How to choose the best seat on an airplane (Part 1)

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The right seat strategy can make your plane ride much more enjoyable. Being prepared and setting reasonable expectations will go a long way. Trust me. And once you select a good seat, you can focus on how to have fun on an airplane.

In this two-part series, I will share the strategy as well as the tools (part 2) for selecting the best seat. Below, you will learn how to pick a seat that matches your body and the purpose of the trip. I will be focusing on economy flights because generally speaking you’re going to have a great time in any business class seats.

Find a seat good for your body.

Your general strategy starts with your body. Are you a tall person? Wide person?


You might want to target bulkhead (front-most row of a section of seats where you typically face a wall) or an exit row. Those areas provide maximum leg room, though the trade-off is possible noise (from proximity to the lavatory) or a cold draft (if the seal on the emergency exit isn’t good). The latter case might be beneficial if you happen to run hot.

I once sat next to someone who sweated bullets and left streaks of sweat on their seat when they left. That person would best benefit in this area of the plane. However, if you happen to have wide hips like Shakira, you want to avoid these seats since the tray tables are typically stored in permanent, immovable armrests, reducing your seat width.


Be careful of bulkhead and exit row seats, Shakira!

One time I traded exit-row seats with a 6’7″ person because I’m 5’10” and felt compassion for him. He looked like a piece of origami in regular seats, and the exit row made a big difference for him.

Find a seat good for your habits.

Another bodily requirement is related to proximity to the lavatory. Are you pregnant? Do you often use the restroom? Study the seat maps (next post) to find out where the lavatories are and place yourself in an aisle seat near one. You may not want to be exactly next to it due to the noise, but sitting a few rows away is fine.

Do you want to sleep through the flight? You might want a window seat so that no one bothers you to use the restroom. You must also have tolerance for asking other people to move. I have tried to awkwardly “Pilates” my way over people to use the loo and most of the time they have to get up anyway.

Find a seat good for your purpose.

After you recognize your bodily requirements, consider the nature and purpose of your trip. Are you going on a business trip and need extra arm space to type on your laptop? An exit row with immovable armrests may hamper your ability to work depending on how lanky you are and how your elbow pivots. You may need a seat where the armrests pivot to give you more elbow room.


Consider thy elbow.

And how quickly do you need to get off the plane? Do you have a tight connection for your next flight, or do you need those extra minutes to prep for your client presentation? If so, you’ll want a seat closer to the front of the plane (or the back of the plane in the rare instance of a rear deplane option).

If you’re not in a hurry, and you select a route/time slot that often has an excessive capacity (read: lots of empty seats), you might want to sit closer to the back of the plane where you will have lots of space to stretch out. On one mid-day Air Canada flight between New York and Toronto (less than an hour), my friends and I were the only ones on an Airbus A320, which seats more than 150. That meant we could lie down and have entire rows/sections of the plane exclusively. It was comical how we all spaced out across the aircraft and how there were more crew members than passengers. I’m pretty sure they fixed the capacity problem later.

On long international flights that aren’t full, finding a row in the back of the plane all to yourself may be the best way to get a “lie flat” seat.


No need for business class.

Find a seat good for your mate.

If you are traveling with a companion (that you want to sit next to), you’ll probably select two seats right next to each other. You can do better.

Depending on far in advance you book and the general load of that route, you could increase your chances of having a free middle seat by selecting the aisle and window seats in a 3 x 3 configuration. Most airplanes have rows of 3 seats on each side of the aisle like the below. Even wide-body planes like the 777 have three seats on each side of the plane with an extra column of seats in the middle (3 x 4 x 3 config).

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If you select a flight that doesn’t fill up, you can get a free middle seat by booking seats A and C or D and F on a 737. Choose a row closer to the middle or back of the plane to improve your odds. Single travelers will often pick an empty row closer to the back of the plane, and last-minute travelers will pick the middle seat closest to the front of the plane.

Find a good seat on Southwest.

We’ve talked so far about airlines that allow you to pick your seat in advance. If you fly southwest, you’ll also need to learn about boarding order strategy. You can’t reserve seats on Southwest planes, but you can control your boarding order via checking in early, elite status, or purchasing “early bird” boarding, which guarantees that you’ll have a high boarding position.

Generally speaking, being earlier in the queue allows you to get the window or aisle seat of your choice. Being later in the line limits your choices to either the back of the plane or to middle seats. The couples-strategy I advise on above also works here. But if you secretly don’t want to sit next to your traveling companion, you can just “forget to check in early” or get to the airport late, when boarding is wrapping up. Then you’ll likely both have middle seats, far away from each other. =)

There is an entire wiki dedicated to seat selection on  Southwest Airlines, and my favorite quote is the following:

“If you are a very attractive female, your chance of having an empty middle seat on a nearly full flight is approximately zero. If your flight has more than 110 passengers, you might want to delay boarding until the middle of the B’s, then select a middle seat. This way you, not they, control who you sit next to.”

I would say that this strategy works for handsome gentlemen as well.

In summary, picking the best seat depends on your body and your purpose. Employ this strategy and you’ll have a better experience on your next flight.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to use tools like Seat Guru to support and action upon your seat strategy. There will also be an upcoming reader giveaway, so stay tuned!