Grab the best seat on the plane
By Chris McGinnis
(CNN) -- Airlines are reporting some of their highest-ever load factors, the number of seats filled per flight. Flights are more crowded because the major airlines have shrunk by 10-20 percent during the past two years by retiring older jets, parking others in the desert or deploying smaller planes on routes where they used to fly big jets.
Because of all that, finding a good seat can be more of a challenge than ever.
Regional jets: Good and bad
Avoid smaller, 50-100 seat "regional jets" for flights that last longer than two hours. Compared to larger jets, these increasingly prevalent aircraft have smaller seats and less overhead bin space, and are particularly uncomfortable if you're seated next to someone with a large frame. Some airlines are now using "regional jets" on flights as long as three hours -- beware! Look for "RJ" or "CRJ" in the aircraft description. The good news is that RJ's are replacing those old, noisy, uncomfortable turboprops, which you should ALWAYS avoid if possible.
The wider, the better
When given a choice, always choose wide-body aircraft -- those with two aisles instead of just one. Overall, wide-body aircraft (like Boeing 777s, 767s and 747s, and Airbus A340s) are more comfortable on longer flights. They have more room for passengers to get up and walk around, more lavatories, and usually better in-flight entertainment options.
The most knee room
During the past few years, most U.S. airlines have reduced the amount of space between each seat -- from about 34 inches to a very tight 30-32 inches. But there are some exceptions:
• JetBlue offers 34 inches of legroom -- but only in the back half of its planes, in rows behind the exit row.
• American Airlines offers "more room throughout coach," with 33-35 inches on its 737s and 767s (but not on its 757s or Airbus A300s).
• Delta's low fare subsidiary SONG offers 33 inches between each all-leather seat on its 757-only fleet.
My favorites, because I'm 6-feet-1-inch tall, are exit-row seats, which offer 35-40 inches of legroom, but some don't recline. Most airlines don't allow you to reserve exit-row seats until you arrive at the airport so they can look you over and be sure that you are physically able to open the emergency door.
How to find the best seat
If you are booking online, most airline and travel sites allow you to choose your seat from an interactive seat map. Once you see the layout, it's easy to spot the best seats. For more information and advice, SeatGuru.com grades the best and worst seats on most major carriers.
Finally, it's always a good idea to choose your seats yourself. Don't leave it up to a computer or hurried gate agent to decide for you -- that's a sure way to get stuck with a dud.