How to find the best seat on the flight that’s right for you

Because of increased competition and a worldwide pandemic, airline ticket prices are way down. And they’re likely to stay that way.

Remember, though, cheap fares like Anchorage-Seattle for $89 one-way are for basic economy (or Saver, on Alaska Airlines) seats. Folks who buy these tickets are the last to board, can’t get an advance seat assignment and can’t use any upgrades.

I like to play the frequent flyer game and play the upgrade lottery, so I rarely purchase the cheapest fare.

A seat in first class is a wonderful thing. Often, however, the cost for the extra comfort is just too much. But what about the seats right behind first class? Delta calls it Comfort+. Alaska calls it Premium Class. There’s some extra legroom, some free drinks and dedicated overhead space for your carry-on bag. There’s still 3x3 seating, but just the extra legroom makes a big difference.

So — how much extra are those seats? Well, it depends.

There are many factors that determine how much extra your premium seat will cost. If you have earned elite status with an airline, your premium seat will cost less.

Just looking at the variety of prices for a ticket can give you a headache. Between Anchorage and Seattle on Nov. 10, Alaska Airlines’ one-way tickets vary from $89 to $169 for Saver tickets. If you buy these cheap tickets, you won’t get upgraded to Premium — even if you want to pay the difference.

First, you have step up your seat selection to the main cabin. There’s no difference in the actual airline seat (or the legroom) when you pay more for a main cabin seat. You get to pre-reserve your seat. That’s the big advantage.

Once you pay extra for a main cabin seat, you then can pay extra for Premium Class. On Alaska Airlines, on that Seattle flight date, the upcharge is between $44 and $54 one-way. It varies on each flight. For a nice daylight flight, I found a seat for $173 one-way. A first class seat ranges from $298 to $598 one-way.

On Delta, the total all-in cost for a Comfort+ seat on Nov. 10 is $159 one-way. For an extra $108 one-way (a total of $267), you can fly first class.

Between Anchorage and Los Angeles on Nov. 11, the tickets cost a little more — but not much. Alaska flies nonstop. A Saver seat on Nov. 11 costs $142 one-way. To have a shot at the nicer seats, you first have to get a main cabin seat for $179. Then, it’s an extra $99 ($278 total) for a premium seat.

With MVP Gold status, I can get a premium seat for less: $238 one-way. Or, I can play the upgrade lottery and hope that I score a free upgrade before flight time.

Delta charges just $1 less for a Comfort+ seat between Anchorage and Los Angeles. Plus, you have to change planes in Seattle.

It’s a long way from Anchorage to Fort Myers, Florida. And it’s a new route for Alaska Airlines. The route also has been on my Top 10 list for cheap airfares all summer long. Both Alaska and Delta charge between $101 and $107 for the cheapest fare (one-way), departing on Dec. 1 or Dec. 2. Alaska charges an extra $35 to move to the main cabin. Delta charges $25. Alaska charges $345 one-way for a premium seat. Delta charges $271 one-way for a Comfort+ seat.

Between Anchorage and Honolulu, Alaska Air is the only carrier offering a nonstop. On Nov. 10, the cheapest fare is $228 one-way. For a premium seat, it costs $352 one-way.

Some European destinations now are on sale again. To fly from Anchorage to Barcelona between Dec. 1-12, Delta charges $568 roundtrip for the cheapest of the cheap seats. To fly all the way in Comfort+, the cost is $796 roundtrip. Move one day earlier or one day later — and the price will be different.

If you have some Delta miles you want to burn, it’s 50,000 SkyMiles for a round-trip ticket in Comfort+. But because Delta works with AirFrance, KLM, Virgin Atlantic and a bunch of other partner airlines in its SkyTeam alliance, you’ll discover all seats are not created equal. On AirFrance and KLM, you’ll get economy seats … which are closer together than the Comfort+. Check your itinerary carefully.

Alaska Airlines doesn’t have a premium-level mileage redemption level. You either get a coach seat or a first class seat. If you want to fly from Anchorage to Honolulu on miles on Nov. 10, it will cost you 15,000 miles. To sit in premium class, it will cost an extra $84 one-way.

One of Alaska’s newest destinations is Belize. The service starts in late November. Fly on Dec. 2 for 15,000 miles in coach. To upgrade to premium, you pay $72 for your Anchorage-to-Los Angeles flight, then another $89 for the LA-Belize flight.

Scoring the premium seats is one big reason to gain elite status on an airline. Typically, carriers seek to reward their frequent travelers with the nicer seats. In addition to its own inventory of premium seats, Alaska Airlines has a deal where its elite travelers (MVP, MVP Gold) get access to American Airlines’ premium economy seats at no additional charge.

The premium seats are another incentive to bank frequent flyer miles. Particularly on long-haul international flights, you often can get a nice flight with miles much cheaper than you can with cash.

Unfortunately, there are no “at a glance” guides to compare the cost of premium seats. With Google Flights, you can select “premium economy” to search for Delta’s Comfort+ deals. But Alaska Airlines’ premium seats don’t show up. You have to got to the airline’s website and plow through the flight selection process before you can see what a premium seat costs.

There’s always a market for the cheapest-of-the-cheap seats. But for those of us who enjoy a little extra legroom, the premium economy seats offer just that. And on planes today, sometimes that can make all the difference.