Thousands of people board airplanes every day, hoping against all odds that they’re going to get a seat that’s at least not too bad. Savvy travelers don’t hope, they plan. Here’s how to boost your odds of getting your best seat on a plane, and sit where YOU want!
Ed. Note: This post is written with U.S.-based airlines in mind. The strategies discussed will work with most airlines around the world. Many budget airlines, though, will not let you choose a seat, or will charge for the privilege of doing so.
Why would you want to choose your seat?
Does it really matter if you select a seat when booking your airline tickets? The answer really depends on you.
Many people don’t really care where they sit on an airplane, saying one seat is just as bad as the other. These are the same folks who gripe constantly about how bad airplane seats have gotten. While it is true that seats today are smaller and packed tighter than ever before, there are, at least, less bad seats on just about every flight. It’s worth finding them, and booking them, especially for longer flights.
Leaving your bottom literally in the hands of the airlines is not the end of the world, but let’s discuss a few reasons why you should never do that.
Couples & Families
Airline seating arrangements are done by computers which have no idea that Person A and Person B might want to sit together. Add in some little people, and no… computer don’t care. Unless the goal is to spend some “alone time” on the plane, selecting seats ahead of time is your best bet to sit together. The bigger the group or family, the harder it will be, but at least the decision of who sits where is made by you.
Speaking of families, if you are pregnant or traveling with an infant-in-lap, you might appreciate the extra room that a bulkhead* row gives you, or you may want to opt for the airline’s premium economy seating, if they have it. Those seats are generally wider and have greater pitch, or the distance from your seat to the seat in front of you.
*Bulkhead rows are the first seats in a section, and almost always have more space. The trade-off is a lack of under-seat storage, because there is no seat in front of a bulkhead row.
Have you ever tried getting to the window seat in row 32 on crutches? We’re here to tell ya, it ain’t easy. Do the flight crew, fellow passengers and, most importantly, yourself a huge favor and find a way to sit in a bulkhead row. They are the best seats for most mobility issues, since they are easier to access, and give you more room.
On the other hand, if you or a loved one is flying with a respirator or other medical accessory, you may not want a bulkhead seat because there is no under-seat storage. Finally, if back or other issues make it painful to sit without at least a little bit of recline, don’t sit in the last row, or the row ahead of an exit. Seats in those rows generally do not recline.
Last In – First Out
You’ve heard of “the bump”? That’s when you have a ticket but get “bumped” to another flight. Flyers without an assigned seat will be the first to get bumped if the flight is oversold. If you’re in no hurry to get where you’re going, this might not be a bad thing. Passengers who are bumped are entitled to compensation; sometimes ridiculously large amounts! Otherwise, selecting your seat and checking in for your flight early are your best defensive moves.
You might not have a preferred seat, exactly, but wouldn’t it be great if you a seat with a view, or one not so close to the bathroom? This article really isn’t about finding that unicorn on the seat map, it’s about getting your best seat on a plane. Which begs the question:
Where do you want to sit?
The two most common requests are aisle and window seats, and partly because nobody wants the dreaded middle seat. If you have a hard time sitting still for more than an hour, or suffer from “Itty Bitty Bladder” (#guillty!), an aisle seat is for you. It lets you get up and stretch those legs, relieve that bladder, or just pace a bit to unwind. (Just know that sometimes causes the opposite reaction in fellow passengers.) If you have long legs, aisle seats also allow a little illicit comfort in stretching into the aisle, so long as you watch for pacing passengers and that beverage cart.
On the other hand, if you have no fear of heights and love literally having your head in the clouds, opt for a window seat! With just one person in close proximity, window seats offer a bit of in-flight solitude, and reduce your chances of catching a cold or flu on your flight. Plus, when you’re hoping for a little shut-eye, window seats are prime napping positions thanks to the supportive wall at your side.
Your personal Best Seat on a Plane is going to be different than everyone else’s, and it’s starting to take shape. Window or aisle, and extra legroom in an exit or bulkhead row are just a few things to consider. Your definition of best might include a few other preferences:
- No sitting by the lavatory, or the galley.
- No seats that don’t recline, or have fixed armrests.
- Seats with a plug or USB port.
- No seats near the cabin door (which tend to be colder).
- No seats in the back of the cabin (which tend to be noisy).
- Everyone’s favorite: No middle seats!
The more you fly, the more your ideal airplane seat will take shape, and the better you’ll get at finding it.
The Poor Man’s First Class
One of the great things about First Class seating is the leg room. When you sit down, there’s actually a mysterious empty zone between your knees and the back of the seat in front of you. Many people on airplanes may have never seen this. It’s called “space.” And it costs. A lot.
Back in the main cabin, there are a few seats that have more of this space than others. They are strategically located in bulkhead and exit rows. In some configurations, the window seat behind the bulkhead row also has extra space, because there’s no seat in front of it.
Exit rows are special though. There is more space because it must allow passengers to easily exit in case of emergency. If you qualify to sit there (you must be willing and able to open the door, amongst other things), you get some extra legroom. However, you also get fixed armrests, meaning they don’t move up and down for a bit of extra width. On some planes, the entertainment system or tray table is stored in the armrest on the exit row (and also bulkhead row), making the seats narrower. And often they don’t recline. (Nor do seats in the row before an exit.)
On some airlines, bulkhead and exit row seats are considered preferred or premium seats because of the extra legroom. While they’re not as expensive as First Class, you are likely to pay a premium to sit there.
First One Off
If you know you have a really short time between connecting flights, get some peace of mind by selecting a seat towards the front of the plane, near the main door used for boarding. (Remember that some configurations have the main door around mid-plane, so check the seat map.) When you only have 30 minutes to get from one plane to the next, the last thing you want to do is wait for everyone on the plane to get off ahead of you.
Okay, there’s really no such thing as an anti-Airsickness seat, unfortunately. However, you can mitigate the effects of turbulence and motion by sitting in an aisle seat over the wing. Similar to cabin selection on a ship, you want to be as close to the middle as possible. If the visual impact of flying doesn’t bother you, sitting over the wing gets you a nice view but still limits the effects of turbulence as much as possible.
Finding Your Best Seat on a Plane
Now that you have a clear picture of your best seat on a plane, how do you find it?
The first place to look is your airline’s own website. When booking your ticket, you should see a link to a seat map. It will show you available seats, and give you some details about seats. If you’re primarily interested in finding seats together, or seats in a particular location (front, back, window, etc.), the seat map is the easiest tool to use.
If you’re looking for more information, including a rating guide for seats (good, better, best), check the SeatGuru website. Here you’ll find additional information, such as which seats have power outlets, whether the window seat is actually at the window, and more. (You’ll need to know your flight number for the most accurate seat map.)
Pro-Tip: Keep in mind that airlines often have to change aircraft, so there’s no guarantee that the plane you board exactly matches the seat map you saw. Check back occasionally and look for changes in aircraft (usually shown as manufacturer and model, such as Boeing 737-300). If you find a different plane listed, verify that you still have your chosen seats.
Getting Your Best Seat
It’s finally time to book that seat. So how do you actually get the one seat (or two, or five) that we spent all that time deciding was THE seat?
There are a few strategies you can employ, and we’ll share the tips that have worked best for us when flying solo, as a couple, and as a family. It all starts right when you book your tickets.
If you did your homework ahead of time, you can select your seat when you book your flight. Even if you didn’t, most airlines will let you select your seat up to 24-hours before check-in. If you didn’t find your dream seat on the first try, keep checking to see if your seat(s) has opened up. (More on this later.)
If you booked your flight on a third-party Online Travel Agency, you may not be able to select a seat when booking your flight. Within a few days, though, you should be able to log into the airline’s website and select a seat, using your Flight Locator information.
To Pay, or Not to Pay
This is actually two questions in one: Should you pay to select your seat, and should you pay to select a better seat?
Some airlines, like Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines, charge for the privilege of selecting your seat. About the only time we definitely say you should do this is to ensure you can sit together when flying as a couple or a family. If you’re going solo, it’s probably not worth the expense on these airlines.
Whether you should pay for a better seat – something like Delta’s Comfort+ seating – is another matter. These seats generally (marginally) wider and allow more legroom (pitch). They usually come with other perks, such as priority boarding, dedicated overhead bin space, and/or bonus frequent flier miles. Of course, they also come with a price tag, which adds up fast when flying with the family.
If you happen to have status with your airline’s frequent flier program, you might get these seats at no, or reduced, charge. Otherwise, you have to decide when it’s worth it to pony up for the privilege. Our personal preference is to reserve these seats on longer flights, when the comfort will be appreciated. Most of the time, we take a wait-and-see approach, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
One final note: If you do pay for an upgraded seat, make sure to use a points-earning credit card affiliated with your airline. Most will award double miles (sometimes more) on airfare, upgrades, and in-flight purchase.
How NOT to Pay
When you study the airline’s seat map, you might come to the conclusion that “upgrade” only means “not middle seat.” If it’s hard to justify the extra cost just to move over one seat, we say don’t do it. Instead, select the best free seat you can find, and then ask the gate agent if you can switch to whatever seat you had in mind. If there is room – and many times there is – they’ll move you.
If you decided to let the airline pick your seats, you won’t know where you’re seated until you check in and get your boarding pass. As soon as you do, log into the airline’s website and check the seat maps, or ask an agent where the seats are.
Not happy with the results? The gate agent can be your best friend. Ask about changing your seats; often they can accommodate your request. Likewise, if you’re flying as a couple or family, but got seats decidedly not together, let the gate agent know. Be polite, explain that you’re flying together and, more often than not, they’ll find you seats together.
Keep in mind that there are no guarantees. Even if you selected your seat, the airline may still move you. This happens frequently when there was a change in aircraft, and when there are air traffic disruptions and flights get re-arranged. In that case, (say it with us) ask the gate agent about changing your seats.
One last piece of advice: Gate agents are superheros. They often have the power to grant your wishes, so be polite, and be patient. And, no matter the outcome, be gracious.
The Frequent Flier Fix
Frequent flyers like to grumble about the devaluation of program perks over the years, but having status really does matter. And that’s the key: Status, which you earn based on the miles you fly and the money you spend. Unless you fly a lot during the year, you’re not likely to rack up serious points/miles, but even low-level status can have some useful perks.
American Airlines AAdvantage, for example, gets you one free checked bag and free preferred seating at its lowest level, Gold. That means your ideal seat may be available to you for free, while the general flying public has to pay a little extra, if they can even book that seat.
The perks continue: You can upgrade to Main Cabin Extra seating for free within 24 hours of departure, and you get a 40% bonus on miles earned for every flight. Getting there is a journey itself: spend $3,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars AND fly 25,000 Elite Qualifying Miles or 30 Qualifying Segments.
Yes, all of that Elite Qualifying stuff sounds complicated. All it really means is that they are dollars/miles/segments that help you qualify for elite status. It also means that not all dollars/miles/segments are created equal; some are worth more than others. It gets so complicated that there is a substantial industry built around helping people understand and qualify for status!
The Wait & See Strategy
Have you ever paid for a “preferred” seat simply because that’s the only way you could sit next to your Significant Other, according to the seat map, only to find lots of empty seats when you boarded the plane? What gives?
This is a hugely misleading (some say unethical) airline practice. They hold some preferred seats for elite flyers – whether that’s frequent flyers with status or passengers buying full-fare tickets. Most people won’t ever see these seats as being available, even though they may not be sold. There is a great example of this at The Points Guy.
Those “secret” seats are released when check-in opens, 24 hours before departure! You’ve waited. You’ve seen. Now you need to check in and grab those seats! It also doesn’t hurt to check with a gate agent at the airport. We’ve snagged preferred seats that would have cost more than $100 each way to select in advance, just by asking the gate agent if there were two seats together that we could switch to. For our money, this is the best way to get our personal best seats on a plane without paying extra.
To be clear, you do want to select a seat when booking your ticket, or soon after. If you don’t have an assigned seat, you could be among the first to be bumped if your flight gets oversold. But you are not stuck in that seat forever. Check back frequently for better seats, and again as soon as check-in opens to see if those “secret seats” are available. If you still haven’t gotten seats you love, check with the gate agent when you get to the airport.
After all that work to get your best seat, don’t forget to check in early to guarantee you get it!
Other Tips Learned Along the Way
- Book Early
- The earlier you buy your ticket, the more seating options you’re likely to see.
- Last Ditch Effort
- Once you’re on the plane, keep an eye on open seats that you might want while people are boarding. If that seat’s still open when the doors close, quickly ask a crew member if you can switch. The answer is almost always yes!
- The Bookend Strategy
- If you’re traveling as a couple, book the window and aisle seats in a row. Since nobody likes a middle seat, you have a better chance of getting the whole row to yourselves. If someone does end up sitting there, just ask if you can switch. We have yet to meet someone stuck on staying in the middle.
- Airline Differences
- Just because two airlines fly the same type of plane does not mean seating is the same. For example, seats on Spirit Airlines don’t recline. Check SeatGuru or your airline’s website for seat specifics.
We’re curious about your travel tips! Please leave us a Comment with the tips you use to find your best seat on a plane. We’d also love to hear what makes your perfect seat so perfect. We’ll re-post the best, so be sure to include your Twitter handle, if you have one. Or click for more #Travel140!
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