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Five ways to get more value in the air

SmarterTravel

Finding and booking the cheapest possible airline ticket can be thrilling, but price shouldn’t be the only thing you consider when you book your next trip. The extra few dollars you save with a budget ticket might not seem as exciting if you find yourself in a cramped seat on a cross-country flight without food or entertainment, or if you’ll be a few hours late and can’t let anyone know.

Legroom

Want more legroom?

Read the secrets to flying first class

Legroom can be synonymous with comfort when passengers are packed like sardines on a crowded flight, and your only personal space is a small area between the arm rests of your chair, plus what’s beneath the seat in front of you. On a plane, legroom is loosely translated as seat pitch, or the distance between the rows of seats. Seat pitch on most airlines ranges from 31 to 33 inches.

Who’s got it?: American has long bragged about having the most legroom in coach, and offers a 33-35 inch pitch between its seats. This doesn’t sound like much more than the other airlines’, but the difference is measurable on a cross-country or other long-haul flight. Unfortunately, American is planning to reduce this pitch on 23 percent of its planes in order to fit in more rows for paying customers.

By contrast, JetBlue has announced that it will be removing a row of seats from some of the planes in its fleet, increasing the seat pitch on those flights to 34 inches.

Other options: Even within a single plane, you might find seats with more or less room. Seats in an exit row will often have more legroom than average, and there could also be rows that are unusually cramped. A service like SeatGuru is a good way to find out about the seats on the plane you’ll be on. Or if you can’t snag a comfortable chair, you might need to pay a bit more for an airline with better legroom—but your limbs will thank you.

Entertainment

What’s the point of saving money on your airfare, then spending a lot to rent headphones for the in-flight movie, or to buy magazines and books from the airport newsstand to entertain yourself on the flight? You don’t necessarily have to pay extra to be entertained, but you should know what kind of in-flight movie and television services your airline offers.

Who’s got it?: JetBlue was the first airline to raise the bar on in-flight entertainment, offering 24 satellite television channels that you can watch on seat-back monitors. As an added perk, the airline includes “Airplane Yoga” cards at every seat, so you can stay loose on your next flight while having some fun.

Delta’s Song also boasts personal seat-back monitors. In addition, the airline offers satellite TV, pay-per-view programming, and digitally streamed MP3s for personalized play lists. Song also plans to introduce multiplayer video games that can be played among passengers, as well as seat-back Internet access.

Frontier also offers television on some of its flights.

Other options: If you don’t need all the bells and whistles, you can still get old-fashioned headphones from most airlines, in most cases for a small fee. US Airways and a few other airlines will allow you to use your own headphones, or you can buy a set for $5 and keep them for your next flight.

Food

Airline food service has gradually been whittled away to cut costs, and many flights won’t offer you more than a can of soda and a bag of pretzels. If you know you’ll be in a hurry and won’t be able to pack a bag lunch or stop for food in the airport, getting a hot meal on the plane can become a lot more important to you than the few dollars you could save when you book a cheap ticket.

Who’s got it?: Midwest, Northwest, and US Airways have begun serving full meals on select flights, as long as you don’t mind paying extra for them. On Midwest and US Airways, breakfast is $7 and lunch or dinner will set you back $10; Northwest’s prices range from $5-$10. Air Canada has also announced that it will serve snacks for $7-$8, and you can buy meals for $7-$12. Meals on all four airlines are on a cash-only basis.

Other options: America West, Delta, and United have tested their own food-sales programs, and while all three are offering meals on a reduced scale, none of them have rolled out systemwide cash-for-food programs. Some airlines, like Continental, have food options for free on more flights. When you make reservations, check to see what the options are; you’re more likely to be served for free if you fly during mealtime.

On-time performance

It doesn’t matter that you paid less for your ticket if your plane arrives so late that you miss your dinner reservations. There are no guarantees that your flight will get in on time, but you can hedge your bets with an airline that has a solid on-time performance record. You can also avoid hubs that are prone to weather delays, and schedule your flights early in the day whenever possible.

Who’s got it?: In 2002, United was the shining star when it came to getting planes to the gates on time. Not only was the airline’s on-time arrival rating of 84 percent the highest for any major airline for the year, it improved its rating by almost 11 percent over 2001. The other U.S. airlines’ on-time arrival ratings ranged from 78 to 83.5 percent.

Other options: Individual flights on any airline can be prone toward lateness. Some airlines, such as American, will report the on-time performance for a particular flight when you book. If you have a choice between two similar itineraries, you can choose the one that tends toward punctuality.

Cell phone use

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ban the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while in the air. Most airlines prohibit cell phone use entirely from the time the door closes after boarding to the time it opens for deplaning, making it impossible to alert friends and family if you’re delayed on the tarmac.

Who’s got it?: American, Continental, Delta and JetBlue have recently relaxed their cell phone rules, allowing their customers more talk time. All four airlines will allow passengers to begin cell phone use while their planes taxi from the runway to the gate; American’s and Delta’s rules also apply to two-way pagers and other electronic devices.

Other options: Cell phones aren’t the only way to stay in touch with your family and friends; before you touch down, you can also use the Internet, if you don’t mind paying for it. Both Continental and United have introduced Internet service on domestic flights. For $5.99 per flight, you can access the Internet and stay in touch via instant messaging. Or, for $15.98 per flight, you’ll get all of the other services plus e-mail.

In addition, most carriers still have seat-back phones for passengers to use while they’re airborne, though the charges per minute can run sky-high.

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