Is Upgrading Your Seat on an Airline Worth It?

Saloon aircraft with passengers during the flight

So, you are planning your journey, and wondering about what class of service you want on the trip. The options can be anywhere from Basic Economy to First Class, and as many as four or five options. 

But then you look at the price tag for those differences. The difference in cost can be as much as a multiple of 5 and in some cases 10 times as much! And looking at classes between different airlines can be a little tricky. What is listed as First Class on one airline can be called something different on another airline, and First Class on one airline is not the same as First Class on a different airline. I won’t name the airline or the destination, but a quick check of one international flight showed Coach class, non-refundable tickets at less than $1,000 each. First Class, refundable tickets on the same flight were over $10,000!

I have personally experienced a wide variety of configurations. My best experience was flying First Class from Atlanta to London Heathrow. We enjoyed access to the lounge, a lie-flat bed, a excellent meal with a dessert and a choice of Cognac or Bailey’s Irish Cream. On the other hand I have also flown 15 hours in the middle seat in Coach, from Inchon South Korea to Atlanta. It wasn’t 3 seats across, it was 5. So I had to crawl across two other people to get to the aisle. And at one point I got a leg cramp in the middle of the flight. That flight was an absolute nightmare.

So how do you decide? Here are a few things that I recommend when flying:

What are the services available for a given class?

Basic Economy is the lowest cost and truly bare bones service. In most cases, the air fare is non-refundable. You don’t get to pick your seat. You will be the last to board, so overhead bin storage availability is questionable. Checked baggage will cost extra.

As you move up in class, the amenities improve. Changes in class will mean different amounts in legroom and amount of recline, dedicated overhead bin space, priority boarding, priority access through security, priority de-planing, free checked baggage, different meal, drink and snack selections, the list goes on. In the ultimate first class experience on certain airlines, you can have your own enclosed bedroom, access to a bar, Michelin star meals, and even a fresh set of pajamas. 

Airplane interior cross section First and business chairs and economy class seats Passenger aircraft with Cabins of the different travel classes 3d illustration

How much room do you need?

Are you a tall or large person? Do you intend to be using your seat as a flying office? Sitting in a cramped position for 8 or 9 hours is not going to be easy. I have been on planes in Coach where opening a laptop was impossible. And, as you move up in class, the legroom, width, angle of recline, and whether there is a power outlet, all change.

How long is the flight, and is it overnight or daylight?

Typically when flying eastward, you fly overnight, arriving earlier in the day, and when flying westward the flight is in daylight the whole way. So, when I travel eastward (to Europe or from Asia), I prefer having a seat that may enable me to get some sleep. Coming back from Europe, I prefer to stay awake the whole way, so a seat that has a large recline is not as important. 

The length of the flight also makes a difference. Springing for First Class on a flight of less than 5 hours is, in my opinion, a waste of money. But a seat with more legroom on that same flight is something I would consider. 

Can you upgrade with Points?

Joining airlines loyalty programs is definitely worth it. As an example, for the flight I compared earlier at $10,000, that same flight can be available with as little as 260,000 points and just $335. Many times, you can buy a ticket at one class, and upgrade to the next class with miles. For more information on accumulating miles, I recommend checking out The Points Guy at www.thepointsguy.com

Can you mix classes on a round trip?

Absolutely. I am currently scheduled for a trip to Ireland and the UK later this year. We paid for the trip with miles, and we have booked First Class seats going and Comfort + seats for the return trip.

Recommended Procedure to Select Seats and Cabin Class

  • Look at the length of the flight.
  • Look at the time of the flight.
  • Note the aircraft type for the flight.
  • Read the airline’s description of the seat.
  • Consider your needs, price point and availability of miles based on the questions above.
  • Go to www.seatguru.com, where you can see the configuration of that aircraft for that airline, and individual reviews of seats. This site will even tell you if it considers a seat to be a “bad seat”. A word of caution, though. There are some differences between the seat configurations shown in Seat Guru and the the configurations shown on the airline websites. My advice is to go with the Airline configurations. 
Aircraft seats plan top view Business and economy classes airplane indoor information map Vector illustration Chart plane seat plan of aircraft passenger


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