As upgrades get more and more difficult to obtain, many savvy travelers are turning their attention to flights where they can reserve good seats in coach.

For elite members, this often means exit rows. Now, there is one disadvantage for such seats, in that the dividers don’t move on the off-chance that the middle seat is empty. And when there are two exit rows together, the first row doesn’t recline. But the rows do have more legroom. Usually.

A 1k traveler today from San Francisco to Dulles today on United discovered that “usually” may be small comfort. (Personally, the only plane I book regularly with lousy exit row seats is the smallest Canadian Regional Jet that United flies, where row 8 has minimum if any extra room.)

But in this case he was traveling with his wife, which meant little chance for an upgrade, so we carefully booked seats in row 21, the second exit row — reclining seats, lots of extra legroom

When he got to the airport, the gate agent told him there had been an equipment change to a “new configuration.” And gave him boarding passes in row 16. Since this client is a VERY frequent flier, and about 6’5″, he questioned the seats, and was told, they were “good seats” and reclined.

Neither turned out to be true. As I could see in camera-phone photos he sent me, the seats, while technically still exit rows, were not even considered “economy plus,” (only the second exit row had that designation) and did not have as much legroom as a standard economy plus seat, and didn’t recline. This made the cross-country flight, especially since the woman in front of him reclined the entire way, a particularly painful experience.

As far as travel nightmares go, this could have been worse. But it was still a pretty bad day. On top of being uncomfortable, there wasn’t even room for my client to use his laptop. (I’m 5’3″ and I hate feeling wedged in myself.)

Another issue with exit rows is that some airlines will swap aircraft and a certain row may go from being an exit row to not being an exit row. I’ve had clients report this problem, especially with Airbus equipment. On a United Airbus in fact, row 12 may go from being an exit row to being behind the exits, again with the client not even getting an “economy plus” seat.

After the experience mentioned above, the client fired off an angry email to United consumer relations — no word yet — as there was nothing he could do after he got on the plane.

Before boarding, however, travelers may have some options. First, when a premium or even a good regular seat is changed, ask specifically about the configuration. Ask even when there’s an aircraft change and the seat number stays the same. I’ve had clients have window seats changed into middle seats when equipment shifted from a narrow-body to a wide-body plane.

This doesn’t work when a gate agent gives the wrong information. Anyone with computer access can check “” or call their travel agent to double check.

Second, when a seat is changed and it’s obvious it’s a downgrade, ask politely but firmly for the airline to try to fix it. No matter what gate agents say, seats do become available 30 minutes prior to departure when other travelers miss the check-in deadline. The airline usually tries to accommodate elite passengers first, or those with no seat assignments, but the agent has discretion.

Third, if all else fails and despite either being an elite flier or having paid for a premium seat, you still end up in a lousy seat, complain reasonably to consumer relations. This sort of thing won’t result in a free ticket, unless there’s a really bad problem, like ending up in a middle seat with crying babies on both sides. However, most carriers will offer at least a token compensation, not to mention a refund of seat fees.

At least writing is cathartic. Though, if following my last piece of advice, you feel compelled to use language that would get bleeped from an airline movie, save the draft and edit it before sending in the morning.