Once upon a time, the guy who booked his plane ticket early was the lucky chap who laid claim to the window seat in the exit row. But today, first-come, first-served plane seats have gone the way of stewardesses, cabin smoking sections and paper tickets. In the past few years, we've rolled our eyes as airline after airline rolled out "perks" like priority boarding and preferred economy seating, taking away any chance that a fortuitous flier could achieve the best possible economy experience at no cost.
Alas, these programs are here to stay. So instead of scoffing at the idea that fliers have to pay for something that was once complimentary, let's move on, accept the status quo and find out how we can use it to our advantage.
Are priority boarding and preferred seating programs really worth our cash? George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, thinks so. Says Hobica, "With so many fliers carrying bags onboard now, you really have to fight for overhead bin space. And these perks are especially great for families. If you want to keep the family sitting together, and you don't want the kids sitting between two strangers, you can purchase the seats you want with some preferred seating programs." (Note: A 2016 bill passed by the U.S. Congress could eventually require that families be seated together at no extra cost.)
Airline early boarding and premium seating programs vary widely, with some offering more value than others. Below, we dissect a handful of programs from the major U.S. airlines to help you decipher which ones are best for you.
American Airlines Main Cabin Extra and Preferred Seats
American's Main Cabin Extra offers additional legroom (up to six inches) and Group 1 boarding, starting at $20 per segment. You can purchase Main Cabin Extra when you book or buy it as an upgrade before your flight. Main Cabin Extra is complimentary for most elite fliers and for those who book a full-fare coach ticket.
You can also purchase a Preferred seat when you book, which includes standard legroom and a "favorable" location on the plane (i.e., seats near the front of the cabin). On the flight we tested, from Denver to Philadelphia, Main Cabin Extra cost $64 while Preferred seats were going for $29 - $35.The Verdict: If legroom and early boarding are essential for you, Main Cabin Extra is the best choice; Preferred costs less, but without any additional legroom or priority boarding, moving up a few rows on the plane might not be worth the cost (especially if the "premium" seats available are middle seats, as many of them are).
Delta Comfort+ includes three inches of extra legroom on domestic flights (or four inches on international flights), dedicated overhead bin space and priority boarding. There are also little perks such as amenity kits (on transcontinental flights) and special snacks. The price varies by route; on our test flight (Denver to Philadelphia), the upgrade cost $59.38 each way. Alternatively, on some flights you can purchase Preferred Seats in the main cabin, which will get you an aisle or window seat near the front of the plane.
You can also purchase priority boarding (which cost $15 on our test flight).
The Verdict: If all you care about is being seated near the front of the plane, buying a Preferred Seat will save you money over upgrading to Delta Comfort+ -- but it doesn't include all the other extras such as priority boarding and guaranteed bin space. Keep in mind that some of these premium seats are middle seats; you might prefer a free aisle or window seat closer to the back of the plane over a roomier middle seat near the front.
JetBlue Even More Space and Even More Speed
JetBlue offers Even More Space, which grants fliers access to roomier seats (up to 38 inches of legroom) on the plane in addition to early boarding and access to overhead bins. Costs vary by flight. When we checked prices on a domestic flight between New York and Portland, Oregon, the price ranged from $30 to $90 per leg of the flight.
Even More Space sometimes includes JetBlue's Even More Speed program, also known as early boarding, which is only available in select U.S. cities. (Even More Speed can also be purchased by itself.)
The Verdict: Sure, these seats are slightly roomier, and the bonus priority boarding is nice if it's included. But middle seats in the front of the plane are up for grabs at that extra price, and personally, I wouldn't pay $90 more to sit in a middle seat unless it was wedged between two adorable kittens. Since these extra seats are charged on a per-leg basis, they can get quite expensive. The cost for Even More Space seats on all legs of my New York to Portland itinerary, which included a stop in Long Beach, was a whopping $240 total; this might be worth it for tall travelers who desperately need the extra seat pitch, but not so much for 5'1" yours truly.
Southwest EarlyBird Check-In
Southwest doesn't have assigned seating, but the airline divides passengers into A, B and C sections based on how early each passenger checks in within 24 hours of departure. The sooner you check in within that 24-hour window, the more likely it is you'll gain a coveted spot on the A team, which boards after elite fliers and passengers with special needs. Pay $15 each way for EarlyBird Check-In, and you'll be checked in automatically and receive a boarding assignment 36 hours before your departure.
The Verdict: Because of Southwest's every-man-for-himself approach to airline seating, the $15 EarlyBird Check-In option is worth it if you're determined to snag a seat in the front in order to make a tight connection. Frequent flier John Deiner is a fan of the program: "I've been flying Southwest for years, and the one thing I hate about it is that you have to check in exactly 24 hours in advance or lose your shot at being among the first to board. I tried out the EarlyBird program on a recent trip to Vegas and loved it -- I got on early, got my seat of choice in the emergency row, had copious amounts of overhead storage to choose from and didn't have to worry about checking in at a certain time."
Spirit Airlines Big Front Seats, Shortcut Boarding and Shortcut Security
As the king of extra fees and add-ons (there's even a fee for carry-on bags that don't fit under the seat in front of you), Spirit charges you for any seat request. That means that if you want to be sure you sit next to your spouse or child -- even in a lousy coach seat in the back -- it'll cost you $1 to $50. (The airline will assign you a seat at random for free.) For Big Front Seats, which have extra legroom and no middle seat between them, you'll pay $12 to $199 in advance or $25 to $75 for onboard upgrades.
If you want to speed through the airport and onto the plane, you'll pay up to $15 for Shortcut Security and $5.99 each way for Shortcut Boarding (also known as Zone 2 priority boarding).
The Verdict: Most of us want some control over where we sit, so it's worth paying for a seat assignment of some sort -- and if you're paying anyway, why not grab an extra-large seat?
United Airlines Economy Plus and Premier Access
Economy Plus seats offer a few inches of extra legroom near the front of the plane; they are complimentary for some elite fliers and can be purchased by anyone else on a one-time basis or as a yearly subscription. In our tests, prices for one-time Economy Plus upgrades ranged from $99 to $129 on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, $29 - $34 on a flight from Chicago to Atlanta and $169 - $193 on a flight between Los Angeles and London.
United also offers Premier Access, which starts at $15 per segment and includes priority boarding, expedited security lanes and dedicated check-in lines. You can purchase this when you book or any time before your flight, including check-in.
During booking, you can purchase an Essentials Offer (which includes Economy Plus seating and an extra checked bag) or an Enhanced Offer (Economy Plus seating, extra award miles, Premier Access, an extra checked bag and United Club access when available). On our test flight between Los Angeles and London, we found that it was cheaper to choose one of these bundles than to select Economy Plus seats individually.
The Verdict: These upgrades can get expensive, as they're priced per segment; if you're interested in Economy Plus on most or all of your individual flight segments, it's probably worth purchasing one of the bundled offers at check-out. Get the Enhanced Offer if you want priority boarding as well.
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--written by Caroline Costello; updated by Sarah Schlichter
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Airfarewatchdog.com is also a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.