Extra Legroom Seat Vs. Empty Middle Seat: Which Do You Prefer?

Filed Under: Travel

I have extremely good luck with upgrades. That’s largely a function of putting a lot of effort into choosing which flights I take. I’ve never missed an international upgrade, and can count on one hand the number of domestic upgrades I’ve missed on American over the past couple of years.

But like I said, that’s not a coincidence, and won’t necessarily reflect the average person’s experience. When I book a flight I’m always trying to book during off peak times, and always carefully compare the number of “premium” seats taken in economy (since those are potentially filled by other elite members vying for an upgrade), as well as the number of first class seats already occupied. The lower those numbers, the better!

Well, today is my unlucky day. I’m taking two flights on American, and I missed my upgrade on both of them. In fairness I also didn’t think I’d get the upgrade when I booked. But I actually had a specific time I needed to fly, which limited my options. And economy certainly isn’t a big deal, especially on American, where you get a free drink and snack as an Executive Platinum member.


Sitting in economy has got me thinking — do you prefer an exit row/extra legroom seat, or a regular seat with an empty middle?

I was presented with this option on my second flight. There was a standard economy seat with an empty middle which I could have selected (the gate agent suggested it would probably stay empty), or I could have chosen an exit row seat with virtually unlimited legroom. And I was torn as to which to pick:

  • On one hand I’d rather have more elbow room than more legroom, since I find it easier to work if I don’t have someone seated right next to me
  • On the other hand, it’s sort of difficult to even open a laptop in a standard economy seat when the seat in front of you is reclined

I still think I prefer a standard seat with an empty middle, since I have an extra tray table on which I can put things, and more space under the center seat to store things. But to sort of counteract that, the challenge is that an empty middle seat could always fill up last minute, especially with how full flights are nowadays. With the number of standby passengers there are, almost every flight feels like it goes out with every seat occupied.

So I guess I’d take a guaranteed empty middle seat over a guaranteed exit row seat, but I’d take a guaranteed exit row seat over a shot at an empty middle seat, if that makes sense.

I’m curious how you guys feel. Below is a poll where you can vote on your preference, though feel free to share your strategy in the comments below!

[poll id=”75″]

  1. The choice is largely informed by the height of the traveler. 6 feet and taller, take the extra leg room. Under 6 feet, take the lateral space.

  2. i’m 6’3″ so on a domestic flight i’ll take the extra legroom. but on any flight over 6 hours, i prefer an empty middle seat. i just can’t nap/sleep sitting straight up, i need to turn on my side. honestly, this is the biggest reason why i got into the points/miles game. after years of sleepless int’l flights in Y, i couldn’t do it anymore.

  3. Guaranteed extra leg room seat over uncertain empty middle. But if both were guaranteed, it would depend how long of a connection I have. Long connection – no preference. Short connection – front of plane so extra leg room seat.

  4. even at 6’3 i want a dead seat next to me rather than more leg room on domestic flights..I sometimes ‘pre-warn’ the person in front of me by using my knees to ‘declare’ my legs are already in there back…’So dont even think of reclining that seat”

  5. For me, I always go for an empty middle seat! Remember in European regional flights business class is the same as economy; except the middle seat is empty! 😉

  6. I tend to agree with you. I think I would prefer an empty middle seat in a standard seat over an extra legroom seat with someone in the middle seat.

    Having a middle seat empty next to you gives you more opportunities to find a comfortable position in my opinion, rather than just having the option to extend your legs more.

  7. I’m short. So I don’t need a lot of legroom. An empty seat next to me though makes me feel less cramped and like I can spread out a little.

  8. @ Patrick Smith

    Why not politely ask the person in front of you not to recline so much? You will probably get a better response than jamming your knees into their seat. I usually recline about 1-1.5 inches mostly because the person in front of me slams back their seat to maximum. Anyone using their knees as a “pre-warning” would simply irritate me even more so that I end up reclining much more than an inch or so.

  9. I am a bigger, taller guy with broad shoulders. I will take the empty middle seat every day of the week over the extra legroom. It’s not even a close call, really. I can “manspread” into the empty middle seat space if I need extra legroom. The extra shoulder space is really nice too. That is where you really end up feeling crammed in like a sardine.

  10. I guess I am in the minority, as I’ll take the extra legroom every time (I am 6’1″)

    This past weekend on my way to DC from Boston on US Air, I got what I considered to be the unicorn of Economy legroom. The night before my flight I was able to change my seat from a middle economy seat to an exit row aisle seat. I didn’t notice that much legroom, but then as they shut the door after everyone boarded, I noticed that there was no one else in my exit row. Even better the FA came around and told me that there was no one else in my row, so I can move over to the window seat which had no seat in front of it! As a main economy flyer with no status, that was by far the most relaxing flight I’ve ever had.

    If I’m in economy with that choice, give me the legroom every time…

  11. Not having someone rubbing elbows with me is priceless!!! And I can make it up for the lack of legroom by spreading my legs into the empty seat space.

  12. Oh, totally take the empty middle seat! My mom and I flew JFK-LAX on Delta and got Econ. Comfort with no middle passenger. Given the fact that it’s not the world’s most comfortable configuration anyway, especially JFK-LAX, this was the way to go.

  13. I’m a petite female, which means (a) I don’t really need the extra legroom, and (b) I seem to always lose the armrest battle to my seatmate, so I’ll take the empty middle seat all day, every day.

  14. Empty middle seat wins hands down for me, as long as I have an aisle coach seat. My AA upgrade record has been almost 100% on multi-cabin revenue flights, even overseas with eVIPs. But on award flights booked in coach, aisle seat is 1st priority, empty middle seat 2nd, extra leg room 3rd. On half my flights in coach (very rare when not on RJs) I’ve had all three. And on all my UA overseas flights this year and last I’ve had E+ with an empty middle seat on 777s, when not upgrading. Though biz seats on the pmUA are so bad, I prefer to stay in E+ with that empty seat next to me!

  15. I’m 6′ and I prefer the ordinary legroom available in Y on US3 carriers. It’s a nice cozy fit between my knees and the seat in front of me, as long as I keep my legs at an angle. Sitting straight up, my knees press hard against the seat in front of me, but I don’t do that; Y is for sleeping and people who try to work or eat in Y deserve the orthopedic problems they’re courting.

    So I can use knees on the seat in front of me to keep from sliding forward in Y because it’s such a perfect fit. Then I push the seat back to full recline the second the wheels leave the ground. It’s staying there until the stewardess comes by to tap me on the shoulder before landing. If I have a filled middle, I’m sleeping with my head against the window, wedging my butt against the arm rest trying to get enough angle to rest well. But without a middle I can alternate sleeping both ways which is much better for you and I can slip into the middle seat with a raised arm rest to get a better sleeping angle against the window.

    So extra leg room is worthless but an empty middle is a godsend.

    I’d pay real money to get submarine style stacked berths and those berths are denser on subs and trains than even the tightest airplane Y seats so the airline would be able to take more passengers. Aside from the risk of making Y even better than J I don’t understand why no airline is offering such a simple delight. Regular Y seats are some kind of torture devices to make sleeping — the only thing you should be doing in Y — harder.

    As for the horrible idea Lucky mentions of using his laptop in Y, what crazed obsession drives people to do that? If you really have valuable work to do, you can afford to pay for J. If you’re so obsessed that you need intravenous internet 24/7 to live, see a psychiatrist.

  16. Extra legroom every time. I’m only 5′ 9″ but my knees still brush the back of the seat in front of me.

  17. I am 6 feet and i prefer the empty middle seat, theoretically. The problem is that its almost impossible to guarantee the empty middle seat, while an exit row seat has guaranteed legroom. Ocasionally, i will choose an exit row, and if i see a lot of empty rows in the back i will move after the boarding door has closed.

  18. I’ll almost always go for the empty seat.

    Here’s my reasoning. I’m a big guy…6’2″, 300lbs. By rights, the legroom ought to be important. But, truth is, I have short legs (30″ inseam) and very broad shoulders (even when I was running marathons, I wore a 48 coat), so the legroom doesn’t do much for me, but the shoulder room is heaven sent.

    With exit and bulkhead seats, often the tray table is in the arm, which means I’m shoving my not inconsequential width into an even narrower seat. Now, before you go imagining Jabba the Hutt, keep in mind that I don’t use a belt extender (except on Mesa CRJ200s). It’s just that my hip bones rub on the armrests on those narrow bulkhead seats.

  19. I prefer an exit row because I’m guaranteed not to have someone reclining into my space! This usually gives me enough room to use my tray table and keep my laptop on my lap.

  20. No contest, extra legroom everytime! (I’m 6ft but fairly long legs)

    I remember with bmi you’d get automatic seat block next to you as Gold, was fantastic for those short domestic flights where it’s only an hour of flying and you want to be at the front of the plane.

  21. 6’2″ and empty middle seat. If I were just an inch or two taller I might have to reconsider depending on the legroom. Plus it depends on who is sitting next to me, of course. I’d probably take the legroom if a new a tiny person was going to be in the middle seat.

  22. “So I guess I’d take a guaranteed empty middle seat over a guaranteed exit row seat, but I’d take a guaranteed exit row seat over a shot at an empty middle seat, if that makes sense.”

    Agree with this.

  23. 6’5″ and extra legroom all the way. I hate hate hate Euro business class on BA, LH, KLM, AF etc. I think it is absurd they can’t make two rows of the plane have more than 30″ of pitch.

  24. Empty middle, for sure – because not only do you get the extra shoulder room, but you effectively have more legroom, too, as you can angle your legs somewhat under the middle seat, which helps a bunch.

  25. Definitely leg room for me. Even though I am short, I suffer from a mild case of claustrophobia. When someone reclines, they always risk my getting sick, not fun for anyone around me.

  26. Empty middle seat, definitely. If you want extra legroom you just have to put your other leg under the middle seat and put the armrest up.

  27. @ NRTBound: I let the person in the middle seat have the armrest. If YOU are in the middle, then it sucks to lose the armrest.

  28. LEGROOM! 99% of the time I’ll get an aisle seat, so I already have some elbow room to spare. Legroom also makes it somewhat easier for me to find ways to sleep.

  29. I ALWAYS take extra legroom. I am 6’5″, 230, and I run about ten marathons and longer races each year. No way I want to face hours of leg cramps in a typical Y seat.

  30. Depends on the plane layout to a certain extent (e.g. 777 with 3-4-3 seating, 3-3-3 seating in the 787 are WAY too narrow) but generally extra width, particularly long haul.

  31. If I get an upgrade? Well, then I am lucky. If I don’t? I pay for a domestic first if the flight is longer than three hours, which guarantees me both.

  32. Extra legroom 100% of the time. I’m 6′ 2″ and 230lbs. In fact as a DM silver over the past two years I have always sat exit row. An added benefit of extra space is that you can sit window and not have to climb over people to get out.

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