Picking The Best Airline Seat

SeatInfo Whether your trip is a globe-straddling epic or a simple capital city hop, being in your preferred seat can make all the difference. Fortunately, there's plenty of resources online to help with seat planning.

OK, if you're taking a comparatively brief trip like Sydney-Melbourne (a journey that runs more frequently than many suburban rail services), where you're sitting might not make much difference. But the longer the flight, the more being in a good location can help. Here's the issues to consider when planning (and booking) your flight.

Work out your own preferences

There's no such thing as a universally perfect seat (unless you're sitting in first class, in which case the sympathy levels for any complaining will already have pretty much disappeared). My own preferences work like this. For domestic flights, I want an aisle seat towards the front of the plane, so that I can make a speedy exit when we land. Because I usually travel only with hand luggage, I don't want the very first row of economy, since there's no under-seat storage space, and sometimes that's the only place you can fit your bag.

For international flights, I still want to be seated forward, but I want a window seat: I don't get out of my seat once I'm on board and I always aim to sleep, so I don't want somebody else next to me with a weak bladder to be clambering over me six times a night.

Many people take the reverse approach, choosing an aisle seat they can easily get up during the flight and stretch their legs. Others prefer sitting towards the back, buoyed by the theory that in the event of a crash they're more likely to live. Many people also like the concept of an exit-row seat for extra leg room, though that's often now an option you have to pay for, and you won't have any options for storing luggage within easy reach during take-off and landing.

Get in early

Once you know what kind of seat location you'd prefer, you can apply those rules when you book a flight. If you're a member of a frequent flyer program, then it's worth registering your preferences, since those will also get taken into account (especially if you're a higher-level member).

On some airlines (Jetstar being the prominent local example), you actually select your seat when you make an online booking. Others let you select your seat if you check in online, so make sure you check in as early as possible ahead of your flight (24 hours ahead for Qantas and Virgin). If you happen to use a travel agent, you may also find that your seats can be picked at the time of booking.

Check your own airlines' site

Seating options vary considerably between planes and airlines. While general principles like "window forward" will work on any flight, you may want to have a better idea of the specific layout on a plane (so that, for instance, you're not sitting near a high-traffic area like the toilets).

Your first port of call should be your airlines' own site, to get an idea of what options they offer. This information isn't always super-helpful: for instance, even if you click on a seating link for a specific flight booking with Qantas, you'll be presented with a range of different seating configurations possible with that plane, and no guidance as to which one actually applies in your case. But it's a start.

Check out specialist seating sites

For a more detailed discussion of the pros and cons of particular seating locations, there are a bunch of sites which include airline-specific seating plans for common plane models. The best-known are SeatGuru and SeatExpert. If you're only looking at business class options, Flatseats offers reviews of individual seats.

Realise it won't always work

Even after all this planning, sometimes your seating plans will go awry. Most airlines will present you with terms and conditions which note that seating allocations can change, and this isn't just idle chatter: I've had services switch from a 737 to an A380 on minimal notice. (That particular change was actually an improvement, but that's not always the case.) And sometimes your seat turns out to have problems like non-functional power or in-seat entertainment.

Don't go into a frenzy of abuse if this happens; it's very unlikely to help your case. But do send a letter to the airline afterwards and see if you can score up some compensation.

Got your own seating planning secret? Share it in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman still isn't entirely convinced of the virtues of exit rows. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    The first thing to do is find out what sort of aircraft you'll be flying on. Then find out what is the seat layout of that aircraft. Normally you can find this out from the airline. Then at the check-in, ask how full the aircraft is and see if you can get a seat which has a spare seat next to it.

      On long leg journeys both far back left/right are reserved for cabin crew. So back middle is a good bet ;)

    If you're choosing your seat online, where there's a functionality that tells which seats are already taken, it can be beneficial to not pick somewhere all by yourself.

    If there are two rows of ABC seats, and only A in the first row is taken, you might be better to choose C in that same row, rather than the empty row, if you want an empty seat next to you.

    My theory is, that if you're on your own row, and a couple are checking in, it'll be 50:50 whether they squeeze in next to you or the other guy. If you've chosen a seat in the same row, then they'll choose to sit in the other row, leaving a space next to you.

    Obviously this won't work when the plane's completely full. But it certainly can't hurt.

    I always opt for window seats. Rarely, if ever, leave my seat, and I enjoy the view. :-)

    I tend to go for window seats, and am not really bothered whereabouts on the plane, other than not wanting to sit right at the back because it can be bumpy, nor right next to the potentially smelly toilets on a long flight. Getting on and off quickly isn't a big priority for me really, especially at the end of a trip to the UK - I'm so stuffed by that point, I couldn't care less most of the time!

    The only time I do have a seating preference is when I travel with my fiance. At 6'6", he has great trouble fitting into most plane seats, in fact in the majority of planes he can't actually move once he's crammed into a normal seat, can't even put his knees together (and don't get me started on what happens when the person in front of him decides to jam their seat back with force - one woman actually had quite a vicious go at him for preventing her from doing so). So we try to get exit row seats, or at least one exit row seat, for him. But of course now that you can pay to get them, they're usually occupied by people who'd just 'like' the room, rather than those - like my fiance - who actually 'need' it. I'd love to see a regulation that looks into the health&safety side of cramming tall people into seats where they can't move - I'm convinced it's got to up the DVT risk if nothing else!

    This is actually a preference I picked up from a friend who is more experienced at travelling, but I find it works for me. I like sitting toward the back of the plane - 2nd or 3rd from the back as it is far enough back to have a great view, and is often emptier. If the back door is opened for exiting, this is also a plus. I'm lucky enough to be a small person who also rarely leaves their seat.

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