Winning the Airline Seating Game

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It smacked me in the face when I looked at the available seat charts for a flight from Orlando to Houston: the only open seats were middle seats and not many of them. What there were tended to be in the far rear of the plane, back by the toilets.

I paid $39 to purchase a "premium" seat - just a window seat, nothing special about it - and in that moment I realized that, suddenly, the airplane seating game had changed. A lot. And for the worse.

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Paying that $39, incidentally, boosted the price of that flight over 10% - just to nab a place to sit.

I am not alone.

"Getting good seats without paying a premium has become a real problem," said Jeff Klee, CEO of travel booking site CheapAir. "Often very little is available in the free category. On many domestic flights almost every window and aisle seat has a premium. It's gotten much worse than it was just a few years ago."

Airlines a few years ago tumbled to a business strategy where they keep the ticket prices low but they aggressively squeeze us on "ancillary fees," everything from bag check through nabbing a decent seat. Don't expect this to change. The carriers are raking in many billions in fees annually and, for them, that's the difference between profit and loss.

But on our end, we have to fly smarter, and it starts by knowing your personal pain quotient. Sometimes paying up makes sense.

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, co-editor-in-chief of the consumer aviation news site,, offered his mind-set and strategy.

"I typically consider upgrading on domestic red eye flights over four hours - I know many will say three hour or more can be worth it, especially if you're on the taller side," he said. "As for international long haul flights, I seriously consider it on flights over eight hours. For example, I paid $50 to upgrade to an exit row on Singapore Airlines. For 19 hours on board, you can't go wrong. Best $50 I ever spent."

You are a tight wad and don't want to part with extra cash? There is hope. The frequent flyers have plenty of ideas about scoring a decent seat without parting with an extra dime.

Klee said a top secret is to take what you can when booking, then at 24 hours before takeoff, log back in and see what seats are now available. Won't everything be gone? Nope. Airlines issue upgrades to business class to their top elites, usually around that 24 hour mark. Most experts guess that at minimum half the domestic business class seats are doled out as free upgrades.

The flyers who get them are top elites, mind you, and their original seats in coach typically were swank. Now those seats - five to more than 20 per flight - probably will be assigned out with no premiums because, suddenly empty, they need to be filled and time is short.

Get online and grab what you can. Many frequent flyers claim they routinely score big in that final hours scrum for better seating.

A similar strategy sometimes can work at the airport gate - if you are good at smiling.

Phoenix travel expert Dena Roche who blogs at Fitglobetrotter said that often she charms her way into a better seat at no cost.

"Being pleasant goes a long way in getting what you want," she said. "At the airport, I am pleasant to the gate agent and often they put me into a premium seat at no charge."

On that note, guaranteed not to work with gate agents is angry bluster. They have heard it all, most of them radiate being stressed out and if you keep it up, you may be reassigned to fly in the wheel well on the plane's exterior. Trust me: you don't want to tempt these fates. It you cannot be sweet, at least be quiet.

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The ultimate no money involved, better seat strategy? Go for status on one carrier, urged Joe Brancatelli who blogs about business travel at JoeSentMe. Become elite with Delta, American or the others - with United that means flying a minimum of 25,000 miles and spending at least $2,500 on those tickets - and, honestly, entry level silver status does not bring many perks. But a big perk that is included is that elites see seats that are not shown non-elites and, typically, they can also book them free of extra charge.

Fly enough, and that makes elite status worth a packet, because every time you fly, you'll sit in a premium seat - and you didn't pay an extra dime for it.

--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

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