Airline SeatsTips

How To Get the Best Airplane Seat on Your Flight

Getting the best seat on a plane in your class of travel requires doing some homework before you fly. Here are some basic tips for trying to secure your best choice seat on your flight, especially if you have to fly economy (coach) class.

1. Choose Your Aircraft

Familiarise yourself with the different types of aircraft and configurations used by the airlines 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.

You should also consult the specialist airline seating website SeatGuru which provides interactive seat maps that illustrates the pros and cons of each seat. Here’s the chart of the British Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner:

seatguru site

Over the last few years the trend has been to pack ever more seats into economy class with some wide-body aircraft being 10 across (3-4-3) rather than the traditional 9 across (3-3-3). There has even been talk of the Airbus A380 going 11 across (3-5-3) rather than 10 across (3-4-3) – thankfully this has not (yet) come to pass.

In any case, securing a good seat is becoming more important than ever.

Also consider that an airline may use different aircraft and configurations for the same route, so choose your flight carefully. Cathay Pacific for example flies the Hong Kong-Bangkok route with a mix of Airbus A330-300s, Boeing 777-300s and Airbus A350-1000s.

cathay pacific airbus a350 aircraft

If travelling as a couple then you may prefer to choose aircraft with 2 seater rows in economy class. Many smaller regional jets (such as the Embraer E190) have 2-2 or 2-3 configurations. Wide-body aircraft with 2 seaters include the Boeing 767, Airbus A330/A340 and on some upper decks of the Airbus A380.

The last 3 or 4 window rows at the very back of Boeing 747s also have 2 seater pairs which are always highly sought after.

If considering travel in business class then do check the cabin layout of your airline and aircraft type, as the differences can be significant. The 1-2-1 layout is becoming the standard, however many airlines still offer denser 2-2-2, 2-3-2 and even 2-4-2 configurations.

2. Seat Allocation Strategies

After researching the best airplane seat, try to then pre-allocate your favoured seat as early as possible. In the past airlines used to allow free seat assignment at the time of booking. Now that privilege is often only available to business class passengers or frequent flyers with elite status.

Most international airlines have moved over to a revenue model for selling seat assignments before online check-in opens – especially for seats with extra legroom or at the exit rows (see below). This means you can always buy your favoured seat, albeit for a price.

You can also set seat alerts for free using the ExpertFlyer site or app. Now it could be that your preferred seat (whether a specific seat or even a general aisle seat) suddenly opens up and becomes available. ExpertFlyer will send you an email and from there you can try to assign it with your airline.

Seat assignments can often change for various reasons – elite frequent flyers who have a good economy seat might get pre-upgraded to a higher cabin and will leave the original seat vacant.

You can also just log in frequently to your booking to check the seating map of your flight to see what seats are currently available.

Beware automatic seat assignment – No-frills airline Ryanair and British Airways Economy Basic tickets offers passengers the choice to purchase an assigned seat. However, those not taking up the offer will get a seat automatically assigned when online check-in opens. The seating algorithm may put you in a middle seat!

aircraft seats

3. Last-minute changes

Most airlines allow you to select a seat for free during online check-in (OLCI) – normally 24 hours in advance. If you haven’t pre-assigned a seat then check-in online as soon as it opens to give yourself the widest possible seating choice.

Some savvy flyers will wait until the very last minute at the gate to secure an improved seat. This can be done in 2 ways – the first is by checking in as normal and then asking the gate agent if there are any better seats. This can be hit and miss, especially if the agent is busy.

Better still is to use a live seating app of the airline (where available) and check if there any better seats to move to. Changes can happen right up to the last few minutes and if you find something better you can change seats and download a new boarding pass.

So what constitutes a good airplane seat? That is a rather subjective question and depends on personal preference and what airline you are travelling on. Let’s have a look at the options available.

4. 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.

There are 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, when sitting in the aisle seat you may be disturbed by your neighbour asking to get out and by people walking past you.

5. Empty Seats

Having an empty seat next to you can also improve your comfort, particularly on a long-haul flight. Aisle and window seats tend to fill up first with the less desired middle seats being the last to be assigned.

Securing an adjacent empty seat is somewhat out of your control, especially if the flight has a full load. However if the flight is less than full it is possible to select certain seats to reduce the possibility of someone being next to you.

This strategy comes down to seating psychology and the fact that people don’t really like to choose the middle seat if the aisle and window are occupied.

If you are travelling in a couple you can always pull the old trick by selecting a window and aisle seat on a 3 seat window row – particularly at the rear of the aircraft. If someone does turn up with the middle seat they are usually more than happy to swap so that you can sit together.

plane seats

If travelling alone, by choosing a 3 seat row with 1 window or aisle seat already occupied, you will leave the middle seat which is less likely to be taken if the flight is not full.

On a very empty flight you may even be able to secure an empty row in economy class which can be turned into a ‘bed’. Air New Zealand has turned this concept into its well-known Skycouch (albeit available at a premium price), which is also offered by China Airlines.

6. Front, Centre 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 at the centre of the plane 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 slightly 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 and toilets) and you will feel more turbulence. The very back row of seats may have a limited recline. Passengers also tend to gather at the back of the plane.

However the rear is less popular so there may be more overhead space available for luggage than at the front.

7. Left or Right

Facing forward, window seat A is always on the left-hand 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.

That said, airlines have reported passengers having a slight bias to sit on the right-hand side of the plane! In 2014 Easyjet used statistical data and polled 10,000 passengers and found the most popular seat was 7F (right-hand side). This is not surprising as Easyjet charges more for rows 1-6. The most unpopular was aisle seat 19C.

8. 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 the wall will stop you from stretching 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 bulkhead 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 in or around the bulkheads, consider there is likely to be some noise disturbance from infants.

9. Emergency Exit Rows

Exit rows probably have the best seats in economy class with space 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. You may be required to help the crew during an emergency.

Like the bulkhead row, you will be less affected by reclining seats in front.

Some downsides to exit rows:

  • 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 can limit your view of the ground.
  • The exit seat can be narrower than a standard seat.
  • Some passengers may congregate around this row, feeling that it is ‘public space’.

Flying to/from Amsterdam? The Dutch are known to be some of the tallest people in the world. There will probably be quite a number of tall passengers on your flight looking to secure that elusive exit row seat and get some extra legroom!

The current trend is for airlines to charge for pre-assigning the exit rows in economy class. Prices can vary depending on the length of the flight.

Typical price examples for medium and long-haul flights are: Air France (€40-70), British Airways (from £50), Lufthansa (€40-110), Qantas (AU$90-180), Singapore Airlines Extra Legroom Seats ($48-144) and Virgin Atlantic (£49-90). 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.

On short-haul flights the fees are lower although often they are unsold as passengers don’t want to spend the extra money. You may get lucky during online check-in or even asking once on board.

10. Avoiding 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!

Best Airplane Seat – Summary

So whether you want to get an exit row or just avoid a cramped middle seat, following the above tips should help you secure the best seat available on your plane. To recap, here are the seats of choice in certain situations:

Best airplane seat for undisturbed sleep – window seat
Need to stretch legs or visit bathroom regularly – aisle seat
Need to get off quickly on arrival – front seats
Reduced turbulence effect – middle (over-wing) seats
Need extra legroom – emergency exit seat
Less engine noise – front seats
Travel with infants – bulkhead seats

The main takeaway for seat strategy is (1) to pay up for a seat assignment, (2) choose a seat via online check-in as soon as it opens or (3) wait until the very last minute to change seats using an airline app or gate agent.

Article originally published in 2006 and has been updated regularly. Last update December 12 2019.

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