Whether or not I enjoy a flight mostly depends on where I sit, and since I’m mostly flying to and from Australia, choosing the wrong seat can be a painfully long and regretful experience.
To deal with this, I have a system for choosing a seat on any plane that basically guarantees a half-decent flight.
Be warned though: when I say “I’ve developed a system,” that’s not meant to be taken lightly.
My checklist is precise, dorky, and neurotic, but since it works, I don’t particularly mind if I’m a little obsessed with my preferences.
1. Study Your Plane’s Layout
Every plane is different. Some have seats that are more cramped that you might expect, while others lack features are usually considered standard, such as the ability to recline.
With this in mind, use the “Find Seat Maps” feature of SeatGuru.com before choosing your seat. That way:
- You’ll be able to see the layout of the plane you’ll be flying on.
- You’ll be able to avoid the most obviously undesirable seats.
In particular, watch out for seats that:
- Provide less leg room.
- Are narrower than average.
- Can’t recline.
These are seats that you can easily cross off your list to narrow down your options.
2. Prefer Aisle Seats Over Window Seats
This, I know, can be a controversial perspective. People do love looking out the window, after all. But I find that, the more someone flies, the more likely they’ll prefer aisle seats.
There’s a couple of reasons for this:
- You can stand up at any moment to stretch your legs or use the bathroom.
- When no one’s in the aisle, you can stretch your leg from a seated position.
On an international flights, these “small” comforts feel huge.
If I can’t snag an aisle seat, I will choose a window seat, as being able to lean against the window can make falling to sleep a little easier, but I don’t think that benefit makes the window seat worthwhile as a first preference.
It probably goes without saying, but the middle seat should be avoided at all costs. There is no greater hell than to be trapped between the window and the aisle.
3. Sit on the Left Side of the Plane
My right side is my dominant side. This means, when I’m stuck on a plane for hours, I notice most of the discomfort in my right leg. It’s the leg that’s used to doing most of the work, so when it’s trapped in relative stasis, it gets grumpy. My left leg, in contrast, never feels as restless.
To account for this, I always try to sit on the side of the plane that’s opposite to my dominant side — meaning, I try to sit on the left side of the plane. When combined with an aisle seat, I’m able to stretch my dominant leg into the aisle and receive the most bang for the buck in terms of pain relief.
If the plane has a middle section, you can also choose to sit on the right side of that section.
I’m going to assume, however, that if your left leg is your dominant leg, then sitting on the right side of the plane will be more the idyllic approach.
4. Sit Near the Bathroom
This can be a risky choice, and of everything on this list, it’s the one that most people will likely have a reason to argue against. The reason I prefer to sit near the bathroom though is quite straight-forward:
I hate standing in line.
This isn’t purely out of laziness, either. On more than one occasion, I’ve been standing in line, desperate to use the bathroom, and then I’ve been told by a flight attendant to sit down because of turbulence.
If you’re sitting near the bathroom though, it’s much easier to time your visits to avoid the lines.
The side-effect, of course, is that the area can have a particularly unpleasant odour, but that’s rarely been an issue for me. I’ve had more trouble with waiting in line than I’ve had with any smells.
5. Sit Over the Wing
If you’re terrified of turbulence, sitting over the wing may very well be a revelation for you, as sitting over the wing results in a smoother journey.
Because you’re sitting in the middle of the plane, which is “nearest to the plane’s centres of lift and gravity.” (Source)
I won’t sacrifice an aisle seat for the sake of sitting over the wing, as I’m not convinced that the difference in smoothness is that significant, but if it’s a choice available to me, then I take it.
When I can’t sit over the wing, I generally prefer the front of the plane over the back, as I’ll at least be served food a little faster.
6. Sit Behind the Emergency Row
Sitting in the emergency row is an obvious way to enjoy additional leg room, but since these seats often cost more money, I’ve always been too cheap to actually book them.
Something you can do, however, is sit right behind these rows and hope that one or more of the seats will remain unfilled one the flight takes off. That way, you can steal yourself a free upgrade.
Unfortunately, this opportunity has only been presented to me once before, and a couple of girls stole the free seats before I had the chance. Then they were told by the flight attendants they would still have to pay for the upgrade if they wanted to sit there, so clearly, it’s not a fool-proof plan.
Even so, the hope of one day snagging myself the extra leg room keeps me returning to the row behind the emergency row. Sooner or later, I think it’ll pay off.
7. Look for Two Free Seats
Sometimes, I’ll sacrifice some of the lower priority items on my checklist — bathroom proximity, etc — if there’s the option to choose a seat with two free seats next to it.
Now, seats being available at the time of booking doesn’t necessarily mean much, since many people just have their seats assigned to them upon check-in, but the odds of those two seats remaining free increase when:
- You book late (although this can cost more, so be careful).
- The departure time is inconvenient.
- The flight route is unpopular.
In other cases, you’ll just get blindly lucky, like I did when flying from Las Vegas to Portland. It was a popular route and a small plane, and there were only two free seats on the entire aircraft, and I had both of them next to me.
“Maybe no one wants to sit next to you,” a flight attendant joked.
Fine by me, I thought.
If you want to try a high-risk strategy, consider booking a middle seat that has the window and aisle seats available on either side of it. This can work as no one is going to choose either of those seats unless there’s no other option. The risk is that, if the plane fills up (and if people are randomly assigned those seats), then you’re stuck in a middle seat that could have been avoided. For a gambling man though, the risk could be worth it.
8. Check-in Early
Another trick to getting upgraded is to check-in early. The reason this can work is because sometimes not enough people have booked business or first class, which causes the weight of the plane to be uneven. As a result, the airline has to shuffle passengers around, which can result in a free upgrade.
How the airline decides to shuffle passengers around probably depends on a variety of factors — I’m going to assume loyal passengers are rewarded in these instances — but when I flew from South Korea to Las Vegas, I seemed to receive an upgrade purely because I was one of the first people to check-in. The flight was heavily under-booked and my punctuality was rewarded with an absolutely lovely experience.
This alone isn’t motivation enough to check-in early, but since checking-in early also reduces the stress of possibly missing a flight, I do it anyway. The fact that it may (very) occasionally grant me an upgrade is just a bonus.
Nice! I should consider these tips since I’ll be traveling soon.
Michael Madden says
David: thank you for the article and tips. Out of curiosity, how did you go about getting upgraded on Korean? Did you inquire or did they just randomly select you?
David Turnbull says
Basically random. I think the plane was under-booked and, when that’s the case, they need to move people around to make sure that it’s properly balanced. It did, however, help that I was the first to check-in, since I’m pretty sure they just upgraded people on a first-come, first-serve basis. 🙂
It’s interesting when you say: “I enjoy a flight mostly depends on where I sit “. I travel quite frequently for private and business reasons. So I also feel that where I sit in the plane is important. For me it’s even more important, even for a 2h flight when I fly alone, who I get to meet and talk in the plane.
After a boring flight, I created this website: http://www.boringplane.com in order to to find people in the plane with similar interests and try to get a seat near by. What do you think about the idea?
Aisle not isle.
Biff Blendon says
Great tips, but here’s another:
Treat the counter / gate attendees exceptionally well. Spend $20 and bring some nifty Starbucks Venti Trendy drinks — one for each of them — and say nothing. Do not EXPECT an upgrade, don’t even talk about an upgrade, just tell them they looked like they could use it for being able to keep the Zoo together so well. Smile, compliment, donate to their cause. Mention NOTHING in the way of getting something out of it for you (resist the temptation to throw in a “hint” because no one likes a suck-up). Do it FOR THEM, not you.
I do this, then go sit down. I’ll wait until just about everyone has boarded (even if my pass is an early board number) texting or browsing the interwebs. I don’t watch them or wink at them, or look like a vulture spying a piece of fresh carrion. Fully one-third of the time (or more) an attendant will walk over to me and ask for my pass, only to return with an upgrade. I always tell them they didn’t “have to” and that I was just being nice, to which they will usually respond with “that’s why we did it” or some such thing.
Just be genuine. Working on their feet all day dealing with upgrade whores, entitled crybabies, and oversized carry-ons by the unwashed masses can take its toll. They deserve a little kindness.
Thank you! I have been struggling on seat choice for my return Journey to LHR from LA flying Air NZ. I too prefer aisle seat but reviews are bad. Considering paying £50 for what they call a better economy seat and early boarding. Any experience of this?
Nigel William says
Hi, David! These tips are gold! I was surprised by the tip for choosing a side of a plane. I never thought in that way and when I read it, though pop up in my head- that makes perfect sense! I had a great time reading this article, I`m sure a lot of people will find it very useful.
Sebastian Idrees says
Thank you, and always wear breathable shoes that can be slipped off easily. Take your laptop with movies and iPods also help a lot, crossword book for an amateur and their good headphones to watch movies, on 9-hour flights. Take a neck pillow and try to sleep