Not First Class or Coach: the New Virtual Class

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No one is ever going to mistake me for Conan the Barbarian but I am a pretty big guy and when I had to fly coach to New York this past weekend, I requested an upgrade so I wouldn't be twisting myself into a pretzel in a vain effort to get comfortable. I didn't get the upgrade, but the flight never happened, either (thanks a lot, Irene).

If only there was an alternative to paying big bucks for business class or those roomier coach seats snapped up by elite fliers. Wait, there is. A newly added "virtual" cabin class that falls somewhere between the herd and the lead ponies. Warning: it used to be free but now it'll cost you, though not too much.

Let's see if your airline has this new class, which I call "merchandised" economy. It provides little comforts like a few extra inches to stretch out on in the bulk head seats or exit rows or near the front of the cabin for quick boarding and fast exits, and on a cross-country jaunt or a flight across the ocean, believe me, size and speed does matter.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Do we need another cabin class? We already have first, business and coach, and now on a handful of airlines, premium economy. And while I'm sure some airlines would happily strap passengers to the wings if they could, so far they've restrained themselves (although Europe's Ryanair keeps talking about pay toilets on planes, so we shall see). But merchandised economy seems here to stay.

What you get varies from airline to airline; some offer actual cabin/section differences while others offer better seat location but basically coach passengers get something more, either in the way of legroom, better seat selection, earlier boarding and sometimes, all of the above. Cynics call it just another way for the airlines to make a buck off us, as indeed it is, but is it worth it? You tell me.

Here are some of the offerings you'll find in premium/merchandised economy, but before you make your purchase, check with SeatGuru.com so you can see what you're getting (and see if in fact the aircraft you'll be flying actually offers this service).

American Airlines: Your Choice Preferred Seats What it is: Window and aisle seats toward the front of the cabin. What it costs: Starts at $4 each-way; free to elite miles members, active military and full fare coach passengers (note: not to be confused with Preferred Plus Seats which are available for free to elite miles members 330 days before departure). How to get this: American's website, the airline's reservation phone, and at the airport kiosks 24 hours before departure.

Delta Air Lines: Economy Comfort What it is: For most long-haul international flights only, early boarding plus roomier seats that recline more than standard economy seats and give you "up to four inches additional legroom". Include free alcoholic drinks, too. What it costs: Prices vary (in spring 2011, it cost $80-$160 each-way); complimentary for elite miles members and Y, B and M class fares. How to get this: Through the airline's online site, phone reservations or airport kiosks.

Frontier Airlines: Stretch Seating What it is: Up to 5 extra inches of legroom in the front rows of 170 aircraft. What it costs: Starts at $5 each-way, free to elite miles members. How to get this: Can be purchased online when booking (if available) or during online check-in, at airport kiosks and even onboard the aircraft if any of these seats are left.

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