There are a lot of things people hate about air travel. The food (or the lack of food), the hidden fees, even the other passengers.
In fact, out of 43 industries, airlines rank 40th in terms of satisfaction (the only industries consumers hate more are Internet service providers, Internet social media companies, and subscription TV services), according to data released earlier this year by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. And ask people what part of the already-unpleasant flying experience they hate most, and they’ll tell you this: the seats. The study reveals that seat comfort is “poor” and is the item consumers say is the most unsatisfying aspect of flying.
What’s more, that’s getting worse: “Economy class seats are getting thinner and less padded to save fuel…and there’s less leg room so they can get more seats on the plane,” says George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. “They’re making it so uncomfortable that they’re forcing people into economy plus and business class.” In other words, they’re turning your extreme discomfort into profit.
To get a comfy seat with more legroom, you’d expect to pay more, but that’s not always the case — and in fact sometimes the opposite is true. We talked to some travel experts and here’s what you can do to snag a more comfortable seat without having to spend a lot.
Pick airlines that offer the most legroom
Nearly four in 10 passengers say that giving more legroom is the No. 1 thing airlines should do to improve the in-flight experience, according to a survey by TripAdvisor.com. Jamie Counter, the senior director of flights for TripAdvisor.com, notes that discount airline JetBlue typically offers about 34 inches of legroom in economy class, which is “very generous” (though he adds that the airline is reducing its legroom offerings on some planes), while Spirit typically offers about six inches less than that. Most other domestic airlines, he says, fall somewhere between 32 and 33 inches of legroom, which is now “on the high side given the proliferation of slim-line seats.” Seat width tends to have less variation: In the economy cabin, it usually ranges from 17.2 inches to 18 inches, Counter says.
Know which planes have the most space
Legroom differs not only between airlines but within the same airline, as specific jets have different configurations. Counter points out that Airbus planes tend to have more interior space to create more legroom, though that doesn’t mean the airline has necessarily configured them with more legroom. That’s why experts recommend that before booking a flight, consumers check out SeatGuru.com, which shows the specific jet and how much legroom it has in each class.
Beware of regional jets
While this isn’t universally true, Counter says that many regional jets have less room — both in terms of width and length — than larger jets. “Regional jets can be really tight,” he says.
Try to get a better seat for free
Sometimes you can get extra legroom and a better seat without paying for an upgrade, says Brian Kelly, the founder of ThePointsGuy.com. He recommends asking the gate agent nicely (and early) if you can move into the bulkhead (the first row of economy class) or the exit row, which tends to have more legroom (just beware as the first row of exit rows often won’t recline, and most airlines do charge for exit row seats, though those with elite status may get the perk free, he adds). He says that you may also want to check on how full the plane is (he recommends using ExpertFlyer.com for this) as a fairly empty plane may mean an empty row, in which case you may care less about the extra legroom.
Understand what you should — and shouldn’t — pay
If you can’t get a free seat upgrade, it may make sense to pay more for more legroom. The problem, of course, is that the rates vary significantly so consumers get confused about whether they’re getting a deal or not. There’s not a hard, fast rule on what to pay, but in general, the cost for extra legroom varies from about $15 to $30 for flights that last up to three hours and $100 or more for longer flights, says Hobica.
Know when it’s worth it to pay more
Any flight over two hours might be worth it and over four hours is usually “definitely” worth it, says Counter — unless, of course, you’re tiny and short. It may also pay to look at the particular route to see if it tends to have a lot of delays (you can get the on-time performance of a route by calling your airline, says Hobica; FlightStats.com also publishes this data) which can turn an hour flight into a three-hour endeavor — at which point you will wish you’d paid $20 for more legroom.
And if money is no object, here’s where to look
Hobica says that if you’re going to fly in the lie-flat seats (prepare to shell out thousands), you should look for the ones that flip down (rather than the ones where you press a button and they slide down) as these kinds of seats have two different surfaces — one for sitting and one for sleeping — that make them more comfortable. Singapore Airlines is the gold standard of posh business-class seats, says Hobica, and Cathay Pacific is close behind. For first-class cabins, Emirates Air is the gold standard, though he adds that many domestic airlines, like American, are trying to up their game.
This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.