Strategies for Avoiding the Middle Seat

There's nothing for irritating than being wedged into a middle seat on a cross-country flight, especially when you've paid an outrageous fare and the people sitting next to you are paying super-saver rates.

Snagging premium seats at bargain fares is an art. While a good travel agent can improve the odds you'll get one, ultimately you can do things even the best agent can't. All it takes is a little time and effort - and it's worth it to stay out of the center seat.

Theree's no real mystery - frequent flyers - those with status - get the best seats. The most importatnt thing travelers can do is ensure you have elite status on your preferred carrier - and if you fly a lot, on at least two carriers. It may even be worth forking over a few hundred dollars at the end of the year for an unecessary trip if you're close enough to the next level - the higher your status, the better chance of a good coach seat - or a first class upgrade.

Free Enrollment + Free Benefits = Better Seats

It costs nothing to enroll in airline frequent flier programs, and there's no downside to doing so. Don't assume you'll never accrue enough miles for a benefit. It takes only minutes to sign up, and you'll have access to valuable information - starting with real-time airplane seating charts.

Even the casual flyer, who takes three or four trips a year, can attain elite status by concentrating on one airline and taking advantage of special offers.

Airlines reserve their best seats for their best customers - those who fly at higher fares of who have attained status in those ubiquitous airline mileage loyalty programs. Take a proactive approach; read the fine print, study the various airline websites, or at least those for your preferred carriers' programs. A few minutes invested each month can yield surprising returns.

Be sure your numbers are entered in each reservation, whether business travel booked through an online agency. Avoid actually booking travel directly through a corporate travel department, or personal travel, even if booked through an online agency. Avoid actually booking travel directly through the airlines' sites though. An independent agent, whether live or an online automated site, can save major dollars by providing unbiased information and more options.

Always Check In Online

Above all, check in online whenever possible before your flight. When you check in online, you have one last chance to see if any desirable seats have been opened up by the carriers. You'll also have a chance to sign up for direct e-mail or voice communications from the carrier. Airline automated systems mean you'll usually know about any last-minute changes even before your agent does.

That information is especially important if you're out of town, traveling on a weekend, or during bad weather, when live agents may be unreachable. Ever tried to reach an airline or a 24 hour service on a weekend during a blizzard? Sometimes an airline website is your best bet for up-to-the-minute information. And if you have elite status, your call is going to be answered on the "priority line" faster than anyone without status.

Even Southwest, which has a "no reserved seat" policy, caters to business travelers by assigning passengers who pay full fare to be the first that board ("A" Group"). That means optimal seat selection.

Another Proactive Strategy

Even the best travel agent usually can't clear seats on airlines when you don't have status. But most carriers release at least some seats for early check in 24 hours before flight time. Some carriers upgrade frequent fliers 24, 72, or even 100 hours prior to departure. That means frequent fliers holding the best coach seats can vacate them to be upgraded.

The chances of snagging a desirable aisle or window seat are best at these times.

Finally, check the status of seats very early in the morning - computer programs run overnight when demand is slower.

Read Communications from Your Airline Website

Over the past decade, many carriers desperately seeing business travel dollars offered double qualification points on flights, making it much easier to qualify for elite status. A traveler could purchase a single qualifying ticket to fly from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, or from New York to Hong Kong, to achieve entry tier elite status in one trip.

Other carriers, including JetBlue and United, have long offered online opportunities to purchase exit row and other "premium" seats for anywhere from $10-$100 per segment. This option is particularly valuable when flying low cost, one-class International airlines, which often operate with very tight seating. These seats can turn an exit row seat into "poor man's first class".

Subscribing to business traveler sites such as seatguru.com or seatexpert.com are especially helpful when trying to make sense of online seat maps - or when trying to find out which airlines are offering special bonuses.

Since signing up for frequent flyer accounts costs nothing, there's no reason not to enroll yourself in each program, even if you're not planning to fly a lot.

Using Online Booking Services

While corporate travelers can sometimes use their corporate travel departments for personal travel, the cost involved means individuals often turn to online booking services to avoid booking fees.

While better than obviously prejudiced airline booking sites, there are some things online booking sites don't do as well as airline sites. Getting you out of middle seats is one of those things!

When purchasing a ticket through online services, travelers without status often find they are unable to reserve any seat at all, even wheni planning months in advance.

Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia websites can request the seat you want, however the airlines ultimately have control. That's where joining a frequent flyer program and entering the number when booking becomes critical.

Without a FF account, the chances of actually landing a confirmed seat assignment before showing up at the airport at flight time are slim.

We also advise keeping a close watch on your airline PNR, or Passenger Name Record, on the airline's website, even if you're not a frequent flyer. Always have a profile with each airline AND travel agency you use, as it will automatically indicate your preference.

Travel agents, including Summit Management Services, are usually willing to call the airline to haggle for a seat if you are a frequent flyer, but as a direct customer you can often do more yourself.

If you have an International flight involving several airlines, such as a connection on United form Newark to Paris and then Air France from Paris to Nice, you may need to call or log on to each airline website separately. You will need each "Locator Confirmation" to get the appropriate reservation and seat informaiton online. This is particularly confusing if you've booked on one carrier and you're trying to use partner airline Frequent Flyer numbers on other airlines. It's worth the extra effort to avoid a center seat.

Day of Departure Strategies

On your morning of departure, if you still don't have a seat assignment, a call to the airline may, in some cases, shake loose a seat IF you can call more than 4 hours prior to flight time. Of course, you may receive the dreaded pronouncement that the flight is "under airport control", and in that case, all you can do is show up as early as possible.

If all else fails, try to arrive at the aiport early and request your preferred type of seating

First, try going to the counter agents for preferred seating, especially if there is a relatively short line. Counter agents appreciate friendly and relaxed customers, and if a good seat is available, it can often be yours with a smile.

If the line for check in is long, consider using the check in kiosks. Many of them give you the opportunity to ourchase premium or upgraded seats at check in - often at surprisingly reasonable prices. And don't forget to check to see if business class seats are available at check in for international flights; we've seen business class seats offered for sale in places like Tokyo and London for as little as $350 - about 10% of the rate that would be charged for guaranteed premium seats!