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8 easy ways to make flying coach feel like first class

Steve Carell and Amy Poehler in a SNL skit in 2005.
NBC | Getty Images
Steve Carell and Amy Poehler in a SNL skit in 2005.

I've taken hundreds of flights in economy (both domestic and international) and I know it gets uncomfortable.

The seats are small (standard is about 17 inches wide on domestic airlines) with little recline and leg room (standard seat pitch — the space between your seat and the one in front of you — is 29 to 32 inches) and you never know who you'll sit next to (a crying baby or someone with bare feet propped on the seat?). Also, why does it feel like the overhead bins are already full when you get on board?

Flying business class is obviously cushier but also expensive. The difference in price between economy and business can range from $50 to $3,000 (prices vary by factors like airline and length of flight), according to FareCompare.

Of course there are some obvious ways to make your flight more bearable: Bring your own food and some sort of personal entertainment system. But there are also some sneakier ways to ensure sitting in economy isn't a nightmare.

Here are eight ways you can make flying coach feel like first class on your next flight.

1. Get TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry

The travel experience starts before you get on your flight, because the airport itself can be a nightmare. So I cannot emphasize enough how much TSA Pre-Check can help, especially if you're at an airport in a major city. I don't think I could fly as much as I do without it.

With TSA Pre-Check, passengers have a dedicated, expedited security line at more than 200 U.S. airports and in that line you generally won't have to remove your tie shoes and belts or take your computer or liquids out of your carry-on. It makes security so much faster and easier. According to TSA, 94 percent of TSA Pre-Check passengers waited less than five minutes in August 2018. TSA Pre-Check is good for five years and has an $85 application fee.

If you travel internationally, there's also Global Entry, a program for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection available at 54 U.S. airports. This service allows pre-approved, low-risk U.S. travelers to receive expedited clearance upon arrival to the U.S., meaning you can get out of the airport much faster after your international trips. There is a dedicated lane at customs for Global Entry members. And Global Entry includes TSA Pre-Check for qualified U.S. citizens, it's good for five years and has a $100 application fee.

2. Get the best seat you can by booking early

To stay away from loud engines, busy bathrooms and the galley and to be one of the first off the flight, sit closer to the front of the plane. Of course, airlines know these seats are prime real estate and charge accordingly, with front sections and bulkhead and emergency exit rows (which usually have more legroom) fetching higher fares.

So if you don't have frequent flier status with an airline (where you can get seats close to the front with no charge), buy your ticket as soon as possible. Why? Everybody else wants these seats too and there simply will be more availability. Plus, if you are willing to pay for premium economy, the fee will be cheaper.

Some airlines do hold a number of good seats until the end but they are mostly premium class seats for elite passengers. Just book as early as possible and just monitor seat selection closer to the date (in most cases, 24 hours before) if you want to upgrade or change seats closer to the front.

3. Travel off peak and you may be able to stretch out

Traveling off peak, which is early in the morning, late at night (like red-eyes) and Saturdays, will yield cheaper fares, but it can also increase your chance of finding not only better seat availability but flights that do not sell out. That could mean an empty seat next to you to stretch out and more room in overhead bins.

4. Don't book a seat next to your flying partner

If you're flying with someone, you'd think it would make sense to book a seat next to them. Don't do it. Book the aisle and window (on a three-three configuration, which you can check at SeatGuru).

If the middle seat is not booked, you and your travel buddy just lucked out and have your own row. If it is booked and you want to sit with your flying partner, just ask the person in the middle to switch with one of you. Nobody wants the middle seat, so chances are high they'll take it. I have done this dozens of times and if someone books the middle seat, they are overjoyed to switch, and everyone wins.

5. Skip the airline food and eat this

Airplane food is notoriously bad in economy, so bring your own meals or snacks. Just be careful what you choose — heavy, salty, fatty food will make you feel uncomfortable the entire flight.

Kathleen Wood, a health coach and founder of The Food Nanny NYC, suggests avoiding dehydrating caffeine and carbonated drinks that will make you gassy (flying already increases flatulence, after all). Instead, she says, bring water infused with lemon, which is a natural diuretic, or mint, which has muscle-relaxing properties and aids in digestion. (Plus it feels fancy.)

For snacks, warm nuts are a first-class staple on flights, so bring some of your own, just make sure they're light on salt. Or chose a protein bar that's low in sugar and has at least 20 grams of protein, says Wood.

As for meals to make or grab at the airport and bring on the flight, good choices include a grilled veggie or chicken wrap or pannini or a salad with avocado (squeeze a little lemon on to keep it green), protein and nuts.

These days you can even have food (and anything you've forgotten — a phone charger or neck pillow, for example) delivered to your gate with apps like AtYourGate and Airport Sherpa, reports The New York Times.

6. Bring your own amenity kit

In first or business class, passengers often get a free a amenity kit that usually includes travel-size products and sundries from a luxurious brand. It's great not only because it's fun to try new products but because they help; the air on a plane is drier than the Sahara desert, which can cause itchy skin, discomfort, dry mouth (which can cause bad breath) and feeling tired.

To feel refreshed, bring your own travel-size spa amenities (in a TSA-approved bag). Dermatologist Heidi Waldorf recommends including an easy to absorb anti-oxidant rich moisturizer, eye pads for soothing and cooling as well as hand cream. "It's a must for hands and feet before putting on socks when my shoes come off for a long flight, and in a pinch, even lips," she says.

This is the perfect time to use those trial size products you've been saving from Sephora or Birchbox, ask your derm for some samples or store what you have in travel-sized containers. If need to buy something affordable, Waldorf recommends Dermatopix for hand cream. CeraVe has a good moisturizer and E.L.F. Cosmetics has under-eye patches. Many brands also have curated travel kits.

Throw in a travel toothbrush and toothpaste as well as a mini hair brush in case you don't have time to freshen up before reaching your final destination.

7. Pillows make such a difference

You can't always get a (free) pillow in coach, but it's a perk in business or first class, so bring your own.

But the pro tip is how to use it. Sure, neck pillows are great but, try adding a thick travel pillow behind your lower back for lumbar support too. It will make the flight so much more comfortable. As someone with back problems, I like Relax Support's lumbar pillow with memory foam since it's extremely portable and not super expensive ($30). If you don't want to spend money on a pillow, you can your jacket sleeve with a something like a scarf or sweatshirt and tuck in behind your lower back.

As for the neck pillow, "The goal of the neck and shoulder muscles are always to support the head. So travelers will want a pillow that is supple but supportive so that those muscles don't have to overwork and become stiff," says Ramon Pesigan, assistant professor rehabilitation medicine and general internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "It should not keep the head in one position for a long time, and should allow the shoulders and neck to relax. Keep in mind that the seats are not very forgiving, so if they can lean it back, then it will make it easier for the pillow to do its job as well."

You can buy small pillows at airport shops or kiosks. I've tried the inflatable ones and find them uncomfortable. Memory foam neck pillows are most comfy and you find affordable ones starting at about $10.

8. Compliment the flight attendant

Fight attendants can legitimately help you have a better flight — I have had crew members give me extra mini bottles of alcohol, complementary candy from the cart and even a better seat (an aisle seat that was available). So you want to get on their good side immediately by being polite and complimentary.

Every time I fly coach, I do my best to get their attention in a positive way. For example, If I boarded the plane somewhere in the middle and I can't get to my seat yet because other passengers in front are settling in, I'll make small talk with them rather than put on my headphones. I'll ask questions like "Is this your first flight today?" They always seem excited to have a conversation and talk about their day.

"Saying 'please' and 'thank you' goes a long way," flight attendant and author of "Cruising Altitude" Heather Poole tells CNBC Make It.

"When I greet passengers in front of the boarding door, I can't tell you how many times my greeting goes unnoticed. And people are so connected to their devices, it's almost odd when someone says something other than what they'd like to drink," she says.

"A sincere compliment means a lot to me," explains Poole, so "If someone is nice to me and then has a problem, I might go out of my way a little more to help them," she says. "If I see a passenger helping another passenger with a bag or something else, I notice it and if I can, I might give them a little more water or an extra snack."

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