Here are some strategies and tips on how to end up with an empty seat next to you on the airplane. In other words, how to get more elbow room for the same money.
This comes in response to a previous post “How to Find the Best Seat on the Airplane“, which generated a lot of questions from readers. Thanks to everyone who wrote in.
- How do I choose my seat on a plane in such a way I end up with an empty seat next to me?
Choosing a seat so that you end up with an empty seat next to you is the Holy Grail of seat selection. It’s even better if you score an exit row seat, so you end up with extra leg and elbow room. But with many airlines cutting flights to save costs, airplanes are typically more crowded these days and often oversold. On many popular flights during peak seasons, you’re lucky to even get a seat assignment. So flying with an empty seat next to you is becoming ever more rare. Despite this, there are some strategies that you can use to increase your chances.
- When selecting your seat, consider how close you are to departure and how full the flight is at the moment. If you are months away from your flight, the plane will likely look empty, and you’ll probably score a good seat (sites like seatguru.com and seatexpert.com can help you figure out which of the available seats are the best). At this point, you have to plan on the reality that the plan will fill up. So choose your seat accordingly.
- Two-seat rows almost always fill up, but middle seats in three-seat rows are the last to go. If you want to press your luck for an empty seat next to you, grab an aisle seat in a three-seat row *if* there is already someone sitting in the other aisle seat. Do not choose a three-seat row that is empty because a couple will probably take the other two seats.
- If you don’t have a tight connection, choose seats further in the back of the plane. Most people like to be in front, and the airlines typically assign seats front to back. So if there is an empty seat, it’s most likely in the back.
- As you get closer to the flight (or book within two weeks of departure), chances are the plane is already full or very close to capacity. Check the your seat selection again on the airline’s map and see if someone is next to you. You might be able to shuffle into a three-seat row with only one other person.
- Does it mean that I should choose the least desirable seat, or sit next to the least desirable seat?
This is definitely one strategy that works, but I wouldn’t use it straightaway because, afterall, you’ll end up sitting in that crappy seat. Would you rather be able to recline or have elbow room? You make the call.
- Do I choose a flight near capacity? Is 2/3 on average the near capacity ratio?
These days, planes typically fly at 80-90% of capacity. More expensive fuel and other costs means airlines are cutting the number of planes to keep capacity high. If you can be flexible with your choice of flight, this is a great way to increase your chances of scoring an empty seat next to you. Often airlines offer discounted fares on several flights the same day, but certain flights fill up faster.
Consider your routing. For example, if you’re flying from ORD to BOS, chances are the morning flights will be packed to the gills with business travelers trying to make meetings. If you can take an afternoon flight, you are more likely to score some elbow room.
- Are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the best day to fly?
In most US markets, Mondays (except holiday weekends), Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the best days to fly. Saturdays have become filled with families traveling over weekends (think lots of people gate checking baby strollers). Use kayak.com and farewatch.com to compare the days and find the best price. Then consider the cities your flying between to pick the least trafficked times of days.
- Are late night or early, early morning vs. late morning or mid day/mid-evening the best time to fly?
Again, this really depends on the cities. Certain airports, like LGA and JFK, run so behind that unless you get an early morning flight, you’ll never make your connection (and you’re still likely to experience a 45-minute delay sitting on the runway waiting for take off). So at those airports, what’s most important is just getting out in any seat. The later in the day you fly, the more backed up they become.
But other airports have better on-time records so flights later in the day are typically less crowded. Again this is market specific. For business hubs like Dallas, Denver, and Los Angeles, it is generally true that flights later in the day are less crowded.
Holiday destinations are different. Consider Honolulu. Nearly all flights to the Mainland leave at night (the red-eyes) so people can make morning connections on the West Coast to the East Coast. Nearly all evening and nights flights out of Hawaii are packed.
Flights earlier in the day are typically less crowded for several reasons: (1) Most people want to maximize their time in Hawaii and prefer to leave as late as possible (think one more round of cocktails at sunset); (2) The kids will sleep on the plane on a night flight; and (3) Most people don’t want to pay for an extra hotel night at a connecting airport. You’re most likely to score extra elbow room flying during the day from Hawaii to the Mainland.
Airports with predictable, extreme weather also follow their own patterns. Consider San Francisco. When the fog rolls in, it typically happens as the day heats up. So flights taking off (or landing) in the late afternoon or evening are usually delayed. This is an example of another airport where morning flights are most reliable, even though you’ll compete with business travelers. In this case, you may want to consider using another airport in the area, like San Jose or Oakland, that don’t typically have weather issues.
Method of Last Resort to Get an Empty Seat Next to You on the Plane
Finally, if all of that planning and strategizing still does not score an empty seat next to you on plane, the method of last resort is to sit where you are assigned until all passengers have boarded. Once everyone is in their seats, look around for the empty row. There is a very small window between when the airplane door closes and when the plane pushes back from the gate that you can quickly switch seats. Just make sure you’re seated with your seat belt on before anyone notices.