We’ve all been there—the small child kicking the back of your seat, the lack of legroom, the war over the armrest. While there’s no fail-safe way to guarantee an aisle seat in the exit row near the front of the plane with no one sitting next to you, there are some tactics that can help. Check out the following tips for nabbing one of the best seats on a plane.
The Best Place to Sit on a Plane
Exit rows, aisle or window seats, and seats close to the front are typically considered the best seats on a plane. On a short business trip, you might want an aisle seat near the front of the plane so you can debark as quickly as possible on arrival. On an overnight flight, you might prefer a window seat so you can rest your head. Nervous flyers may want to sit over the wing, where there is less turbulence.
Exit row seats usually offer a bit more legroom, but they’re not appropriate if you’re traveling as a family. Children are not permitted to sit in exit rows, and by U.S. law infants are not allowed in the rows immediately behind or in front of an exit row either.
Many flyers also like “bulkhead seats,” which are the seats directly behind the physical barriers (such as walls, curtains, or screens) that separate different parts of the plane. Because there are no seats in front of you, you won’t get stuck with another passenger reclining into your lap—and you often get some extra legroom as well.
But be careful: Not all “bulkhead” rows are created equal. On some planes the first bulkhead row may be cramped and uncomfortable. Also, keep in mind that you won’t have a spot to stow a personal item under the seat in front of you for easy access. For more information, go to SmarterTravel’s sister site, SeatGuru.com, where you can check out seat maps for nearly every type of plane on every major airline.
Keep an eye on seat pitch, especially if you’re tall. This is a measure of how much space there is between a seat and the one immediately behind or in front of it—so the higher the number, the more legroom you will have. SeatGuru lists both seat pitch and width (when available) for most airlines.
Many passengers are concerned about safety, but unfortunately, there’s no clear answer about where you should sit in order to fare best in a plane crash. A 2015 study by TIME Magazine found that you might have a higher chance of survival during a plane crash if you’re seated in the rear of an aircraft, based on an analysis of 35 years of data. However, a 2008 study by Greenwich University in Britain found that the safest place to sit is near the front of the plane within five rows of an emergency exit. See How to Survive a Plane Crash for safety tips no matter where you decide to sit.
The middle seat in any row is generally undesirable. (Don’t miss SmarterTravel’s tips for surviving the middle seat if you get stuck there.) Rows near flight attendant areas and restrooms tend to be noisier and experience more traffic, and seats very close to overhead movie screens can be uncomfortable, or bright if you are trying to sleep. SeatGuru also identifies other potential problems on its seat maps, such as limited recline or reduced seat width.
10 Ways to Get a Better Seat
Join a frequent flyer program.
This is the most reliable tactic you can use. Providing your frequent flyer number at the time of reservation goes a long way toward netting you a good seat, especially if you are a loyal, high-ranking member. Elite flyers tend to be first in line for upgrades.
Buy your tickets early.
The number of seats available for pre-assignment dwindles as the travel date approaches. If you can’t buy your tickets at least several weeks in advance, be sure to check in online as soon as possible before your flight to select a seat, or arrive at the airport early if online check-in isn’t available.
Purchase a better seat.
Many airlines now offer economy-class seats with extra legroom for an additional fee. For example, JetBlue’s “Even More Space” seats, many of which are in exit rows, have up to seven extra inches of seat pitch. United offers Economy Plus access to high-ranking frequent flyers and to any travelers who pay the annual fee; this entitles you to a few extra inches of seat pitch toward the front of the coach cabin. (If any Economy Plus seats are still available at flight time, they can be purchased on a one-time basis.) Other airlines offer similar programs.
Select your seat when you book.
Most airline websites and booking engines allow you to choose a seat when you purchase your ticket, or to return to your reservation after your initial purchase and make your seat selection later. In many cases this process is free, but some airlines have added fees to select your seat in advance. If you don’t see a seat you like, consider returning to your reservation as your trip date approaches to see if anything has opened up in the meantime.
Confirm your seat at check-in.
Most airlines allow passengers to check in online up to 24 hours before their flight departs. At that point you can confirm the seat you’ve already chosen or even choose a better one.
Get to the airport early.
If you check in too late or arrive too late at your gate, the airline might give away your seat.
When in doubt, ask.
Once you reach your gate, ask whether any new seats have opened up. If other passengers upgrade to business class or don’t show up for the flight, you might get lucky and grab a better assignment.
If you know exactly which seat you’re interested in, it can be easier for agents to get it for you. Instead of asking for “a good seat,” try asking for “an aisle seat near the front” or “an exit row seat.” You’ll be more likely to get what you want (or an acceptable substitute).
Keep the agent informed.
If you have a disability or medical condition, or you need to sit next to your small children, let the agent know. Most will do their best to accommodate you.
Approach airline agents with courtesy. They hear complaints and demands all day. Treat them like human beings, and they may surprise you.
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More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 In-Flight Essentials You Should Never Travel Without
- 9 DIY Ways to Upgrade Economy Class
- 11 Things Not to Do on a Plane
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.