Having the seat I want is important to me when I fly. It ranks right up there with getting my first-class upgrade. Many travelers leave their seat assignment to chance. That just makes no sense to me. Flying is, after all, mostly sitting. You might as well be comfortable.
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Is there a best seat in the house? Not really. There are good seats for different purposes, so people have different preferences. I prefer a bulkhead aisle seat, usually 1B or 1C. This puts me near the bulkhead galley. I get served first, and I’m usually the first off the plane. This works for me — so well, in fact, that when I sit somewhere else, I feel out of place.
Other people swear by window seats, which are good for sightseeing and sleeping (the window provides a nice place to rest your head, especially if you’ve snagged a pillow). Veteran window-sitters take careful note of the flight plan, deciding which side of the plane to sit on according to where the sun will be. Aisle seats have different considerations. They let you stretch your legs once in a while without disturbing your seatmates, but you risk getting bonked by other people’s elbows and carry-ons.
Front or back? There are advantages to both. On most flights, passengers in the back rows board first, so they get first grabs at overhead bin space. On the down side, there’s usually a long wait to get off the plane, food choices can be limited by the time the cart gets to you, and the line for the lavatory can be distracting and noisy. Front-seat passengers usually deplane first, but not always: Some short-haul commuter flights (such as Delta’s shuttles between New York, Washington and Boston) use both ends of the plane for deplaning, so you can make a quick escape front or back.
There are other, more particular considerations. For example, bulkhead seats are a good choice for kids who tend to be climbers and kickers, and seats near the emergency exits really must go to competent adults who will take the time to figure out how to use them. And every would-be Lothario knows that the back of the plane is where the flight attendants hang out.
How to get what you want? What most people don’t realize is that seat inventories are in constant flux. Ticket cancellations and upgrades affect seat availability. So does airline policy; airlines can reserve or release a portion of their inventory to meet their own needs. The key to getting the seat you want is vigilance and persistence.
To check on seat availability, you can call your airline or your travel agent, or you can use your airline’s online seat locator (a map of the plane that shows not only how the seats are laid out, but also which seats are taken and which are still available). Most airlines allow you to use the seat locator to choose or change your seat directly online.
You don’t have to buy a ticket to see what’s available. When I am waitlisted for an upgrade on a flight I’ve already booked, I go onto my airline’s Web site and make a second, mock booking for a first-class seat. I don’t actually reserve or confirm the seat, but during the booking process, I am given the opportunity to select a seat. That’s my eye into the first-class inventory. If I see that half the seats are still available a week before my departure date, I know I have a good chance for an upgrade. Having taken a peek, I just log off. Of course, you can use the seat locator in the same way to decide which flight to book in the first place.
Don’t despair if you can’t get the seat you want in advance. Just bring your determination to the airport. Talk to the ticket agent or, better yet, the gate agent in charge of your flight. If all else fails, you can try to trade seats with another passenger after you’ve boarded the plane. People generally make room for gimpy passengers and families who’ve been split up. And, believe it or not, some people really don’t care where they sit.
Get a guru. If you have yet to heed my oft-repeated advice to put all your air travel with one airline, or if you’re just not familiar with the design of your next aircraft, check out SeatGuru. This handy Web site offers cabin maps and seat plans for all the aircraft used by most major carriers, providing useful information about seat width and pitch. It also has the inside scoop on such things as which seats have extra legroom, misaligned or partial windows, restricted reclining, tray tables in the armrests-even which seats are especially noisy or cold. SeatGuru also tells you about the availability of in-seat entertainment options like satellite TV and MP3 players. It’s a really good site all around.
From the front of the plane to the back, airplane seats are not all the same. Know which one you want, go after it with persistence, then just fasten your seat belt and have a nice flight.
Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.