In the pre-internet days, a friendly check-in assistant at the airport might let you choose your AIRLINE SEAT.
More usually, it was pot luck that determined your fate. Nowadays, technology allows us to book our flights, choose our seats – sometimes – and check-in online, all from the comfort of our own homes.
I say ‘sometimes’ because there are variables here. For instance, I’ve found that when I book my flight through a third-party agent rather than directly with the airline, I don’t always get the same benefits. It’s as though the airline is punishing me for buying my ticket from another company!
But I’ve also found that it’s sometimes possible to get around this by creating a customer account on the airline’s website. For the small inconvenience of receiving marketing emails from the airline – which I can unsubscribe from at any time – I get access to online check-in. This usually allows me to choose my seat. So I recommend trying this if you find that your access to these functions is otherwise denied.
Once you’ve cracked the code and accessed the airline’s helpful diagram showing available seats, how do you decide which one is best for you? You might be used to thinking ‘window or aisle’, and the pros and cons of each option. But there are other factors you might want to consider, especially if you’re travelling long-haul. I’ve picked up a few tips since my first-ever journey on a plane, age 16 (see photo!) Here they are:
1. Which section of the plane?
Do you prefer to be at the front, middle, rear, or upstairs (if applicable)? This might be pre-determined by your class of travel, of course. In economy class you often have a wide choice. I’ve noticed that some airlines charge extra for reserving seats in what they call the ‘forward section’ of the plane. The rationale is that you have the added convenience of a quicker disembarkation when you arrive at your destination. However, this can also mean that you board later than almost everyone else! Is it worth the extra?
2. What, or who else, is near you?
Passengers sitting on the left side of a wide-bodied jet typically get more people passing by them, because the main entrance/exit door tends to be on that side, so there’s more chance of being bumped and barged if you are in an aisle seat on that side.
If peace and quiet is important to you, it’s worth avoiding the front row behind the galley. This is often provided with bassinets for travellers with babies or young children. So if you don’t want to sit near lively kids or crying infants, you might be better off choosing to sit a little further back.
3. View versus access
If you’re in economy class, you can choose to enjoy the views from your window seat but have to disturb, or attempt to climb over, your neighbours when you want to get out. Or you can forsake the view and opt for the convenience of easy access to your seat. If you’re stuck in the middle seat of three, you get neither! – a situation definitely to be avoided.
So if you’re a ‘view’ person, you’ll ideally want a seat with an unobstructed view of the passing clouds and scenery, rather than of the wing and engines. How do you find out which seats are over the wing? Some airline seat plans are more helpful than others in this regard. Many economy seats start where the wings are, so sitting towards the rear is probably your best bet.
4. Leg room
This varies enormously depending on the airline and type of aircraft. Most airline web sites will tell you what the seat pitch is for the different classes of travel on their flights. Otherwise, tools such as Seatguru can help. Many airlines now offer economy passengers the option of seats with extra leg room, typically next to an emergency exit, for a fee – and provided that you will provide specific assistance to the crew if an emergency arises.
There are often restrictions on who can book these seats; good physical fitness is a requirement. Children may not be allowed to sit in these seats, depending on the laws of the country concerned.
5. To be near the toilets – or not
Sitting in a row near the toilets can be very convenient, to use an old pun. But it can also be a little annoying too, since you often get queues of people forming alongside you – especially when the lights go on in the morning. So if you like to sit near the toilets, an aisle seat is probably best to avoid being jostled or overlooked by the queue.
Depending on your class of travel and/or ticket type, you might be allowed to choose your seat for free. If you’ve chosen the cheapest economy fare, then you’ll almost certainly have to pay extra if you wish to choose and reserve your seats in advance. It’s your decision as to how important this is to you. If you’re a student on a limited budget, for example, and saving money is more important than where you sit, then it’s probably worth waiting until you check-in for your flight, at which time you’ll be allocated a seat at no extra charge.
However, if you want to sit next to a companion or you’re keen to get a specific seat, then it might be worth paying for the certainty of getting what you want. Airline seat maps should tell you the price of each seat. You can usually find this by hovering your mouse over the seat you’re considering, or touching it if you’re booking on your smartphone.
7. Is there a safety angle?
One would hope that every airline seat is equally safe, if the company you’re travelling with is complying with all necessary international standards! However, Time magazine studied air accident records and seating charts dating from 1985 to 2000, and concluded that the safest seats are the middle ones in the final exit row at the rear of the plane. These seats had a 28% fatality rate, compared with 44% in the middle of the plane.
Timing is everything
If you are keen to choose your seat, it goes without saying that the earlier you do this, the greater the likelihood of getting the ones you want.
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