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airplane cabin seats

9 Tips for Surviving the Middle Seat

SmarterTravel

On a typical commercial flight within the United States, about 50 unfortunate souls will be relegated to the dreaded middle seat. What can you do if one of those tortured passengers is you? Here are nine tips to make it to your destination with your sanity—and your comfort—fully intact.

Take a Tray-Table Nap

airplane-tray-table
CrackerClips Stock Media/Shutterstock

Aside from occasionally holding a drink or a meal, the tray table doesn’t have much to do during a typical flight. Make use of it by taking an in-flight nap. No need to invest in an embarrassing Ostrich Pillow, however. Roll your jacket into a makeshift pillow, fold forward at the waistline, and snooze away. Whatever you do, though, don’t place your face directly on that petri dish of bacteria (a.k.a. the tray table), or at least disinfect it first.

Sleep Upright

sleeping-airport-travel-pillow
Anton Mukhin/Shutterstock

If a tray-table nap isn’t your speed, sleeping upright is also a possibility—even in the middle seat. It starts by picking the perfect travel pillow for your body, whether that’s a standard neck pillow, a shoulder-wrapping Travelrest Pillow, or even a candy cane travel pillow. Though they may not be as cuddly as their foam-filled counterparts, consider blow-up travel pillows for their space-saving qualities.

Invest In Noise-Canceling Headphones

For just a few hours, a pair of good headphones can be a middle-seat passenger’s best friend. The right set tuned to a good movie or music can take your mind off the otherwise muscle-contorting rigors of the middle seat.

Claim Your Territory

front of plane

Even if you’re sandwiched between fellow passengers, your personal space needn’t be too limited. Board quickly at your first opportunity so as to make it to your seat before your seatmates, and then mark the armrests as your own. Don’t feel too guilty: It’s widely accepted that the middle passenger gets both armrests. But it’s important to claim them early, lest you find yourself next to a passenger who doesn’t buy into common courtesy.

Make the Most of Your Knee Space

man sitting on airplane headphones and phone

Speaking of claiming space, do so for your knees as well. In such close quarters, every little inch counts. Consider politely asking your neighbor to refrain from leaning back if it really causes you discomfort. You’ll be surprised how considerate people can be when asked politely.

Keep Busy

Shutterstock

Ever notice how time seems to fly by when you’re busy? Watch a movie, read, or play a game. Whatever your time-kill, just keep yourself entertained and before you know it the “fasten seatbelt” sign will go off and the pilot will announce your arrival.

Bring an In-Flight ‘Survival Kit’

woman using traveling pillow and sleeping mask in plane
FotoHelin/Shutterstock

Regardless of which seat you occupy—but especially if it’s the middle seat—keep the following items handy for in-flight sanity (or make up your own in-flight packing list): an eye mask, electronics (a tablet, laptop, or handheld game console), headphones, non-electronic reading material or a puzzle book, a sweater or jacket, and snacks.

Ask to Be Reseated

Just because you were assigned a middle seat doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be stuck with it. Inquire with the gate staff about any remaining, available window or aisle seats. They may seat you in a more preferable location if one is open.

If you missed your opportunity at the gate, you have yet another shot at a better seat location by asking the flight attendant. Once everyone’s boarded and the plane’s cruising at a high altitude (but before the drink trolley comes out), politely ask the flight attendant if a window or aisle seat is open. Chances are, the empty seat will move you to the rear of the plane, but at least you won’t be the meat section in a seat sandwich.

Do Better Next Time

suitcases with plane in background
Twenty20

The best way to survive the middle seat, of course, is to avoid it altogether. Book early and, if you can, select your seat during the booking process. For airlines that don’t allow advanced seat selection (like Southwest), check in for your flight as soon as you can (in Southwest’s case, as early as 24 hours in advance). Because Southwest assigns boarding groups based on when you check in for the flight, the earlier you check in, the more likely you are to score your favorite seat.

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Senior Editor Patricia Magaña Figueroa writes about travel. Follow her @PatiTravels.

This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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