Getaway Day: 6 Tips For Getting Really Good Seats On A Plane

Sometimes you can get good seats during the booking process. Sometimes you can't.
Sometimes you can get good seats during the online booking process. Sometimes you can’t.

By Sharyn Alden

If you’ve flown recently, you know that planes are jam-packed with passengers. Many airlines have condensed the number of flights they fly on certain itineraries – and that means you have to be extra-smart when looking for flight deals and the subject of today’s article, good seats.

Let’s start with the obvious: You want good seats on a plane? Business class and first class are really good seats.

A business-class or first-class seat is a flying experience that’s like having a luxury box at the stadium, only at 30,000 feet. Depending on the flight, you’ll be treated to all the wine and alcohol you want, non-stop delivery of above-average food and beverages, tote bags filled with complementary travel gear, and seat/beds that can cost up to $100,000 each, feature the imprint of world-famous industrial designers, and use technology to give you an outside shot at sleeping well.

Even better, if you fly Singapore Airlines, the cabin attendants greet you by name as soon as you step onboard, never forgetting it throughout a long overseas flight. They help you on and off with your coat and seem to second-guess your every need. Now, that’s service worth paying extra for.

When you get right down to it, business-class or first-class seats are the best seats in the house. And the best seats in the house come with a price tag.

There are other good seats to be had in an airline “house” beyond these pricey up-front spots, but you have to shop for them. Don’t accept potluck. And whatever you do, don’t settle for a horrid middle seat by default.

So what tactics can the majority of travelers use to get better seats in economy?

Let’s look at the flip side of that question. Even with the best-laid plans, sometimes you’re competing for the worst seats on a plane – and unlike theaters there’s no standing-room-only.

And so it was when I boarded a flight from Helsinki, Finland, to St. Petersburg, Russia. They overbooked the flight and the error wasn’t caught at the gate. Onboard, two of us discovered we had tickets for the same seat.

We were a simmering twosome with a language barrier, this burly Russian and me, until a problem-solving cabin steward pulled down her jump seat and gave it to me. So for nearly three hours I rode backwards, glad to have a seat. When we landed I was given a voucher toward a future flight.

Even though this scenario was a computer error and out of my control, I never let computers choose seats for me when I can help it. Here’s how you can get better seats than what you may be used to.

  1. Upgrade to better seats. Use your airline miles to upgrade to business class. For international flights in particular, this can make a huge difference in how you feel when you arrive at your destination.

    Frequent-flyer miles can be a boon if you’re looking to upgrade your seat. Best advice: Save those upgrade miles for long-haul flights.
  2. Don’t fall for all argument that the premium economy seats (more legroom for an added fee) are taken. The thing is if all the “regular” seats on the plane — i.e., the cheapest seats – are taken, you’ll automatically get a premium economy seat when you check in.
  3. Look at the plane’s seat map when booking a flight. It sounds like a no-brainer, but few people really study the plane’s layout when choosing a seat. I actually take it one step further and “fly the equipment.” That means I select flights not only on timing and cost but on plane type. Bigger planes, more seating options.
  4. Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Flights are typically not as full, giving you more seating options. You may not have someone crammed next to you — and that means more leg and elbow room.
  5. Consider human behavior. Have you noticed that people tend to buy seats at the front of the economy section first? After those seats are gone, they gradually sell out from the front of the section to the back of the plane. If you want more space for you and your family to spread out, consider buying a seat at the back of the plane. Seats there are traditionally the most unpopular spots on the plane.
  6. Fly planes that have more legroom in every seat in economy. There aren’t many airlines that can boast extra legroom in every single economy seat on certain flights. But a few inches can make a big difference for many people, especially if you’re tall or really need to unwind. For this perk, try JetBlue if they fly your route. On the airline’s A320/A321 aircraft, the rows are spaced about 33-34 inches apart in coach, compared to 31-32 inches apart on some other airlines.

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at