Why an Aisle Seat is Always Better — And How to Make Sure You Get One

I have my share of quirks to be sure as regular readers know. I worry about germs, about getting sick. I hate to see men’s feet on a plane. And I get claustrophobic. I don’t like closed MRI devices, and I don’t like to be caught in a sea of people.

I choose an aisle seat because I’m not nearly as squeezed into the confined space of a coach seat as I would be sitting in a middle seat between two passengers, or sitting against a window with two passengers between me and the aisle — trapped, dependent on their good graces to get out.

You don’t need to have my phobias, though, to prefer an aisle seat. I like it better because I want to be in control of my own destiny. But I can also lean into the aisle for extra room (but watch the drink cart!) and because I can get up for the lavatory whenever I wish without bothering anyone.

And, crucially, I also have at least one armrest I don’t have to fight for.

This means giving up being able to gaze out the window (lost Instagram opportunity), and an obligation to get up when someone else wants to use the restroom, but those are easy trade-offs.

The hard thing for most passengers in the back of the plane is that airlines often sell aisle seats, even without extra legroom, for a premium. Airlines realize that customers prefer these seats, they’re limited (some passengers will invariably have to sit in the middle), so they can get more money from those passengers in exchange for the seats.

Aisle seats and sometimes window seats towards the front of the aircraft are hot commodities. If you want them you can pay extra for a better seat – to avoid a middle seat in the back or something by the lav – or choose one of the few that may be made available for assignment free, usually in the middle or back of the plane.

An airline’s elite frequent flyers are usually given whatever coach seats they wish for free.

If you don’t like the seat assignment that’s available to you, you can create a free alert for better seats to open up. Expertflyer is a pay service I use all the time to search for fares, upgrade availability, and to email me when the space I want opens up. But they offer alerts when specific seats you want on your flight become available, and that’s free.

In general the best coach seats, occupied by an airline’s elite frequent flyers, open up within 5 days of travel as some of those customers get upgraded to first class. So just because seats are taken doesn’t mean they stay taken. Plans change and people cancel or change flights. But passengers get upgraded close to departure and the (usually better) coach seats those customers were occupying become available for assignment.

And of course if you don’t like your seat, ask at the airport – at check-in, at the customer service desk, and at the gate – in hopes of changing it if your flight isn’t completely full.

Once you’re on board you aren’t stuck, either, that just means the market for seats becomes person-to-person. A reader once gave up his seat he paid extra for so a family could sit together, but then the family sold that seat to another passenger for $100. Airline seats are commodities, baby!

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. I don’t drink much liquid before boarding specifically to avoid the need to use the restroom for a couple of hours. I would much rather sit by the window where i can look out of the tin tube that i’m stuck in. I also don’t have to get up when the person(s) beside me did drink too much liquid before boarding need to go to the lav.
    actually no. scratch that. i just don’t fly anymore unless i really have to and when i do i sit at the front of the plane.

  2. I prefer accumulating points and miles so I don’t have to worry about such tradeoffs. But if I have to fly domestic economy, it’s window seat for me. I won’t say it’s “always better” like you, because it’s a matter of personal preference. For me I prefer looking out the window, I also have an armrest to myself, and I don’t have a weak bladder so I’d rather not be bothered by other passengers next to me getting up frequently…but when I do have to get out I have no problem tapping my neighbors on the shoulder when I need to get out.

  3. The main reason I prefer an aisle seat vs a window seat is that I can stand up and be ready to leave as soon as seat belt sign is off. I get frustrated when seating by the window and the passengers on middle and aisle seat do not move at all until it is their time to exit. It makes a difference to me to just stand up and stretch my legs and leave the plane asap.

  4. Unless something has changed, the free version of ExpertFlyer only lets you alert by seat type (“any aisle seat” or “any free aisle seat”). Only paid subscriptions offer alerts for specific seats (“21C,22C,23C”). But they’re still pretty useful either way.

    My other aisle seat tip for newbies is that on many planes, the aisle armrest can be raised, but unlike the armrests between seats, you need to find the release button, usually on the underside of the armrest near the back.

  5. It all depends…aisle seats are not always better. I frequently fly from SFO to SYD on E+ on UA. If I want uninterrupted sleep, it has to be window. It allows me to lay my pillow against the side wall. Good luck doing that with the aisle seat. And also, good luck getting not interrupted by other passengers using the lav if you are in the aisle seat.

  6. My claustrophobia makes an aisle seat necessary for me, though I often end up with a bruised shoulder from wide hipped FAs.

  7. @ Robert – Not to mention ducking the backpacks/dufflebags of passengers who don’t realize or don’t care just how narrow the aisle is.

  8. Deplaning is the primary reason to sit in the aisle seat.
    The deplaning process in the age of carry on bags, i.e., no visit to the baggage claim, is very antiquated. Everyone in the back waits for every single person in front of them to get up, collect their bags, then exit. If the people in the aisle seats could leave, while people in the middle seats and window seats wait a total of ten seconds for those passengers to exit, the plane could empty much more quickly. Instead, and I blame Miss Manners or some other etiquette rule, everyone in a more forward seat gets to leave before anyone in a row behind them, is allowed to.
    The one problem I see with this method is the group travel parties. In those cases, the aisle seated passenger would wait until the other members in his party are ready to vacate.

  9. @leef33 Well stated! The deplaning process is so slow. Except in the case of small children your plan should be the norm.

  10. I don’t like FA brushing up against me, other passengers’ bags hitting me or carts hitting my legs or shoulders…I try to keep well within my seat but wayward crossbody bags, purses and oversized backpacks aren’t very thoughtful.

  11. My last window seat in May, I was rewarded with guy in middle seat next to me grape vaping until the flight attendants took him to the back and confiscated his piece. Good times.

  12. Having an Aisle seat is the safest choice during a flight. When something unfortunate occurs like a plane crash, you can easily get out when you are seated in the aisle.

  13. Always? Hardly. The answer that is “always” correct is: It depends. One factor it depends on for me is where I’m sitting. In first class non bulkhead it is always window, my general preference. In coach exit row, window usually. In coach nonexit row, aisle usually.

    Among other factors are how much I want to see the scenery and how fast I want to get off.

    International business and first class eliminates any question when it offers seats that are aisle and window simultaneously. “Both” as Dieon Sanders would say in a popular American commercial.

    A window is one of the best features on a plane. That’s one of the reasons why 787s are my favorite.

    I used to prefer aisle seats because I felt they gave me more freedom compared to the window. I could get up whenever I wanted. No need to ” disturb” anyone. Now my attitude is WTF. I’m not going to suffer to avoid inconveniencing the ahole on the aisle with the laptop and assorted other devices. If I gotta go, I go. Anyone sitting in an aisle seat needs to accept that or don’t sit there.

  14. concur 100% with Gary for the reasons stated. I will even take an E+ aisle towards the front rather than exit row so I can get off the plane sooner. Also many airlines tend to run out of food/bev choices before they reach the tail, so always better to be close to front of plane.

  15. I used to be an aisle person but got tired of taking backpacks to the face, drink carts to the shoulder and everyone in the row behind me pushing down on my seat to get into the aisle. Now I am a firm window seat person.

  16. Great post. As a passenger, I also choose the aisle seat since it is the safest place to be and also because I have claustrophobic tendencies. The only annoying thing about aisle seats are the passengers who keep on strutting here and there.

  17. The aisle seat is overrated. The extra room is imaginary and doesn’t really exist. Try sticking your elbow out into the aisle even one inch and see what happens the first time the flight attendant bangs into it. And where is this extra leg room that people sometimes speak of? Are they placing their foot in the aisle? Yeah, right. That’s not happening. All three seats have the same leg room depth. Depending on the aircraft, the middle seat actually has the most legroom width. On a Boeing 737, for instance, the support legs for the seats are staggered so that the middle seat and window seat both have the most legroom width. The aisle seat has about 2 inches less legroom width. However, because of the curve of the fuselage, the window seat’s legroom gets encroached upon a little bit. Winner: middle seat. I think it’s just human nature that makes us initially go for the aisle seat that has a big space next to us, even though we can’t use any of it. Yes, there’s something to be said about not brushing both shoulders against your neighbor. But as far as legroom goes, the aisle seat is oftentimes the loser.

  18. LOL. For every article that says aisle is better there’s one that says window is better. It all depends on your individual needs. Here are the needs (trying to order in significance.)

    1. A companion traveler is sitting in the aisle across (they prefer aisle or you are a family of 4+ and your kid/spouse is in the aisle across.
    2. You go to the bathroom a lot, or like to get up a lot to stretch your legs.
    3. You’re claustrophobic and so the window makes you uneasy.

    That’s it. There’s no other significant reason. Including these:

    1. More room. Not if carts, people, attendants are constantly going up and down the aisle.
    2. Quicker off the plane. This is a placebo effect mainly attractive to ADD/Anxious personalities. Usually there are plenty of people getting off in front of you. This is like tailgating cars in heavy traffic. You can only go as fast as the people in front of you. The 30 seconds you save from being in the Window is not signficcant.
    3. Access to overhead bin. Realistically you are not going to be going into the overhead bin multiple time in a flight. Just look around. How many people on a flight do you see going into the bin more than once. Very very few, if any.

    The main downside of the aisle is having to get up if either of the other two passengers need to get up, so forget about guaranteed undisturbed sleep on a long flight.

    The advantages of the window seat,

    1. You can sleep and not worry about having to get up.
    2. If you need to work on a laptop, you don’t have to close your laptop and get up if the other two passengers need to get up.
    3. You can use the side of the plane to lean up against when you dose off.
    4. You can see out the windows! (not an advantage on night flights.)
    5. You only have a passenger on one side of you that can encroach on your space/armest.

    My contention is that for most people, in most situations, the window will be better.

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