Here’s My Seat Selection Strategy: Always Get the Best Seat Possible on the Plane

An airplane ride isn’t usually that long, it’s fine to be separated from your travel companion unless that companion is a small child.

There are times though that it really does matter to most of us. I got bumped from my pre-reserved first class seat on one segment of my honeymoon by an air marshal. No one wanted to trade places onboard, most of the flight was taken up by people traveling with the late Jennifer Dunn, a lobbyist who had been a member of Congress and Chair of the Republican Conference. Finally one of the members of her entourage did swap.

There are things we can do to maximize our chances to sit with people we’re traveling with, or just get a better seat.

  • Consult Seatguru. If you’re not familiar with the aircraft you’re flying, and which seats are best, consult Seatguru — find your airline and aircraft type, and their seat maps will show you which seats are desirable, have extra legroom, immovable armrests, etc.

  • Check seat maps when buying your ticket. If seat assignments matter, make sure you check what seats are available to you (either for free or for a fee) before purchase. Then select seats at time of purchase, don’t wait until later to do it.

  • Check to make sure your seats haven’t changed. Look at your reservation every few weeks. Your seat assignments might not have ‘stuck’ especially if you bought tickets through an online travel agency. Or your seat assignments might have changed somewhere along the way (perhaps there was a schedule change or change of aircraft). Finding this out sooner rather than later increases the likelihood of getting it fixed. One thing I like about Award Wallet is that it will tell me when there are changes to a reservation, including my seat assignment.

  • Keep checking back. There may not have been seats you could reserve together for free when you booked your tickets, but that can change. Check bag especially as the day of flight approaches — when airlines upgrade frequent flyers, those passengers are moved out of coach, freeing up seats (although mostly freeing up ‘premium’ seats that those passengers get for free).

  • Use This pay website will email you when desirable seats open up on your flight (you can set up one alert for free without a paid subscription).

  • Choose ‘trade bait’ seats as a second best. If I’m traveling with someone, I want pre-assigned seats even if there aren’t two seats together. That way I can at least get one ‘better seat’ that I can use as trade bait. I don’t want to wind up with two middles and try to get someone to give up their aisle for it. I’ll avoid the bulkhead in first class (no underseat storage, usually less desirable) but take the bulkhead in economy (more legroom, more desirable despite lack of underseat storage).

  • Choose a row with empty middle. In coach, if I have my complete choice of seats, I’ll take an aisle and a window with open middle. On the off chance the middle stays open, we get more room. If it gets taken, we can always trade with the person in the middle (no one likes a middle). Worst case they only want the aisle, and will hold out (keep their middle) to get it.

A seat isn’t just a seat. I try to approach my travel with both strategy and thoughtfulness, and all of this is just habit and second nature at this point so it doesn’t actually take much effort. But I wanted to tease out of my own brain exactly what it is that I do in case it’s helpful to any of you, and in case you had any different strategies of your own.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. word for word, this is the process i go through every time i fly. good to know that great minds think alike! 😉

  2. More and more, getting a half decent advance seat assignment is like “The Hunger Games” even in premium classes!

    When I travel solo, it’s not as big of a deal because I don’t mind window seats if aisles are all gone.

    However, my partner is disabled due to Polio he had as a young child, and his left leg was greatly impacted by this disease, including very limited mobility.

    So, his needs are very specific terms of what will reduce the chances of him having a nasty post-flight flare-up (where at its worst the pain was so great it ruined an entire trip, or more commonly he can’t stand, sit or even sleep for several days/weeks), and therefore, his requests for a bulkhead seat on the left side of the aisle (to better protect his impaired leg) even **with payment of additional fees** or booking C+/E+, etc., has become extremely difficult in recent years.

    Some airlines (Delta) are better than others (names of those airlines withheld to protect the guilty 😉 )

    But still, whereas it used to be a fairly straightforward, and relatively easy process to get his seating assignments set quickly and with little more than one telephone call at most, now, even in premium economy, it’s been very difficult, even a borderline hostile/adversarial process (filled with all sorts of lies and excuses until a discussion about the provisions as allowed by Air Carrier Access Act and medical documentation of his condition enters the discussion).

    Airline managements (aka the same folks that created the “Hunger Games” like conditions that oh so conveniently they get to sit out, watch the action, and bask in the glory [of the profits] just like the leaders in the movies do!) and their sycophants who love to blame passengers for being cheapskates that brought this misery on themselves in reality only have themselves to blame for having created this nightmare.

    Everyone should have a half decent seat without having to survive the “Hunger Games” to get one!

    After all, if the teensy, weensy, 17” wide 30”-31” pitch pre-K sized economy seats are not good enough for the Royal Tushies in the C-Suites and Board Rooms (Dougie P. & Oscar M., et al, here’s looking at you!!!), then perhaps they shouldn’t exist at all?!?!

  3. Good advice about awardwallet which alerted me to an equipment change on my thanksgiving week flights that resulted in a disastrous automated re-seating for my family. Thanks to AW we were able to address the problem before the plane sold out.

    With loads at high levels, the aisle-window strategy is guaranteed to fail on United (where E+ is usually 100% full) and WN. Unless you want a stranger in the middle.

    The more savvy couples usually go for an aisle-aisle strategy.

  4. All good thoughts. And I do usually keep checking in weeks/days prior to the flight. But I had two recent surprises, both on Pegasus Airlines. They seem to do last-minute equipment swaps as well as decide you individual don’t matter when the needs of families arise. So they just arbitrarily boot you from your seat even after you’ve checked in early so that a family can all be seated together. Isn’t that nice. For the family, that is.

  5. A group of two booking the window and aisle with the middle vacant is kind of a dick move. If you insist on being so selfish, please have the courtesy to switch with the middle seat person. Several times I’ve been the middle guy between two people talking across me, and they never offered to switch. Next time some ahole does that I’m going to hit on his girlfriend the entire flight.

  6. If you fly on an award ticket that you used miles from a partner airline to purchase, be aware that you may get pre-assigned to the last row of the plane. This is the practice when using BA Avios to fly on AA. Follow this procedure to improve your seats:

    1. On, go to Manage My Booking and find the AA confirmation number. It will not be the same as the BA confirmation number.

    2. Log onto with your AAdvantage Number, look up the flight with the AA confirmation number, and add the flight to your Itineraries. BA does not automatically do this for you.

    3. Manage your flight on and select the seats you desire using whatever status you may have.

  7. AVOID grabbing any 1st row seat up front. Chances are you’ll be replaced for those Air Marshall’s, or the flight deck crew on long hauls.

  8. You don’t even need to know the aircraft type any more for Seatguru. Just enter your flight number/date and it’ll pull up the right seat map for you!

  9. I was once in the middle seat between a couple that had booked aisle and window. They wanted me to trade for the window. I wanted the aisle but they would not trade it. I like to get up often during a flight and do not like the window seat for that reason. They were indignant that I would not accomodate them and it made for an unpleasant flight. If you are going to use that tactic, be prepared to give up the aisle.

  10. The best seat is normally any seat next to an empty seat. That is most important in economy but even applies to some business- and first-class seats. The best opportunity (but certainly no guarantee) for that is at the rear of the plane (as long as getting of quickly is not important). Often on international flights there may even be open rows at the back. Curiously, many times I’ve found that the folks in back have a better time on the flight than those up front

    Another good time to better your seat assignment is after ffers have been upgraded at the gate. Even once on board, I keep an eye open for better seats. Move once the door closes. Its a good idea to check with an FA, because if the better seat is one the airline charges extra for, that may or may not be possible.

  11. We use the window and aisle approach too. Wife actually prefers window. Happy to stick with it. And always do so on short flights. Will offer trades of window for middle on long flights as courtesy. Only once did third person insist on wanting the aisle, we said no and that was that. We actually prefer window and aisle. Lol
    @WR the dick was left in the middle

  12. I always use Seatguru. Nice of you to mention them. And as you said, keep checking back. Even at the ticket counter and right before boarding you can see what is available.

    Earlier this year I flew out during a blizzard when most people decided not to fly. At the ticket counter they moved us to more desirable seats. I was able to share a whole middle section (4 seats) with only my sister.

  13. @WR, I see you are sad that you have to fly alone, maybe one day you will be loved.

    Until then, we will continue to book middle/aisle. Its the best strategy to get a middle empty. And we always switch if needed.

  14. One note about SeatGuru: That site often pulls up the wrong aircraft when there is more than one version of a particular plane. Check the rows to make sure they match the plane on the airline’s website.

    Also, I agree with the strategy of picking two aisle seats for couples. That way, neither of us has to ask anyone to move or sit in a middle seat…or talk over someone sitting in between us.

  15. We don’t care at all about sitting together; we sit where each of us wants. It amazes us how people are always offering to switch so we can sit together. I usually crack them up with a “we’ve been sitting next to each other for 35 years, I think we can handle 3 hours apart.”

  16. I am frequently surprised the willingness of people to snag an exit row middle seat last minute, then stick it out there even when there are half-empty rows that they could have an aisle or window with an empty middle. Then I stubbornly won’t abandon my exit row aisle and sit shoulder to shoulder the whole flight.

  17. The EASA
    (European Administración Safety Agency )

    Rules that passengers with reduced mobility, have to be seated in an aisle seat, with their able limbs on the aisle side, for an easy evacuation.

    There are specific safety regulations for assigning a seat to a reduced mobility passenger that Airlines have to comply.

  18. Reduced legroom is an important issue.

    Twenty years ago the average seat pitch was 34”, today is 31”.

  19. Seat Guru is a great tool.

    But many times, the airline has different aircraft configuration for the same type of plane.

    Other times Airlines change the type of aircraft at the last minute due to the final number of passengers, the weather conditions, or many other reasons.

  20. We use “row with empty middle” strategy with 40% success rate.

    Last month my family of four was sitting in 2 Prefered rows (I am Gold status on AA) with empty middle in both.

  21. I always go with aisle close to the front in economy, aisle or window in first/business. When I travel with my girlfriend we pick aisle seats across from each other.
    Except for the one lovely flight we were in Row 20-something, but had a two seat exit row. Quite pleasant.
    The trifecta in economy is seat width, leg room and overhead bin availability.

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