Whether or not I enjoy a flight mostly depends on where I sit and, since I’m mostly flying to and from Australia, the wrong seat can be the catalyst for eight or more hours of hell. To deal with this, I’ve developed a system for choosing my seat on any plane that pretty much guarantees a half-decent flight.
Be warned though: I’m neurotic and, when I say, “I’ve developed a system,” that isn’t meant to be taken lightly.
Step 1. Find Your Plane on SeatGuru.com
The first step is basic reconnaissance via SeatGuru.com. The site provides an overview of different plane layouts and a run-down of seats you want to avoid.
In particular, watch out for seats that:
- Have less leg room.
- Are slightly narrower.
- Can’t recline.
These are seats you can easily cross off your list and are precisely the reason you should choose your seats with every booking.
Step 2. Match Your Criteria
The precise seat you want will depend on personal preferences but after far too much consideration, these are my preferences:
If I can snag a seat in the isle, which isn’t too difficult, my flight is more than likely going to be alright. I prefer them to window seats because:
- You can get up at any moment to stretch your legs or use the bathroom. No need to make anyone else stand up.
- When no one’s walking in the isle, you can extend your leg for extra relief. (Just don’t fall asleep like that.)
- You’re served food seconds before the people beside you. This is barely a benefit but I wanted a third item in this list.
If I can’t snag an isle seat, a window seat will do. As long as I avoid the middle seat. That is just too tragic of a fate.
Left Side of the Plane
When stretching a leg into the isle, it makes more sense to stretch your dominant leg since this is the leg that’ll feel the most pain and, therefore, the most relief.
To do this, sit opposite to your dominant side. If your right side is dominant (like mine), sit on the left side of the plane. If your left side is dominant, sit on the right side.
This is the most neurotic decision I make but it’s not a taxing choice and flights are more comfortable because of it.
Near the Bathroom
People complain about the smell of the bathroom but I have a deviated septum at the moment, so maybe that’s why it’s never bothered me. My eventual surgery could “fix” that problem though.
In either case, I prefer a seat near the bathroom because I won’t have to stand in line. I can wait for a lull in bathroom usage and go about my business without delay. (This would have been useful during the times when I’ve ended up in a line and then been told to sit down by flight attendants once some turbulence arrives.)
Over the Wing
This results in a smoother ride since the middle of the plane “is nearest to the plane’s centres of lift and gravity.”
I won’t sacrifice an isle seat to sit in the middle since the difference in smoothness isn’t huge but, if it’s a choice I can take, I may as well take it. I’m completely in favour of less-turbulent turbulence.
When I can’t choose the middle, I prefer the front over the back so I’ll be served food as soon as possible.
Behind an Emergency Row
I usually end up near the emergency exit row anyway since they’re near the bathroom, but I specifically try to book a seat right behind the exit row because, if they end up being available, it’s possible to steal one of them after take-off and give yourself a free upgrade.
Flight attendants might not like you doing this because they can sell the upgrades to people during the flight but not everyone will care. I haven’t managed it myself, but I’m confident I will one of these days.
With Two Free Seats Next To Me
I’ll occassionally sacrifice some criteria — bathroom proximity, etc – if there’s two free seats next to me at the time of booking.
Seats being available at the time of booking is not surprising since many people don’t choose their seats but , about ten percent of the time, I’ve ended up with two seats next to me during the flight itself.
This mostly happens when:
- You book late (this can cost more, so be careful).
- The departure time is inconvenient.
- You’re booking an unpopular route.
These aren’t common scenarios but paying attention to potentially free seats has allowed me to sleep through international flights. I’ll eat, sleep, then wake up in my destination, and I’m not sure there’s another joy that could possibly be so grand.
Step 3. Get Upgraded
Unless you’re dropping fat stacks on fancy airlines, you’re probably never going to have an objectively comfortable seat on a plane in economy class. The best you can really hope for is a seat that’s comfortable for a plane.
Free upgrades are a thing though. Last year, Korean Airlines put me in business class on a 10-hour flight between Bangkok and Seoul despite having never flown with them before. It was late at night but I didn’t sleep a wink on that flight. It was too glorious.
Unfortunately, as David Rowell of The Travel Insider explains, this isn’t as common as it used to be:
…it is harder to get undeserved upgrades these days. The procedure for getting upgrades that one is entitled to has become almost 100 percent automatic and hands-off, and with all flights being full in both cabins, there isn’t much ‘wiggle room’ for people to exploit.
So it’s sort of impossible to ever expect an upgrade unless you’re a loyal member of an airline’s frequent flier program, and that tends to end up not being a cost effective way to pay for air travel. But, again, we can stack the odds in our favour without much effort:
- Book tickets separately. It’s harder for an airline to upgrade two people. If you leave your travel buddy behind in economy though, they may hate you.
- Check-in early. This is probably why Korean Airlines upgraded me. They needed to better distribute weight in the plane and I got priority just by being there.
- Ask. Because of airline policies, this won’t work too much, but asking is better than not asking. (I’ll assume that being attractive helps with this part.)
- Volunteer to give up your seat on an oversold flight. You might have to wait for a later flight but I’d say it’s a worthy sacrifice. (If you want to know if a flight is oversold, ask at check-in.)
- Dress well. This counts me out since I always look like a grimy backpacker but, if you dress well, airlines will assume you’re a better fit for first-class culture.
Or, if you’re interested in messing with airline miles and cleverly acquired upgrades, then check out Chris Guillebeau’s beginner’s guide to travel hacking. Most of it only applies to folks in the USA though, so I can’t talk about it from experience.
I know I’ve probably over-thought this process but the only bad flight I can recall from recent memory was when I wasn’t able to choose my seat. Otherwise, I’ve had a pretty good run.