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Airline seat advice showdown 2009: SeatGuru vs SeatExpert

Not all airline seats are created equal. For those who understand this simple but important point, SeatGuru has been an invaluable resource for years. Rarely do I choose a seat without consulting the Seatguru charts first.

But now, the competing site SeatExpert has gotten a makeover. Is it finally the worthy competitor it promised to be, or is the ‘guru still the king?

Both of these sites have changed owners in recent years. SeatGuru was bought by TripAdvisor (part of Expedia, Inc.), and SeatExpert was bought by Randy Petersen’s Frequent Flyer Services, the onetime parent of the Flyertalk message boards, and the publisher of various websites related to travel.

So which site is the champ?

The assessment:
Both sites use a similar color-coding scheme for indicating seat quality, and both focus on seat pitch (distance between rows), with a secondary emphasis on proximity to toilets and galleys. SeatExpert cleverly figures out which aircraft configuration you’ll be flying, which is a nice feature. But while SeatExpert has offered some good improvements on the usability front, it still doesn’t have the breadth of information that SeatGuru does. Consult both. But if you choose only one, choose SeatGuru.

Depth and Breadth
For starters, the number of airlines covered is significantly different. SeatExpert lists aircraft from 57 different airlines. SeatGuru has 84 airlines in its database.

Within airlines, there’s some variation too. One site may list 5 aircraft for an airline, while another may list 8. Or the aircraft listed may be different: For example, SeatGuru and SeatExpert both list 6 seatmaps for Aeroflot, but SeatGuru lists two different Ilyushin IL 96-300′s, while SeatExpert doesn’t have any. Instead, SeatExpert maps a broader range of Boeing 767′s. If you’re not traveling domestically on one of the major US airlines, you’ll want to browse to both sites.

I find SeatGuru’s visual design more elegant, overall. Not only is it relatively “clean,” and generally conveys information more effectively. For example, passengers who like window seats should check to see that they’re not sitting in a row with a misaligned window. SeatGuru typically marks those seats in yellow, with an explanation when you hover over with your mouse. On SeatExpert, misaligned windows are noted with a tiny, easy-to-miss red line on the fuselage. The seat itself might still be highlighted in bright green, indicating a good seat, though it could really stink. The warning about the window is visible when you hover over, but SeatExpert’s color coded warnings aren’t strong enough.

To be fair, SeatGuru has some inconsistencies as well. A seat that’s got a ton of legroom but that’s close to the galley might be green and yellow on one plane, but simply green on another.

While I prefer SeatGuru’s graphics overall, SeatExpert’s categories for critiquing seats are more in-depth. One seat could have seven or eight commentaries. I particularly like comments like, “You will be one of the last from this cabin off the plane and through immigration.” Another one for queasy fliers, is “Beware that the back of the plane has more sideways motion.”

For the most part, the information is comparable when comparing apples to apples. But there are almost always minor differences. Here’s a head-to-head analysis of the same seat (80A on a Qantas A380):

Above: SeatExpert
Above: SeatGuru

What’s missing?
One factor that’s missing from both sites — and which may be the Holy Grail of seat selection — is the comfort level of the seats themselves. I received an e-mail from a reader recently, which addressed this precise point:

…being a 6’4″ person I noticed that 32 inch pitch on KLM is not the same as 32 inch pitch on, say, United. One seat might feel comfy and roomy, while the other might feel horrible. Is there a site that rates seats using some measure of “comfort”? Should there be?

Yes, there should be. But there’s nothing really systematic out there like that. Yet. It would be tough to do, admittedly, and you’ll find comfort variation from plane to plane for the very same seat. But you can still generalize, based on seat design and features. Yes, there are the Skytrax seat ratings, but they focus primarily on seat pitch, rather than comfort. You can sift through review after review describing the comfort on an individual flight, but it’s not organized effectively.

So, at the end of the day, there’s an opportunity here for an entrepreneurial spirit to bring these valuable user-generated data sources together into a graphically-accessible format.

The bottom line:
When it comes to searching for a good seat, I’m still starting with SeatGuru because of their coverage of more airlines and cleaner interface. But if I don’t know the equipment the airline is using on my flight, or if SeatGuru doesn’t have the aircraft I need in its database, I’ll run it through SeatExpert. And I’ll keep hoping for one of these sites (or a third competitor) to add seat quality and comfort to the calculus someday soon.