“Which seat should I pick?” That’s one of the first questions anyone ever asks me when they find out I’m an aviation journalist. Airlines are increasingly finding ways to squeeze a bit of extra cash out of passengers for a bit of extra comfort, and seats with more legroom are part of that. On the plus side, that means you don’t have to be an extra-special Ultra Amethyst Elite frequent flyer to buy your way into the big (legroom) leagues!

A woman sits in an airplane row bathed in light.
Choosing the best seat on a flight can be tough © Westend61 / Getty Images

So what makes a seat the best seat on a plane? 

Of course, the “best seat” will differ depending on your height, width, and personal desires: if you relish not having someone recline into you, you may value that more than extra space at the knees. So let’s talk about the different kinds of economy class seat that have more space than average. But first: many airlines are now selling extra-legroom zones, or giving them away to frequent flyers. These are especially great on low-cost carriers, since fewer people tend to fork out the extra cash, making the holy grail of no neighbour next to you more likely.

airplane space.jpg
There are ways to find the best seat on a flight © Patrick Foto / Getty Images

What seats have the most legroom or space? 

The most legroom on most planes usually comes in the emergency exit rows. On smaller aircraft like a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, these are usually found at the overwing exits, about halfway down the plane.

Bear in mind that if you have any mobility restrictions, don’t speak English (and/or sometimes the airline’s local language), have a baby or need an extension seatbelt, you may not be allowed to sit in the exit row. And you won’t be able to keep your bag under the seat in front of you for takeoff and landing, so stuff your pockets before boarding.

A good second option is the bulkhead, at the very front of the cabin right behind the wall. A big advantage is nobody reclining into you, but on most planes there’s a downside of your foot space being a little limited by the wall. There’s also a higher likelihood of finding a baby next to you, since the wall-mounted bassinet cribs on bigger planes are found here. Larger-framed passengers should also note that the tables are often located in the armrests of these seats, making them about an inch narrower than average at the hip.

On some new planes, especially smaller ones like the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 families, airlines with first or business class on board are no longer installing walls between the posh seats and economy, so the front row sits right behind the bigger recliners. This can mean a great amount of extra legroom, but also usually means those armrest-table narrower seats.

airplane seat.jpg
Check to make sure there is no row in front of you © Hero Images / Getty Images

How to score 'infinite legroom' on a flight

A hidden gem is often the frequent flyer favourite “infinite legroom” exit row seat, which has an entire extra row of space in front of it. You’ll spot these on a seat map because there’ll be one fewer seat in the row ahead, thanks to the requirements for emergency exits. Many Airbus A321s and a few Boeing 737s, as well as larger jets like the Boeing 777, have this kind of seat.

Do try to avoid sitting in the last rows of the plane, which often have less legroom than the rest — and the very last row sometimes doesn’t recline and is usually next to the lavatories, so it’s one to skip. Bottom line if you’re on a budget, though: the key is to sit as far forward as possible in any seat you don’t have to pay extra for.

 John Walton is an international aviation journalist. Over the next weeks he will answer the questions you’ve always wanted to ask about the whys and wherefores of travelling by air on Lonely Planet.  He welcomes questions and further discussions on Twitter (@thatjohn) and via email to john@walton.travel

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