Choose the best seat on any airplane

Plane seat roulette? No, thanks.

Where you sit on a plane can determine whether you have an easy, enjoyable flight where you comfortably chill out and watch a few movies, or are trapped for hours in hell. Every traveler should know how to find the seat that will serve them best while in the air.

Okay, first class is obviously the best, with business class only a smidgen behind it. So if you’ve got that kind of cash, skip the rest of this article and get planning your next trip. You don’t need me to tell you all the action is in seat 2A. But if you’re looking to fly like a baller—on a budget—I’ve got some tips for you.

Find out what you’re flying on

Before choosing a seat, figure out what kind of plane you’ll be flying on and, more importantly, how the cabin is laid out. Plane types and seating configurations vary widely among airlines (and often within airlines, too), so while seat 70A is normally a nice window seat on an Emirates A380, it is a windowless window seat on a British Airways A380. A great seat on one plane can be next to the toilet on another. Don’t fall for the fool’s mistake of being loyal to a seat number.

Aviation geeks, or AvGeeks (which I’m increasingly having to admit to being) love and use a site called SeatGuru to learn about any plane they’re going to be on. Plug in the airline, the date you’re traveling, and your flight number (or your departure and destination airports) and SeatGuru will tell you what plane you’re taking and how the cabin is set up. Best of all, SeatGuru will flag any particularly good or bad seats on the plane. That means you’ll know far ahead of time if a seat has extra or limited legroom, can’t recline, is next to the galley or lavatory, or lacks a window.

SeatGuru will also let you know whether you’re on a wide-bodied jet (with 7-10 seats per row and two aisles) or a narrow-bodied one (with 3-6 seats per row and a single aisle). This is an important bit of information, especially if you’re traveling with multiple people (we’ll get more into that below).

By using SeatGuru before you choose a seat and fly, you’ll ensure you get a good, or at least an average, seat instead of being stuck with a duffer. But there’s more than that when it comes to choosing a seat.

For the night owls

Screenshot of Seat Guru for American Airlines aircraft
Those seats in the front are the dream in this American Airlines Airbus, but unless you’re ready to splurge, you’ll only get to dream about them from the back of the plane. Seat Guru

If you’re planning on staying awake while you travel, it’s all about getting yourself comfortably set up to watch movies or do a bit of work. On a wide-bodied jet, the best seat for this is normally one on the aisle in the middle row. That’s because there’s, at most, one person who will need to get past you to go to the lavatory and you won’t have to clamber over anyone to stand up for a bit. Also, the middle seats in the middle row are the worst seats (you’re boxed in by people and are nowhere near a window), so they’re more likely to be left empty if the plane isn’t fully booked.

On a narrow-bodied jet, it won’t matter as much, as long as you avoid a middle seat. I’d still lean towards an aisle for medium-length flights, as it’s nice to be able to move around. For shorter flights (or if you trust your bladder and don’t want to have to move) a window seat will work great.

One final tip: If you’re staying awake and plan to make copious use of the bar service, sit near the back of the plane. That’s normally where the galley is located, so you’ll have an easier time slipping down the back to grab another round. It’s also generally closer to the bathrooms.

For those who fly and snooze

If you’re hoping to sleep, comfort and peace are all you should care about. For most people, that means a window seat all day and night. You’ll be able to rest your head and snuggle up against the bulkhead, and you won’t be disturbed by anyone looking to get out past you.

On wide-bodied planes, window seats are less common than on narrow-bodied jets (the former has 5-8 non-window seats per row, while the latter has 2-4), so you might need to pay extra or check in early if you’re relying on a window seat to guarantee some Zs.

Also, if you can’t sleep sitting bolt upright, avoid exit rows. One of the most comfortable positions to sleep in on a plane is with your head resting on the seat in front of you. All that extra exit row legroom may end up being a curse, especially if you’re not in the window seat.

For those who don’t travel alone

Things get tactical when you’re traveling with others. If you check in early enough to have a choice of seats or are prepared to pay to pre-book them, you can have quite a lot of control.

The obvious strategy is to take over a row. With three people, this is normally simple, but check SeatGuru. Some planes, like the Airbus A330, regularly have a 2-4-2 economy configuration, so if you’re just a pair, you can have a window and aisle seat to yourselves.

If you don’t have enough people to take over a full row (maybe you’re a couple flying in a Boeing 777 with a 3-3-3 economy configuration), one sneaky trick is to book the aisle and window seat in one set of three seats. Middle seats are normally the last to be filled, so if the plane isn’t packed, there’s a good chance the seat between you will be left free and you’ll get some more space. And if someone ends up sitting in the seat between you, they’ll be happy to trade it for either your window or aisle seat so you can sit together, leaving you no worse off than if you’d just booked the middle seat yourselves.

The best thing about traveling with more than one person, though, is that you can swap seats mid-flight. If you have a window and aisle pair, one person can get a bit of shuteye while the other watches a movie. When it’s time to swap, you won’t have to worry about getting in anyone’s way.

How to avoid a bad seat assignment

Screenshot of Seat Guru for a no recline seat
Got seat 36A and want to sleep? Good luck with that. Seat Guru

Seat assignments are getting harder to game. More and more airlines require you to pay to choose a seat, even at check-in. If you’re happy to pony up the (sometimes significant) fee, consult SeatGuru and pick the best spot you can.

If you want to save a bit of cash, you have two options:

  • Check in as soon as online check-in opens. If you’re able to choose a seat for free, doing this gives you the best opportunity to nab a good one. Even if seats are randomly assigned, better seats seem to be given out first, at least in my experience. The few times I’ve checked in at the last minute, I’ve been stuck in a middle seat at the very back of the plane.
  • Take whatever seats you’re given, and when you get to the airport, talk to the check-in or gate agents. They have a lot of power to seat people anywhere on the plane. Ask politely if they can help you out, turn up the charm, and if the seat you want is available, you may be able to convince them to give it to you. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars and gotten the best seats (even business class, once) this way.