G etting the best airline seat in your class of travel requires doing some homework beforehand. Here are some basic tips for trying to secure your best choice seat on your flight, especially if you have to fly economy class...
1. Know Your Aircraft - Familiarise yourself with the different types of aircraft and configurations used by your airline on the route you plan to travel. Most airlines will have their seating plans available online which can give you a rough overview of the layout. Your should also consult one of the specialist airline seating websites (eg - SeatPlans/SeatGuru/SeatExpert) which provide interactive seat maps that illustrate the pros and cons of each seat.
2. Allocate Your Seat Early - Try to pre-allocate your favoured seat as early as possible - there are 3 potential ways to do this:
(a) A few airlines allow you to pre-allocate standard seats at the time of booking - Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines are examples, though access to extra legroom seats is generally blocked. Some airlines (British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM-Air France, Cathay Pacific) also allow their top-tier frequent flyers to pre-allocate any seat beforehand.
(b) Many airlines are now charging for pre-allocated seats with extra legroom such as the exit rows (see Emergency Exit Rows info below).
(c) Most airlines allow you to select a seat for free during online check-in (OLCI) - normally 24 to 48 hours in advance. Check in online as soon as it opens to give yourself the widest possible seating choice. When planning your trip think about how you can do online check-in and print your boarding pass or send it to your smartphone. What will you do if you have no internet access at your hotel and OLCI opens at 11.30pm?
Remember, if you have a short-haul - long-haul flight combo you can generally choose seats for both flights at say "T-24" of the first flight. This means you will have more choice of seats on the (2nd) long-haul segment, as the majority of passengers will have not checked in yet.
3. Aisle, Middle or Window - This is always a dilemma in air travel seating and remains a personal choice. Do you take the window seat to enjoy the view, have something to lean against and remain undisturbed? Or do you choose the aisle seat for more leg / elbow room and easy access getting up... Nearly everyone agrees that sitting in the middle seat is the worst of both worlds and is only bearable if you are in a group. It does remain a good seat to 'lock-in' a child.
Some downsides to the window seat: You may have less personal space due to the curvature of the fuselage, especially at the back of the aircraft. It can also feel a little colder. And if you need to stretch your legs you will have to ask your neighbour(s) to let you out - which can be awkward if they are asleep.
On the other hand, sitting in the aisle seat you may be disturbed by your neighbour asking to get out and by people walking past you.
4. Front, Middle or Rear - Obviously this depends on the class of your ticket and most people would prefer to be riding up front. Sitting near the front means you will be one of the first people to leave the aircraft at your destination - good if you are in a hurry.
Sitting over the wing in the middle does have some advantages. Not only is this thought to be the strongest part of the plane but also being nearer the aircraft's centre of gravity it should be less affected by any turbulence. You will also be closer to the over-wing emergency exits.
However the fuel tanks are located directly below, so there is always a risk of fire in an emergency!
Sitting at the rear is noisier (engine noise, plus noise from galley / toilets) and you will feel more turbulence. The very back row of seats may also have a limited recline. On the plus side, sitting at the rear is less popular and you could have an empty seat next to you if the flight is not full. On a Boeing 747 some people like sitting in the 2 seater window rows located at the back 3 rows.
5. Left or Right - Facing forward, seat A is always on the left side. Sitting left or right is not really an issue except if you want to avoid direct sunlight on certain routes or perhaps see a particular view of the ground.
6. Bulkhead Row - This is the (front) seat row behind the wall partitions that split the cabin from the galley and/or toilet areas. Legroom here is variable - sometimes there is more; other times you will not be able to stretch your legs fully which can be very uncomfortable. On the upside, there will be no one in front to recline their seat and getting aisle access from a middle seat is slightly easier.
The bulkhead has a bassinet usually reserved for passengers with babies or small children - such passengers should inform the airlines at the earliest possible stage to try and secure the seats. For others sitting on or around the bulkheads, consider there is likely to be some noise disturbance from babies.
7. Emergency Exit Rows - Probably the best seats in economy class with extra legroom, sometimes equivalent to business class legroom. Sitting in the exit row is a privilege and you should take the responsibility seriously by reading the safety card, something all passengers should familiarise themselves with. You must keep the row clear of baggage during take-off and landing. Note, airlines have strict occupancy rules for exit seats - they will not allow children, "physically challenged" or sight-impaired passengers and non-English/non-native speakers.
Like the bulkhead row, you will be less affected by reclining seats in front. Some downsides however: If seated on an exit window seat with a large door the emergency slide box will protrude outwards and your leg space will be impeded; The wing will block your view from the window (if you have one); The exit seat can be narrower than the standard seat; Some passengers may congregate around this row, feeling that it is "public space".
The current trend is for airlines to charge for assigning the exit rows in economy class - for example, Singapore Airlines ($50), Air France (€50), British Airways (£50), Qantas (AU$80). This actually makes it easier for the non-elite status passenger to secure such a seat - as long as you are willing to pay up. For more info see How To Get an Emergency Exit Row
Other airlines charging for seat allocation in economy class are Air Asia, Aer Lingus, United Airlines, JetBlue, Monarch Airways and Air Transat.
8. Avoid "Bad" Seats - Be aware that there can be a few "bad" seats on board - for example, limited recline seats like those just in front of an exit row; seats where the entertainment system box reduces legroom space; "window" seats which actually have no window! And to reiterate - if you cannot check-in online for a very busy flight you are highly likely to get stuck in a middle seat.