How to get the best seat on a plane
Ever spent 15 hours stuck in the middle seat in economy class? Then this guide's for you.
Travel is magic, but getting to wherever you're going? Probably less so. Air travel was exciting and romantic back in the days when friends and relations would come to the airport to see you off and airport security was a picket fence, but romance and excitement do not leap to mind when you head for the airport these days.
Especially if you're flying in economy class, long-haul air travel is only slightly more appealing than mouth surgery, but it doesn't have to be that way. From the time you book your flight to the moment you unclip your seatbelt at your destination there's plenty you can do to make your flying experience more comfortable, more pleasant, healthier, happier and more cost-effective.
Culled from five decades of air travel and selected input from veteran air travellers who automatically reach for the recline button whenever they sit down, here are 20 ways to upgrade your next flying experience.
BEFORE YOU FLY
1. KNOW WHEN TO BOOK YOUR FLIGHT
Airline seats generally become available 11 months in advance. There are usually several categories for economy class seats, from super saver to full economy. The super saver seats come with restrictions but on just about any flight they're several hundred dollars cheaper than the full economy fare, and the first to go. Once they've been snapped up you're left with increasingly expensive flight tickets. If you want a bargain, book well in advance.
2. CHOOSE THE BEST FLIGHT SEARCH ENGINE FOR CHEAP FLIGHTS
Every flight search engine will come up with a different fare even when you're quizzing them for the same route on the same day. There is no single search engine that delivers the cheapest fare every time. Only by trolling through several will you find a rock-bottom price, but check the websites of budget airlines as well. Since these flight searchers exist on the commission they earn if you proceed to a booking, they do not usually scan for flights aboard budget airlines.
3. SAVOUR THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
AirAsia's A330 flights have a Quiet Zone, a separate cabin at the front of the main economy cabin where children under 10 are not permitted. Seats in the Quiet Cabin cost a few dollars more but they also have the advantage that this section is generally less crowded than the main cabin. Singapore-based budget carrier Scoot has a ScootinSilence cabin, where children under 12 are not permitted. Passengers in the ScootinSilence cabin also get 10cm of extra leg room, also for a modest fee.
4. PREMIUM ECONOMY: DECIDE IF IT'S WORTH IT
Compared with a seat in economy you get around 15cm extra legroom, a wider seat, a quieter, dedicated cabin, a more sophisticated menu, a bigger video screen, upgraded headphones, increased baggage allowance and priority check-in and boarding. You probably won't get access to the business class lounge, a separate toilet, a lie-flat seat or the same attentive service that comes with a business seat but it's a happy medium. You'll pay around twice as much for PE as for economy and most business travellers find they can work successfully in PE, almost impossible to do when you're flying economy.
5. KNOW WHO IS BEST TO BUY AIR TICKETS FROM
If your travel agent goes bust before they've paid for your air tickets you could be left feeling sad and depressed at the check-in counter since there is no statutory protection in Australia. A standard travel insurance policy offers limited compensation at best. If you've paid using a credit card your card provider might be your best option for a refund.
6. INVEST IN NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES
You get far superior audio on the in-flight entertainment system and the over-ear versions also shut out most of the ambient noise, making it easier to sleep. Regular winners in best-in-class surveys are Bose Quiet Comfort 25s which sell for around $340 but there are plenty of other noise-cancelling headphones from quality brands starting at around $100.
7. BECOME A CULTURE VULTURE
Emirates is the principal partner of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and anyone who becomes a subscriber is entitled to a 10 per cent discount when they fly with Emirates, across all classes. Not only do you get to fly aboard a great airline, you get to attend some wonderful SSO and MSO concerts, and support a worthy cause.
AT THE AIRPORT
8. AVOID THE BUMP
Airlines like to operate full aircraft which is why they overbook. Make sure you're not the one that gets bumped from a flight by completing the online check–in and selecting your seat in advance. Frequent flyers with loyalty points are less likely to be offloaded, as are those who show up early at the check-in desk. If you are offloaded involuntarily you might be entitled to compensation, up to US$1300 in the case of a US flight, between Euro 250-600 in the EU. In Australia there is no legislation that compensates passengers who are denied boarding and Australian Consumer Law offers only general consumer protection for air passengers.
See also: How to avoid being bumped from a flight
9. GET A SWEETER SEAT
Even if you've booked the cheapest economy seat you might still be up for an exit row seat, and many extra centimetres of leg room. Just ask at the check-in desk. I manage to score an exit row seat about half the time with nothing more than a smile and a polite request.
See also: How to secure the exit row
10. CHECK-IN AT A PAY-FOR-USE AIRPORT LOUNGE (OR NOT)
Most international airports have user-pay lounges that offer buffet-style snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, Wi-Fi, showers and quieter surroundings than the main terminal building at a cost that varies between about $50 and $80. The best of these lounges are a good option on a layover of several hours but some are barely worth the money. Check reviews on TripAdvisor before you part with your cash.
11. BEWARE THE AIRPORT CURRENCY EXCHANGE
Don't exchange your Aussie cash for foreign currency at the airport you're departing from. The exchange booths at your departure airport must hold large reserves of several foreign currencies. That's dead money so they charge a hefty premium if you buy your US dollars, Thai baht or euros from them. At your destination it's very simple for the exchange merchants to obtain local currency so they don't have to hold large stocks, hence you'll usually get more for your Aussie dollars.
See also: The best way to access money overseas
12. PROTECT YOUR LUGGAGE
Some airports are notorious for luggage pilferage and if you travel long enough and widely enough you will likely suffer from the roaming hands in the baggage room. One way around this is a hinged aluminium case such as the Rimowa Topas series, which are almost impossible to open without a hydraulic jack. Most airports offer a shrink-wrap service that spins a filmy cocoon around your check-in bag. It won't stop a thief but it's immediately obvious if your bag has been tampered with. Simplest of all is to pack nothing that can't be easily replaced, in a scruffy suitcase.
13. CHECK INTO A TERMINAL HOTEL
Most international airports have hotels within the terminal and if you're taking a long-haul flight to Europe or North America they offer the possibility of breaking your journey for several hours and resuming refreshed and reinvigorated. Another plus – you can usually take a flight that arrives at your destination in the evening rather than at daybreak, which is when most direct flights departing Australia arrive at their European destinations. Facilities in these hotels tend to be bare bones. There's no room service or restaurant but you can expect a quiet, calm and clean room with a decent bed and bathroom, which is all you need for the time you're in-house.
See also: The strange allure of airport hotels
ON THE PLANE
14. BYO AIRLINE FOOD
Airlines do their darndest to construct healthy, tasty meals for economy passengers – hah – actually I'm kidding because they serve whatever is bulky and cheap. You're much better off with BYO if you want to eat healthy. Best are small snack items that are nutritionally dense and don't require utensils. Nuts, apples and dried fruit are all prime and – well why not – throw in a chocolate bar to reward yourself for being so good. If the inflight meal comes with a salad that's great, so too is fish.
See also: Revealed: How your plane meal is made
15. BOOZE: KNOW YOUR LIMITS
The alcohol you consume inflight has exactly the same effect on your blood-alcohol level as if you were drinking the same amount at a barbecue. However because you're in a cabin pressurised at 3000 metres you might feel its effects more since you're getting a double shot, alcohol plus altitude. Added to jet lag and dehydration from flying in a low-humidity cabin, you'll arrive in better shape if you limit your consumption, or go for soda water when the drinks trolley rumbles past.
16. KNOW THE RIGHT TIME TO SWAP SEATS
It's rare these days but if you happen to be aboard a flight with plenty of spare seats and some offer more space than your assigned seat, there is no reason why you should not avail yourself of the opportunity to spread out. Beware of staking your territory too soon, cabin crew take a dim view of it. Identify your premium possie, and the closer to you the better, and as soon as the doors close, make your move.
See also: Swapping seats: What's the etiquette?
17. KNOW THE SEAT RECLINE PROTOCOL
This is one issue that generates enormous heat, even among some in business class cabins. Officially, passengers can hit the recline button except during take-off and landing, when safety demands upright seats and during meal service. However on a short domestic flight most flyers consider it a breach of jetiquette to recline your seat. Since a reclined seat might cause some grief to the person sitting behind, it's polite for passengers intending to recline to turn around and make sure they are not about to inflict an injury, perhaps even smile and let the passenger behind know, but it rarely happens.
18. MANAGE YOUR JET LAG
Even flight crew suffer, and the golden rule is to adapt to local time as soon as you reach your destination. A walk in the sunshine will help reset your body, drink plenty of fluids, go easy on alcohol and heavy, high-carb meals and resist the urge to tumble into bed in mid afternoon. Sleeping pills can help re-establish your circadian rhythm and some swear by melatonin but seek professional medical advice. A morning dose of Berocca can help flush the fuzz from your brain, and that's a tip straight from the pilot's seat.
See also: An expert's guide to beating jet lag
19. AVOID DVT
Deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that has the potential for serious health consequences if it travels through the heart and into the lungs. It can be caused by long periods of immobility, and being crammed into an economy seat on a long-haul flight puts you squarely at risk. The most effective way to guard against it is to maintain good circulation, and that means getting up and walking around the cabin. Every hour is the recommended time and you're more inclined to do that if you're sitting in an aisle seat.
20. GET A BETTER SLEEP
Neck pillow, a quality eye mask and ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones are a great start. A window seat means you're less likely to be disturbed but beware of the DVT issue. You might find yourself close to infants if you travel in a bulkhead seat. Wear loose clothing and keep your seatbelt buckled and visible or cabin crew might prod you if the "fasten seatbelt" sign is on. You've a better chance of sleeping if you go light on alcohol and caffeine.