If you haven’t been one, you’ll have seen them as you walk to the bathroom: the unfortunates wedged into the middle seat of the middle chunk of seats on a long haul flight.
Nobody wants to be that person, but with fewer flights meaning fuller planes, you’ve got to be proactive to ensure you’re not.
Decide where you want to sit: Do you want to be at the front of the cabin, so you don’t feel so claustrophobic, or will you risk the back, in the hope that there’ll be fewer travelers to share the row with? Do you prefer a window or an aisle seat? Do you like the extra legroom of the emergency exit, or the convenience of being able to keep your purse with you during takeoff and landing? Decide what your ideal seat would be, and then use seating plans on the airlines’ websites and SeatGuru to work out which you need to book.
Book as early as possible: Most airlines now allocate seats when you book, so the sooner you fix up your travel plans, the more chance you’ll have of ending up where you want to be. Make sure you specify where you want to be, rather than let them do it automatically (many frequent flier programs allow you to specify your preferences).
But if you can’t…
There’s one notable exception to the book early rule: if you’re booking a transatlantic flight late in the day, British Airways can be a good bet. Although they allow their gold card holders to pre-assign their seats at the time of booking (and let’s face it, they’ll most likely be in business class), the rest of us have to wait till nearer the time, meaning you can bag the popular seats even with a last-minute booking. If you’re willing to pay $75 you can choose your seat 10 days before the flight; for everyone else, allocation starts 24 hours before departure.
Ask for advice: Plane layouts differ, so what might be seating gold on one plane could be mediocre on another. Don’t be afraid to call the airline and ask staff where they’d recommend.
Cherish those loyalty points: As watching Up in the Air will show you, the more frequent flyer points you have with an airline, the more cred you have with them. Keep all your miles on one account, and you’ll earn privileges quicker.
Ask again at check-in and at the gate: If it’s extra legroom you’re after, sometimes, airlines will hold back bulkhead seats for travelers with babies, so if none are assigned, they can become free right before the flight. Likewise, some of the European airlines (like the much maligned – and rightly so – Alitalia) hold back emergency exit seats to be doled out at the gate – in which case it’s a matter of charming them into assigning them to you (I tried this once on a flight from Buenos Aires to Milan, but my plea of long legs lost out to a hunky man’s flirting tactics).
And if you want to take a gamble…
A few lucky brave people swear by deliberately failing to pre-assign their seats, and checking in at the airport (rather than online) as late as possible. The method behind the madness? That if the plane’s overbooked, they’ll be the first to be upgraded. Bear in mind if you do this, though, that you’re as likely to end up separated from your party, in the middle seat of doom, as you are to get bumped up. It all depends on what kind of gambler you are.