Tall travelers: Do you know about the secret button on the armrest?

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Any taller person who has flown in a regional or commercial jet knows that they are not worlds designed for us. As a six-foot-five-inch man, in order to enjoy the wonders of travel by airplane, I’ve had to fold myself into a pretzel many times on all manner of aircraft. What I’ve learned is that there are some tips and tricks that us taller folk can use to make flying less painful. I hope these seven hacks will make air travel more tolerable for my fellow height-endowed travelers.

How to score the exit row

The days of sweet-talking the ticket or gate agent into an upgrade to business or first class are long gone. (I’ve successfully done it all of once, back in 2007 on an American Airlines flight from New York to Buenos Aires.) That said, there are certain things the tall traveler can do to score the holy grail of economy airline travel: a seat in the emergency exit row. Even the middle seat in the emergency exit row is better than a regular seat. A certain number of exit row seats are often held by the airline until check-in closes. The extra legroom represents ancillary revenue for the airline, so the company will want to hold on to them as long as they can.

When it comes to getting an exit row seat, it never hurts to ask (and ask, and ask again).

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To score the exit row, it’s all about asking—politely—at three possible opportunities during your check-in process.

First, when you check in, ask the ticket agent directly. Typically, the agent will let you know if a seat is available but then ask you to pay a fee (in my experience, you’ll get a free upgrade 20 percent of the time). Skip paying for now; you’re after a free upgrade here. Even if you don’t get the seat, you’ll at least have a good sense of how full the flight will be.

Your next option is to ask the agent at the gate. Explain that, 1) you are tall, and 2) if possible (and convenient for the agent), you would appreciate if he or she would check availability for an exit row seat. I also offer to leave my boarding pass with them if that helps. (Of course, it doesn’t really help them, but it can serve as a gentle reminder.) Pick your agent and timing wisely. If the agent is dealing with five unhappy passengers or seems stressed and busy, wait until a more convenient time. The “ask nicely” approach works for me approximately 40 percent of the time, leading to a free upgrade to a better seat.

If neither of those work, you can wait until the very end of the boarding process and cross your fingers that some unlucky traveler has not arrived at the gate in time, or that someone who was assigned a boarding pass didn’t actually show for the flight. This works for me approximately 20 percent of the time—and even if I don’t get an exit row, I might get a better seat, typically an aisle seat that allows me to get up and stretch during the flight.

The bulkhead row is a false friend

On aircraft, the bulkhead is a divider between classes. Unfortunately, it’s not all that great for tall passengers. The bulkhead wall prevents you from stretching out your feet under the seat in front of you, taking away those few extra inches of foot room. Although some tall travelers might like the division (no one can recline their seat back into your knees), I choose to avoid bulkheads.

Learn your aircraft

If you’re serious about making your travel more comfortable, rely on SeatGuru. The site offers detailed layouts of aircraft, where you can learn about the pros and cons of almost every single seat on every aircraft with every carrier. For example, on certain Airbus A321 aircraft configurations (including on JetBlue and Delta), one window exit-row seat has no seat in front of it, offering the best economy legroom in the air. You might have to pay for the privilege, but it is a score.

Some armrests can be raised with the push of a (secret) button.

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The secret button on the aisle armrest

There’s a secret button on the underside of many aisle-seat armrests. Press the button, and the armrest raises. The button is designed for passengers who require more accessibility, but it also allows a tall traveler a bit more room to stretch out into the aisle or shift his or her body in flight. Every aircraft is different, and not every aircraft has armrests that raise in this way, but it’s worth checking.

The lumbar-support trick

Lumbar support goes a long way toward making travel more comfortable. You can, of course, buy an inflatable lumbar-support pillow before your trip. But in a pinch, ask for a large water bottle from a flight attendant. If it’s empty, fill half of it to give it some weight, and wrap the bottle with an airline blanket. At first it will feel like a blanket-wrapped water bottle pressed uncomfortably against your lower back. But on a flight longer than three hours, it’s a back saver. Good posture helps when you’re a few hours into a long flight and everything starts to hurt.

Comfort and economy plus are worth the splurge

Sometimes it’s worth the investment in comfort or premium economy seats. If my flight is longer than four hours, I often spend the $50 or more to select a premium seat. However, if the flight does not look to be full, I’ll wait until the day of my flight in the hopes that a kind gate agent will upgrade me for free. The longest flight I ever endured in economy was 14 hours (from New York to Tokyo), but my wife and I at least finagled an emergency exit row on a Boeing 787 (see above, regarding asking persistently and politely).

Use points to upgrade to business or first

It may seem obvious, but learning how to earn and deploy airline points is the ticket to more comfortable travel for tall travelers—as well as to the hope of getting any decent sleep. Save your points for business or first-class seats on long-haul flights. And get smart; there are plenty of excellent resources focused on how to maximize your points. Flying in business or first class is not only in the purview of the rich or Insta-famous traveler.

Ultimately, if armed with some practice, politeness, and good luck, there is a very real possibility that tall travelers can have a comfortable flying experience.

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Mike Arnot Mike Arnot is a writer and the founder of Juliett Alpha, a New York–based communications firm for airlines and aviation companies.

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