Most of my long-distance economy flights are in economy class on wide-body aircraft.  I purchase my tickets with my own funds so almost all of the trips I take on purchased tickets are in economy class.  I like flying, but even for me a 14-hour flight in a cramped economy seat can be grueling.

There are, however, ways I have discovered to make the trip much more pleasant and even fun.

  1. Use SeatGuru’s Website for Plane and Seat Selection

Not all planes are created equal, nor are all seats.  Often when searching for flights, the website will offer several choices of flights on a given day.  These flights are usually flown on different types of aircraft.

As a general rule, I prefer widebody, two-aisle airplanes.  These planes are more likely to have the latest in-flight entertainment systems and other amenities.  Often seats at exit rows and bulkheads on widebody aircraft offer more room than single aisle aircraft.  A larger airplane and an extra aisle means it is easier to move about and there is more room to stretch your legs when you leave your seat.

SeatGuru provides seating maps for the fleets of all major US and international carriers.  That website will tell you the seat width and seat pitch for each type of seat on each aircraft.  Seat Pitch is the distance between a point on the seatback and the same point on the seat in front, for each type of seat on each aircraft.  It is commonly used as a measure of legroom.

Once you have identified which seats are better, check the airline’s seating charts for each flight to see which ones, if any, are available.  Often the airline will want to charge extra for the seats with more legroom.  If you have frequent-flyer status with an airline, they will make these seats available for free or at a discounted price.  This applies not just on the airline you have status with but on other airlines within the same airline alliance.

The best economy seat I have experienced is on Japan Airlines’ 777-300 aircraft.  All of the economy seats have 34 inches of pitch and are 19 inches wide.  There is no additional charge.

19 inch “Skywider” seats on JL 777-300 with neck-supporting pillows

On some airplanes the bulkhead exit row seats have the most legroom.  Plus in these seats there is no one in front to recline into your space.  Airlines usually block these seat from selection by non elites until the day of departure or at most 24 hours prior.  If you have a seat you are unhappy with, check in early for your flight and ask if there are any exit row seats available.  If you get these seats at check in or at the gate on some airlines do not charge eve though you would have been required to pay more if you selected them when you booked the ticket

Seats 45 A&B on JL 787-8 bulkhead seats.  Plenty of legroom (click to enlarge).

2.  Buy Noise-Cancelling Headphones or Earbuds       

It is well worth it to shell out the $100+ to buy noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds.  They provide superb quality sound for watching videos or listening to music.  They also cancel out the wind and engine noise as well as babies crying and noisy neighbors.

My headphones

Headphones can get heavy on the ears after wearing them for hours so lightweight ones maybe best.  I good pair of earbuds will be won’t squish your ears, but they don’t cancel out as much noise in my opinion.

3.  Use a Neck Pillow  

It took me a long time to breakdown my initial reluctance and buy a neck pillow.  They look goofy and take up a lot of room in my backpack.  I could attach the pillow to the outside of the pack, but that would announce to the world that I’m carrying one.  Nevertheless they provide great support for the head and that is something the vast majority of economy seats don’t do. Economy seats have improved with adjustable headrests that can be raised and lowered and sides that can be folded in. 20160409_200106

A neck pillow provides the best support for the head.  It makes it much easier to get a few hours of good sleep when you don’t have to worry about your head slumping over.  And good sleep makes the flight go faster and leaves you fresher on arrival.

Virgin Atlantic 787-900 has outstanding support for the neck and head in its economy seats

The window seat is good not only for the views and being able to control keeping the shades open or closed, but the wall of the plane is also provides support for leaning your body or head against.

4. Get a Lie-Flat Economy Seat 

There is no such thing as a true lie-flat economy seat, of course.  But when you can get an empty seat or two beside you, it is almost the same thing.

Flights are getting fuller and fuller so its is not easy to get one empty seat beside you much less two.  So when you select seats, initially select the best seat available.  Keep checking the seating chart on the airline website as time gets closer to departure.  Seats usually fill up from the front to back of the plane.  The last few rows of economy are the last to fill up.  If it looks like there will be an empty row, switch to that seat,  you can select that seat just before departure, or even better when you check in at the airport.  The check in agent can even try to keep a seat open if you ask.  There are no guarantees though.

The times that I have had one or two empty seats beside me have made flying coach quite enjoyable even in seats that lack added legroom.  In coach, I would prefer to have an empty seat beside me over an extra legroom seat with no empty seat next to me.  I lucked out with  a “lie flat” economy seat, a whole row of three seats on the side section of a 777, on a 15+-hour Delta flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa.  It was like business class lite.

5.  Have Access to an Airline or Airport Club

Next to getting the right seat, having access to an airport lounge can make all the difference in enjoying a flight(s) in economy.  Spending an hour or two (or more) inside a lounge at the airport prior to departure on a flight or between connections can make that flight much more relaxing and do wonders for your overall attitude.

Cathay Pacific the Pier First-Class Lounge Hong Kong

Lounges offer free snacks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, wifi, newspapers, showers, comfortable seating, and a respite from the hub bub of the terminal and gate area.  In addition, lounges operated by an airline also have agents inside who will help with travel issues and questions.  The last benefit can be invaluable during flight delays and cancellations.  It beats standing in a line with 150 other passengers trying to talk to a couple of agents at the gate or being put on hold for 30 minutes if you call the airline.

A shower before boarding a 10- or 12-hour flight is very relaxing.

Shower room in Delta Skyclub in Terminal E ATL

There are several ways to gain access to airport lounges.  First, is to become a member.  US airline clubs offer annual, multi-year and lifetime memberships.  You can buy a membership directly from the airline, or you can get a membership by holding a credit card.  For example, I am a member of the American Airlines Admirals Club by holding the Citi WorldElite MasterCard.

Admirals Club Dallas Fort Worth

Admirals Club lounge Tokyo NRT

Delta grants membership in its SkyClubs to holders of its Amex Reserve card.

Delta Skyclub Detroit

These cards come with other benefits in addition to club membership that offset the hefty annual fees.

Second you can get a credit card such as the Citi Prestige card that comes with a Priority Pass Lounge membership.  This type of membership can be even better than a membership in an airline club.  Priority Pass offers access to over 700 lounges worldwide.  With Priority Pass you will have access to business-class type lounges in airports at home and abroad where an airline club does not have a lounge.

Long bar and dinning area at Virgin Loft London Heathrow

Third, if you have elite status with an airline you can gain access to lounges on that airline and others in the alliance that air line is affiliated with.  As an American Airlines Executive Platinum member, I have access to OneWorld Alliance first-class lounges when flying on a paid or award international ticket by virtue of that elite status alone.


Cathay Pacific Business-Class lounge Taipei

Japan Airlines First-Class lounge Tokyo (NRT)

That is a huge benefit since foreign first-class lounges and even those in the US can be quite spectacular with buffets, a la carte restaurants, showers, massages and more.

As an American Executive Platinum I have access to the Qantas first- and business-class lounges at LAX Tom Bradley Terminal.  These are probably the nicest airline lounges in the US.

Qantas first-class lounge TBIT LAX with grilled Sea Bass ala carte entrée.

Qantas business-class lounge LAX TBIT buffet and bar

Last, lounges sell day passes.  An airline lounge will usually charge about $60 for a day pass.  The American Express Centurion Lounges, which are the best domestic lounges other than airline first-class lounges, charge $50 per visit for American Express credit card holders.