"You can actually have a fairly okay experience in economy class if you just fly on the right airline," says Elliott. Choose a direct flight if you can, on an airline with a relatively good customer service record that caters to your priorities as a traveler. If seat-back entertainment is important to you, go with JetBlue or Virgin America. If you don't want to pay extra to check your bags, choose Southwest or JetBlue. A 2013 study by the London Sleep Centre found that wider seats allow for significantly better sleep, so if you're taking a red-eye, you may want to use a website such as SeatGuru to find an airline with seats about 18 inches wide.
If you know which airline you'd prefer, consider picking up the phone before booking online. "People operate under the presumption that all the available inventory from an airline... is on the web. Not even close!" says Greenberg. In fact, only about half of what's on offer at any given time is visible online, so sometimes you'll find a better deal – and often a better economy class seat – by talking to an actual person.