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Originally published Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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How to find the best seat on packed planes

As airlines continue to pack planes and cut service, many passengers are contending with cramped quarters. Carving out some comfort in coach is still possible, if you're willing to work at it.

The New York Times

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There you are, stuck in the middle seat again. This time you ended up in the row that doesn't recline. The guy in front of you has leaned his seat all the way back, pushing the top of your laptop down just far enough to make it impossible to watch a video.

You turn to the onboard menu, hoping a snack might ease your suffering. But by the time the flight attendants reach your seat, everything but the trail mix has been sold out. Sound familiar?

As airlines continue to pack planes and cut service, many passengers are contending with cramped quarters, disgruntled flight attendants and charges for food, pillows, exit-row seats and other formerly free amenities that made the journey slightly more bearable. But carving out some comfort in coach is still possible, if you're willing to work at it.

"Just being in the know and being first to make a seat selection is not going to get you the absolute best seat on the plane," said Matthew Daimler, the founder of SeatGuru.com. "The landscape has changed," he said, as more airlines have begun charging extra for better seats.

But there are also some new options. So-called premium economy — a roomier class of seats between business and coach — has long been offered by international carriers on transatlantic flights. But recently, domestic airlines have been adopting the concept.

American Airlines, for example, will begin selling Main Cabin Extra seats with 4 to 6 inches of extra legroom for $8 to $108, this spring, starting with its Boeing 777-300s.

United Airlines is expanding its Economy Plus rows, which offer 4 to 6 inches of extra legroom for an additional $9 to $159 one-way, to its Continental Airlines fleet.

And Delta is introducing Economy Comfort, with an extra 4 inches of legroom, this summer for an introductory charge of $19 to $99 one way.

Of course, airlines save their best seats for their best customers. United, for example, lets top elite frequent fliers sit in the Economy Plus section at no charge. But even if you're not an elite flier, there are other ways to make yourself comfortable.

Here are some strategies for finding the best seat.

DON'T SHOP FOR PRICE ALONE: Spirit Airlines and JetBlue both fly A320 aircrafts between Boston and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but seats are configured very differently, with Spirit packing 178 seats onboard with 174 that don't recline, compared with 150 roomier seats on JetBlue, according to SeatGuru.com, which ranks seat quality.

In a recent search for nonstop flights on that route, Spirit Airlines offered the cheapest rate at $247 round trip in coach, not including fees for seat assignments. For $22 more, a traveler could fly JetBlue, which offers free DirecTV at every seat in addition to a seat pitch — the distance between seats — of 34 inches in coach compared with 28 on Spirit.

USE TECHNOLOGY TO FIND A BETTER SEAT: Most major airlines let passengers select seats when booking, so be sure to look at diagrams on the airline's homepage to see which spots are open. Then cross-reference your findings with websites like SeatGuru or SeatExpert, which offer information like which exit-row seats won't recline.

To avoid a middle seat, sign up for free alerts at ExpertFlyer.com. After creating an account, plug in your flight details and select the kind of seat you want — aisle or window.

If one becomes available, you receive an email so you can contact the airline to nab it. Additional seat alerts are 99 cents each if you need to monitor more than one flight at a time or want to be notified when an exit row or any two seats together open up.

• CALL A TRAVEL AGENT: Travel agencies that handle a lot of airline bookings often receive access to special codes or customer-support desks that can unblock seats. "Frequently if you go to the airline website, you won't see every available seat," said Jim Osborne, the vice president for the airline program at Virtuoso, a network of luxury-travel advisers that has special relationships with about 55 airlines.

"With the code, we can see what's available and unblock and assign them," Osborne said.

BE OPEN TO COMPROMISE: If you are traveling as a couple, one tactic is to reserve a window and aisle in the hopes the middle will stay empty. But with planes so full these days, the chance that middle seat will remain open is rare. Another strategy is to sit across the aisle from each other, so neither ends up in the middle.

• PLAY THE NICE CARD: That's how I ended up in a roomy exit-row seat (21D) on United Flight 1570 from Newark, N.J., to Denver last month, sipping a free glass of wine. My original seat, 35F, just a couple of rows from the bathrooms at the back, was occupied by a 3-year-old when I boarded.

Her mother had apologetically explained that they had been given two middle-row seats several aisles apart and were looking for someone who might switch. I mentioned the situation to the attendant, explaining I would take one of those middle seats for the child's sake, but if a window or aisle seat became open, to please let me know. He politely said my chances were slim, but offered to comp me a drink.

Then, after settling into my new middle seat, two young men asked if I'd switch with their friend, also in a middle seat toward the front, so they could all sit together. Moments after that second swap, the attendant caught my eye.

"Looks like this one is open," he said, indicating an aisle seat on an exit row, one of the most desirable seats. I sprawled out, taking full advantage of the extra 4 inches of legroom.

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