7 tips for picking the perfect airplane seat every time

Oct 18, 2020

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Whether you’re a window fan or prefer the aisle, your airplane seat can make or break your flying experience. While we’d all prefer to jet around in business or first class every time we travel, picking the perfect seat when you’re booked in economy is even more important — especially if you don’t want to end up stuck in the dreaded middle seat. Here’s what you should do to make sure you get to sit exactly where you want when flying.

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1. Decide where you want to sit

Deciding where you want to sit isn’t always an exact science. For example, you could be a diehard window seat person, or maybe you really only like to have the window on red-eye flights when you prefer to sleep and otherwise prefer the aisle. If you’re flying a route you know has turbulence, maybe you’d prefer to sit over the wing. Or, if you have a short layover, you may want to sit closer to the front to deplane first. And if you’re traveling with a group, you’ll have to consider not only your needs but also the preferences of your family members or friends, too.

A cheerful young woman sits in a window seat on a commercial airliner and looks down at her smart phone as she listens to music with earbuds.
(Photo by Getty Images)

Richard Kerr, TPG’s Loyalty and Engagement Editor, prefers a seat in the back when flying with his family. That way, his family of four (including young children) are close to the lavatories and flight attendants. And, if the kids happen to have a meltdown, they’re less likely to bother other passengers way in the back.

Travelers with babies may want to sit in the bulkhead where bassinets are available.

Personally, I’m always an aisle person, especially since I frequently travel alone. I’m restless and like to stand up and walk around — even more so on long-haul flights.

Whatever your preferences are, decide where your dream seat is for your particular flight. Take into account the aircraft type, route, class of travel, the time and length of flight, travel companions and any other personal factors that could affect your seat choice.

2. Use SeatGuru

SeatGuru allows you to view the seat map for your aircraft and read reviews for the seats. Once you enter your airline, date of flight and flight number, a color-coded map of your aircraft will appear.

A sample of a British Airway’s seat map. (Screenshot courtesy of SeatGuru)

The colors indicate which seats have mixed, good or bad reviews. You’ll also find other important factors that could impact your experience in that particular seat, like extra or reduced legroom or recline; exit row seating; proximity to galleys; and more. You can also determine the seat’s pitch or width and if there are inflight entertainment screens and outlets to charge your electronic devices. The seat map shows the location of the lavatories, galleys and windows — and allows travelers to upload photos of their seats.

The map uses colors to denote different things to be aware of with specific seats. (Screenshot courtesy of SeatGuru)

Using SeatGuru can help you determine exactly where on the plane you’d like to sit in order to be near (or far from) a lavatory, if that exit row is worth paying extra for, or to keep you from selecting a seat without a window or with limited recline. We’re hoping that somehow, in the future, it can tell us where babies are seated too, like the JAL seat-selection map.

3. Leverage status or credit cards for free seat selection

Once you’ve decided on your personal preference and checked out SeatGuru to get an idea of what you have to work with, see if you can select your seat for free. Take inventory of what elite status you have and see if any of your cobranded airline credit cards offer priority boarding, which can help you access unassigned seating faster.

For example, American Airline’s policy for elite members states that elite members (and up to eight traveling companions) can select complimentary Main Cabin Extra or Preferred seats for free. This policy doesn’t apply to Gold members, who get access to these seats at check-in.

Seating on Southwest isn’t assigned, but elite members get first dibs via priority boarding. And being a Southwest credit cardholder could also earn you the right to select your seat ahead of everyone else. Having the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card gives you four priority boardings a year, meaning you can board with the A group to get first pick of seats.

Related: How to score the best seats when flying Southwest Airlines

4. Decide if you should pay for your seat

Some airlines allow you to choose a seat for free, while others require a fee. Start by managing your booking online. The airline should specify if seat selection is free and which seats are still available. If seats aren’t free, fees should be listed and may vary depending on the seat.

Seat selection fees can run from just $2 per seat on short-haul flights with low-cost European carriers such as Ryanair, to over $100 for preferred or premium seats on international routes with major carriers like American.

Keep in mind that seating on many partner airlines or international routes may vary regardless of your elite status. If you aren’t able to select a seat online or are seeing a very hefty fee, it never hurts to call and ask.

Consider the following when deciding whether or not to pay for your seat:

  • How much is it?
  • Can I afford it?
  • How upset will I be if assigned a middle seat?
  • How badly do I want to sit next to my travel companion?
  • Will I need to frequently stand up during the flight?
  • Do I require a bassinet?
  • Am I traveling with kids?
  • Do I need an exit row, bulkhead or extra space due to my height or another circumstance?
  • How long is my flight?
  • Is this an overnight or red-eye flight during which I’ll need to sleep?
  • Will I be working during the flight and need space for my laptop?
  • Will having my preferred seat help me relax?

Depending on the answers to your questions and the price quoted to pick your specific seat, you may choose to pay extra for your preferred seat. It’s always worth phoning ahead to find out what the airline representatives can do for you, especially if you have any extenuating circumstances. They may consider your personal situation (think: a broken ankle, traveling with an elderly family member, large family or baby, pregnancy) and assign you a seat free of charge — or for less than it’s quoted online.

Person Putting Luggage into Overhead Bin
(Photo by Mangpink/Shutterstock)

5. Be friendly at check-in

If you’ve decided not to pay extra to reserve a seat or you’ve simply forgotten to do so online, being friendly to the check-in agent may help. If you approach the agent with a smile and kindly make your request, it may just be granted.

6. Book with an airline that blocks middle seats

Let’s face it: Most of us are looking to book either aisle or window seats. A great way to ensure the likelihood of this happening is to book with an airline that is blocking middle seats. This has become a common practice among domestic carriers since the pandemic. At the very least, it narrows your chances of having a truly terrible seat (i.e. one in the middle).

7. If all else fails, ask on the plane

If all other attempts have failed and you can’t manage to sit next to your travel companions or get the seat you want, it’s always worth asking other passengers or the flight attendants if a swap is possible. While few people will give up their window seat for your lowly middle seat, there may be other circumstances where passengers may not mind swapping with you, especially if the flight isn’t full. Remember: the nicer you are, the better your chances are of getting what you want.

And on the other side of things, if you’ve spent hours researching and selecting your perfect plane seat, and maybe spent 46 minutes waiting to speak to a representative to get your seat swapped, and another passenger asks you to move, you can always politely decline.

Feature photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Additional reporting by Ariana Arghandewal

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