Let us set the scene for you: You’re traveling home for the holidays. It was a last-ish minute trip that’s already costing you an arm and a leg, and you either saw no point in upgrading to first class (Wrong move, Comanche), or it was all sold out (We’re sorry for your loss).
You’ve found yourself stuck in the no man’s land, somewhere between rows 20 and 38.
To your right, a teenager is complaining to his parents that he’s missing the best parties of the season by leaving for the week.
The seat in front is occupied by a sniffling sneezing mess of an otherwise well-intentioned fellow who would probably do better in a quarantine zone than a public plane.
Off in the distance, a baby—nay, two babies—are crying their sweet little eyes out.
And to your left, the window, looking out on the tarmac, and here you sit, contemplating just how much trouble you’d get in by making a run for it (the answer is: “a lot”).
The point is, flying coach is never fun. The seats are just wide enough to keep you from falling onto the person next to you, your legroom is drastically limited and you’re generally lucky if you get yourself a complimentary bag of pretzels and a Diet Coca-Cola.
Luckily, there are ways to make the best of flying coach, and it doesn’t include paying an arm and a leg. If you gotta fly coach this holiday season, you might as well do it like a boss.
Select the Right Airline
When it comes to flying—and especially flying coach—not all airlines are created equal. Don’t believe us? Feel free to book your next flight on an unabashed ultra-low-cost carrier like Spirit Airlines, and then go fly coach with someone like JetBlue Airways. You’ll see the difference—we guarantee it.
The cold hard truth is that different airlines offer different perks for coach flyers.
JetBlue, for instance, offers 34 inches of legroom to guests in coach, compared to the standard thirty-one. Southwest is another great carrier for legroom, and also doesn’t charge for things like in-flight snacks, pillows, and blankets.
Virgin is probably your best bet for entertainment, offering all of its coach flyers personal seatback entertainment screens, along with things like complimentary headphones. JetBlue offers similar accommodations, along with access to in-flight WiFi at no extra charge, a perk that can cost you your firstborn with other airlines.
The real issue is that airlines change their rules all the time, so your only real bet is to put in the research and see which airline is the best to fly with at the time you’re looking to book. Luckily, they usually list their “perks” on their websites.
Dress For the Occasion
This one’s a classic, but it’s true as ever. Coach seats generally aren’t comfortable, so every little improvement you can make is going to be worthwhile.
If you can’t wear comfy shoes to the airport, make sure you have a pair of slippers in your bag. We’re total slipper nerds, so check out two of our favorites here and here.
A neck pillow is a seriously awesome investment and will make all the difference when trying to catch some shuteye on those long domestic flights. This one is great because it can inflate and deflate for easy storage. This one, from Tempur-Pedic, is spendy, but hey—it’s Tempur-Pedic!
Treat it like a Sunday morning. Toss on your pullover, comfy joggers and call it a day. No need to go overboard. Keep in mind that planes tend to run cold. Don’t show up in a pair of shorts and a tank top and expect a comfy ride.
Be practical. Be courteous. You’re all in it together. Don’t forget your deodorant, and if you can manage it, don’t use any cologne. What smells awesome
Master the Carry-On Survival Kit
Even if you’re not flying coach, selecting the right gear to bring along is a subtle art form. You have to be aware of things like space (your carry-on can only be so big!), utility and practicality, while not losing sight of your main objective: Staying comfortable and happy for the duration of your long and otherwise miserable flight.
Everybody’s carry-on survival kit is different, but there are some staples that no one should be without.
A good pair of noise-canceling headphones will completely change your flight experience. If you’re an over-ear kinda guy, Bose’s Quiet Comfort 35’s are largely considered the single-best pair of headphones on the planet. They’re a little spendy at 350 buckaroos, but they’re worth every penny. If you’re looking for something a little more budget-friendly, the BackBeat PRO 2 series from Plantronics is a hit for half the price.
Of course, it’s not all about headphones. The ideal kit also includes things like earplugs, a sleeping mask, some reading material, etc. We’ll talk more about adult beverages below, but these carry-on cocktail kits are life savors, whether your objective is to drown out the screaming baby in seat 27D, or have yourself some hair of the dog on that long trip back home after your weekend work conference.
Select the Right Seats
Selecting a good seat for your flight is essential, and if you think for one second that all the seats on your plane—even in your section—are created equal, you got another thing
If you book your flight early enough and can manage to get an exit row seat, it’s usually a guaranteed way to get a lot of extra legroom at little to no additional cost. In fact, without shelling out the extra cash to fly first class, this is your best bet at ensuring maximum comfort on your flight.
Additionally, do everything you can to avoid seats located next to bathrooms—especially on longer flights. Aside from the obvious, you’ll be subjected to lines of random passengers waiting next to and around your seat for their turn. So, unless people breathing down your neck while you cry at the end of Marley and Me sounds appealing, you should avoid these seats at all cost.
Stay away from seats in front of bulkheads (“bulkheads” is airplane speak for “dividing walls”) near the center or tail ends of the aircraft. They always offer limited reclining ability, which can get super uncomfortable on long flights. If you can get a seat directly behind a bulkhead, however, it’ll usually result in some extra legroom.
Try also to avoid the last few rows toward the rear of the plane. Depending on the plane’s size, the rear can taper down, which means your seats only get more cramped. Every inch counts!
Gamble Your Way to a Better Seat
This one’s a trick we’ve picked up over the years that ensures even if you’re flying coach, you’re getting the best seat possible. If you’re flying in a three-seat row, always book the middle seat. Why? Because people who are flying with family or as couples will always pick seats that land them next to each other first. If they’re faced with an inconvenience—even something as petty as a stranger in between them—they’re much more likely to try something else.
The best part is even if they book it, chances are they’ll show up and you’ll be able to work your way into the coveted aisle seat you wanted anyway. Basically, if you gamble and win, you wind up with a row of seats all to your greedy, diabolical, mathematically logical self. If you gamble and “lose,” you’ll probably just wind up in the aisle, which is still a win.
Keep in mind, however, that the plan isn’t foolproof. If the plane is packed enough, they’ll make sure every seat gets filled and you might get stuck in the middle, or have your seat assignment changed. Either way, we think it’s a gamble that could be worth taking.
Snag Your Seats and Soon as Possible and Keep Updated on It
Always make sure you claim your seats soon as you can after booking your flight. Aside from having the option to pick which seat you want, depending on your carrier and plane model, your seat may get moved at any time for “operational purposes.”
It’s a bummer, but selecting your seat as soon as possible will allow you to stay up to date on exactly where you are. You should also check seat availability 24 hours before the flight, as this is when airlines will start bumping their more elite or loyal flyers up into better seats. You may not end up in first class, but you may get your hands on one of the better seats on the plane if you’re paying close enough attention.
There are also a bunch of apps you can use to help you sort out a better seat. Apps like Seat Alert or Tripit’s Seat Tracker will actually tell you when the seat you want on your flight becomes available.
Check in Early
We cannot for the life of us understand why people think checking in is optional. Always, always check in online as early as you possibly can. Aside from having access to primo seat selection, you can also get yourself into an earlier boarding group if you’re flying with a carrier that offers open seating (which is basically the “every man for himself” version of seating).
Additionally—and this is a big one, these days—airlines very routinely overbook their flights. It’s a pretty unscrupulous business practice if you ask us, but it doesn’t change that it’s a thing. And if you can, try to guess which passenger is more likely to get bumped from their flight: Someone who checked super early and had their stuff together, or the guy who checked in while scrambling through TSA with no belt and one slipper on? … Exactly.
So, check in early. The earlier, the better.
Bring Your Own Food
In a world where airlines comfortably charge 8 bucks for a gross pre-made sandwich and a stale mint, feel free to improvise.
Airlines aren’t like movie theaters; they don’t care if you bring your own food onboard. So, if you were checking out the Chipotle in the food court on the way to your gate, by all means, grab that chicken burrito with the extra guac and give ‘em hell.
You may also carry airplane bottles of booze in your carry-on—up to 3.4 ounces, according to the TSA. Conveniently, airplane bottles of booze are usually 1.7 ounces
Be Prepared to Land in Style
Finally, no matter whether you’re traveling first class or coach, flying can make even the most well put together man look like he’s been put through the wringer.
Aside from your carry-on survival kit, you should also pack some grooming products to freshen up with upon landing. Things like face and body cleaning wipes, moisturizer, a toothbrush, mouth rinse, cologne, eye drops, deodorant, some aspirin, vitamins (we like these), etc. Hell, if you’re feeling really serious about it, you can pack more things like leave-in conditioner and dry shampoo depending on just how long a flight it is.
If you don’t have to look like the guy who just got off an eight-hour redeye, you should do everything you can to avoid it.