Getting A Good Seat on a Plane

May 15, 2009  

Being a frequent traveler, I am always looking for creative ways to get the best seat on a plane.

Because of the extra leg room, the obvious selections are the exit rows.  That is, IF your seat reclines.  If there are two exit rows next to each other (e.g., rows 10 and 11), the first one (row 10) will typically not recline.  This makes the next row (in this example, row 11) much more desirable because not only does your seat back recline, but the the person in front of you can’t, giving you even more leg room.

Less obvious is how to book the best seat.  This is my favorite tip….

When booking my flight, I never select a seat in an empty row (assuming the plane is the standard 3/3 configuration).  I always book a window seat in a row where the aisle is already filled, but the middle seat is empty.  Why?  Because if the entire row is empty, a couple traveling together will often fill the aisle and center seat.  With the exception of one flight which was 100% booked solid, using this strategy has yielded an empty seat next to me on all flights…even on the most crowded planes.

I do prefer seats near the back of the plane.  Yes, it takes a bit longer to get off the plane (literally only a few minutes), but I have a much better chance of getting my carry on luggage overhead meaning it is less likely that I will have to gate check it.  Most planes board the back of the plane first getting you and your luggage on the plane earlier.  I prefer window seats because then I do not have to get up every time  others in my row want to use the lavatory.

I do, on occasion, upgrade myself to “economy plus” (and its equivalent).  For as little as $25, you can get extra leg room.  But more importantly, on crowded flights, these seats are often the last to get filled, since they hold them for customers who want to pay extra.  So once again, you have a better chance of getting an aisle or window (if only center seats are available in regular economy) and you increase the odds of having an empty seat next to you.

Possibly the most important step is to check in online as close to 24 hours before your flight departs.  In doing this, you can get seats that were not available when you booked your flight (the airline blocks the reservation of some seats, including some exit rows, until check in). And once again, you can select a row where the aisle is already booked and the middle seat is empty, nearly assuring you an empty seat next to you.

Happy travels.

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11 Responses to “Getting A Good Seat on a Plane”

  1. Gary Petersen on May 15th, 2009 5:21 pm

    Are there airlines that still board from the back of the aircraft forward? I fly a fair amount and it has been years since I’ve seen that done. Which airlines still board that way?

  2. Stephen Shapiro on May 15th, 2009 8:19 pm

    Thanks for your comment Gary. I flew 8 legs over the last 2 weeks, and each boarded from the back first. Sometimes they used zones (like United and American) which still correlate to rows. Frequent flyers may get a zone 1 which allows them to board first. Jet Blue and Midwest boarded by row number with no special treatment for frequent travelers. As far as I can tell, this practice is still widely used.

  3. Mark Turrell on May 16th, 2009 10:47 am

    For transatlantic flights I highly recommend window seats. If you get an aisle seat, you get whacked by the flight attendents’ cart and you have to keep getting up for someone else to go to the toilet.

  4. Boris Pluskowski on May 16th, 2009 12:12 pm

    I’ve noticed that, on international flights at least, I seem to be exponentially more likely to get a free upgrade the later I check in…it’s a bit of a gamble admittedly, as you’ll either be stuck in middle seat hell, or Upper Class bliss…


  5. Gareth Garvey on May 18th, 2009 3:40 am

    Its good to know your airlines and their predominant seat configuration. eg I have 2c marked as my favourite seat in SASs system. Many of their flights are configured without 1a to 1c and 2c gives unlimited legroom as the bulkhead does not come out as far as C. This gives a quick exit and access to the first taxi or an earlier train when travelling in Scandinavia.

    If I have checked in luggage I prefer something towards the back, much like you. I then sit and wait and read until the plane is nearly empty. This makes use of the time and reduces waiting in the baggage hall.

    Another key question for me is….

    HOW do you increase the chances of your baggage coming first onto the baggage carrosel. See you in CPH

  6. Stephen Shapiro on May 18th, 2009 6:33 am

    Gareth…I totally agree with your bulkhead comment. I love them…if I can get them. When I used to have an allegiance to United, the bulkhead seat was always an option (typically 3F was my seat of choice, as first class was rows 1 and 2). But now that I fly whichever airline gives me the best/shortest route, I don’t have that option anymore (unless I want to pay for the Economy Plus upgrade). But if you can get them, take them. But try to board early as possible since you have to stow ALL of your luggage up top since there isn’t any (or limited) space in front of you.

    Mark…another excellent reason to go for the window seat. Also, when flying British Airways Business Class, I love the fact that the seats face backwards. There is something surreal it.

  7. Stephen Shapiro on May 18th, 2009 6:37 am

    Boris, you may be right. If there are no economy seats available, they do sometimes upgrade you IF you are a frequent flyer. Sounds like you are a Virgin Airlines fan…just guessing given your “Upper Class” comment. Me too.

  8. Robert Sansom on May 23rd, 2009 1:58 pm

    Now if there was only a strategy for guaranteeing that you can get a seat far-enough away from someone who wears too much cologne. I was coming back from Paris last week, and the passenger in the seat in front of me must have been bathed in cheap cologne before boarding. I now know I can hold my breath for 7 hours!

  9. Funkstop on May 23rd, 2009 2:15 pm

    Great article!
    One drawback of checking in on line (for Air Canada at least), is that if for some reason you need to change your flight, you can only do so at the airport.

    This was the case for me last year.

    if you want to know which seats are the best on a particular airline’s plane. Try

  10. Dr. Jim Anderson on June 3rd, 2009 7:28 pm

    Great post! The one thing that I would add is that you can always improve your odds of getting a good seat or even an upgrade if you treat the airport staff with respect. It’s a lousy job and rarely do they ever encounter somebody who is in a good mood. Be nice and show interest in them and magical things can happen…

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental Communicator Blog
    “Learn How To intimately connect with your audience in order to make an lasting impact in their lives.”

  11. My Travel Tips | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro on April 10th, 2012 7:00 am

    [...]  It tells you which are the best seats and which ones to avoid.  If you augment this with my strategy for always getting a good seat on a plane, you will be more [...]