Study airline seat maps when comparing/buying tickets!
Really really analyze the seat maps of the potential airlines you are flying to get a general overview of the best seating you may get. Remember that seats can vary widely even across the offerings of the same airline (depending on flight equipment - 737, 787, A350 etc.)!
Take a look at SeatGuru for seat pitches of different aircrafts before booking! It's a very useful website that has great info on seat pitches, entertainment, seat configurations and more! If you find the standard economy class (particularly on United, American etc.) a bit cramped then consider using an airline with a slightly more generous seat pitch. Some airlines (this is particularly the case in Asia) have an economy seat pitch up to 33″-34″ compared to the 31″ pitch of US airlines. That extra couple of inches can make a big difference over 12+ hours.
Unfortunately, the trend to cramp more people into a cabin continues to worsen so you also may want to avoid high density seating configurations. A number of airlines (Air France, select aircrafts on Qatar, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Emirates) are now cramming an extra seat across the cabin of some aircraft :(
This can mean width being reduced - examples are fitting 10 across in a Boeing 777 (arranged in a 3-4-3 pattern instead of a more generous 3-3-3) and 9 across an Airbus A330 (3-3-3 instead of 2-4-2). Even the Airbus A380 can potentially be configured with 3-5-3 (11 seats) – instead of 3-4-3 – although thankfully no airline currently offers it. This higher density seating can make economy feel cramped and uncomfortable.
(A 2-4-2 configuration is always desirable!)
Secure the best seat possible!
For the best comfort, once you have chosen your airline, equipment and flight you need to try and secure the best possible seat!
When flying economy I always try to get seated at the exit row. In the old days you were simply supposed to ask before flying – nowadays many airlines (British Airways, Qantas, KLM-Air France, Singapore Airlines) will allow you to purchase the sought-after seats on the emergency exit row before online check-in opens. Ummm...
Expect to pay $50-100 per flight segment depending on flight length (unless you are elite member with them - in which case, will be free of charge!) - which is quite an amount, considering the prices of discounted tickets. However, these seats can offer significantly more room to stretch out. Note that on some window seats the exit door slide can protrude into your space – so once again do you homework before buying. Use SeatGuru to check out the configuration before your flight! It often also shows recommended seats (marked in green), and seats to avoid (marked in red).
If you can’t pre-assign the exit row then do try and check-in online as soon as it opens, typically 24 hours ahead of flying (double check with your airline) to get the widest possible selection of seats.
Snag an empty row – If the flight is not full and there are empty rows available then ask the flight attendant whether you can move there. It’s best to do this when the doors close before push back or after take off when the seat belt sign first comes off. Being assigned an aisle seat will give you more chance of snagging an empty row.
(Empty rows are often at the back of the plane - check it out after take off! Who know, you might be able to score a free "couch" for a 18 hour flight!)
Check in early!
Didn’t get that window seat you've been dreaming about for days? Don’t panic. But don’t wait until you get to the airport to check in for your flight. During the online check-in period, watch the seat map and refresh it regularly (on airline app or Expertflyer) — something better could easily open up at this time, and if you’re able to score a window or aisle seat, your flight experience will be exponentially better.
(Check in early to grab that seat you wanted for so long!)
Dress in layers!
You should always dress in layers, but this is especially true if you’re on a long-haul flight (and ultra-long-haul). Nothing, after all, is more uncomfortable than wild inflight temperature swings in a closed cabin. And don’t expect airlines to give you more than a bolt of thin fabric in economy as a stand-in for a blanket, so consider a cozy scarf, wrap or cape that you can easily slip on and off, wear as a sweater or curl up under when you’re trying to sleep.
(Well - not like this, but you get the idea)
Drink water - LOTS AND LOTS OF water!
When you think you’ve had enough water, drink some more. Flight attendants — especially in coach — are somewhat notorious for not handing out enough water, but don’t be afraid to ask for what you need! Air on planes is known for being incredibly dry (although recent technologies have improved it a bit), and it can really start to mess up your body. You’ll be able to start your trip on the right foot if you’re hydrated and taking care of yourself, so pack a water bottle — like the lightweight Vapur bottles that collapse and lie flat when empty — and fill it up after security or in flight.
(Note: generally avoid hot drinks on airplanes - it comes from the water tank preloaded and might not be the cleanest - who knows!)
(Yes - drink water on a plane regularly!)
Stock up on entertainment!
It’s no secret that many airlines’ inflight entertainment systems aren’t exactly the most entertaining. And they’re particularly not reliable in many cases, especially if you’re enduring the long haul in coach. So, download that music that you meant to drown in or that podcast you’ve been meaning to listen to or every episode of the television series you’ve been wanting to binge. If that’s not your style, there’s always some good old books that could use some love.
(In cases of most US domestic flights - bring your own entertainment to kill some time: read a book, listen to Stravinsky, you name it!)