger overhead bins than one-aisle aircraft. Within the United States, try to travel on planes configured for international flights. These often fly from an airline's hub to an international gateway before continuing overseas (e.g., certain American Airlines flights between Dallas and San Francisco).
Compare seat dimensions
On domestic flights, coach seats vary in width from 16.5 to 18 inches and in pitch (the distance between two rows of seats) from 30 to 36 inches. Internationally, they usually range from 17 to 20 inches in width and from 31 to 42 inches in pitch.
The seat you'll find most comfortable depends in part on your body type. Say you're choosing between one aircraft whose seats are 17 inches wide with 32 inches of pitch and another whose seats are 18 inches wide with 31 inches of pitch. The tall and skinny will prefer the former, the short and hefty the latter. Charts on SeatGuru let you compare seat dimensions on a slew of carriers. Remember that you can pay a few extra dollars for more legroom on JetBlue and United.
Compare entertainment options
It's no surprise that Condé Nast Traveler readers voted Virgin America their favorite domestic airline last year: Its coach seats are 19.8 inches wide with 32 inches of pitch and have personal TVs with AVOD, as well as AC power ports. The good news is that more carriers are putting AVOD in coach. Delta has installed it on some 757s, and Continental is adding it — as well as a choice of up to 250 movies — on its 777s. JetBlue has 36 channels of live TV.
Always select a seat at booking, then keep checking for better options
When you're buying a plane ticket online and you click to the aircraft's seat map to assign yourself a seat, compare it with the corresponding seat maps on both SeatGuru and SeatExpert. No good seats left? By all means assign yourself a seat anyway: You never want to arrive at an airport without a seat assignment, and you can likely change it later.
If for some reason online seat selection is not available, phone the carrier and try to get a seat assignment through the reservations agent. Return to the airline's site several times before your flight date to check whether a better seat has opened up. When you check in online, do it as early as possible; you'll often see that seats have become available that weren't before.
Try for a seat in the emergency exit row or right behind it
Although exit-row seats sometimes don't recline, they typically provide extra legroom and often are not assigned until the day of the flight. Sometimes you can pay extra to get one, sometimes you can get one for free by asking at the airport. None available? If you know that a plane's exit-row seats don't recline, ask if a seat is available in the row behind the exit row: There won't be anyone reclining into your lap.
Ask the gate agent to move you
Unless I've achieved my personal nirvana of an aisle seat in an exit row, I always ask the gate agent if a better seat is available. Preferred seats (e.g., aisle seats up front) often open up at the gate because the elite-level or full-fare passengers who were occupying them get upgraded at the last minute.
Become a member of an airline lounge club
Club agents, in my experience, have magic fingers when it comes to using the computer keyboard to get you a better seat. At various times I've belonged to the American, Continental and Delta lounges, and, as a consequence of friendly conversations with their front-desk agents, have ended up with everything from a row of seats blocked off next to me (so I could lie down and sleep) to a free upgrade to business class on Christmas Eve.