The Inside Guide to Air Travel
Sit back, stretch out, and plug in: How to get the most out of your flights.
By Rachel Wong

(Business 2.0) – Know Your Aircraft

Savvy travelers typically avoid booking seats in the last row. But how many can say which economy-class row on an American Airlines Airbus 300 has the most legroom? (That would be row 27, an exit row with extra space.) You don't have to be a plane geek to know these things. Just check out Seatguru.com for detailed information on airplane layouts--right down to the seats with power ports so you can plug in your laptop on long hauls. You're permitted one smug grin at your cramped fellow passengers per flight.

Even if you fly in the fancy seats, there are ways to game the system. Airplanes headed overseas offer much better first-class amenities than domestic flights. That's why Wes Wilkes, a marketing executive at a large pharmaceutical company and a frequent traveler, likes to book domestic flights that are actually legs of international journeys. Not only will you get more of the champagne treatment, but your seatmates are likely to have more interesting travel tales.

Crack the Fare Code

Thanks to the byzantine pricing system that airlines use, ticket fares can vary widely even for the same passenger class. Generally speaking, however, the lower the fare, the more restrictions apply. If your goal is to get an upgrade, the final price you pay may actually be lower if you buy an economy-class ticket in a higher fare category--it depends on the fees charged (or miles deducted) to get the upgrade.

For example, upgrading from economy class with a B-fare (a midlevel tier) on Continental costs $350 and three times as many air miles as with a Y-fare (the highest tier), which imposes no dollar charge for an upgrade. If the difference in price between the lower fare and the full fare is less than $350, when all is said and done, you may save money on the upgrade by paying the higher fare.

If you have the right air-miles status, full-fare codes can even get you automatic upgrades. The Y-fare economy ticket gives Continental OnePass Elite members an automatic confirmed first-class seat without paying the first-class fare, space permitting. Read more on fare codes at Flyertalk.com.

Make a Mileage Run

Many travelers go to great lengths to meet the annual mileage targets required to earn elite status in frequent-flier programs. George Aye of design firm Ideo spent last Christmas on a mileage run between Chicago and Los Angeles to earn United's Premier Executive status--which means free or discounted upgrades and double miles on flights. But you don't have to fly cross-country to maximize your miles. American, United, and others grant a minimum of 500 frequent-flier miles per flight, even if you cover a shorter distance. Traveling between Seattle and Portland will earn you 500 miles each way, even though the cities are only 145 miles apart. Another trick is to avoid "direct" flights (planes that keep the same flight number throughout a journey despite making stops along the way). On those flights you usually earn credit only for the distance between the starting point and the destination. But if you have two separately numbered flights, you get credit for each leg. Find mileage-per-flight details at Webflyer.com.

Book Early to Fly Free

Airlines don't set aside many seats for people trying to redeem air miles for a free ticket, so timing is important. Reward seats typically become available 11 months in advance, but a little research can yield an insider's edge. For instance, Jim Harrison, a Florida-based insurance lecturer and Delta Platinum Medallion flier, learned from a Delta employee that reward seats become available 331 days in advance, at 11 p.m. EST, when the airline updates its computers. Now Harrison books free flights for his family even during the busy holiday season.

If you miss the reward-seat window, don't despair. When flights don't sell out, airlines frequently make additional seats available for air-miles tickets. For $4.99 a month, ExpertFlyer.com provides a list of these openings on airlines such as American, Delta, Frontier, Qantas, and Singapore.

Don't Be Afraid to Switch

You've fallen in love with a new airline but don't want to start over on your air-miles plan? Not a problem. A few years ago, Wilkes wanted to change his frequent-flier program from American to Continental. He had already earned Platinum status on American, and after consulting Continental's customer service and filling out some forms, he got the same status on Continental--without having ever flown that airline before. To nab new customers, most airlines will honor frequent-flier status from a competitor. No oath of allegiance required.