How To Consistently Sit Next To An Empty Seat On A Plane

Filed Under: Advice

My wife and I used to do a lot of premium cabin trips but now that we are a family of four, we mostly fly economy. We just don’t see the point of spending more miles (or worse, money) to fly up-front. When you’ve got two preschoolers in tow, you’re not going to “savor the experience” or “enjoy zie ambiance” (as Mr. Schlappig would say) no matter where you sit. Most of the time, it’s not about the food, the sleep, or the service, it’s about trying to survive.

That said, the one thing that does make a huge difference for us is space.  Last month when offering tips on how to get hotel suite upgrades for free, I wrote:

The single most important factor in terms of traveling with young children is… space.  Be it on the plane, in the hotel, or in the car, more space is better!  

Unlike hotels, you’re not going to get upgraded on the plane just by having status, by asking for it, or any of the other tips I offered. Airlines just don’t operate that way anymore.

But all is not lost.

There’s no doubt that planes are very full these days, but contrary to what the gate agent or flight attendant says when trying to get you to gate check your luggage to your final destination, most flights aren’t completely full — most still depart with at least one empty seat.

Somebody is going to sit next to that empty seat — why shouldn’t it be me?  (Or you?)

On a long-haul international flight, a strategically “placed” empty seat between various members of my family can give us the opportunity to stretch out. To get comfortable. To lie down and get proper sleep. It truly can be poor man’s business class.

Poor Man's Lie Flat Seat
Poor Man’s Lie Flat Seat

In December, my family flew from Houston to Tokyo on a United 777 to start our Southeast Asian Adventure.  There were literally two empty seats on the entire plane — one was between my son and I, the other was between my wife and my daughter.

My family is currently in Copenhagen. We flew a United 767 from Dulles to Zurich. There were three empty seats on the entire plane — two of the three were between members of my family. (The final seat map showed only two empty seats, but apparently there was a third as well.)

The last two empty seats on the seatmap were between members of my family.
Final seat map for our Dulles – Zurich flight. Only two empty seats.

My family claimed the extra space on the plane for ourselves on consecutive international trips. This isn’t a coincidence.  You can do it too.

Extended Legroom Seating

No, I’m not just talking about extended leg room seating, but it factors into the strategy, so we should discuss it.

If you have elite status with an airline, you most likely have access to extended legroom seating for free, either at time of booking or when you check-in. It’s called Economy Comfort, Main Cabin Extra, or Economy Plus on Delta, American, and United, respectively. If you aren’t elite, you can usually pay extra for a seat in this section. But what’s the fun in that?

And besides, this post is about getting a whole extra seat for free, not just a few lousy inches.

For the remainder of this post, I’m going to refer to extended legroom seating as E+ and regular economy as E-, regardless of the airline.

Order In Which Seats Fill

To position ourselves such that we’re likely to be seated next to the empty seat, we really have to think hard about how seats on a plane fill. These are my observations after hundreds of thousands of miles of flying.

Seats Fill Front To Back

All else equal, closer to the door is better as it gets you off the plane sooner. This is true of both E+ and E-.

E- Fills Before E+

This is not a hard and fast rule.  (And it is often not true on domestic flights which are dominated by business travelers who have elite status or an expense account in which to charge the E+ fee such as San Francisco – Washington DC for United.) But in my experience, regular economy fills before economy plus on most international flights.

If you need to be convinced, consider this: hub-hub routes in the US have the most premiers because you have a population at both ends that are, to some degree, forced to fly the airline. Now think about a route like Houston – Austin. It’s got a population of people at both ends who fly a lot, but the people in Austin actually have a choice — the flight is likely to still have a lot of premiers, but maybe not quite as many because the people in Austin may split their flying between American and United. (Or they may just fly American in general.)

Now think about a route like Houston – Lima, Peru. This is like Houston – Austin, as in it’s a hub to outstation, but now that outstation is in a country where most people a.) don’t fly as much, and b.) certainly don’t fly United as much. That leads to far fewer people in E+

All that said, if we want to have a better chance of having the empty seat next to us, we should sit in the back of E+.  If we don’t get E+ for free, we should sit in the back of E-. (If we are on a route where E+ fills first, we could think about voluntarily downgrading ourselves to the back of E-, but I don’t usually recommend that because if it doesn’t pan out, well, you’re stuck in E-.)

For international flights, it is not uncommon to see E- completely full well before the departure date. That typically means that there are people who don’t have a seat assignment because they don’t want to pay more for a seat in E+, yet that’s all that’s left. The procedure then is for them to go to the airport where they are assigned a seat either at check-in or at the gate. This is typically done automatically by the computer which just so happens to assign seats from the front to back of E+.  If there are standby’s they too will be assigned seats from front to back.

That means we want to sit in the back of E+ if we hope to get the lone empty middle next to us.

Aisle → Window→ Middle

For whatever reason, a majority of people prefer aisles over windows. I imagine it has to do with having unfettered access to the loo. Windows are the next  most popular, and are certainly the first choice for a good number of people (just not the majority). Finally, nobody wants to sit in a middle seat.

That means that if we want the best chance of getting Mr. No One sitting next to us, and we’re traveling as a party of two, we should select an aisle and window in the back of E+.  (Or E-, if we must.) In fact, there’s no reason not to always do this.

If the middle seat becomes occupied, you can always trade the aisle or window for it. I’ve even had gate agents do this for me automatically without asking; one told me that in all her years, she’d only ever heard of two cases where the middle seat guy wouldn’t switch– one was OCD and insisted on sitting in the seat that was printed on his boarding pass, and the other was afraid of flying so he felt safer with people on both sides of him.

You can assume that neither of those guys will be on your flight.

The Middle Seat In The Back Center Section Is The Best Seat To Bet On Being Empty

Any middle seat in the center section of a twin-aisle aircraft is a decent seat. It’s better than the middles on either of the sides because you never have to let anyone out, and you have two options for getting out yourself. Yet most people treat it as just another middle. That means they fill the middles front-to-back, row-by-row, generally without regard to whether it’s in the left, center, or right section of the aircraft.

That means we should want to bet on a middle in the back of E+ being the last seat to fill. The questions is, will it be on the left, the right, or in the center?

I don’t really know, and I think it’s probably a crap-shoot. But you should bet on it being in center section anyway. Here’s why:

If you bet on either side section and miss, you are going to have to do a swap such that you and your partner end up in either aisle-middle or middle-window. In either case you are either responsible for letting a stranger out, or have to ask the stranger to get up when you want out.

If you bet on the center middle being open and miss, you and your partner swap for an aisle-middle in the center section. And that is far superior to either of the swaps that you make on the side. So while we don’t know where the empty middle will be, we should bet on it being in the middle because it minimizes our downside risk.

Denver - Tokyo one week out.
Denver – Tokyo one week out.

This is the seatmap for Denver – Tokyo one week out.  E- is rather full. The aisles and windows in E+ are full. I posit that the last empty seat on the plane will be a middle in Row 22. I just don’t know which section.

Putting It All Together

To summarize everything I’ve said above, you want to:

  • Select two aisle seats,
  • In the center section,
  • In the back of E+.

That should put the middle seat in the center section of the back of E+ between you and your companion. That seat is likely to be one of the last seats to be filled which means we should want to sit on either side of it. If we bet wrong, our downside risk is minimized as we still have an aisle (or aisle – middle if traveling with a companion), with only one person that we need to let out.

So if you ever book yourself onto a flight that has a seat map which looks like this, plan to stop back and say hello. Just don’t even think about taking those middle seats!

Back of E+, center section, aisle seats. This is what you want.
Back of E+, center section, aisle seats. This is what you want.

Do you try to get an empty middle, and if so, what methods do you use?

  1. I use this technique a lot and it often works, but one thing worth keeping in mind on the E+/E- discussion is that AA and DL have a lot smaller share of E+ seats than United does, so the empty middle seats much more often end up being in the E- section of the plane — in which case if you have status you have to choose between extra legroom and a potential empty middle seat. Personally I would much rather have the empty middle seat than the extra legroom, but since the empty middle seat isn’t a guarantee, it gets risky.

  2. Bgriff —

    Thanks for pointing that out — I have very limited experience with E+ on AA/DL, so good to know.

    And I absolutely agree with you about taking an empty seat over E+ — but the downside risk usually dissuades me.

  3. Kyle —

    Yes and no. I’ve watched the non-revs get their seats (via the app) and while they do get the leftover middles, they always fill from the front. So if there are 3 non-revs on the standby list, and you can count at least 3 empty middle seats in front of you on the plane, you’re golden.

    The United app makes it really easy to study the process. Pretty cool.

  4. This is the most useful post I’ve ever read on this blog. I’ve been using a lot of these techniques for years, without having thought of about the. On United specifically, another thing to consider is abandoning a preference for rows 20 and 21 (which are Economy Plus exit rows on single-aisle planes) and instead sitting in the row in front of of 20 (often row 14) and trading the inability to lean back with the potential for a a coveted empty middle.

  5. @Kyle, since u r non-rev, I have a question, has absolutely nothing to do with this discussion… (sorry) I have a very nice Delta golf Shirt. For some I do look like I’m employed by Delta. I sit in First/Business class. Does that make a bad impression on Delta that I could be a non-rev and sitting in First/Businbess class? Seriously, sometimes I get “grrrr” stares from flight attendants.
    thnx Endre

  6. Forgive me for being pedantic but correct English is “between my son and me” , not “between my son and I”.

  7. Nice write up. It sure beats my “newspaper trick” on those festival seating Southwest flights 🙂
    Your tips make a lot of sense to me. Thanks.

  8. I fly solo a lot (both for work and for pleasure) and with SAS, the best catch for a traveler with elite status is the old fashioned emergency exit row (free seat selection upon booking). No free premium seats for us (not that such a thing really exists intra-europe). Are all of the contributors of this blog passing trough CPH these days? 🙂
    Book me in advance and I will point you to all the nice spots at the airport in return of an autograph 😉

  9. @Mike:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I am OCD when it comes to seating on planes. When you’re traveling as a family of 4 with two preschoolers, there’s a thin line between success and disaster, and an empty seat to work with might just make the difference. I think about this way too much, so I’d be happy to share more of my thoughts on the matter.

    And yes, the row before the exit can be prime territory for trying to protect a middle seat. It’s not so much the lack of recline, it’s just the back of the section so it should theoretically be the last middle filled. The downside risk is that you can’t recline, but again, the empty middle might be worth more.

    Thanks again!

  10. How do you factor in UDU? As a UA Silver I have no fear of not being able to get an E+ seat because if I don’t get it at T-24, invariably some 1K or Plat stuck in E+ will get upgraded and free up a seat.

    Also, FWIW, I am that asshole who will happily take an E+ middle over an E- window because of the extra legroom, so get ready to trade!

  11. I’ve been using this trick for years but awesome that you wrote it in such a concise manner so I can just refer friends to it in the future.

    Also, having status when flying E- on partners help. One time as an AA EXP flying HEL-JFK in E-, the Finnair agent blocked the seat next to me (I was aisle, center section of a twin aisle A330). Turns out by the time we took off it was the last empty seat in E-. Win!

  12. @Stannis —

    CPU’s (UDU) don’t factor too much in here. First, I was primarily talking about international routes in this post, mostly because that’s where I REALLY care about getting the empty seat next to me. And CPU’s don’t exist on those routes.

    But even on domestic routes, CPU’s actually free up more space in E+, which is good because that means there are more seats in front of me for non-revs to fill in.

    The real issue that you bring up is that silvers don’t get their E+ seats till 24 hours out. This tends to make E+ look more empty than it is — you really have to avoid the temptation to say “well, E+ is wide open, so I’m going to move up a row or two.” But in general, the same principles hold — the silvers moving from E- to E+ are going to fill in the seats from front to back, with a preference for aisles and windows.

    As for you trading an E- window for an E+ middle? I agree, that’s a no-brainer. The only time I would not make that swap is if the E- window had an empty middle next to it, and I was reasonably confident it would stay open.

    Thanks for the comments.

  13. Two questions for you Travis.

    1. If there was only one aisle, would you take a whole back row (minus the middle seats)?

    2. How would the strategy change if you only had one child? Would you do two aisles and a window or just use mommy guilt to your advantage to have your wife take the middle? The car seat for us is an evil necessity!

  14. Penny —

    The irony is that Ben made a post today titled “My Mom and Me are on a trip….”

    No, we didn’t coordinate our abuse of the English language — sometimes it just happens.

  15. I almost always do this whenever I fly economy on a transpacific or transatlantic flight. In fact, both times I flew to Australia were in economy and luckily enough I had an entire row to myself since the flights weren’t full at all.
    I’ve noticed that if the loads are light, the gate agent normally wouldn’t have a problem blocking the middle seats if you kindly ask ’em.
    Just thinking more about it, I can probably fly SYD-DFW in economy class without any complaints if I get an entire row to myself or at the very least have the seat next to mine empty.

  16. Rachel —

    Very good questions.

    1. For single aisle aircraft, I would take an aisle – window in the last row of E+ before the exits. (or E- if I had to). With 4 of us, theoretically I should take the last E+ row on both sides. But my son is currently in the phase of kicking the seat in front of him, so we usually take back-to-back rows right now such that my son ends up kicking his sister in the back, rather than a stranger. (Her legs are still too short to reach the seat in front of her.)

    But the part I didn’t write here (as it’s tangential to the theories in this post) is that I would actually take the bulkhead if available for domestic flights. The A319/320 bulkheads are huge. The added space mostly makes up for an empty middle — though if you give me the choice, I’ll take both.

    The caveat is that United blocks 7DE on the 319/320 until 24 hours out. So we usually take aisle / window on the left bulkhead (7A,7C) and then the unblocked window on the right bulkhead (7F). The fourth seat is then 8C (or 8D) in the next row. Then assuming it is available at check-in, we move 8C or 8D up to 7D, thus giving us both bulkheads with empty middles. (Now those middles are actually really good seats, and in the front, so the odds of keeping them open are very low.) If 7D / 7E are already gone at check-in, we move 8C up to 7B giving us 3 in one bulkhead and 1 in the other. (Then we draw straws to see who sits with the kids!)

    The reason I would not take the bulkhead on international flights is that the armrests don’t move. And much of the goal is to create a flat space for me, er I mean the kids, to lay down.

    2. Yep, we started as a family of 3, so thought and executed those strategies as well. I would take aisle – window and aisle adjacent. One key to remember is that technically you aren’t allowed to have car seats in the row next to the exit — in my experience, this is rarely enforced (which is to say I did it for many flights before learning that the rule even exists!) So that might preclude you from getting the back of the E+ section, at least on domestic flights. But in general, I would recommend trying to get the bulkhead, as the extra legroom is guaranteed while the empty middle is not.

    Do y’all believe me now that I think about optimum seating for families way to much? I think I could write a thesis on this! It’s a multi-disciplinary field with elements of statistics, game theory, probability, psychology…..

  17. Only downside to picking so far back on E- is the smell (and traffic) coming from the bathrooms a couple feet behind you.

  18. For years my companion and I have traveled Southwest not with a child but a small dog so the empty middle was also important. Because of the dog I could usually get preboarding by explaining I wanted to get rear seats so no one would be delayed by the dog boarding or deboarding.

    Of course the real reason was to grab the very last row aisle and window seats. Not once in years have we missed getting the empty middle unless the flight was 100% full. The last empty middle on WN is always in the last row.

  19. @jana. E- and E+ are the new ticket fare classes. Lowest service, lowest comfort, lowest price. Naaah. Just kiddng 🙂

    E is standard economy and E+ is economy plus, where E+ is usually a set number of rows on the front of economy section with a little more legroom and may be a tiny bit more recline.
    Exonomy plus is named differently by different airlines.

  20. Travis,
    This is not directly related to the post–more of a traveling with kids question–my wife and I and our four kids will be transiting through HKG in a couple of weeks on CX, with 4 of us in business and 2 in economy. We’re wanting to visit one of the CX lounges in HK, but with only 4 out of six holding business class seats (and no other OW status) do you think they will let the whole family in anyway, or just allow the four of us to enter? Do you have any tips on getting the whole family into the lounge even when it’s not technically allowed? Thanks for your thoughts!

  21. I use (and agree with) your logic when deciding on seats. However, most E cabins on planes I fly have four center seats. As such, I would just choose that entire row and the two kids can easily fit (sleeping) next to each other in the two middle seats, while their mother and I hold the ends.

  22. Do back row seats usually not recline? If so, isn’t that a serious downside that needs to be weighed against the chance that you’ll get the empty in your row?

  23. Another trick is to pick a whole row (at the back) A & C, D & F on a single aisle plane. In the event that there are people in B and E, have E sit in A and then the family can take C, D, E, F.

  24. @Jason
    I can only speak about Delta planes. All CRJ (200/700/900) have no recline in last row. The new 737-900 has very limited recline in first class last row
    The is pretty good putting red color on non recline seats

  25. Jason — I believe that the back row of most of United’s planes have some, though maybe limited, recline. I don’t have much experience, as I’m almost always aiming for the back row of E+ where they obviously do recline (unless it’s in front of an exit row).

    Yes, there are definitely downside risks that need to be factored in. Sitting next to the lavs could also be considered a bug of this strategy, for example. (Others may say it’s a feature!) I think the back of the plane is also a bit nosier — but my kids sleep better with white noise, so again, that could be a feature for some…. 😉

  26. John —

    1. You should check your guest privilege policy for the lounge. It is quite possible that you are entitled to one guest, which means that the 4 people who have access can each have one guest, and you’re all covered.

    2. If you don’t have guest privileges, it could come down to the age of the kids. If they are young, I think there’s a good chance they just wave you through. If they are teenagers, they may make an issue of it. My suggestion in the latter case would to be polite, but try to explain that it’s your family, and hope for the best.

    Sorry to not be more help, but the guest policy usually varies — even for the same lounge — depending on the type of credentials you are using to gain entry. For example, if I access a lounge using my Star Alliance Gold credentials, I’m always entitled to a guest (or 2, can’t remember). But if I come in as a business class passenger (no status), I may not get guest privileges.

  27. Oh, so you’re that parent who figures your child kicking the setback in front of them is just how kids are.

  28. Great post. Enjoyable, thought provoking, and useful.

    Do you have any thoughts on what a solo traveler can do to improve the chance of an empty seat next to him?

  29. AKTCHI — Just about everything in this post applies to the solo traveler as well. If you take an aisle in the back of the center section of E+, most likely another solo traveler will take the aisle on the other end of your row. And then if the theory holds, the middle between the two of you will remain open such that the two of you can share it / split it as you see fit.

  30. I like the new guest writer! My husband and I are expecting our first in May, which does change our travel style a bit. 😉 I’m already a big fan of Mommy Points but I appreciate more voices being added to the conversation in terms of family travel with or without awards.

    Thanks to you both!

  31. Travis – this is a great post but it should be clarified that it is targeted towards those who have free access to E+ (starting with love Silvers at least). It wasn’t all too clear to me until I read through most of the commenys. Statusless customers can’t nilly willy choose seats in E+. It used to be that at T-24 they could pick some preferred seats like exit row, etc on Continental but after the merger it has long been gone. If one doesn’t choose back of the plane bathroom seats when they are still available at booking, with full planes folks might not be even together at check-in, less so strategizing on snagging a rate middle seat, be it E+ or E-.

  32. Excellent analysis!! I just booked a flight last night with the first row of E-. I will change my seats to the back as soon as I finish this comment!!

  33. Yana — I actually think it applies to all passengers. I specifically recommend selecting the last row of whichever section you are eligible for. And as some readers have commented, the E+ seats on AA and DL often fill before E-, so for those carriers you might even say this is targetted at those in E-.

    As for sitting next to the lavs — yep, that’s a risk. But you can also end up next to the lavs in the front of E+ on certain aircraft. Honestly, I’ll sit next to the lavs if I can get an empty seat next to me, but that’s just me.

  34. Great write up. I am employing your strategy now, traveling for a family of 3. On an A320 (seats 3-3 in economy), I booked 16CDF all in one row. To my surprised, someone booked 16A and 16B, as 15DEF are open.. So, do I keep seat 16C in that row, or moved to seat 15D in front of 16D and 16F?

  35. What about the aisle seat in the first 3 person row, (row 21) after a 2 person row? Is this a bad seat as there is no tray table to put down? Does the tray table come out of the arm rest, and the video screen is on a movable arm?

  36. Hello

    This is a great write up, but as one who has as of July 2015 98k domestic airline miles in 6 months, I can tell you this entire concept depends more on where you fly out of… and if you are traveling with a female partner, what she looks like.

    Let me explain
    First, all my business flights are usually medium to long haul domestic and originate out of LAX. I never do connecting flights and my destinations are typically NY, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle. As a reference I have done NY twice in 10 days, with San Francisco in between. My Airlines are Virgin, AA and JetBlue. EVERY AA flight this year has been overbooked. I have seen mutiny at LAX and at ORD over people being bumped on every trip. Same is true for JetBlue and never have I seen it on Virgin. So the idea of empty middle seats is almost never an option, sans the rare Virgin over night flight. The problem is, I travel in and out of major airports in large markets… These planes are never not at capacity. It’s one thing to get this trick to work in a small market like Demver, DC or Austin, but in major markets as a solo passenger…. forget it.

    To my second point.
    I travel a lot on Virgin and SW to various small cities (SFO, PHX, Dallas, DEN, Aspen) with my girl. We have been doing this for three years and only twice in 19 trips has the aisle/window option worked… Both on SW, but those flights were late night/final flights and the planes were only at 50% capacity. Our strategy was simple: I take the aisle and she takes the window and we hope for the best…. It NEVER works. I am 6’2 and 210 pounds. She is 5’4 and 98 pounds of pure Dallas pride. We have seen men run down the aisle to sit in the middle seat…. No joke. Really running… Even to sit next to me… and I am not small. I get it. She is very attractive. So we tried a different approach.

    Social Enginerring
    IIf you know the plane is full… and you and your partner can make conversation, find a third person before you board. We usually approach a small young woman, and convince her, that we are the best option, or she may get the obese sweaty man… And let’s face it… That guy is on every flight. She always agrees and takes the window, my girl takes the middle and I get the aisle. Frankly, this has worked really well and beats the whole gaming the system for a possible empty middle seat, which is rare out of LAX and ensures us the best possible seat mate with the least amount of discomfort.

  37. Whiskers — Thanks for sharing your experience. You are right of course — if the plane is full, as in FULL, then it isn’t going to work.

    I love how you try to pick your seatmate in the boarding area. Brilliant.

  38. Great article – found it looking for some advice on an upcoming trip to Paris. My husband and I usually do the last row, window and isle which is fine because he likes the window and I like the isle. We are both big people so that middle seat is greater than gold for us on a long flight. We have a choice between 2 flights going out – one the 3,3 layout (3 seats each side, isle down the middle) or a 2,3,2 (two seats each side, 3 seats in the middle). The smaller flight leaves 2 hours later so I’m thinking that might be the way to go figuring most people want to get going ASAP but the other flight has more seats. What in your experience do you recommend? Also is Sunday considered a “slow” day to travel to Europe or should we try for Monday? I usually travel on Tues or Weds in hopes of that empty seat next to me.

  39. I’d just like to say that people who do the middle seat trick leaving only middles or the undesirable seats left should be shot, They are the worst travellers. It means that a couple such in your example would have to sit in two middles a row in front/behind each other cause of these idiots. They ruin everyone else’s experiences so they may hopefully have a nice flight themselves. Just selfish. If I am assigned between you idiots and you ask to swap, NO. Just sit the hell down and stfu. I will not swap. I will make your flight a miserable one just because you tried to pull this trick. I will make you never want to do it again and go out my way to ruin your flight experience. Maybe you should learn not to be selfish arseholes and ‘suffer’ as you would put it like the other 99% of economy, ok?

  40. Hi,

    I’m a first time taveller and will be traveling a long haul flight with my 2.5 yr old. I did book an aisle and a window.

    I did not understand E- and E+. It’s a flight with rows between 11 and 39. 3 seats each in left, center and right. My seat is in the 21th row right (aisle and window). Am I on the right track ?

  41. Looks good. If soneone still sits between you two, just ask person to switch with one of you. Im sure the person will be more than happy to move from the middle

  42. Hello @avinerd99. I’m guessing you are about 12 years old or less may be? The ‘I rather suffer myself just to show them!’ Isn’t nice to do. Lol.
    Noone wants to make other people’s travel miserable. We adults just trying to make things a little easier in this darn stressful life. The middle seat strategy is not to make other people to be miserable. If you end up between wife and housband they will ask you to switch with one of them. So you go from a middle seat to an isle or windows. Awesome! Everyone is happy they sit next to each other and you have a great seat.
    Dont worry. You will grow up soon and will understand. We still love you. Till than… Play with your trainset and watch big planes fly in the sky :-).

  43. @Penny~ the internet blogs are not a hotbed of correct English spelling or grammar, you must agree, so it’s pointless calling anyone out over a basic grammatical error!
    Also, you should realise that Americans have gone their own way with the English language, creating their own version which, while having no regard to the Queen’s English, is widely understood in North America.
    Have a nice day! 😉

  44. Last year when I visit Asia from SFO, my flight had many empty seats. It was a nice economy trip I ever had. I had business class like comfort in that flight.

    Is there a way to find out approx load of a flight?

    Of course weekday flights are good option. And non peak time is another good option. Any other suggestions.

    I was thinking of visiting the airport the prev day to see the load (I live very close to SFO, btw). I understand there is no guarantee, but still.

  45. we will be flying economy out from SFO to HKG but all the flight has left are the last four rows. (UA 869) So, how should I pick with the three seats on either side?We are family of four. Do I still do aisle and window in two rows? the middle seats are all gone.Thx

  46. This was so fun to read. We just flew ORD-NRT and back and used the ‘window’ strategy because our kids like the window, and I’ve always liked the ‘wall’ to lean against, but decided we’d abandon that with such super full flights both ways. I like this approach–we always book on either side of a middle, but I’d never given the amount of thought that you had. Thanks for laying it all out so logically!

  47. I hope I get that on Friday flying Dallas to London, there are only middle seats, E+ is completely full, I would gladly pay for an aisle on E+ but all reserved. There is only one E- aisle but they charge $80 for it even if standard size… thinking about paying for it (plus the ones at the very back which I don’t like for turbulence and closeness to restrooms, and also paid)

    I would greatly appreciate if anyone can point if it is likely an aisle either a paid E+ I could buy or a free E- becomes available 24 hours before or on the day of the flight, maybe at the counter on the first leg of the flight (connecting in DFW)? Or should I just bite pay for the last E- aisle? If that is likely the last chance to get aisle I would pay for it but does not feel good paying extra for a regular seat.

    Here’s an image of how the seats look like now

  48. And I mean I get that scenario so I can trade the middle for aisle for two people traveling together.

  49. @Willow It would be interesting to look at the premium cabin maps. Unless business is completely full, some E+ pax are likely to get upgraded and those seats will be up for grabs. In such situations an expertflyer seat alert is worth many times the annual subscription. Absent that, keep checking for any change in seat availability obsessively. Some of them are likely to become available. Good luck.

  50. Willow: My advice would be the same as AKTCHI — if there is space available in business / first, and there are pax on the upgrade list, there’s a good chance that some seats in E+ will open up. Keep an eye out, or set a seat alert.

    And agreed, it’s a real bummer that you have to pay just to select an aisle E- seat. FWIW, United only charges for E+ seats.

  51. Thanks AKTCHI and Travis for the advice (and double thanks for the post Travis, I got here looking for a solution to my situation but the technique of the post is terrific, as a family we travel 4 so we’ll apply the learning).

    Thank for the tip about expertflyer, I actually signed two days ago and I have set up an alert, got one but missed it!

    Business and first seem kind of full and

  52. Agreed that J looks tight, but space could increase by any upgrades to F. So I’d still pin my hopes on a few upgrades from E+ to J. Do keep a close watch. Good call on joining EF but I’d keep looking manually too. Good luck!

  53. Thanks for tips! Been checking obssesively today and about 25 hours before takeoff many many seats were freed, got an aisle where window is taken and middle seat is free so hopefully everyone will ditch it.
    Was airline just blocking seats (there are too many empty seats now, this is a screenshot and thr alert I got from expertflyer (beat by a couple of minutes but what a great tool). Maybe this info helps someone to MAYBE understand how AA manages seats…

    Seat Alert (“any aisle window”) for AA78 (Prem. Economy (Codeshares Only)) from DFW to LHR on 04/15/16 has located available seats: 25A, 25C, 25D, 25H, 25L, 26A, 26C, 26D, 26H, 26J, 26L, 27L, 28D, 28J, 29J, 29L, 34D, 34H, 35D, 35H, 36D, 36H, 37D, 37H, 39H.

  54. Very good strategy but on AA I’ve been told if the gate agent lets the computer auto-assign non-revs it will fill the seats aft-forward. Only if the gate agent manually assigns standbys would they fill forward-aft or exit rows/more desirable seats first,etc. I haven’t been able to confirm this. This applied to AA before the AA/US merger. Not sure if it has changed.

  55. Great comments by all. One thing to add is if traveling long distance is to find out what the exit is at the end of flight. If exiting front and rear you can score big time being in the rear. Many dont think the rear will exit and push for front. Especially the big boy planes. If you use these tricks above you might bd one of the first off but were last to board. Everyone is thinking customs over the exit. Also, most of the big planes have service starting from the rear so you score that way as well. Good luck!

  56. Thanks so much for your articles — I’m pouring through them! I’ll be traveling with my 14 month old solo from BCN-AMS-LAX as a lap child. Any insights for how to score 1 (or even 2) open seats next to us?

    Many thanks!

  57. This post reminds me of my last flight where somehow a family of 3 including a 7 year old child was given three middles in different rows. Would this have happened if other travellers had not tried the “book aisle and window hoping for empty middle” strategy?

    The father of the family got the middle next to me and (aggressively) asked me to swap so that one of them could sit next to him. I get panic attacks if I don’t have the aisle next to me so I politely declined. He spitefully spent the rest of the flight deliberately infringing into my personal space.

    Travis, I am glad the strategy worked for you but would like to ask what you would have done had someone taken that middle seat. Would you have swapped with them? If you didn’t, was your preschooler ok seated one seat away from you?

  58. I am flying alone a lot, and I am often lucky and get a free seat next to me.
    I just realized that I have instinctively been right in choosing middle lane aisle seats in the back.
    I and my boyfriend are going to travel the world from next year and we are going to use your tip about booking with a seat between us, for sure!
    Thanks so much.

  59. Let’s say there are a few seats unoccupied on a busy flight. I arrive early for check-in and at the gate offer $100 for blocking an empty middle between me and my partner. Would that work?

  60. You clearly have not flow recently. The Denver to Tokyo flight in your example I happen to be on tonite and ALL the economy seats are taken. Gone are the days you could plan for an empty seat.

  61. SB — I’m looking at your DEN-NRT flight for 8/13/17. I count 16 empty seats in economy and 1 empty in business. I’m sorry you didn’t get one next to you.

  62. Travis, just wanted to say I used your technique for a friend. His flight went out with 4 empty E- seats. One of them was between 2 of his kids. Huzzah!

  63. Oh I hate it in those crowded cattle planes, when people are hovering over the empty seats. Just be happy you have a seat and show some consideration.

  64. Well explained thanks. Though I’ve been using that trick as well I’ve found it works pretty well throughout the plane when the config is 3/3. My preference when flying alone however, is a window seat, but being Gold with Lufthansa, 9 times out of 10 the one free seat on the plane is next to me. Don’t know why as there must be other Gold/senators on the flight as well, but I’m not complaining!

  65. Every airline every flight I go aisle seat in the last row. 100% empty seat if not full plane.

  66. Tried this strategy for a flight to Hawaii. Husband had aisle seat, I selected window seat. The guy assigned to the middle seat did not want to trade seats with either of us. Sat between us the whole way. He was traveling to the islands alone for a vacation. He actually was quite pleasant to visit with. My husband bought him a beer.

  67. @Elizabeth: Your story reminds me of one time when this strategy did not quite work for us: the guy in the middle seat had fear of flying and had specifically selected the middle seat. 🙂 However, the strategy has helped us 99% of the time. You improve your chances even further by choosing the rear of your cabin.

  68. This is exactly the strategy we have used for years, and boy did it NOT work on our last flight. For some reason the two rows in front of us has empty window and aisle seats, and yet the airline stuck a big shouter with BO in between us. There was no difference in seating class between us and the rows ahead. We gave him the aisle, but even so we had to keep switching when one of us got too uncomfortable sitting in half a seat. I had my very first airplane claustrophobic attack.

    The seats are too small. Period. The problem is due to airlines trying to make a profit at the expense of our comfort and safety. Passengers should not be pit against each other – the airlines should act responsibly.

  69. Err this was originally posted in 2015 – so why is the article dated 5/2019?

    “There’s no doubt that planes are very full these days …”
    Dang right, & def. more so in 2019 esp. with the super low fares to Asia @ sub $400 or less
    Chances of this “tip” working now is slim to almost zilch

  70. @Travis, I am like you and I also obsessively monitor the United app on open seats when flying. If you are still monitoring this post, I’m wondering what your recent experiences have been? I fly United and use the aisle/window strategy, taking the last row in E+, when I fly with my husband and it works maybe 30% of the time because the flights are just so durn full these days. I live in Hawaii. Even when there appears to be lots of empty seats even the day before a flight, there are so many standby passengers that the planes end up being 100% full much of the time. Especially on the HNL – SFO flights. Not quite as bad if flying through LAX.

    But what I’ve also noticed lately is that United has been filling the empties with NON-standby passengers – you can tell by keeping an eye out on the standby list. When the empties start filling up in the hour before takeoff but you don’t see the standby names being checked off – who are they filling the empties with? The first time I saw it happen, I assumed they were taking care of passengers from previous flights that may have been delayed or canceled, but it’s happened on the last several flights, so I don’t think that’s what it is. I’m wondering if it’s the basic economy class that United recently created – where you don’t get a seat assignment until you arrive at the gate, although even E+ empties are filling with people who are not on the standby list. Seems like a very inefficient process for United to have created, maybe they’ll change it back…at any rate, just wondering if you’ve noticed the same thing, with empties filling but not from standby?

    And you have been politely ignoring the couple of rude comments that have been made, but I have to say that I don’t feel particularly badly for standby folks who get seated apart from each other. They are flying for free!! I, on the other hand, who fly solo quite a bit, paid for my seat and made my reservations months in advance, specifically so I can get the exact seat that I prefer. They say it never hurts to ask, but I still am surprised when someone who is sitting in a middle seat asks me to switch with them from my prized aisle seat so they can sit next to a companion. We’re talking 5 – 6 hour flights here and no, I will not sit in the middle for that period of time and make myself uncomfortable, so that they can be more comfortable. Adding the caveat that I understand that sometimes people who had seats together on a previous flight end up separated because they got last-minute seating due to that previous flight being canceled or delayed. I am happy to switch, and have switched (on one flight, I switched TWICE) with others so they can sit together, as long as I am switching to a comparable seat.

    Thanks for the great and detailed writeup!

  71. Woodstock41:

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. As for E+ seats filling with non-standby pax. I would expect that this is a couple of factors. First, as you note, basic economy passengers don’t get seat assignments until check-in, and if E- is full, they are going to be assigned E+ seats by the computer– and they won’t show up on the cleared standby list. Also, Silvers only get to select E+ at check-in. So they can “move up” then, and often all will be available are middles.

    2. The strategy still works wonderfully for me. As a case in point, we recently flew United SFO-SIN with six of us in our party. The flight was very full, but not completely full. There ended up being 7 empty seats on the plane (according to the final seat map on the app), and 3 of them were the empty middles between the six of us. So we had “possession” of 3/7 of the empty seats on the plane. Coming back to the US, all 6 of us actually had our own bench in E+. I’ve never slept so well in economy!

    Now if the flight is 100% full, nobody is going to get an empty middle next to them. That should be obvious! But still, following this approach is going to give you the best *chances* of having that lone empty seat end up next to you. And that’s really the bottom line — if there’s one empty seat on the plane, I sure as hell would like to have it next to me!

  72. Interesting post. We actually flew delta from Alabama (Huntsville), stopping over in Atlanta, then onto SFO. I had 2 small children with me and we booked 1st class tickets all the way. It was the first time flying on Delta and likely the last. Firstly we were grounded on a hot tarmac in Hunstville for almost an hour while they tried to fix the air conditioning unit. Then they deplaned us, and then finally fixed the plane and let us aboard.

    For some reason, even though I had picked the seats when booking the tickets such that the kiddos and myself had aisle, aisle and window (3 seats all in a row in first class), by the time it came to check-in, suddenly our first class seats had changed such that each segment of the flight, they had randomly moved moved us so that one of the children was always several rows away.

    I’m not sure if it was because my children had a different last name as me, but I had booked all 3 seats at the same time, and yet these children (11 and under) were randomly moved to different rows.

    Booking first class with Delta didn’t guarantee the seats I had chosen remained the same and indeed, it was very difficult to have a young child sitting in different row (with another random adult) on the flight.

    I wrote to delta within a few days after we landed in SFO, and I have yet to hear a reply back from Delta. It’s now almost been 2 weeks since I messaged them to complain about
    1. sitting in a hot plane in a hot tarmac in Huntsville, Alabama
    2. delayed flight, and almost missing our connection in Atlanta airport
    3. how our first class seats were so randomly changed such that at least one of my children were expected to sit in a different row from me every flight segment

    I’m never flying Delta again.

  73. I personally hate this shit. It delays the boarding process to have to shuffle people around when the “book the aisle and the window” thing doesn’t work out, and it prevents people who had to book late from having much control over their destiny. I’d have rather been able to select that seat instead of having to shuffle around last minute on the plane. Book a seat you can live with and move on; don’t play these stupid games.

  74. CEO Gareth Evans runs a predatory organization designed to mislead and trap budget conscious customers. This company is the most morally bankrupt airline we have ever experienced throughout our over 30 years of international travels to almost every continent. Aside from the rude staff, uncomfortable seating and persistent flight delays due to “operational issues” (see more on this below), there are many more serious problems with this company.

    If you think you’re saving $100 on a flight, think again!
    This company will weigh your purse, lunch, duty free purchases, heck probably even your child as carry on luggage, right before you board a flight. They are trained to embarrass you in front of other passengers and force you to pay an exorbitant cost per kilogram for anything over 7 kilograms per person. They are intentionally quiet about this when you check in your bags and use the infamous ‘read the fine print’ line when they eventually collect from this scam. It is not uncommon to be forced to pay a $250.00 USD bill when the flight only cost $150.00 USD.

    It is daylight robbery and I cannot believe governments and airports allow this company to get away with this predatory behaviour. Jetstar is currently facing numerous lawsuits of passengers being told they cannot board a flight unless they pay these costs- that’s right, extortion. They claim it is a ‘safety issue,’ and in some cases, they have trained their staff to call the police to block them from boarding if customers are being “non- compliant.” One case involving an international customer involved racism against an asian pregnant woman. CEO Gareth Evans was directly made aware of this and did not even respond to numerous emails and letters. This is telling of his dictator leadership style and speaks to the corporate culture of this airline.

    The response cited the companies privacy policy and claimed they would ‘look into it’ with no follow up. Discrimination against minorities and workplace harassment is rampant under Gareth Evans leadership and in the year 2019, he should be held accountable for his actions. It would be interesting to see the extent to which political contributions have allowed this company to get away with these practices.

    Their customer service line is intentionally understaffed and outsourced in the Philipines with no ability to speak to anyone of importance at the company. They use this as a shield from the plethora of complaints they receive on a daily basis. The responses are generic copy and paste responses promising they will look into it with no follow-up. It has been systematically designed to remove accountability of the management team and employees who are trained to treat customers this way. Staff are underpaid and are treated poorly, but they are a large employer in Australia so they receive leniency from lawmakers.

    Jetstar needs to be stopped and Gareth Evans has to go. Until then it is BUYER BEWARE!

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