A particularly nasty type of torture is flying. Seats are cramped, for one thing. What’s worse, airlines are imposing higher fares this year for the privilege of getting crammed into their airborne cattle cars. You wonder: Why am I paying so much for this horror show? Well, there are ways to make the discomfort of flying less of an ordeal. Inveterate world traveler Lewis Walker, a financial planning and investment strategist at Capital Insight Group in Peachtree Corners, Ga., has some really good tips:
Larry Light: Flying may be costly and uncomfortable, but people still like to travel. And airliners are the most effective way to get from here to there. So for the carriers, the incentive to please passengers is missing.
Lewis Walker: One of the top resolutions for 2020 for many is “to travel.” Clients contemplating retirement, or those retired, talk to us about their bucket list. Grandparents often are interested in travel involving family members, especially grandchildren. Seniors joke about the “go-go years” post-retirement, potentially followed by “slow-go” and “no-go” years. Younger travelers don’t want to wait until retirement. “Getting out there” is an early objective. Active adventure travel is a fast-growing category.
Light: What do you tell clients who want flying advice?
Walker: The point of financial planning is to help you to accomplish your goals within desired time frames while meeting expectations. Travel can be expensive, so budget considerations frame capabilities. Time is a factor as is distance. Plane travel often is involved and the tradeoff between cost and comfort looms large in your decisions.
Lately, I haven’t seen many empty seats on planes. Computers have enabled airlines to better balance supply and demand, with cheap seats disappearing quickly as flights fill up. Elite flyers grumble about a scarcity of complimentary upgrades.
Light: And yet, the trips are so often awful
Walker: Terror is a middle seat in the rear of a completely full aircraft, all bins full, no room for your stuff, and you’re squeezed between two passengers of more than average girth. Oh, and your seat won’t lean back, the audio system isn’t working, the captain just announced a ground delay, and you have a tight connection on leg two of your journey. Joy! The only thing worse might be a passenger next to you with a miniature therapy pony.
Light: When it comes to ranking what’s worst about flying, the seats head the list.
Walker: Here’s the rub. Airline seats, especially in economy, are shrinking, while travelers seem to be getting larger. The average seat width in coach cabins is 17 to 18.5 inches. Seat pitch, the space between the back of your seat and the seat in front of you, on major airlines is roughly 31 to 32 inches. Some budget airlines have a seat pitch of 28 inches. If you’re over six feet tall, you may have teeth marks on your knees. Complaints about uncomfortable seats, cattle car configurations, are legion. In planning any trip, you must consider the tradeoffs involved in cost versus comfort and levels of service.
Light: What can you do?
Walker: Download seatguru.com. The site offers seat charts for U.S. and foreign carriers with information about seat width and pitch. The chart shows good seats and undesirable seats. Bad seats may lack a window or have a misaligned window, not lean back, have restricted legroom, reduced seat width, be too close to restrooms—or the galley, a bother on long distance overnight flights. Exit row seats offer extra legroom but the seat next to the exit door can be cold, especially on long-haul flights.
Light: You can pick seats when booking a flight. And hope that you aren’t buying a ticket after the plane is mostly filled. What’s your advice on that?
Walker: Middle seats are universally unpopular, hard to avoid with 3-across configurations. If you’re traveling with a companion who eschews middle seats, go for aisles across or look for aircraft with 2-3 , 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 configurations.
For Delta, SeatGuru shows 10 different seat configurations on their wide-body jets and 20 different layouts on narrow-body airplanes. Delta also offers multiple classes of service. For domestic service or international flights less than 6.5 hours, you are likely to find First Class, Delta Comfort and coach service that includes Main Cabin and Basic Economy. Long-haul international flights, primarily on wide-body aircraft, may include Delta One, with premium lay flat bed service, Premium Select and its (2-3-2 seat configuration, Delta Comfort and Main Cabin/Economy, offering 2-4-2 or 3-3-3 configurations).
Light: A lot of the discomfort is concentrated in coach. But traveling with the high-end folks jacks up your ticket price even more.
Walker: Many newer aircraft have extended range with flights exceeding 14 to 17 hours or more. If you can afford it, or have points for a free ticket or an upgrade, go for business class with lay flat beds with each seat having direct aisle access. Climbing over a sleeping person next to you in the middle of the night on an older style business class configuration is no fun.
Light: You often do have a choice, though.
Walker: Shop around. Out of Atlanta, which is my airport, you have a multiplicity of carriers and choices as to fares, classes of service, and varying seat configurations. There have been some amazing sale offers lately to Asia and Africa.
Light: I guess the extra cost is worthwhile.
Walker: The comedian Lewis Black said, “You want to know what it’s like to be on a plane for 22 hours? Sit in a chair, squeeze your head as hard as you can, don’t stop, then take a paper bag and put it over your mouth and nose and breathe your own air over and over.” If your bucket list includes the seven continents, including explorations of Antarctica, Australia, Asia, Africa, you’re in for long flights. You want to be in the front of the plane.
Creative travel is one of the joys of financial independence. Aim to accumulate the wherewithal to travel in the style to which you are determined to become accustomed.