Preferred seats are another airline money grab — real extra legroom seats take planning ahead
Even at 5’3″ I admit I like economy-class seats with extra legroom. It’s less about the room for my actual legs, as much as feeling a little less squeezed into the seats.
And anyone who tries to work or use a tray table to eat appreciates having a little extra space, especially if the person in front reclines. So when airlines charge more for those seats, it does seem worth it. However, it isn’t always worth the extra cost for “preferred seats.”
Legacy carriers want extra money from every seat
But increasingly, U.S. legacy carriers not satisfied with getting fees from their extra legroom seats are now are trying to get travelers to pay for as many seats as possible on board.
United Airlines just joined American Airlines and Delta Air Lines in this by introducing “Preferred Seats.” These seats will be in the rows directly behind “Economy Plus” and while they will have standard legroom, they will incur a surcharge, except for Premier level frequent fliers. Some of these seats, normally in the first row of the “preferred” section, do have extra legroom.
SeatGuru can help
I use www.seatguru.com to find out whether seats are actually extra legroom or only toward the front of the plane. The seatguru.com site also makes me consider issues that I may have missed. Having lots of legroom near the lavatories is not always worth extra money. Sometimes, planes have out-of-the-way seats that are hidden gems. Other times, I find that I need to change airlines to get across an ocean without adverse health effects.
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The rationale given to frequent fliers is that by charging average fliers for these seats, the airlines can keep more seats for their best customers. Presumably, these seats, while not as good as “Economy Plus,” will still be better than being stuck in the very back of the plane. Passengers in “Preferred Seats” will also be served earlier than passengers in the back of the plane, and presumably, have more chance of food choices not being sold out.
The definition of “Preferred Seat” is very flexible
All well and good, if you’re an elite level flier. This description of “a few rows” behind the extra legroom seating doesn’t say much.
United, along with American and Delta, basically can designate as many rows as they want to be preferred. In the past, particularly on popular routes with American and Delta, I’ve booked clients months in advance, only to see most of the plane designated as preferred seats, and thus unavailable without a surcharge.
In fact, on a Delta flight I booked in October 2018 for August 2019 from Paris to Atlanta, the coach cabin (not Delta Comfort/mid class but the regular coach cabin) goes from row 30 to 57. And most seats, including ALL window and aisle seats until row 47, are designated “preferred” with an extra charge.
Compounding the customer annoyance factor, these increasing “preferred seat surcharges” come at a time when airlines have added “basic economy,” so travelers have already made a choice to pay more for seat assignments when they discover very little is available without a second surcharge.
Closer to flight time good seats are now hard to find
Families or friends traveling together increasingly will find they can’t find any two seats together without paying more.
So far, United is starting out cheaper. And they are only charging about $9 for many “preferred seats.” But does anyone want to guess in what direction both the cost and number of chargeable seats will go?
Now, a side note — to be honest, as a travel agent there’s a potential silver lining in terms of business, as some agents, our company included, have preferred relationships with airlines that can sometimes help avoid seat fees. But that’s beside the point. Airlines can do whatever they want these days in an unregulated market.
Many European carriers charge for all advanced seat reservations, sometimes even in business class
[Editor’s additions based on recent events.] A medical scare on a Lufthansa flight changed my frugal mind. I sat with no wiggle room in coach on a transatlantic flight. I decided that I would no longer subject myself (at 6’2″) to the discomfort of coach class with 31-inch seat pitch. On the return flight, I paid $100 for a seat where I could actually cross my legs. The flight was far more enjoyable and the $100 extra-legroom seat was worth every penny.
International airlines still sell good extra-room seats for reasonable fees. Plus, American carriers offer upgrades for reasonable amounts on international routes. Purchasing economy airfares, plus a good seat, plus a checked bag, often costs less than the normal Main Coach without extra legroom seats. This rule holds on European carriers more than on US carriers.
I already purchased extra legroom seats on KLM and Air France for flights this summer. I reserved the seats I want far in advance. Adding $200 to the round-trip ticket price is a bargain compared to business class or standard coach. Plus, exit row seats without the irritation of lavatories and being jostled all night long are hard to find closer to flight time.
The bottom line:
Flying on foreign carriers can be a big bargain if purchasing upgraded seats. My round-trip to Spain ended up costing $200 less round-trip than the same ticket using regular coach. (Closer to departure, the seats I wanted would not have been available.) Plus, some US airlines offer bargain upgrades at the last minute for recliner seats and business class seats.
Preferred seats without any extra legroom are a ripoff as far as I am concerned. Passengers get nothing more than a seat in the front of the plane. I have yet to see the front arrive any sooner to the gate than the tail of the aircraft.
Janice Hough is a California-based travel agent a travel blogger and part-time comedy writer. A frequent flier herself, she’s been doing battle with airlines, hotels and other travel companies for over three decades. Besides writing for Consumer Traveler, Janice has a humor blog at Leftcoastsportsbabe.com (Warning, the political and sports humor therein does not represent the views of anyone but herself.)