5 Ways to Get More Legroom on Your Next Flight — for Free

By Deia B on 27 May 2014 (Updated 22 July 2014) 0 comments

Thanks to competition between airlines, airfares today are cheaper than ever. This is generally great news for the budget traveler, except he's also been getting less and less personal space on board the plane.

Extra-legroom seats come at a premium on most airlines these days. They can be worth the fee, especially for long international flights. If you don't want to pay the fee, there are ways to improve your chances of getting these extra-legroom seats for free. The catch? You may have to risk getting the regular cramped seat.

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1. Know Your Airlines

Not all basic economy seats are created equal. What one airline considers an extra-legroom seat may be a regular seat on another airline.

For example, Spirit Airlines, which is infamous for its many fees, squeezes 178 seats into each of its Airbus 320 planes. In contrast, there are only 138 seats on United's Airbus 320.

The industry takes these differences seriously. RouteHappy, a flight search website, found that you're more likely to get better seats on Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, or JetBlue.

Even if you purchase a premium seat, don't assume that you'll be getting more legroom. It really depends on the particular airline's terminology, so read the fine print carefully. For example, you may not get any extra space with the Preferred Seats on Delta; these are just regular aisle or window seats located towards the front of the coach cabin.

Before you choose a seat, head to SeatGuru to get more details about your seating options. The website has information for most airlines and aircraft models. With some homework, you may discover some quirks, as one Wise Bread editor did: The last few window rows on at least one international Boeing 747 are two seats wide, rather than three, which means there's a little extra room between seat and window for legs to stretch out... (See also: Extra Airline Fees That Are Worth Paying)

2. Use Elite Perks

If you're a loyal customer of a particular airline, you should already be in the frequent flyer program for the miles that you can use to get free flights. And if you have enough miles, you can get elite status within the loyalty program, which entitles you to quite a few perks.

With some airlines, getting extra-legroom seats for free is one such perk. Check if your airline offers this benefit. If it doesn't and you really value your personal space, you may want to consider switching to another loyalty program. (See also: How the Major Airlines Determine How You Board)

If you're not a frequent flyer, ask a friend who has elite status to call the customer service line and ask for a better seat for you. There's no guarantee your friend will be able to pull this off, but airlines can be really accommodating to their best customers. It's worth a try.

3. Check in Early...or Not

Online check-in usually becomes available 24 hours before the flight. Prepare your e-ticket, passport, and other details ahead of time. As soon as online check-in begins, get online and snatch the exit row or bulkhead seats. Some seats are not released at the pre-booking stage, so this is your chance to be the first one to have the opportunity to grab them for yourself.

If none of these roomier seats are available for free at the online check-in stage, take a chance and simply don't pick a seat. When you get to the airport, there may be unsold extra-legroom seats that then get allocated to you for free. Be nice to the check-in agent and ask if there's an roomy seat she can give you. It never hurts to ask.

4. Score an Extra Seat

What's better than getting an upgrade to an extra-legroom seat for free? Getting an entire seat for free on top of the one you've already paid for.

Here's one easy trick to score a free seat so you can spread out during the flight.

If you're traveling as a party of two, choose one aisle seat and one window seat in the same row. If only the middle seat is empty, it's unlikely that another passenger will deliberately choose to sit there if other options are available. When you board the plane, you may find yourself with an extra seat between the two of you. If someone does choose that middle seat, that passenger will usually be happy to trade with one of you so you can both sit together.

You can use this trick even if you travel on your own. Simply choose a window seat in a row where the aisle seat is already taken and the middle seat is empty. (Or an aisle seat in a row where only the window seat is already taken.) This way, you may not have to share an armrest with anybody. A couple traveling together can't sit in your row and a normal lone traveler would rather sit anywhere else than the dreaded middle seat.

With both scenarios, though, you won't have any luck if it's a full flight.

5. Get Seat Alerts

Just because you can't get a seat today doesn't mean you won't be able to grab it tomorrow. Seat availability may change as people cancel, upgrade, or otherwise modify their bookings.

But who has time to check and re-check the seating plan? This is where ExpertFlyer comes in. The website's Seat Alert feature allows you to set up the system to send you notifications when the seats you want become available.

How have you scored extra roomy seats on a flight? Please share in comments!

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