Do you dream of flying first class but only have an economy class budget? If you want to upgrade your economy flight experience without paying for a first-class seat, I’ve got several great tips for you. Not everyone can travel hack to a free upgrade, but there are still several ways to make an economy flight feel more luxurious.
As a long-term traveler, I am very budget conscious and while I occasionally get to use frequent flyer miles for an upgrade, most of the time I admire the business class seats from a distance. It is also important to me that traveling in economy class is a way to be a more eco-friendly traveler and reduce my carbon footprint.
Over the years I have experimented with several tricks and hacks that make economy seats feel *almost* like a business or first-class ticket.
Keep reading to find an extra travel tip or two that will upgrade the experience of your next flight in economy.
Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to constitute professional advice. Deskless Nomad makes no representations, warranties, or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete, or up to date. Please see the full Deskless Nomad Disclaimer.
When Booking Your Flight
1. Use Seatguru to pick your seat
Seatguru is a must.
Seatguru.com is a site that gives you the lowdown on the best seats on any given airplane on any airline. When logging in to purchase your tickets from your airline website or ticket aggregator, open a separate browser window to Seatguru. Type in your selected airline and flight number into Seatguru to find the best seats in that particular airplane’s configuration (as well as which seats to avoid).
If you are debating two different airlines you can use Seatguru to compare seat pitch and width between the airlines. A couple of extra inches on a long flight can make all the difference. You’ll also be able to find which planes (and airlines) have power ports to plug in your electronic devices.
2. Leave an open seat between you and your travel partner
If you are traveling with a friend or partner, try booking an aisle and window seat and leaving the middle seat empty.
Since middle seats are always chosen last, there is a good chance you will end up with an empty seat in the middle to stretch out.
You risk very little with this strategy. If you end up with someone in between you, they will gladly trade their undesirable middle seat for your aisle or window seat so you will still be able to sit together if the strategy fails.
3. Pay to block an adjacent seat
Several airlines allow you to block an adjacent seat or even purchase an entire row at a steep discount. This is one of my favorite secrets for a little extra comfort in an economy seat.
Prices vary by airline but can be as low as $30-$100. Buying an entire row to lie down with these options is often far cheaper than purchasing a Premium Economy seat that only reclines. Depending on the airline you may be able to choose the option at the time of original booking or you may have to wait until you are at the check-in counter.
4. Purchase an entire economy row and even get special bedding
Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Fiji Airlines, and Lufthansa allow you to purchase an entire row to sleep. They even give you special bedding including a mattress topper, blanket, pillow, and extendable seatbelt to make the experience more comfortable.
These options are a great way to add luxury to your economy flight and are far more affordable than Business Class or Premium Economy. If you don’t mind that they don’t come with extra service or special meals, they can be a more comfortable choice than a premium economy seat that only reclines.
5. Choose a seat at the back
If you don’t want to pay for a full row or if the option is not available on your airline there is another way to score a full row for yourself.
Three to four days before your flight is scheduled to leave you can check the airline website to see how full the flight is. If there are lots of open seats towards the back, you can change your seat to an open row. With a full row to yourself, you can stretch out and maybe even catch some sleep. Airlines lock out online seat changes as the flight time approaches so if you try to do this in the 48 hours before your flight you may not have any luck.
Once you arrive at the gate you can also check with the gate agent to try and get a better seat. Seats will all have been assigned by about 15 minutes before boarding so this is the best time to change and be certain you will end up with an empty row.
Some airlines show a live seat map on their website which can help coordinate your strategy.
6. Pay a little extra to stretch your legs
Consider paying a little extra for more legroom. Exit-row seats will cost you a little more but being able to stretch your legs can make a huge difference in your comfort on a long coach flight.
7. Choose the best time to fly
Depending on if you are traveling the globe east or west, certain flights will fit in better with your circadian rhythm and the general mood on the flight.
When traveling east, red-eyes may actually be better. Your body is ready for sleep. Everyone else is also trying to sleep so there are fewer computer screens glowing and the cabin lights are turned off for several hours.
Other things to keep in mind when choosing the best time to fly include choosing certain days of the week that are less frequently traveled (like Tuesdays) and avoiding traveling on holidays. You’re more likely to find better seats and empty rows when the planes aren’t overbooked.
Choosing the right travel day greatly improves your odds of being able to sleep on a long flight.
8. Fly private
Let me explain!
While flying private has historically been unaffordable, there are several private airlines that offer surprisingly economical flights, especially on off-peak dates.
With JSX I found a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas for just $268. Other private and semi-private jet companies include (some are membership services requiring monthly fees):
- Set Jet
- Wheels Up
Use these private jet segments to get to your main airport hub where you will catch your long-haul flight.
You can live the good life on a small budget with semi-private flights. Flying semi-private means you can arrive just 20 minutes before your flight and avoid crowded airline terminals.
Another option to score cheaper semi-private or private flights is to sign up for Empty Leg notifications.
Empty legs are when a client books a private flight and the aircraft needs to fly to another destination to pick up that client. Connecting or ferry flights, also known as “empty legs,” would otherwise be empty so private airlines attempt to fill them with steeply discounted rates. Empty legs have pre-defined departure times and destinations and come with short notice (usually a couple of days). The more flexible you are and the people in your party, the more economical this option might be for you.
9. Check out La Compagnie for affordable business-class seats across the Atlantic
La Compagnie is an all-business class airline offering flights between New York and Europe (Paris, Milan, and Nice) at rates 30 to 50% less than other airlines. All of their seats lie flat and come with free fast WiFi and amazing cuisine. They also have amazing fare deals from time to time so it is worthwhile to check out their offerings.
10. Check premium economy and business class prices on your flight
Let me explain!
Airlines use complicated and sometimes counterintuitive algorithms when pricing seats.
If economy class is almost full but premium economy has empty seats, the airline may price premium economy far cheaper than you’d expect.
This is generally more common on tourist routes than business routes. While it can be difficult to time this if you are in the process of booking a flight and it is almost full make sure to check the price for a premium economy seat. You might be surprised!
A strategy for scoring a free premium economy seat is to delay checking in if the economy section is full on your flight but there are still empty seats in premium economy.
This works best for solo travelers. You’ll need to keep an eye on the online airline seat map. US airlines often allocate premium seats to the last passengers to check in when economy is overbooked. The big risk with this strategy is that you may end up with a middle seat if you don’t already have an assigned seat.
Some airlines also allow you to bid for an open premium economy or business seat. You may receive an email notification if there are unsold seats in those sections or you can ask the check-in agent if they are accepting bids for open seats. Each airline has its own rules about its bidding process.
11. Sign up for SkyLux to get a list of business class deals
Of course, the best way to make your economy flight feel like first class is to fly business class. Sign up for the SkyLux email list and they will send notifications about amazing deals on business class seats to worldwide destinations.
12. Order a special meal at the time of your booking
Many airlines offer special meals for people with dietary restrictions. If you prefer certain diets for religious, philosophical, or health reasons make sure to indicate these preferences at the time of booking your ticket.
With a special meal, you frequently get served first and know that you won’t have any mystery meat or unexpected ingredients.
The only downside I’ve found is that there is less effort put into the deserts which are often tasteless and less appealing or restricted to just fruit (because they think vegetarians don’t eat dessert?!).
Choices can include:
- Vegetarian (Hindu, Jain, Asian, strict, lacto-ovo)
- Gluten intolerant
Pandemic-related flight disruptions have changed the availability of certain special meals so make sure to check your airline website to see what they offer.
What to prepare at home
13. Download your own entertainment
Plan your entertainment ahead of your trip to help you pass the time on a long flight.
You can make your flight more enjoyable by bringing your tablet or laptop (and charger) for watching movies. If your seat doesn’t have a power port make sure to charge your devices ahead of time. You could also bring a mobile battery pack. An electronics organizer will make it easier to find your devices and cords in your carry-on.
Before you leave home, download your favorite TV shows and movies to binge-watch. I guarantee you there will be at least one fellow passenger looking longingly at your *insert favorite Netflix show* as they swipe through the same tired movies on the seat-back video screen, wishing they had thought to do the same.
Don’t forget to load books onto your E-reader. Your local library likely has e-books you can access for free.
14. Weigh your bag ahead of time
Your ticket class of service determines your luggage weight limit. With a higher level of service, check-in agents will even sometimes look the other way if your checked bag is over the limit. The story is not the same with an economy ticket.
Weigh your bags ahead of time so you won’t be “that guy” everyone is staring at in line, as you rearrange the items between your bags to meet the weight limits.
You can try the old trick of weighing yourself while you hold your suitcase with your regular bathroom scale or purchase a handheld luggage scale through any major retailer online. This will allow you to shuffle your personal items between your bags in the privacy of your home.
15. Mark your luggage as fragile
When you fly business or first class your checked bag tag will be marked as “priority” so that it arrives at baggage claim before those in economy class. Airport baggage handlers are notorious for tossing around most luggage but are less likely to do so with bags marked as priority or fragile.
Marking your luggage as fragile will remind them to treat your bag with care.
Be aware that some check-in agents may ask why your bag is marked fragile so be ready to tell them about that “fragile” item inside.
16. Sign up for a “Trusted Traveler Program” like TSA pre-check or Global Entry
U.S citizens, nationals, and lawful permanent residents can sign up for TSA pre-check for $78 (valid for 5 years). Just like business class customers, with TSA pre-check you get to use an expedited security line. You also get to keep your shoes, belt, and light jacket on. Plus there’s no need to remove liquids or electronics from your bag when going through security. TSA pre-check is only for domestic travel in the US.
If you travel internationally, consider applying for Global Entry. For $100 (valid for five years) Global Entry allows you access to the fast security line like TSA pre-check AND to use the express lines at customs and immigration when arriving in the US.
You don’t need to fill out forms upon arrival in the US and you get expedited access to self-service kiosks. Most travelers save at least an hour with Global Entry. The service also covers you for land and sea arrivals. They have a new option to complete the application process through an online video conferencing interview rather than in person.
You may be eligible to get these services for free.
Several credit cards reimburse the fees associated with applying for TSA pre-check and Global Entry so make sure to check your credit card benefits.
17. Use the My TSA App
If you decide not to spring for TSA pre-check or Global Entry, use the free My TSA App to see security wait times at your airport. This will allow you to plan accordingly and decrease the time you need to spend at the airport, especially if you’ve downloaded your boarding pass online and have no bags to check.
What to pack in your carry-on
18. Pack an inflatable footrest
If you are wondering how to sleep comfortably in economy, I have a secret for you.
The inflatable ottoman was a game-changer for me.
Getting my feet a little higher and releasing the pressure on my back makes flights so much easier. My feet are less swollen, my back doesn’t ache and I can sleep better.
Granted, inflatable ottomans are not ideal if you are in the aisle seat and strangers need to climb over you and your ottoman every time they need to go to the bathroom. For safety reasons, you also shouldn’t use them in an exit row. They are best if you have a window seat or are sharing a two-seat section with your travel partner.
While it can be a little embarrassing to blow it up and deflate it, I promise that the hours of benefits far outweigh those couple minutes of shame.
I have one that has 3 compartments with the option to inflate 1, 2, or 3 compartments to create the ideal size depending on the situation. Inflatable ottomans can be purchased online or from major stores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond or Walmart and range from $15 to $100+. Some even come with a convenient foot pump.
They’re also great for travel on trains, buses, and on road trips.
19. Or pack a foot hammock
A foot hammock is an alternative to the inflatable footrest to help improve your comfort dramatically in economy.
The straps attach to your tray table and the foot hammock acts as a sling to allow you to elevate your feet. Some types create a full shelf from your seat to the tray table (more comfortable for kids than adults). Other types create a type of bag that hangs off the tray table and you put your feet inside the bag.
I’ve chosen not to use a foot hammock because they jostle the seat in front and can disturb fellow passengers. The sling also tends to slide up your legs when you shift positions. They range from around $10 to $65+.
20. Pack your own (preferably noise-canceling) headphones
Some airlines charge for headsets and are just plain uncomfortable. Bring your own (preferably noise-canceling) headphones for a better experience.
If ambient noise keeps you from sleeping or you suffer from anxiety on flights, noise-canceling headphones are essential.
21. Pack a travel game
There is a number of small portable travel games to help you pass the time with your travel partners. You can stick with the old classics like chess, backgammon, or a deck of cards. Or try a new one like my personal favorite, “Catan – Traveler Edition.”
22. Bring special snacks
Airplane food in economy is often highly processed and full of salt. Budget airlines often have limited food choices and even regular airlines overcharge for the quality of food available in economy. I like to bring my own snacks that make me feel a little pampered.
Think charcuterie board and antipasto goodies like:
- Hummus or another dip
- Manchego and sharp cheddar cheese
- Flavored nuts
- Cherry tomatoes
- Carrot sticks
- Fresh fruit like grapes or sliced apples
I pack these into a Tupperware at home although some of these items can be found in the airport shops (for a steep price).
If you have access to airport lounges they often have similar snack foods. I always travel with a little bento Tupperware to save my leftovers for the plane. When traveling in Europe I do the same at the free hotel breakfast buffet before my flight since European breakfasts often include slices of cheese, bread, and small pastries that are easy to take with you.
23. Bring your own blanket and pillow
While airlines do provide pillows and blankets for longer flights I never feel like they are enough to get really comfortable. I roll my down jacket rolled and use it in combination with a Trtl travel neck pillow. You may also want to check out memory foam travel pillows. Although they are a little bulkier, they tend to hold their shape well and provide extra support.
One secret for sleeping in a middle seat is to use a soft medical neck brace as a travel pillow (not a rigid one with plastic on the outside).
They are actually amazing at supporting your head and cushioning your neck while you sleep. Soft medical neck braces are one of the best airplane sleeping hacks to keep your head from falling forward.
For an extra layer of comfort consider bringing your own travel blanket. You can also try asking for a second blanket or score one from an empty seat nearby after everyone has been seated.
Several companies offer packable down camping and travel blankets that make sleeping on a plane more lavish.
24. Focus on comfortable travel wear
Think warm and soft.
- Fuzzy socks and/or compression socks
- Comfortable tennis shoes that are easy to slip on and off
- A large and cozy jersey, sweatshirt, or sweater
- Loose-fitting athletic wear
- Stretchy pants or leggings
You can always change into these more comfortable items on the plane if you don’t want to wear them at the airport.
25. Pack an amenities bag
Business-class and first-class passengers get a fancy little amenities bag. Pack your own to give yourself a similar level of luxury.
Choose amenities that will make you feel pampered:
- Moisturizer (in a refillable silicone travel bottle)
- Lip balm or chapstick
- Face mist
- Toothbrush & travel toothpaste
- Dry shampoo
- A couple of hard candies or mints
You may also consider including health items:
- Eye drops
- Tylenol or Advil
- Melatonin (or other sleep aid recommended by your doctor)
- Sanitizing wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Dental floss or toothpicks
Pack everything in a small clear toiletry bag to easily remove during security screening.
26. Bring an eye mask
An eye mask is an essential item for sleeping on planes.
Even a little light from a fellow passenger’s video screen can make it difficult to sleep. That’s why Business class amenities kits include eye masks to keep out ambient light and help prepare your circadian rhythm for sleep.
27. Bring a pen
First-class amenities kits also often have pens to fill out disembarkation cards. Bring your own pen so you can fill out necessary forms while you are still on the plane and shorten your wait in line at customs.
28. Bring a water bottle
The recycled air on planes is notoriously dehydrating. To help you stay hydrated, bring a (preferably collapsible) water bottle that packs down small. Fill it at a water fountain after security screening or with filtered water in an airport lounge. Some travel water bottles come with clips to attach them to the seat in front of you.
Bringing your own water bottle is just one of the many ways to be an eco-friendly traveler.
At the airport
29. Splurge for a lounge pass
International business and first-class tickets come with access to the airline’s airport lounge. Lounges are a life-saver when your flight is delayed or you have a long layover. In a lounge, you’ll have a comfortable place to wait with free drinks, food, TV, magazines, and wifi.
Some of the larger airport lounges even have showers and sleeping areas with beds, blankets, and pillows for a quick nap.
There are many travel credit cards that come with lounge access or at least a couple of lounge passes to use each year. This is a great option if you don’t have frequent flyer status with lounge access.
You can also buy a one-day airport lounge pass for $59 from United or American Airlines. If you travel frequently consider purchasing an annual Priority Pass for access to over 1300 lounges worldwide.
30. Buy special drinks at the airport
It’s amazing how having a new refreshment to try can add a little excitement to your trip. Our brains love novelty and trying new things can actually improve your mood.
Once you have gone through security, check out the airport shops for special drinks you won’t find on the plane. Find a new fruit juice or flavored seltzer water. Airport lounges may also have interesting refreshments you can take with you.
31. Board as early as possible to find space for your bag
People in business or first get extra space for their luggage. In economy, you are more likely to secure your preferred luggage storage spot if you board early.
On your flight
32. Be nice to the flight attendants
Treating flight attendants with respect and always saying, “thank you,” can yield surprise perks.
Be conscientious and move out of the way when they are bringing the cart down the aisle. If you are able, help them get a tricky overhead compartment closed. Flight attendants work long hours and deal with a lot of rude customers. Make them feel appreciated and they will often return the favor.
Consider bringing a small gift for the flight attendants. You could bring things like Starbucks gift cards or chocolates to thank them for what is often a thankless job.
So far being kind to flight attendants has yielded me:
- An invitation to move to an empty row and another time to an exit row
- Extra drinks, snacks, and an extra dessert
- Extra pillows and blankets without me having to ask
So that’s my round-up of tips for ways to add a little luxury to your economy flight so it *almost* feels like first class. These tips have helped me survive long-haul flights, sleep well even in a middle seat, pass the time with ease, and arrive at my destination feeling ready to explore. I hope you’ve found one or two tips you can use to make your travels more enjoyable.
If you liked this post, save it to review before you book your next flight!