Air travel these days is sometimes likened to the flying version of a Greyhound bus. Here are some strategies to help you keep your costs in hand and perhaps get a little more (comfort, perks) for your money.
— Don't fall for the "only premium economy seats are available" ploy. You booked a fare on an airline that has economy and premium economy seating, and when it's time for seat selection, the website says only the more expensive premium economy seats are available. Don't pay more for a premium seat. If all the "cheap" seats are taken, you may get a premium economy seat when you check in.
— Watch for (and ask for) cheap last-minute upgrades to business and first class. Business and first class can cost many times the price of an economy seat. For example, I frequently fly from Los Angeles to New York, where you can still find coach seats for $129 each way if you catch a sale, but business class costs $2,200 or more. I've been offered last-minute upgrades (when checking in online at home, at the airport kiosk or even at the gate) for as little as $250 on top of the $129 fare, a huge savings. If you're not offered a discounted upgrade, ask when you check in.
— Don't assume that business and first-class fares cost 10 times the economy-class price. They don't always. There are often non-refundable business and first-class fares going for relatively little more than economy and often for the same price as refundable coach fares. Recently I flew from New York JFK to Boston in first class on American for $140 each way when economy class on the Delta Shuttle was charging $400 from LaGuardia. I flew L.A. to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a connection through Atlanta on Delta for $349 one way in first class, not a huge premium over the economy class fare, which is sometimes $200 each way on that route.
— Consult Seatguru.com to pick a better seat. You can see seat maps for almost all airlines and aircraft types here. All seats are not created equal.
— Get maximum legroom in economy class by flying JetBlue (if it goes where you're going). JetBlue's A320/A321 aircraft seat rows are spaced at least 33-34 inches apart in coach compared with 31-32 inches on some airlines; and JetBlue's "even more space" seats range from 37 to 41 inches apart.
— Use your frequent-flier miles to upgrade instead of buying an inexpensive economy-class fare. What is better value: spending 25,000 points on a $250 coach fare or 15,000 miles upgrading a $139 coach fare to a $2,500 business-class fare? I earn those miles by applying for airline-affiliated credit cards with those 40,000 (or more) bonus mile offers.
— If you fly on United frequently, consider the Economy Plus annual subscription: http://www.lat.ms/1bmNpQv. For $499 a year, you get unlimited domestic upgrades to United's extra-legroom seating as long as a seat is available when you book. For $200 more, you get international Economy Plus.
— Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Fewer people travel on those days, so there's a bit more chance the middle seat will be open.