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How to snag a more comfortable airline seat

Now, more than ever, upgrading can be a trip-saver. Here are eight ways to help make your next flight more comfortable.
Mike Keefe

Have you noticed that padding on airline seats is getting thinner? Back in the days of the Lockheed Constellation and the DC-6, seats used to be less punishing — they were more like La-Z-Boys.

But don’t expect to find cushy swivel chairs on your next economy-class flight. Today, in order to save fuel and squeeze in more passengers, the padding has been minimized — and, as we all know, the rows of seats have been placed closer together. And seats may get even thinner.

Now, more than ever, upgrading can be a trip-saver. Here are eight ways to help make your next flight more comfortable:

1. Buy a seat with extra legroom.
JetBlue, Delta, United and other airlines will sell you a few extra inches of legroom at the front of the economy cabin or at exit rows for a reasonable upgrade fee. We think this is money well spent. JetBlue charges as little as $10 extra for seats with 38 inches between rows, and has more leg room (34 inches between rows, rather than the 31-32 inches typical on some airlines) even if you don’t pay more.

2. Buy a cheap business class seat on a discounter.
Airtran and Spirit sell roomier business class seats for far less than most other airlines. Airtran will let you upgrade to business from any fare on a standby basis, or from higher economy fares in advance; Spirit calls their business class “the Big Front Seat” and fares are often less than other airlines’ economy fares, especially if you’re a member of their $9 Fare Club. Midwest Airlines’ Boeing 717’s have 40 extra-wide “Signature Seats” in a two-by-two configuration at the front of the plane, yours if you pay an extra $25-$75 each way. Well worth it, in our opinion.

3. Look for Y-UP and Q-UP fares.
These economy class fares can be upgraded for free to business or first class, but they’re not fully refundable and come with other restrictions. Buy them online (e.g., search for “all types” of business class fares on Travelocity), by phone from your airline, or through travel agents.

4. Choose planes with more legroom.
Not all aircraft are created equal. Check out the “seat pitch” data at and book on an aircraft on which seat rows are spaced further apart. Doing so can earn you as much as two inches of extra legroom.

5. Buy international business and first class from consolidators.
Ticket sellers such as and sell premium cabin fares at considerable discounts.

6. Look for last minute upgrades at the airport.
Next time you check in for a flight, you may be surprised to see an offer to upgrade to business or first class for surprisingly little. As companies restrict employees from flying up front, airlines are desperate to earn extra revenue for seats that would otherwise go empty. We’ve heard of people snagging first class for as little as $100 extra. Watch out though, we've heard stories of airlines refusing to assign seats and then trying to up-sell passengers to their premium seating. If regular economy is sold out and you have a ticket, the airline needs to either put you in premium seating for free, or pay you "denied boarding" compensation in cash.

7. Use miles to upgrade.
This is one of the highest-value ways you can spend your miles. Upgrading a $400 fare on United from New York to LA to a $2000 business class fare for 30,000 miles is a better deal than spending those miles on a $400 fare. Unfortunately, many airlines now charge miles plus cash to upgrade or will soon (United will begin charging between $50 and $500 plus miles to upgrade starting next January; see chart)

8. Be loyal.
Upper-tier frequent flyer program members get free upgrades on most airlines, so stick with one airline, fly frequently, and attain “premier” status.