Here’s What Flying to Europe in Coach is Like

Flying to Europe in Coach - picture of inside of airplane

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In late October, Greg and I flew round-trip to Italy using American AAdvantage miles. And – gasp – we totally flew in coach. If you want to hear more about our trip, check out these trip reports:

Because late October is off-peak at American, flying to Europe in coach meant spending only 80,000 AAdvantage miles and $109 in taxes and fees. No matter how you cut it, that was a steal. Plus, I don’t really get the allure of flying First or Business Class. Sure, it’s convenient if you’re flying 8-9 hours like we were, but it’s not really worth the extra dollars (or airline miles) in my eyes. And quite frankly, I like sitting in the back of the plane near the bathrooms.

Of course, people go nuts when they hear we flew eight or nine hours in coach. “Wasn’t it uncomfortable?” they’ll ask. Most of the time, they assume the experience was an absolute nightmare.

The thing is, flying in coach isn’t as hellish as it’s made out to be. Here’s how our nine-hour flight from Philadelphia to Rome panned out. Remember, this was paid for almost exclusively with airline miles!

Getting on the Plane

When you’re flying internationally, the planes are generally a whole lot bigger. Since I hate small planes and the extra turbulence that almost always comes with flying on one, this makes me super happy. I also like how roomy the bigger jets are. We flew on an Airbus A330, which meant that we had our own little two-seat section on the side. The middle aisle in this particular jet has four consecutive seats, and the other side has a two-seat section of its own. In total, coach is eight seats across with two aisles. Here’s what it looks like on the inside:


What Do You Do for 8 Hours?

Of course, eight hours is a long time. Fortunately, the American Airbus A330s come with little television screens that play movies and television shows. They even let you play games. Since our flight left Philadelphia at 6:00 p.m., we had a few hours to kill until it was time to sleep. Sadly, I spent part of that time watching the movie, San Andreas. For a myriad of reasons (bad acting, mostly), that was probably the worst idea ever. In addition to San Andreas, we also endured Maze Runner. While it wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, it definitely helped pass the time.

The good news is, American offered a dinner service during our flight. This ate up some time while also filling my belly. Further, the dinner service actually included free beer and wine! I don’t normally drink on planes, but I still think that’s a nice perk. Here’s what my “complimentary” dinner (vegetarian pasta) looked like when it was delivered:


As you can see, the meal they offered was pretty substantive. Not only did it include pasta, but it also came with a salad, a dinner roll, a delicious brownie, and crackers and cheese. Also remember, this was included in our fare – as in, we didn’t have to pay extra for it. And just like any other flight, we got unlimited water and soft drinks to boot.

Can You Sleep 9 Hours On a Plane?

The biggest downside to flying overseas in coach is the fact that the seats don’t recline. To make up for that, we have both perfected the art of sleeping while sitting up. Is it ideal? Absolutely not. But it works, and it has saved us hundreds of thousands of airline miles over the years. (Hint: It helps if you have one of the best travel pillows like these!)

The really smart people on the plane scout out the empty rows and move once the plane takes off. I would have done the same, and actually tried, but the husband was slightly sad about me sitting away from him for the nine-hour flight.

I also slept pretty well on the plan considering the circumstances. From midnight to 6:00 a.m., I probably slept 3 or 4 hours total. By the time I woke up, it was also time for the breakfast service. After serving coffee and orange juice, they came around with muffins, granola, and yogurt. This wasn’t expected (we didn’t get breakfast on our last overnight flight), so it was a welcome treat!


Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, we paid 80,000 American AAdvantage miles and $109 for two round-trip flights to Italy, with a stop in Philadelphia each way. And that included much more than airfare; our rewards seats included free checked baggage, two free dinners, two free breakfasts, and drinks the entire flight.

Further, flying in coach isn’t nearly as bad as people make it out to be. And personally, I would rather hoard my miles for other trips versus blowing them on one fancy flight. That’s probably because I travel so often, but also because I’m inherently cheap.

The bottom line is this: If you want to travel overseas, you don’t have to earn a ton of airline miles to secure a comfortable flight in coach. And contrary to popular belief, flying to Europe in coach isn’t all that bad. There’s plenty to eat, drink, and do. Thanks to the fact that we only burned 80,000 airline miles on this particular flight, I still have 160,000 miles to burn before I sign up for American AAdvantage credit card again. Where will we go? I’ll let you know when we decide.

Find the best travel rewards credit cards here.

Have you ever flown eight or nine hours in coach? Do you prefer flying in coach or business/first class?

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  1. I’ve been on those long international flights in coach! It’s not terrible, although for me the worst thing is that my ankles tend to swell when I sleep sitting up like that. But it’s a lot cheaper than first class!

    1. Definitely. And I can pretty much endure anything for 8 hours is it means saving money or miles.

  2. So far, the longest we’ve flown straight through was just shy of 5 hours. Normally, I take a half a Dramamine and spend the time trying to not drool on myself as I sleep. Not so much on that flight. I was so stir crazy. I keep telling my husband we’re training for a trans-Atlantic flight 😉 Like you, we would fly coach. The food service sounds wonderful. What a nice treat!

  3. I really have no problem flying coach. I have been doing it my entire life. Of course I do have an unnatural ability to sleep anywhere, so that helps a lot. Heck we even flew coach to Europe with a 14 month old lap child. It can be done.

    1. I can sleep almost anywhere, too. I am a pro at sleeping in the car while Greg drives! He wishes I wouldn’t =/

      1. I feel his pain. When we were in Germany a few years back my wife would instantly fall asleep as soon as we got on the autobahn… That wouldn’t be an issue except she was the only one of use who speaks German, so I had to trust a GPS that would pronounce things a little funny and hope I was reading the signs correctly too

  4. I have made the flight to Europe in coach three times, and you’re right, it’s not terrible! With dinner, entertainment, and waking up to the sunrise on the clouds, those flights are actually up there in my top memories.

  5. It’s nice that you guys had your own little two-seat section together, and bonus w/ all the free meals and drinks!

  6. No international flights for me yet. Just 5-6 hour cross country flights. I invested in a $20 neck pillow which really helps when trying to sleep in coach.

  7. I flew on a similar plane from DFW to Miami a few weeks back. It was the nicest plane I’d ever been in. I watched Pitch Perfect 2 (which I preferred to Pitch Perfect, honestly), so that was a fun treat. I find it funny when people are shocked about taking that long of a flight in coach. Someone has to sit back there! Not everyone can or wants to pay for the extras in Business and First.

  8. I flew about 7 hours coach before and I wish I would have had movies to help pass the time 🙁 The free meals were nice and for the most part I tried to sleep since it was overnight. Sleeping while sitting up is hard. My strategy involved leaning over to one side a little bit with my pillow 🙂 Your flight sounded like such a steal though, I would have stuck it out in coach as well.

  9. I always take an aisle seat on long flights because I don’t sleep so I like to walk around and stretch my legs without disturbing anyone. My longest flight was to New Zealand (like 10 hours I think-but the flight started in Seattle, then to LA, then to Auckland, then to the south island, so overall it was very long), and you just have to kind of divide up the flight into mini parts (two hours for a movie, then reading, then another movie, then eating, maybe try sleeping an listening to music). I find that helps.

  10. I can’t believe you fly coach when you make the money that you do. That’s crazy haha. Yep I know you’re frugal, =)

  11. I am in two camps on this one. It really depends on how many point we have. We did shell out for business class for our trip this summer. One way was was using BA Avios with Aer Lingus Boston to Dublin, which was as cheap as coach on most airlines. It took lots more United points to get back home, but they were easy to get with Chase back then. Now that Chase is more stingy, we’ll have to be more judicious with out Ultimate Rewards. I’ve only ever done two long haul overnight flights in coach and both were horrible, mainly due to people around us not being considerate. I guess it’s a crap shoot. For a day flight, I have no problem being in coach.

    I usually roll my eyes at people who use first class for domestic trips, but when I went to Alaska, my tickets were booked for me. They did a really good job of selecting seats except for the last leg home from Seattle to Denver, where I was in a middle seat in the very last row. I had a chance to upgrade to first class for $50, and I did it. Since the flight was free anyway, I figured I would give myself the luxury of not being right beside the crapper squished between two people I didn’t know!

  12. I’m with Kim on this one, I can see it both ways and would depend on the miles we have. I’m normally cheap when it comes to our miles, but if it’s for a longer flight and we had a good bit of miles I’d look at it. But, you & Greg got a steal and if I could get that I’d definitely go for it. That being said, it looks like y’all had a great experience – especially given the meals.

  13. We fly first class a lot due to the retirement benefits I have from my dad. However, I’ve definitely flown coach a lot. It doesn’t bother me but somehow Wes is ALWAYS put between two large guys whenever we are in coach so his experience is never like mine haha!

  14. I’ve only flown coach. I figure if I don’t know what I’m missing, then it won’t be that bad, right? lol And I’m with you on loving the larger planes which means less bumps.

  15. I have restless leg, so long flights make me antsy. Especially if I’m tired, since that exacerbates it. I now stretch before any flight to try to avoid it. (The embarrassment of Tim having to massage my legs while I had tears in my eyes — tired makes me pretty emotional too — on a NYC to PHX trip made me take things seriously.)

    That said, I definitely have fewer problems if it’s a two-seat row. And I’d still fly coach on any flight. Like you, I can’t rationalize spending extra — even if that’s just extra miles.

    My mom flew first class for the first time in her life three years ago. She said it was quite lovely, but she hasn’t done it since. Flying from Alaska means more time in the air, but it also means that tickets are already plenty steep.

  16. BF and I are going to Italy too next year! Mostly paid for by miles. We spent $500 each in taxes (since we’re coming from Hawaii), but that’s still a steal in my book. Funny you mentioned that you liked sitting in the back near the bathrooms. I love it too! It’s comfortable. Aside from that, I feel like a celebrity when people line up to use the bathroom. LOL.

    1. I hope you and your BF have fun! And geez! Hawaii to Europe? Which side of the globe do you fly around for that?????

      1. HNL – SEA – LHR – BCN. I know! For the LOVE of travel. Let’s just hope I don’t get a miscarriage sitting in the plane for that long. We will be staying in Barcelona for 5 days, then off to the Eternal City for 10 days! Your pictures of Capri are bellissima! We are going to skip Pisa, thanks to you. 🙂

  17. This is what I love about personal finance – it is so personal. I will full on admit if I had the points to upgrade to business or first class on a long international flight, I would do it in a heartbeat. But that’s me, not you! And I would absolutely sit in coach (and do unless I miraculous get a free upgrade) because it’s not like I’m a Kardashian either. 🙂

  18. The Rock can do no wrong.

    San Andreas was NOT THAT BAD!

    And yeah, I flew coach to Finland from Seattle. 12 hours. It really wasn’t bad, I watch 4 movies each way to catch up on my yearly quota (my wife doesn’t like movies, so I catch up on flights). You could make this trip 3x over with the miles you saved NOT flying first class!

    1. Agreed. San Andreas wasn’t that bad. She actually preferred The Maze Runner, which I thought was pretty awful.

  19. The longest flight in coach I have been is 6 hours and I couldn’t take it any more if it’s more than because my ankle and back hurt. I’d probably get a connecting flight to relax a little bit and to save some money as connecting flight is I believe cheaper.

  20. Love it! I also agree that a flight to/from Europe is completely doable in coach. If one had unlimited miles, of course business or first would be preferred, but most of us mortals have limited mileage resources so I totally agree that coach is the way to go Europe. Going to Asia, the Middle East, Africa, or Australia, I have an entirely different opinion… But, even then, when the price was right, I have “suffered” through coach on longer distances… Can’t wait to find out where you’re headed next!

  21. We are going to Paris (most likely…) next Summer and we will be flying coach. An 8 or 9 hour flight actually doesn’t sound that bad. I’ve taken the redeye back from Hawaii twice now and that was ~6 hours. I can’t imagine 8 or 9 hours is materially worse. We were lucky enough to be on the two seaters on the side of our plane instead of the FIVE wide seats in the middle of the plane.

  22. Ok, who are all of these people flying 1st class or business? I’ve always flown coach and I’ve always had a fantastic experience on those flights. Also, I travel internationally A LOT and I’ve always been super comfortable. I’m snobby, and I like things to be a certain way…but I love to save money on my plane tickets.

    1. I’ve flown to Europe a number of times in coach (in my salad days) and I don’t remember it being especially awful. Then I got used to Premium Economy and that has been my preferred seating for a few years. It’s not a whole lot different than coach, but a few upgrades make it a little more comfortable and is worth the extra price to me. But then I took a ten hour flight on Delta One last year and I’ll tell you this – once you’ve done it, you will NEVER experience coach the same way again. Let me put it this way, I hate to fly but that flight was so luxurious that I was actually a little disappointed when they announced our descent into Atlanta. I was so relaxed and enjoying the flight that I wasn’t ready to it to be over. Yes, after TEN HOURS in the air! So who are the people who fly in the pointy end of the plane? Me, whenever I can scrape up enough dollars and points to make it happen. The flight is part of the trip for me, not just means to an end, and enjoying it makes the entire vacation that much better. (PS, I’ve got a flight to Italy booked in Delta One in a few months, and I’m stoked!)

  23. I actually flew to Italy in coach when I went there and I thought it was fine. It helped that I knew the person sitting next to me otherwise the relative tightness would be tough. I am also fortunate to have perfected the art of sleeping sitting up so sleep wasn’t an issue for me. My meals, though, definitely did look anywhere near as good as yours. I think that’s a huge bonus!

  24. Oh man. So we’ve thrown business class to Thailand on Air China. Was not that bad for me. I can sleep anywhere. My wife had a rough time of it. This was pre-kids though.

    I also flew to Sweden for work. That was all business class. It was amazing. I drank a ton, loved the free buffet which had more beer/wine, fresh food, cookies and chips to snack on, plus free bottles of water. It was unbelievable. The food was fantastic too. So, I’m not sure if I’d be willing to shell that out on my dime, but man I can see the value. The plane I was on was a bit older so I was a bit uncomfortable even in the fully reclined state because my feet were hitting the bottom (I’m 6’1″). But that level of dismfort was nothing compared to coach.

  25. Confession: I’ve never flown anything but coach/economy/whatever’s cheapest. Longest flight I’ve been on was New York to Germany, and coach was fine for that, since I could get up every few hours and walk around a little. It’s a lot easier on bigger planes with more than one aisle. I’m flying to Tanzania in January from Chicago (via Copenhagen), and not looking forward to that, though. Wish I could afford first class, but really, it’s the same amount of time to get there, so I can’t justify all that extra money.

  26. We live in Australia, so getting to London is a 24 hour flight for us. We’ve done it before – once with two preschoolers on a no-frills airline where they don’t feed you or provide any entertainment. We fly to the US more often since I’m from there originally, which is 16 hours non-stop MEL-LAX; or we go to Asia almost every year, which is about 8 hours non-stop, again on a no-frills airline. So we’ve had a lot of experience flying coach. It’s really not bad. Here’s my way of thinking: It takes 2 hours to settle into a flight and the last 2 hours of any flight are going to be mind-numbingly awful. So for me, 4 hours is the worst amount of time to fly, because you never really feel settled in. Anything shorter than that is easy; anything longer than that, you just settle in and make the best of it. No flight lasts forever!

  27. My husband is 6’4 and we tried flying coach to Germany but his knees were in full contact with the seatback in front of him the entire time unless he turned to an awkward angle. It wasn’t bad when there was an empty seat between us but that’s luck of the draw and I can’t force or expect him to fly in such discomfort for such long trips.

    1. My husband is 6’3 so I get it. I am only 5’3 but a long coach ride is still not that great!

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