How to get the best seat on a plane
Ever spent 15 hours stuck in the middle seat in economy class? Then this guide's for you.
Back in the day, a flyer looking for more legroom could show up early at the check-in desk and there was a good chance they could score a seat with luscious amounts of stretch room. That's now another geological age in the fast-changing aviation world. Long ago airlines cottoned on, and started charging a premium to flyers wanting to avoid the escape the sardine can of economy class seating. Consider that a premium economy seat costs about twice the price of an economy seat, yet that buys you only a miserly 10-15 centimetres of extra seat pitch. But there are still a few ways to score extra real estate for your legs without paying a cent more.
The exit row stratagem
Exit row seats always come with oodles of extra legroom. Since airlines are keen to squeeze every dollar they can from flyers, they impose a hefty surcharge for the privilege of sitting in one, as much as $300 on a long-haul flight. However economy class flyers are looking to fly at the cheapest possible price and most are reluctant to cough up the extra cash for an exit row seat. As a result, these seats are seldom all occupied, yet airlines are obliged to fill them, at least partially, to comply with security regulations, and there are often vacant exit row seats.
So how do you score one of these unoccupied exit row seats, the Valhalla for long-legged flyers? Simple – you smile nicely at the staff at the check-in counter and ask. That's what I do and three times out of four I'll be sitting stretched out in an exit row seat.
There's a caveat in that exit row seats are allocated to passengers deemed physically capable of removing the exit door in an emergency and who are ready, willing and able to assist other passengers but in reality this restriction is loosely applied. It never hurts to ask.
The bulkhead conundrum
Bulkhead seats are another potential sweet spot for flyers looking for extra space. You can count on at least half a metre of extra legroom. If there's a backward-facing crew seat opposite, it will be more like a couple of metres. They're sometimes designated as "hot seats" and allocated to flyers who have demonstrated their loyalty to the airline, or are prepared to pay to sit there, but quite often these are exit row seats and vacancies arise. One problem with the bulkhead window seat is the bulge created by the emergency slide, which forces the window-seat passenger to sit with their legs at an awkward angle, facing into the aircraft. Another possible problem, the central bulkhead is where the bassinet fittings are located. Should you happen to find yourself sitting close to an unhappy infant you'll wish you were out on the wing. Yet another hitch, you're near either a galley or the toilets, and if it's toilets, passengers sometimes use the space in front of these seats while they wait for a vacant toilet, or practice their dolphin pose yoga posture. Finally, the video screen for these seats is a swivel device located between the seats, and safety requirements dictate that you can't watch it for about 20 minutes after take-off, and about the same period before landing.
The taper seats
Toward the rear of the economy cabin in a twin-aisle aircraft the cabin tapers and the number of seats on the window sides of the aisles changes from three to two. In the first of those two-seater rows, the aisle seat passenger can take advantage of the extra legroom that comes when they slant their legs outwards. On the downside, these seats are close to the toilets and possibly the galley, which means bustle and traffic.
The sweet delight of the empty seat
An adjacent empty seat allows you to angle your feet diagonally into the area beneath the seat and score a few precious centimetres of extra legroom. If your airline allows you to pre-select seating, look for a row where another passenger has chosen an aisle or window seat in a row of three, and preferably toward the less desired back end of the cabin. Select the empty aisle or window seat and there's a decent chance nobody will sit in the middle seat.
What Seat Guru knows
Aircraft type matters, and every airline configures its cabin seats slightly differently. Seat Guru gives you the lowdown – seat pitch, width and a graphic of your aircraft that pinpoints the best seats. Even where you have a choice of airlines, chances are that airline quality, price and route are higher priorities than the roomiest airline/aircraft but the Seat Guru website tells you which seats are the duds. For example, it's worth knowing that aboard Singapore Airlines' A380-800, although the seat pitch in economy is a generous 81cm, the cabin is narrower on the floor than the ceiling, which means legroom at the window seats is cramped. Aboard Qatar's Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, some A, D, and K seats have restricted legroom due to the inflight entertainment box that sits below the seat in front.