Facing Reality: Most of Us Fly Coach

I take more than a few potshots at the big luxury travel magazines in my writings, but they do deserve kudos now and then for stripping off the gloss and getting real. For Conde Nast Travel, that’s most likely to take place in The Wendy Perrin Report column.

In the new issue just out, she gets to spend most of a two-page spread on trying to avoid a terrible seat in coach. As the numbers on any plane make obvious, most of us are flying coach most or all of the time. Anyone with kids is almost surely flying coach, Hermes scarf and Rolex watch or not.

It’s a very helpful article too, with strategies most frequent flyers know already, but many still haven’t realized. Unfortunately all CNTravel articles on their web site are at least a month old, so here are some of the key points.

1) For domestic flights, go with low-fare carriers.
As I keep saying, on Southwest or JetBlue you’ll get more room, better service, happier employees, a snack, and probably a more direct flight. Unless you’re elite status on a legacy carrier or can get to that point by the end of the year, there’ not much advantage anymore of going with a legacy carrier.

2) For transoceanic flights, go with foreign airlines.
For flights out of the country, foreign airlines are almost always better. Last year I flew down to Peru on Delta because it was free–I had enough miles saved up. This year I wanted to do the same on Continental, where I have a zillion and a half miles, but the entire months of June and July are blocked out from four airports I checked to Buenos Aires–not one frequent flyer seat available. So if I’m going to have to pay for it, forget going on a U.S. carrier. I’m flying on Copa Air, which will surely be nicer.

If you’re flying to Asia, don’t even think about booking it on a U.S. carrier, even if you have to pay a few hundred dollars more. Get yourself to a big gateway city, then take Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Malaysian, etc. etc. Even in coach it’s the difference between frozen fish sticks and sushi. As Ms. Perrin says, “European and Asian airlines tend to treat main-cabin passengers with more respect.”

The other tips center on paying attention to the type of plane (Boeing 767 and Airbus A320s are best), trying to get an exit row seat (though look out for charges on Northwest and Virgin), and see if there’s a “premium economy class” available. And of course checking seatguru.com for the plane’s layout if it’s not there on the booking screen.

One tip I had never thought of though: join the carrier’s club lounge for the year or for the day so you can have access to their wonder-working ticket agents. You’ll be treated like a V.I.P. instead of a schmuck with 50 other schmucks in a long line. That could definitely be worth the price of admission to get out of a lousy seat for eight hours.

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