A couple of things to remember
As anyone who flies a lot can tell you, not all airlines and coach products are the same. Before you settle on a carrier, decide what would make you enjoy your flight more. Some airlines offer outstanding in-flight entertainment systems, but at the expense of cramming tighter, narrower seats in coach. Others offer more room, but perhaps you just really can't do without movies for 10 hours. Perhaps you need to get some work done on the way, and need a power port for your laptop. Or maybe you just don't care about any of that since it's a short flight. Decide on that first, as you'll know where to start your research.
And as with everything else in life, the cheapest option isn't necessarily the best one. Instead of just booking the cheapest option, take a few minutes to research the product by looking at the airlines' website, and user review sites like Skytrax. Skytrax reviews in particular provides useful information about the overall experience you'll face on an airline, including the level of service provided by gate agents and flight attendants. You may find that it's worth paying a couple of hundred extra dollars for a different option.
Check SeatGuru for seating options
Once you've narrowed down your choices, I highly recommend heading over to SeatGuru to check out your seating options. SeatGuru is best known for its seating charts, but they also provide information on amenities such as in-flight entertainment and power port availability. Now, when you head over to the website, you might be wondering, how do I figure out what kind of plane I'll be flying on? This might seem especially daunting if an airline operates several configurations of the same airplane, such as a Boeing 777. However, it isn't as hard to figure out as you might think. Airline websites, as well as most online travel agents and metasearch sites like Kayak, will tell you the type of equipment that is scheduled to operate your flight. Once that's figured out, the airline websites, and sometimes even other sites like Kayak, will allow you to view available seats on a particular flight. You can then match the seating configuration to what's in SeatGuru.
So how do you use this information? SeatGuru displays information about each seat in an airplane, including the pros/cons of particular seats. This might include proximity to the lavatories, lack of windows in particular rows, seats with extra legroom or no recline, etc.
So what seat should I choose?
This will obviously differ from person to person, but here's a few things I try to do to ensure a more comfortable coach experience. Note that some airlines charge a fee for reserving seats in advance, or at least for what they deem to be "preferred" seats (usually aisles and windows near the front of the coach cabin and/or bulkheads and exit rows).
- Avoid "extra seat" configurations - what I mean here is avoiding airlines that cram an extra seat in each row, which becomes especially important on a long flight. The most common example of this is the new trend of putting 10 seats per row in a 777, instead of the recommended configuration of 9 seats. The extra seat results in both constricted seat width and narrower aisles. If you have no choice but to fly on an airplane in this configuration, beware of aisle seats. The likelihood of getting repeatedly bumped into by drink carts or woozy passengers is much higher due to the narrow aisles. I willingly pay extra to avoid airlines that configure their seats in this manner, though unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more airlines want the extra revenue from the extra seat in each row.
- Avoid seats with a bulky IFE box - as the photo at the top shows, ending up in a seat with an in-flight entertainment (IFE) box can be highly uncomfortable, as it effectively leaves you with half a seat worth of legroom. This can be especially problematic if you're tall, or if you are on an overnight flight where you're trying to sleep. SeatGuru is usually pretty good at identifying which seats have the offending boxes.
- Pick a seat with no row behind or in front, or an emergency exit row - in other words, seek out a seat either in front of or behind a "bulkhead". Seats directly in front of a bulkhead have no seats behind, so you can recline to your heart's content without disturbing anybody. Seats behind a bulkhead usually have extra legroom, since there's not another row of seats in front. Exit rows typically have more legroom.
There are drawbacks to these seats, however. Seats in front of a bulkhead are often in close proximity to the lavatories, which could be either a plus or a minus depending on your point of view. Ditto for seats behind a bulkhead, and these have the added disadvantage of having no underseat storage, meaning all of your carry-ons have to go in an overhead bin for takeoff and landing (one reason I don't like these seats). Plus, these rows usually house the bassinets, and therefore attract passengers traveling with infants, which may or not be a problem for some. And while exit row seats have more legroom, they sometimes have limited or no recline. Sitting bolt upright for 12 hours might not be your idea of a good time.
- Sit close to the front to get off faster - this can be especially important if you have to clear customs and immigration when you arrive, and/or if you have a tight connection. On a large, fully loaded airplane like a 747 or A380, the waiting time in line at immigration can easily be 30 minutes more at the back of the plane compared to the front.
- Consider paying more for "premium" economy - the concept of "premium economy" seating has been growing in recent years. This can range from an entirely separate class of service with dedicated check-in and special meals, such as on Air France or British Airways, or just a plain coach seat with extra legroom and maybe more width, such as American's Main Cabin Extra or United's Economy Plus. Either way, these seats typically provide 4-6 inches of extra legroom compared to a regular coach seat. British Airways World Traveler Plus can run an extra $500-1,500 per seat round trip compared to regular World Traveler, whereas AA's Main Cabin Extra can run anywhere from $19 to a few hundred extra each way depending on flight length (note that U.S. carriers typically waive fees for these seats for "elite" members of their frequent flier programs). It can get expensive for sure, but it's still considerably cheaper than business class.
- Or better yet, if you have a stash of frequent flier miles, use them to upgrade to business or first class - miles don't appreciate, and airlines are notorious for moving the goalposts to claim awards, so if you've got a big trip coming, use them up to either book a business class seat in the first place (for example, AA charges 67,500 miles for a one-way business class seat to India), or pay for a cheap coach ticket and upgrade to business or first. If you do this, you'll typically have to use the miles and pay a fee, usually $300-500 per seat each way, and there's no guarantee that the upgrade will actually clear, so beware.
You can also press you luck and try to upgrade when you check-in. If your flight has a large number of unsold business class seats and/or is oversold in coach, the airlines will sometimes offer you an upgrade for a relatively small fee; AA for example once offered me an upgrade on a flight from Dublin to Chicago for $500. It never hurts to ask the agent when you check-in.