Like Santa’s sleigh, airplanes will be flying full this holiday season. So don’t expect there to be a lot of extra room for your long legs and your overstuffed carry-on bags.
Those dreading the airline seat squeeze do have some options. One by one, airlines have been rolling out programs that offer slightly larger main cabin seats and a little extra legroom for fees ranging from $30 to $60 and up.
For msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin, I asked Matt Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com, and Chris Lopinto, president and co-founder of ExpertFlyer.com, for the lowdown on buying extra legroom.
Q: Preferred seating. Economy Plus. Economy Comfort. It seems like every airline is joining the “buy added legroom” market. Is this officially a trend?
Daimler: Yes, it seems that once the airlines figured out how lucrative fees could be, we’ve seen an explosion of new offerings. Some of the airlines offering extra legroom in economy for a fee now include United Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Air France, Virgin America, Frontier and Spirit.
Lopinto: If you don’t have elite status and aren’t flying on a full-fare ticket, you’ll have to pay to sit in those “enhanced” economy seats. The price varies by the length of the flight but average around $30 to $60 per person. You’re not getting those seats for free.
Q: Are passengers willing to pay? And do you know how much money airlines are making by charging for extra legroom?
Daimler: We haven’t seen many airlines discontinue a fee, so they are likely seeing good success with this strategy. We don’t believe any airline has released information on how successful each fee is to their bottom line, but we do know that fees are definitely a reason why airlines are making money again.
Q: One airline is offering “desirable seats near the front of the main cabin” for as little as $4 per flight. Sounds like a good deal. Or is it?
Daimler: We recommend that passengers ensure the airline actually offers extra legroom for the seating fee. There are some airlines that charge extra money simply to make a seat selection towards the front of the plane that usually doesn’t have extra legroom. For example, US Airways’ “choice seats” are simply seats towards the front of the economy cabin.
Lopinto: Delta and American are also good examples of this. Delta and American both call them “Preferred Seats.” They are usually the aisle or window seats towards the front of the Economy cabin.
Q: If you don’t want to pay, what are your options?
Daimler: Look for a good seat as soon as you book your ticket. Check back the week of your flight as some people may leave a good seat behind if they get upgraded or change their travel plans. Use the online check-in as soon as possible to get access to seats that may not have been available for pre-booking, such as exit rows or bulkheads. And remember that there can be very large differences in economy seats. For example, a regular economy seat on JetBlue’s Airbus A320 has a half-foot more legroom than a regular economy seat on Spirit Airlines Airbus A320.
Lopinto: There is a chance you may get one of these “preferred” seats for free. If you don’t get an assigned seat when you purchase your ticket, or can’t get an assigned seat because there are no “free” seats available at the time, wait until you are assigned a seat at check-in or at the airport. Maybe you’ll get assigned one of those aisle or window seats near the front for free. You could also fly to Vegas and win at blackjack; either way, it’s gambling.
SeatGuru.com offers comparison charts to help you compare your seat options across carriers and different aircraft.
ExpertFlyer.com offers free Seat Alerts that allow travelers to be notified when a better seat becomes available on your flight.
Airfarewatchdog.com has a chart of fees charged by airlines for upgraded and preferred seating. Note: Fees may change, so be sure to check airline websites as well.