These days, the best seats on the plane are often easy to identify: they have the heftiest surcharge, sometimes even more than your actual fare. But if you don’t want to fork out the cash, here’s how to avoid the worst ones — and have a more comfortable flight.  

The view from an aisle seat on a plane. A steward is visible but out of focus
With some preparation it is possible to avoid the worst seats © Shutterstock

Avoid the bulkhead for anyone wide in the thighs

Bulkhead seats immediately behind a cabin wall section have more knee-room, but on almost all airlines the tray tables are in the armrests, which takes away about an inch of seat width. So, those of us who are plumper than average may wish to steer clear.

Since there’s no seat in front of you in a bulkhead seat, you’ll also have to have all your baggage up in the overheads during takeoff and landing, which can be an inconvenience if you need to get things out during the flight.

This can especially be a pain on smaller, single-aisle planes like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 because flight attendants working at the front of the plane tend to store their luggage in the bins at the very front.

These front bins often also contain equipment for the inflight entertainment and onboard Wi-Fi, as well as safety equipment, so it’s not unheard of for people sitting in row one to end up storing their bags behind row three. This isn’t the end of the world, but it can lead to petty tyrants in row three objecting that someone is taking up space in “their” overhead.

Lastly, on larger airplanes with two aisles, the bulkhead positions are often where the bassinet travel cribs can be set up. As a result, if you select these seats you may end up being moved to make way for a baby, even at the last minute, leaving you with a reduced choice.

And it should go without saying that if you’re the sort of person to be annoyed by babies being babies and crying or fussing, or prone to tutting at parents whose kids aren’t immediately soothable, you should steer clear of the bulkhead. 

Skip the seats immediately in front of the exit rows, unless…

Exit row seats have extra legroom, which is great, although most airlines now charge for them. However, I steer clear of the seats one row in front of the exit row, since these seats have their recline mechanisms disabled so they don’t block the emergency exits if people need to leave the plane in a hurry.

The only exception to this is the growing number of low-cost airlines (and even some of the legacy full-service ones) using what is euphemistically known as “pre-reclined” seats. I actually quite like these: they start off at an angle slightly further back, and I’m always happy to avoid the potential pain and drama of someone reclining unexpectedly.

Oh, and if you’re the kind of person who tends to get chilly, you’ll want to avoid sitting anywhere near the doors or an emergency exit. By contrast, if you’re the person who’s always hot, these are great choices!   

Interior view of a commercial airplane and its legroom in between seats.
No one chooses the middle © Scott's Shotz Photography / Shutterstock

Obviously, skip the middle seat if you can

Everyone hates the middle seat. (If you love the middle, sorry, but you may be a bit weird.) It’s increasingly hard to avoid them, though, given that airplanes are getting a denser kind of layout; when Boeing introduced its widebody 777 in the mid-1990s, for example, most of them had nine seats in every row.

These days, most 777s have ten, and that’s one more middle seat to get stuck in, as well as narrower seats so the experience is even less pleasant.

Planes to pick for fewer middle seats are the Boeing 767 (usually in a 2-3-2 layout) or Airbus A330 (usually 2-4-2, although a few ultra-cheap airlines add an extra seat in each row). 

Try to sit ahead of the wing if legroom is important to you

On some smaller planes like the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, seats ahead of the wing have an extra inch or two of legroom. I’m not talking about the “extra-legroom economy” seats like United’s Economy Plus, I’m talking about regular economy here.

It’s all because the space ahead and behind the fixed space where the overwing emergency exits are doesn’t necessarily divide neatly into 29, 30 or 31 — that’s the amount of space different airlines allocate for each row, which is often called “seat pitch”.

Often, this means that while seats behind the middle emergency exits can be crammed in with less space, those ahead of the exits have a bit more room.  

The lavatory sign on a Boeing 737 showing that the forward restroom is unoccupied.
Unless you will need to use the restroom frequently, stay away from it © frontpoint / Getty Images

Steer clear of lavatories and galleys

“Don’t sit next to the loo unless you know you’ll need it frequently” is pretty obvious, so make sure you know where the lavatories are — they’re not always shown on the seat maps provided by airlines or third parties.

But also avoid the galley kitchens: these are noisy spaces that often have light spilling over them at night. Rethink this tip, though, if you’re travelling with little ones: it’s handy to be closer to the crew in case you need them. 

Check, but don’t rely on, airline seat maps or online seating sites

Speaking of seat maps, don’t just take the airline’s word for where things are, especially with the automatically generated seat maps shown during the process of actually choosing a seat.

I find the most accurate source of information is usually the pictorial seat maps on an airline’s website: search “seat map XYZ Airlines Boeing 737” for the plane you’ll be on. But these sometimes don’t show problems like missing windows (for ducting and wiring), misaligned windows,

Third party sites can be helpful, but in many cases, they don’t take into account that airlines often have multiple layouts for the same plane. Sometimes planes can have a different placement of things like lavatories, galleys and even the number of rows of seats.

Even when they do acknowledge this problem, they don’t help you to figure out if you’re on version one, two, three or four. So, use multiple sources for “good” or “bad” seats — or even basic details like row numbering.

You might also like: 
How to survive a flight if you are in the middle seat
Which planes are the most comfortable?
Is flying getting more luxurious?

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