How to pick the best airplane seat for any flight

by Nov 28, 2019Planning

These days, it’s one thing trying to select a decent flight with a reasonable connection schedule and affordable price. Next comes the battle to try to figure out how to pick the best airplane seat. With today’s sardine-like seating, plotting your pick is essential.

Granted, if you have any status or pull, an upgrade is ideal if you can finagle it. But that just isn’t always possible. What are the tricks and tips we use and apply for our own frequent travel?

HITT Tip: Check out our story about choosing the best flight for your needs, too, since that will affect picking the best airplane seat.

Study the airplane type and seating arrangement. Booking a flight isn’t always just about time, but also about aircraft. Some offer more or less seat width or “pitch” (the space from one point on a seat to the same point on the seat in front of it), which gives some indication of leg room, as well as more or less recline (or, these days, no recline in some cases). Look at your airline booking engine or other booking service to find out the aircraft. Note: Some non-airline booking engines are not as clear about this information as the airlines themselves. So, if you insist on using another platform, do cross-check the flight details on the airline’s website to pick the best airplane seat.

Analyze seating on a seat-specific website. We use SeatGuru.com since it is very detailed about what airplane and what format offers what kind of seat arrangement. We particularly like how it highlights particular benefits or disadvantages of some seats (no window, exit row, near the bathrooms, etc.), as shown in the second screenshot with a pop-up.

Seat Guru Chart

HITT Tip: If you are booking pretty far in advance, airlines sometimes change the type of aircraft and thus your seat may change. So do check on your reservation as your flight nears to confirm you still have what you like.

Know your preferences: aisle, middle or window? Most passengers prefer aisles in picking the best airplane seat since in today’s jammed cabins, a window can feel claustrophobic – and be bad for your bladder. Plus, an aisle can offer a bit more leg room with the aisle space. But maybe you are somebody who likes to look out the window? Nobody really wants to be smooshed into a middle seat, though, right? So try to choose early to avoid that situation.

Seat Guru With Popup Info

HITT Tip: Michael and I both like aisles so instead of arguing over who gets stuck with a middle seat (or a window on smaller two-seat across planes), we often book aisles across from each other.

Exit rows: space and recline. Beware with rows that have an exit behind them; there may be no or extremely limited recline so a reclined seat doesn’t block emergency exits. Meaning somebody in front of you could recline into your table but you can’t – bad situation, indeed. The exit row itself can offer plentiful room; however, the seats can be narrower since the tables are often in the armrest rather than in front of you. And the armrests in those cases are solid from top to seat cushion and fixed in place, which can be very uncomfortable too. And in some cases, you will not be allowed to keep any items at your feet, making access of personal or work items difficult at times.

Bulkhead seat, love ‘em or hate ‘em.  Then there is the black-and-white feeling about bulkhead seats, which are the seats directly behind a cabin divider. Some consider them THE best airplane seat because nobody is in front of you; others hate them because carry-on items must be in an overhead bin. If there is turbulence or you aren’t on an aisle, you may not be able to get to personal or work things. In addition, tray tables will usually be in a fixed, solid armrest – like exit rows – often making the seat narrower.

HITT Tip: Bulkhead seats on an international flight may sound like a great way to pick the best airplane seat but think again. Those cabin dividers are where most airlines put bassinets for babies. You may end up with a baby squealing and crying an entire flight when you want to sleep.

Best Airplane Seat Packed

Front, middle or back of plane. Seats in front of the wing are often quieter since the engine isn’t roaring in front of you. Plus, you’ll often be off the plane quicker, and you’ll usually get meals, beverage and snacks sooner with potentially a better choice. If a flight isn’t booked to capacity, the back of the plane however may have more empty seats, so you may be able to spread out more – a gamble perhaps, but one to consider.

Avoid toilet and galley areas. One rule for picking the best airplane seat is to avoid rows near a toilet or near the galley. Passengers will often congregate near toilets as they wait in line, plus you will be subjected to constant traffic and, perhaps, unpleasant smells. Seats near galleys are more about noise and being disturbed, especially on flights when you may want to sleep.

HITT Tip: Flying is difficult enough these days, even if you do choose the best seat possible. Read our story “Why is it flying sucks when travel is so great” to learn how to ensure you are a flying companion everyone wants on the plane. 

Reserving your seat. Many airlines will require you to pay for a preferred type of seat these days, but don’t wait. Unless you are on the strictest of budgets, pay the money for a good seat. Some modicum of comfort in today’s age of less-than-comfortable flying is key for rest and sanity. I have flown European budget airline easyJet and found that booking the cheap seats but paying for the seat upgrade to a front seat or for extra legroom was worth it (see the screenshot, below, for a European connection with prices in euros). With those upgrades you still pay less than full fare, but you get a better seat and more baggage allowance. Some airlines have sliding fees, too, so if you wait your preferred seat may get more expensive.

EasyJet Seating

No matter how hard you try, trying to pick the best airplane seat can feel a bit like Russian Roulette in today’s age of flying. But if you know what you want, start early, refer to seating websites, and then book as soon as possible, you’ll often do pretty well.

HITT Tip: Ensure you are flying as comfortably as possible by reading our tips in this story, “Flying in comfort: What to pack and wear.”

 

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Therese Iknoian

Co-Conspirator at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian now focuses her writing and photography talents on travel. Fluent in German, Therese also runs a translation business (ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. She's a French speaker, and loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication. Therese is an award-winning member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.
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