Modern day air travel is famously not the most comfortable experience. After all, who wants to sit in a cramped seat next to strangers in a pressurized metal tube for hours on end?
Big budget travelers will splurge on upgraded seats in business class or another premium cabin, but unfortunately, most of us can’t afford to splash out like that. Still, there are ways to maximize comfort with your economy cabin seat choice.
“The longer the flight, the more important it is to be strategic about your seat assignment,” Zach Griff, a senior reporter at The Points Guy, told HuffPost.
So what’s the best economy seat to choose for a long-haul flight? Although the answer can differ from aircraft to aircraft, there are some best practices to keep in mind. Some may seem contradictory, the key is to figure out what you value and prioritize those factors. Below, Griff and other experts share their advice, including some A+ hacks.
Maximize your legroom.
“First things first, you’ll want to maximize your personal space, which can mean splurging for an extra-legroom seat or strategically selecting a seat that sports a unique configuration,” Griff said, like an exit row seat.
Even just a little extra space to stretch your legs can make a huge difference on a long-haul flight, so take that into consideration as you choose a seat. Although the exit row offers that nice extra room, avoid the row directly ahead of the exit.
“I’d absolutely avoid the last row or the seats in front of the exit row,” Griff added. “These seats offer little to no recline, so beware before selecting them.”
Even if you can’t book a seat with extra space, you can still increase your legroom with careful packing. Try to fit most of your things into your checked bag or the carry-on suitcase that goes in the overhead bin to avoid having a bulky backpack or other stuff at your feet.
Increase your chances of sitting by an empty middle seat.
“I do my best to get an aisle seat next to an empty middle seat, or window seat next to an empty middle,” said travel expert and author La Carmina. “Having an empty middle seat next to me lets me spread out and sleep better.”
She increases her chances by looking for three-person rows in which the window seat is already taken and then selecting the empty aisle seat.
“This way, there is now only an empty middle seat available in between, which is less likely to be taken,” she said. “If I chose an aisle seat in an empty three-person row, chances are that two people who want to sit together might take the other two seats. I also try to choose seats closer to the back, since these tend to fill up last.”
Keep an eye out for empty rows.
“Kindness goes a long way with gate agents,” said travel expert and “Gaycation Travel Show” host Ravi Roth. “Generally, I ask — nicely — if there is an empty row. If so, take it no matter where it is. Nothing is better than lying flat on an airplane.”
La Carmina likes to take matters into her own hands.
“If I notice a few empty rows of seats on the plane, I keep note of the locations,” she said. “After the plane takes off and the fasten seatbelt sign goes off, I slip over and take the empty seats without asking the staff.”
Assess your proximity to the lavatory and galley.
“You’ll want to consider proximity to the galley and lavatories — all things that could get in the way of your comfort and ability to sleep during the flight,” Griff said. “You’ll find these spaces marked accordingly on seat maps, and unless you don’t mind being disturbed by lights, noises and smells, you’ll want to avoid these areas.”
As the saying goes: location, location, location. Try to choose a seat at least four or five rows away from those high-traffic sections for a more peaceful journey.
“There will be a lot of noise coming from the galley, which is the aircraft ‘kitchen,’ and there will be foot traffic and unpleasant sounds and smells from the bathroom,” said Collette Stohler, a travel agent with Elite Travel Arrangements and director of marketing at Roamaroo.
Remember the bulkhead isn’t necessarily the best…
The first row of a cabin may seem like an enticing option, but there are a few things to keep in mind before choosing one of those bulkhead seats. Per the previous point, you might be near a noisy galley. There are other potential drawbacks as well.
“Though the bulkhead generally offers more legroom, you may want to steer clear of these seats,” Griff said. “No one will recline into your personal space, but some drawbacks include misaligned TV screens, fixed armrests and a lack of under-seat storage. Plus, these seats are generally reserved for parents flying with infants, so it could get quite loud around these seats.”
…And the back of the plane isn’t necessarily the worst.
“You’ll need to decide if you prefer to sit closer to the front or the back,” Griff said. “Contrary to popular belief, sitting in the back of the plane actually has a few benefits.”
Again, the front of the plane tends to fill up faster than the back, so you could have a less crowded experience in the back.
“I increase my chances of having a free seat, if not a full row next to me, the further back in the plane I’m located,” said Meg Jerrard, co-founder of Solo Female Travelers. “Seats at the back of the plane will see a decent amount of foot traffic from passengers seeking out the bathrooms, but if I’m asleep by that point because I have a free seat or row next to me, I’m not conscious enough to complain!”
Many airlines offer travelers the opportunity to pay a little extra for a seat closer to the front of the plane. Ask yourself if it’s worth the added cost.
“If the only free seats that are left are middle seats, and paying for a seat selection is $25, you may be better off just footing the money,” said Victoria Yore, the travel blogger behind Follow Me Away. “But if there are a variety of free seat selections open that are window or aisle seats, or otherwise your preferred arrangement for seat selection, go ahead and pick the free seat, even if it is in the back of the plane. You are going to have to wait for luggage anyway, and the deplaning process is usually always chaotic. Paying a bunch of money to be 10 rows up doesn’t make that much of a difference or save you that much time anyway.”
Check for unique layouts.
“I always recommend checking the SeatGuru website ahead of time to find the best seats on your particular aircraft,” Stohler said.
Indeed, not all plane layouts are the same, so the configuration might be yet another reason to look toward the back rather than the front.
“Generally, most people assume that sitting closer to the front of the plane will make for a more comfortable flight experience,” Griff said. “While that’s generally true, you’ll want to study the seat map when booking your flight. Some planes feature unique ‘mini-cabins’ with just a few rows of seats. These smaller cabins are often significantly more private and quieter during the flight.”
“Moreover, due to the curvature of some planes, many airlines offer a different seating configuration towards the back of the plane,” he added. “For instance, instead of a general 3-3-3 layout, you might find a 2-3-2 layout towards the back of the plane. Those seats could be a great option for couples or families traveling together.”
Don’t forget other location factors.
“Some passengers seem to opt for the middle section near the wings where they are less likely to feel turbulence while others want to be near the front for ease of getting off the plane, less engine noise or even to get a better choice of food available,” said Laura Lindsay, a travel trends and destinations expert at Skyscanner.
She pointed to a Skyscanner survey of more than 1,000 regular air travel passengers, which found that the most sought-after seat on a standard aircraft was 6A — a window option near the front. The “worst” was 31E, a middle seat toward the back of the aircraft.
“Sitting in front of the wing and engines usually makes for a quieter ride,” Griff noted.
Examine your window or aisle preference.
“Once you select your desired row, it’s up to you to choose an aisle or window seat,” Griff said. “The former is great for those who like the freedom to stand when they need to, while the latter is great for the views and the ability to rest your head on the fuselage of the plane.”
There are pros and cons to each choice, and the experts HuffPost spoke to were divided. Roth is a fan of a window seat to avoid disturbances from the cart service and bathroom line, while Jerrard is all about the aisle.
“While the window seat is better for sleep in that you can rest up against the side of the plane, I prefer the aisle seat as it allows me to get up and down as much as I like without having to inconvenience anybody,” she explained. “Being able to move around as you need to, is key to staying comfortable on a long-haul journey — keep the blood flowing with regular walks around the aisles.”
Those who like to get up and move their bodies may gravitate toward the aisle, but flyers who hate getting bumped into or asked to move are probably window people.
“The window seems a popular choice for those looking to sleep, especially for long-haul flights, while those who take more trips to the toilet prefer the aisle so as not to disturb fellow passengers,” Lindsay added. “The aisle is also popular for tall passengers looking to stretch their legs.”
The calculus may change when you aren’t flying alone.
“If you’re traveling as a couple, it could make sense to select an aisle and window seat in a given row, with the hopes that the middle remains empty,” Griff said. “If it doesn’t, you can always trade one of your more favorable seats for the middle.”
Be warned that the middle seat trade is not a guarantee, however.
Research the type of aircraft.
If there are multiple good flight options for your trip, take a look at the different aircraft offerings. You may find more comfortable options on newer planes.
“Frequent flyers have also reported that the left-hand side of the plane is best as the windows are off-center, allowing for wall space to lean on,” Lindsay noted.
Such features can vary, but airline websites and third-party resources can provide information about different types of planes and carriers.
“Delta helped pioneer the ‘articulating seat bottom’ — that not only moves you slightly forward but also up when reclined, cradling you in the seat for optimal comfort ― without sacrificing legroom,” said Mauricio Parise, vice president of brand experience at Delta Air Lines.
He noted that almost all mainline Delta aircraft currently have the articulating seat bottom, and there are plans to update the one exception to match that standard.
“More than anything, be sure to select your seat as soon as you book your flight,” Griff said. “The earlier, the better. If you wait to book your seat, you’ll likely find fewer options as departure nears.”
Booking with an airline co-branded credit card can also come with preferred seat coupons or fast-track to airline status, which leads to complimentary seat upgrades with more legroom, he added.
When you don’t get to choose your seat during the booking process, try to check in early.
“If I have an economy seat without prior seat selection, I always check in online as soon as the 24-hour window opens before boarding,” La Carmina said. “I set an alarm or notification to check-in as soon as it’s allowed. This way, I have the first choice of available seats.”
Don’t despair if you’re unhappy with the seat you snagged.
“If you didn’t snag your ideal seat, ExpertFlyer is a fantastic tool to improve your seat assignment,” Griff noted. “The web-based software lets you set seat alerts for any flight, and you’ll be instantly notified by email and/or text message if your preferred seat eventually opens up.”