Here’s My Seat Selection Strategy: Always Get the Best Seat Possible on the Plane

An airplane ride isn’t usually that long, it’s fine to be separated from your travel companion unless that companion is a small child.

There are times though that it really does matter to most of us. I got bumped from my pre-reserved first class seat on one segment of my honeymoon by an air marshal. No one wanted to trade places onboard, most of the flight was taken up by people traveling with the late Jennifer Dunn, a lobbyist who had been a member of Congress and Chair of the Republican Conference. Finally one of the members of her entourage did swap.

There are things we can do to maximize our chances to sit with people we’re traveling with, or just get a better seat.

  • Consult Seatguru. If you’re not familiar with the aircraft you’re flying, and which seats are best, consult Seatguru — find your airline and aircraft type, and their seat maps will show you which seats are desirable, have extra legroom, immovable armrests, etc.

  • Check seat maps when buying your ticket. If seat assignments matter, make sure you check what seats are available to you (either for free or for a fee) before purchase. Then select seats at time of purchase, don’t wait until later to do it.

  • Check to make sure your seats haven’t changed. Look at your reservation every few weeks. Your seat assignments might not have ‘stuck’ especially if you bought tickets through an online travel agency. Or your seat assignments might have changed somewhere along the way (perhaps there was a schedule change or change of aircraft). Finding this out sooner rather than later increases the likelihood of getting it fixed. One thing I like about Award Wallet is that it will tell me when there are changes to a reservation, including my seat assignment.

  • Keep checking back. There may not have been seats you could reserve together for free when you booked your tickets, but that can change. Check bag especially as the day of flight approaches — when airlines upgrade frequent flyers, those passengers are moved out of coach, freeing up seats (although mostly freeing up ‘premium’ seats that those passengers get for free).

  • Use This pay website will email you when desirable seats open up on your flight (you can set up one alert for free without a paid subscription).

  • Choose ‘trade bait’ seats as a second best. If I’m traveling with someone, I want pre-assigned seats even if there aren’t two seats together. That way I can at least get one ‘better seat’ that I can use as trade bait. I don’t want to wind up with two middles and try to get someone to give up their aisle for it. I’ll avoid the bulkhead in first class (no underseat storage, usually less desirable) but take the bulkhead in economy (more legroom, more desirable despite lack of underseat storage).

  • Choose a row with empty middle. In coach, if I have my complete choice of seats, I’ll take an aisle and a window with open middle. On the off chance the middle stays open, we get more room. If it gets taken, we can always trade with the person in the middle (no one likes a middle). Worst case they only want the aisle, and will hold out (keep their middle) to get it.

A seat isn’t just a seat. I try to approach my travel with both strategy and thoughtfulness, and all of this is just habit and second nature at this point so it doesn’t actually take much effort. But I wanted to tease out of my own brain exactly what it is that I do in case it’s helpful to any of you, and in case you had any different strategies of your own.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. if you are on a plane with 3-4-3 seating consider the center section. If one aisle seat and the one next to it are taken, take the other aisle seat. chances are, you will have an empty seat next to you. If the plane gets full, you will only have one person climbing over you to get to the lav.

  2. For economy:
    I always get an aisle seat in the very rear of any plane with at least an empty middle seat next to it. These middles are always the very last seats taken on a plane and unless the flight is 100% full at boarding, they will be empty. 70+% success rate and half of those times I get 2 empty seats.

    The extra couple minutes de-boarding bother me much less than being cramped.

  3. The bulkhead in coach often has less leg room because there,is no seat in front to put feet under. Check seat guru.

  4. Another way to get a better seat in addition to your suggestions is when you can log on to get your boarding pass, look to see if the airline has opened up some of the premium seats or some traveler or travel company has dropped their seat reservations. About half the time, doing this I get a better seat–one with a view out the window, or on the right side aisle–I’m a lefty–after dark, or closer to the exit when landing.

  5. This is rare but a few times I have found myself in a middle seat after booking an aisle or window. This can happen if the carrier maintains multiple fleet types and makes a last minute change to a larger or smaller aircraft. Safest strategy to avoid this is to book an “A” window seat.

  6. Gary,
    Excellent information to share.
    Fortunately I do not travel as much any more (being retired), but your suggestions are a strategy that I had/have used successfully many times. And , yes, Seatguru is an excellent source of seat info.

  7. Gary & commentors — these are great suggestions — nice to compile them in one place.

    Gary – have you ever had to give away the aisle rather than the window to an insistent middle seat passenger? I would think you have more leverage than he/she.

    Follow-up article with overnight flight tips would be useful, too. Building on Horst’s comment, on any plane with 3- or 4-seat section in the middle, “Bookend Aisles” towards the back (planes tend to fill from front) frequently score “Poor Man’s Business Class,” Or in 3/3/3 seating book the aisle towards the back if empty window & middle, and hope seats remain empty.

  8. The one piece here that has come to annoy me more and more is the fact airlines are not assigning seats until the day of travel. Flip side to this is as an elite member you get more options to play with but you never really know if you are going to have an empty middle and by the time the basic Y seats are assigned, it is usually to late to make any practical changes. Oh well.

  9. Neither my wife nor I ever want to sit in a middle seat. We used to be able to book an aisle and a window seat with a pretty good chance the middle seat would remain open. That is no longer the case as flights are almost always completely full these days, especially toward the front of the plane where we like to sit. Accordingly, in aircraft where all of the rows are 3 + 3 across, we will now book two aisle seats across from each other. That way, we know we will sit next to each other and neither of us will be in a middle seat or need to rely on someone to trade with us.

  10. When my wife and I travel from NY to Florida, we rarely fly anything other than economy. And we always reserve two adjoining aisle seats. Both have some extra room and are “next” to each other in order to converse if we so desire. And neither one gets stuck in the middle seat. Surprised more couples don’t do this.

  11. Choosing an aisle and window when traveling with a companion on Alaska may not work. Alaska has been known on the day of travel to move people traveling together to adjacent seats sua sponte (on their own). It’s not only happened to me but I’ve also read about it happening to people on Flyertalk Alaska flyers. If the flight is full and you dont like where Alaska moved you, you’re screwed. So, word of caution for any Alaska flyers reading your blog.

  12. Unfortunately, seatguru’s new format is not nearly as useful as it used to be after a recent site revamp where:

    1.) they removed the flyers’ comments, which, when read carefully to filter out those who occasionally did not properly match their comments to the correct model aircraft they were on and/or the negative nellies who are impossible to please (with the former easy to do, and the latter a little trickier at first, but after a while no different than how one navigates any online review, for example as one does with yelp to filter out shills…and pills);

    2.) removed the vast collection of flyers’ pics that were also available, and replaced it with the vastly diminished, nebulous and watered down version they offer now. Granted, the former version was not always accurate (see #1 above for confusion of some regarding the planes they were critiquing/posting photos of versus the correct plane), and yes the prior format was: sometimes cluttered with pointless shots of clouds, wings, upside-down/sideways shots and/or clunky and amateurish looking, but still much more useful to those who could easily recognize the photos that didn’t match the plane, and who didn’t mind zipping through the misformatted/useless shots to see shots that also did offer USEFUL info about the cabin/seat/airline they were contemplating flying, or had already booked their flights aboard.

    Yes, sometimes less is more – but when it’s about scrubbing USEFUL information because airlines want to conceal photos that show how awful cabin densifications are and/or the 95% (or more) of economy flyers describing their numb butts from rock hard seats; cramped legs from “no legroom” rows; how they couldn’t fit in child sized bathrooms; or most commonly how HORRIBLE the 10-abreast “densified” Boeing 777s and 9-abreast 787s truly are – which is want one nearly always saw in the flyers’ comments box on the bottom right side of the web page before it was removed a few months’ back – then LESS IS LESS as it surely now is when one turns to the no longer very useful seatguru…

    Oh, well, such is life these days, when honesty is a “bad thing” and is in such short supply while deceitfulness, chicanery, deception and flat out lies are not just tolerated, but somehow are becoming normalized and deemed socially acceptable… 🙁

  13. Oops! In the above it’s “…which is WHAT one nearly always saw in the flyers’ comments box…”

    …and NOT “want” as written.

    With apologies for the typo!

  14. On transatlantic flights take the side away from the sun. I always take a window.
    Try to choose your airplane. 767’s (getting a bit rare) have two on the window. Same for 330’s. Night flight may seem unnecessary but don’t forget the sun comes up early on eastbounds.

  15. My strategy for domestic or North America flights: Book any *free* seat as close to exit rows as possible. Then be the LAST person to board, regardless of your boarding group. Walk on and take an exit row seat if available. If questioned, say that you moved to give a little more space to the people in your row where you were booked. 100% success so far! (Does not work for Southwest flights, obviously….if I give a care about where I sit on a Southwest flight, I pay the extra $15 for early boarding.)

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