It was Jerry Seinfeld who joked that, when the flight attendant closes the curtain between first class and coach — she looks back at those sitting in coach with a smile that says: “Maybe if you had worked a little harder…I wouldn’t need to do this.”
Over the past decade, that dividing curtain has become amorphous. The line between first class and coach has blurred for a number of reasons. This includes the popularity of premium and enhanced economy seating that straddles the traditional classes. Then there is the rise of the blogosphere and social media, which has produced a community of passengers sharing travel hacking tips for simply faking first class.
Finally, there is the surge in low-cost, first class fares that make tickets more reasonable than ever but upgrades darn near impossible. New people are flying first class; and they tend to stick around.1
It’s easier than ever to fake it until you make it when talking about flying first class, whether you’re flying domestic or internationally. Here is your guide for making coach a roomier, more comfortable and overall elevated flying experience.
Not all first class seats are the same. You might show up expecting Champagne and strawberries – and get served Franzia and Fig Newtons.
In fact, the airline industry has no set standard regarding what a first class experience should entail. Further muddying things is the make-up of domestic vs. international flights. Whereas most domestic aircraft have two cabins, first class and coach (also called economy), international flight often offer a hybrid business class, which mixes features depending on the airline and aircraft.
For the purposes of this piece, first class will entail perks and accommodations above and beyond both coach and any economy add-ons, such as extra legroom or in-flight Wi-Fi access. This includes upfront seating, free food and drink service, nicer bathrooms and upgraded seating. This last feature can range quite extensively, from wider seats that provide more legroom and greater comfort, to lie-flat seats and even private suites. Additionally, the TV screen might be bigger, and you might get posh treatment including slippers and robes.
Of the Top 10 Best Economy Class Airlines in the world, none of them are American. They include Asiana Airlines, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Turkish Airways.2
But that’s OK. While American Airlines, Delta and even JetBlue may not have the hardware in the trophy case, there are some fairly universal ways to game the system in your favor.
There are a few hard and fast rules for booking coach seats: aim for the exit row — if you meet the qualifications – and go with a window seat, where you won’t be bumped and bothered all flight. Also, avoid sitting near the restrooms, for both the awkwardness of lines looming over you and other reasons we don’t need to mention.
But these are just general rules. What about knowing the specific seats you should be picking on specific airlines and aircraft?
Fortunately, there are savvy resources out there to prevent you from playing coach seat roulette – never knowing exactly what you’re going to get until you take your seat (even if you have selected a seat on the airline or booking site.) SeatGuru.com is one such resource. Its tools include comparison guides, such as the Economy Long Haul Guide, which allows you to find the best cheap seat for those extended air trips by selecting your airline and aircraft. From there, you’ll see interactive seating charts with notes from SeatGuru and other users. For example, someone who sat in an Air Lingus Airbus — in seat 38D, to be exact — stated: “The arm rests do not fully retract — only go up about 2/3 of the way, so you can not lie down flat on the center 4 seats, for example. Very disappointing.”
SeatGuru and similar sites provide general info: seat type, width and pitch, as well as video type (on-demand TV, none, etc.) and whether there are available power outlets and Wi-Fi. (Tip: “Slimline” seats may sound modern or ergonomic, but it’s industry jargon for “very little padding.”) But the most useful info comes with hunting around the aforementioned seating charts, pointing and clicking through commentary to nab the best seat on the booking site.
If you don’t like what you find out about available coach seating, there is the option of upgrading to premium economy or enhanced economy. The former refers to a dedicated cabin of roomier and more comfortable seats that’s usually in play for foreign airlines, while the latter refers to domestic aircraft seats mixed in with traditional coach — usually toward the front — with more legroom. Enhanced economy includes Delta’s Economy Comfort, United’s Economy Plus, and other similar airline-specific offerings.3
It’s entirely possible to fool yourself into thinking you’re in first class when you’re not. And it’s all — or mostly — in the preparation.
Seeing is believing. So be sure to bring an eyeshade. You can find one at the Dollar Store, and at worst, in an airport shop for much more than $1. Once you’re tricked your eyes, it’s onto your ears. Noise-cancelling headphones are a must. The cheap or freebie airline earbuds not only perform worse than tin cans, but they’ve been known to send mild shocks to listeners’ ears. Lucky for you, we’ve laid out a sound strategy and choice picks for travel headphones.
What about the cramped quarters of coach? Well, if you follow our advice and get a seat in the emergency row, then you may have ample room not just for your legs, but to convert your carry-on-bag into an ottoman. Just be sure to wait until after take-off and to stow it before the plane descends for landing.4
Tricking your entire body is a bit tougher. But there are ways to achieve comfort even in the middle seat of a three-wide coach row adjacent to the bathrooms. For starters, try on a massage. Yes, those terminal massage stations in plain view of everyone look dodgy, but they’ll relax your shoulders and neck before that Seattle to Miami redeye.
Travel and neck pillows are popular, too. But also don’t overlook a versatile accessory such as a pashmina, which can be a blanket, scarf or shawl. And slippers are one-thousand times more acceptable than flying barefoot. You don’t want to be a casualty of PassengerShaming.com.5
If you don’t have the time, energy or creativity to transform your cost-effective coach experience into something more luxurious, you can always try to leverage any status you have with an airline for an upgrade. Some say complimenting flight attendants works, too. But convoluted rate rules can often stymie upgrade attempts even when the first class cabin is empty. It’s not uncommon to be asked to pay an upgrade fee that trumps your original ticket price if you’ve secured a bargain of a ticket.
That said, faking first class is easier than you think. If you’re having trouble suspending your disbelief just because you’re still sitting 30 rows behind the cockpit, then bring your own divider curtain to hang in the background before taking your travel selfies. Also, don't forget to take trip insurance from Allianz Global Assistance on your journey — it's a safer way to travel.
Mike Ward is a copywriter, family columnist and sometimes comic who lives in Richmond, Va. with his wife, two young kids and two mutts. He likes long road trips and rooting for losing sports teams.