Travel Hacking: How to Get the Best Airline Seats

Travel Hacking: How to Get the Best Airline Seats

From scoring elite status to sweet talking gate agents, there’s always a way to score better airline seats and faster boarding.

Boarding the plane first and sitting in a desirable seat might not get you to your destination any faster – but these small actions can make you feel a lot more relaxed before a long flight. Don’t have to leave your seating assignment and boarding group totally up to chance: try these expert tested travel hacking tips to ensure a smoother passage from your gate to the plane.

1.    Strategize For Your Seat

Okay, so you want to score the best seat—but which one is it? On long haul flights, flyers often prefer window seats so they can grab some shuteye (and not be disturbed by seatmates who want to get up to use the restroom). On shorter shuttle flights, an aisle seat may be better as it allows for easier boarding and faster deplaning. Jittery fliers may feel more comfortable sitting over the wing, where they’ll experience less turbulence. And taller passengers will likely appreciate the emergency exit rows. And everyone should avoid the row in front of an exit row, as often those seats don’t recline.           

If you’re traveling alone, be strategic when booking to avoid being sandwiched in by strangers. Try looking for a row with an empty middle seat and one person sitting in the aisle or window. Book the open, non-middle seat. If you book a seat in an empty row, chances are, the two seats next to you will be snapped up by a traveling twosome…but empty middle seats are typically the last to go. You can also take advantage of this phenomenon if you’re traveling in a pair – try reserving the window and aisle of an empty row. If someone ends up in that seat, they’ll be thrilled to switch with one of you so you and your companion can be side by side. You can also choose two empty aisle seats across from one another so you can sit “together” but can both move around the plane easily. To find the best seat on the plane, use one of the apps mentioned in #5 below.

2.    Get Elite Status

Even at the lowest level, elite status has its perks—one being that almost all carriers will provide preferred seats for free at booking time, or at some point in advance of the masses. For example, on American Airlines, Main Cabin Extra seats with 4-6 inches of legroom cost $8-108 per leg – and they can be yours, free if you’ve reached elite status. Another bonus to being elite: Earlier boarding groups, regardless of your seat assignment.

3.    Book Early

The earlier you book your flight, the more seats will be available. Ideally, you’ll be able to select your desired seat at the time of purchase, and you’ll be placed into an earlier boarding group. Remember that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the least popular days to fly, which means your chance of nabbing a premium seat goes up dramatically.

4.    Decide If You Want to Pay Up

Booking first or business class is out of the question for most flyers due to the cost, but paying a small fee for upgraded seat selection or extra legroom might be worth it to you. For example, US Airways has an option called ChoiceSeats, which are aisle and window options towards the front of the plane. This level gives you the opportunity to board with Zone 2 and get off the plane faster upon landing – with prices starting at just $5.

If you don’t want to cough up a fee but receive a warning when booking that only premium economy seats are available, don’t bite. If it’s true that all the cheapest seats are taken, you’ll likely be given a premium economy seat when you check in at no additional cost.

5.    Monitor Airline Seats with Apps

There are several apps that can help you nab your first choice seat. One is SeatGuru.com, which will help you select the best seat possible when booking by showing you airline maps and giving you the pros and cons of every seat on the plane. You can use it again 24 hours before the flight, when travelers with elite status often get upgraded, opening up better seats in coach.

A second invaluable app is Seat Alerts on Expert Flyer, which allows you to set up notifications for when certain seats become available. This frees you from the constant need to sign in and see what’s open on your flight’s seat map. When your dream seat does become available, you can call the airline or log online to try to grab it.

6.    Check in Early

If you’re within the 24-hour window before your flight and you still don’t have the seat you want secured, buckle down—this is crunch time! If you’re on an airline that doesn’t assign economy-class seats until check-in, such as British Airways, Southwest, or Spirit, set an alarm on your phone for ten minutes prior to the check-in opening so you call first dibs on that aisle. But be careful – Spirit actually starts assigning seats from the back of the plane forward, meaning this strategy can backfire if you don’t ask for a specific seat.

Even if you have a seat assignment ahead of time, you might want to check back in at that magical 24-hour mark. This is when elite members are typically getting upgraded to different cabins, and so their premium seats may be opening up.

7.    Board Quickly

Your elite status and seat assignment will primarily determine how quickly you get on the plane. But you can speed up the process—and endear yourself to airline employees—with a few tricks. One is to enroll in one of the government’s Trusted Traveler Programs. For between $85-100 for five years of access, approved travelers will be able to breeze through security without removing their shoes, taking out their laptops, and generally disassembling themselves in the screening lines.

Once you’re at the gate, have your belongings organized. Ideally you’ll have just one small personal item that will fit under the seat beneath you. If not, have your overhead bin item ready to go—don’t go digging through it mid-aisle looking for your headphones.

8.    Always Be Nice

If the gate is calm and the agents there aren’t busy dealing with a long line of angry flyers, you might be able to sweet-talk them into a better seat as they’re clearing last-minute gate upgrades. If not, you have one last try when you board—some passengers might not make it on to the flight due to missed connections or a last-minute change of plans, and you might luck into their better seat if you ask a flight attendant politely. On some airlines, like Virgin America and Delta, this won’t fly – they sell upgrades even as passengers are boarding.

What’s your go-to tip for securing the best airline seats and boarding?

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Alexandra Baackes is a traveling writer, designer, and underwater videographer. She is currently in her third year of living as a full-time nomad. Follow along at alexinwanderland.com!