Continental Airlines seats 1960s 1970s 727 Flight Path Learning Center

How to get the best seat on an airplane

by Michael on February 8, 2017

As demand for flying has increased, seating occupancy on planes (known as the load factor) has increased to more than 80%. Travelers who end up in the middle seat, with elbows on ether side protruding into their space and a child kicking their seatback, can be forgiven if they thought it was even higher. With airplane usage rising there is little relief in sight to full flights and cramped planes. Other than springing for First Class tickets, here’s how to get the best seat on an airplane.

It helps to plan ahead and strategize before making your seat assignment. Much depends in your personal preference. Do you like the aisle or the window? (We’ve yet to meet someone who prefers the middle set.) Bulkhead? Exit row? There are plusses and minuses to each choice.

Traveling together? Split the difference

We used to think it was important to sit next to each other out of some misguided notion that that’s what couples traveling together do. But this would end up with Michael occupying the coveted aisle seat with Larissa squished in the middle. Granted, she doesn’t take up as much space as he does but it’s still uncomfortable for her.

But then we noticed couples with a tad more gray hair than us separating on board so each occupied an aisle seat. They’d get one across from each other so they could chat if they needed to, but usually they’d be buried in a book or a movie anyway. So that’s how we travel now and it works out best for both of us.

Ryanair airplane seats interior

Exit row and bulkhead tradeoffs

Both exit rows and bulkhead seats (those in the front of each section that face a wall) generally offer extra legroom but the seats are slightly narrower due to the tray tables being located in the armrest. The exit row offers more legroom but at the expense of a narrower seat that does not recline. Since Michael doesn’t recline his seat anyway, he’ll go with the extra leg room and choose the exit row when he can. Unfortunately, airlines are now wise to this and charge extra for the exit row. For a domestic flight it’s not worth it but he’ll consider it for an overnight flight.

Overnight flights require additional strategy. The bulkhead is generally where the lavatories are located, which, although convenient, are also busy, noisy and potentially smelly. Airlines often place families traveling with babies in the bulkhead so they have more room for all their infant paraphernalia. Trust us, this often does not bode well for surrounding passengers on a nine-hour overnight flight. The phrase “sleeping like a baby” can be taken two ways, in the air it often means continual crying through the night. Bulkhead seats also don’t offer an area under the seat in front of you (because there is no seat in front of you) to stow personal belongings in-flight, so you’re constantly reaching for them in the overhead bin.

How to pick the best plane seats airplane in sky

Optimal seating configurations

On long-haul flights we try to choose aircraft with a seating configuration 2-3-2 (Boeing 767, 787 Dreamliner) or 2-4-2 (A330, A340, some A380s) across if possible. (Note verify that the flight you are taking has this configuration. For example, Norwegian and United, among others, squeeze in a 3-3-3 configuration on the 787 Dreamliner so the seats are narrower.)

With two seats by themselves along the window we can choose the two seats together on either side and have our own “mini row,” allowing one of us to lean against the window to sleep while the other is along the aisle. With only two seats we’re not climbing over anyone else or have them climbing over us during the flight. This particularly comes in handy on red-eyes.

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!Use these strategies to choose the most comfortable (or the least uncomfortable) seat on a flight

We’ve also had good success flying Emirates. They fly all big planes that in our experience have been only half-filled, giving us each our own row. We’ve noticed that the airlines headquartered in the United Arab Emirates don’t seem to have as much pressure to be financially successful, so maybe that accounts for their ability to fly with less passengers. They dispute this fact, which is still playing out in the airline business world.

DC3 War Eagles Air Museum

Seating aboard a historic DC-3.

Each airline offers different seating configurations for the same exact model airplane. Before making your seat assignment go to one of our favorite travel web sites, www.SeatGuru.Com, which provides detailed information for every seat on every plane. You input your airline and flight number and the seating chart for that exact plane configuration will pop up.

It even knows which seats don’t have under-seat storage due to in-flight entertainment system consoles being stored there. On some configurations there isn’t a window where there should be one. (That happened to me once years ago. It’s a very confining feeling.) SeatGuru tells you on which row this occurs so you don’t spend the whole flight staring at a blank wall next to you.

Choose the right seat and your days of playing elbow hockey with fellow passengers are over.

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28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Michael Western North Carolina air Museum

Sean February 9, 2017 at 1:08 am

For long-haul flights with a 3 seat configuration, try booking the window and aisle seat leaving the middle open. If the flight isn’t fully booked, it is likely the middle seat will be open. The higher the occupancy, the closer to the back you need to go as the back middle seats are the least desirable.

Michael February 9, 2017 at 8:45 am

Hi Sean,

I don’t like the back of the plane because of the vibration but you’re right, you often see people sleeping back their with an entire row to themselves.

Greg Kennon February 13, 2017 at 6:50 pm

Being 6’4, it’s imperative that I get a good seat! Planes are not BBF (big people friendly!). We fly southwest often and there are 1 or 2 seats that are quite a bit bigger that I always try and snag!

Michael February 13, 2017 at 7:04 pm

I remember when I flew Southwest regularly the mad rush for the one exit row seat on either side that didn’t have a seat in front of it.

Joanne Cook March 26, 2017 at 9:07 am

My husband and I have been choosing 2 aisle seats across from each other for long flights. But I was constantly disturbed by a couple in the middle and window seats this past fall. Good thing I wasn’t trying to sleep. This caused me to choose a middle seat next to him to reduce the number of disturbances of sleep on our Hawaiian overnight trip this winter. A two seat row is best when we can get it, but rare!

Michael March 26, 2017 at 9:19 am

Yes, the two seat configuration is definitely the best.

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