5 Rules to Getting the Best Seat on a Plane

Flying can be a pleasant experience, however if you don’t get a decent seat then any pleasure quickly vanishes.  A bad seat always puts a damper on your hard earned vacation.  Follow these 5 golden rules and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have the best possible seat. Leave the unpleasant ones for others to suffer in!

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best seat on a plane
Courtesy of Robert S. Donovan on flickr

1. Book your ticket early.

It’s always easy to put off planning and booking your next trip.  But it’s best to start looking for flights as soon as you know the timeframe for your getaway (hopefully 3 to 6 months before you plan to leave).  If you book your flight in this time window than you can dramatically increase your chances of getting your preferred seat as most will still be available.  When possible it’s best to select the seat directly at the time of purchase!

2. What if your airline won’t allow you to reserve a seat?  Or they charge you for it?

Ok so you’re diligent and tried to follow rule #1, but they won’t let you, jerks. Solution, get to the gate early. No need to be pushy, but polite confidence helps.  Stand at the very front of the line (or be sure to get the best number in the boarding sequence) so you can be in the first wave of people in your seating class to board the plane.

To squeeze even more money from you, some airlines may charge extra to select your seat in advance.  Don’t give them your hard earned money since it’s generally not worth the price.  Don’t get sucked into this trap.  That is unless sitting with your group is extremely important or you need more space to be comfortable.

3.  Does your airline reserve seats at check-in only?

Although it doesn’t seem to make much sense, the reason why airlines do this is to give themselves an opportunity to sell you upgrades and extract more money from you. For example on Lufthansa’s inter-European flights, check-in (and seat selection) is allowed starting 24 hours before departure. If online check-in isn’t an option, then get to the airport as early as you can to get the best seat.  Being nice to the airline check-in agent can only help your odds of scoring a good seat.

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But use caution, because some discount airlines, like Spirit Airlines in the U.S. actually assign seats starting from the last row of the plane.  This means that checking-in early will leave you stuck in the back.

And if checking-in online is an option mark your calendar for this and give yourself the 5 minutes that it will take to make this happen.  It is an easy way to guarantee yourself the best seat.  If you have a smartphone, use it to check-in as soon as your airline allows you to.  This will significantly decrease “curb to plane time”, a fancy phrase to describe the time it takes from the airport entrance (or parking spot) to your seat (the best one in this case).

how to get the best seats on a plane
Courtesy of crabers.crab on flickr

4.  Does your airline allow you to reserve your seat online during ticket purchase? Do they require a phone call?

For most purchases, this is a moot point since the majority of common airlines allow you to select seats online.  But some airlines are still stuck in the 20th century and require you to call in to get a seat assignment.  Go ahead and call them up as soon as you can (do this outside of busy times like lunch and evening to shorten the time you have to spend on the phone).  Tell the agent (extreme politeness and small talk goes a long way) the exact seat you want (check out my Ultimate Seat Guide for help on this).  Sometimes your options may be limited so have a second and third choice in mind to cover your bases (or even a guideline helps – e.g. “an aisle seat towards the front of the plane away from the bathrooms”).  Make sure you have your e-ticket number on hand, they will most definitely ask for it.

To make the most out of your flight and the time you have spent on arranging it, make sure you give them your frequent flyer number when you book online or when you talk to the agents on the phone.  If you don’t have a frequent flyer account, get one ASAP. This will ultimately lower your traveling costs and increase your travel options.

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5.  You can change seats after the boarding process is over.

If for some reason you haven’t had the opportunity or time to hustle up your preferred seat before the flight, you may have the option to change your seat after the boarding process is over. Generally, a member of the flight crew will make an announcement once boarding is complete.  If they don’t, and you think the process is finished, ask a flight attendant if you can switch seats.  There is a possibility that you will not be able to do this if you are in a small plane because of weight distribution and safety issues, but if that’s the case you’re probably on a pretty short flight anyway.

Sometimes airlines with the questionable ‘premium economy’ seating or airlines that charge a fee for reserving seats when booking the ticket may object to your request.  But by the time boarding is complete they probably won’t do anything about it because thankfully they have a schedule to keep.

They say “fortune favors the bold”. Sometimes after you’ve played hardball to get the best seat on the plane, you might just be lucky enough to end up on a nearly empty flight. If that’s the case, get yourself to a vacant row of 3 or 4 seats, lie down and enjoy.  (This is especially amazing when you’re on a long flight and you want to sleep.)