As an airline pilot, I feel your middle seat pain – trust me. I’m a frequent passenger, especially on my almost weekly Washington DC to New York commute.
Over the years and thousands of flights I’ve taken as a passenger, I’ve discovered the tricks and loopholes it takes to avoid middle seats – well, most of the time.
And as an airline pilot, I’m also familiar with the quick-pace operation of airline flying and opportunities it provides to improve your middle seat situation.
So here are the 10 best ways to avoid the middle seat on your next flight.
- Book your flight early
- Pick a better airline
- Watch where you buy your ticket
- Avoid basic economy
- Check in early for your flight
- Upgrade your seat (for cheap)
- Check the seat map often in the last 24 hours
- Ask an agent
- Wait it out
- Politely ask a flight attendant
1) Book your flight as far ahead as possible
Sure, it doesn’t take an airline pilot to figure that you’ll have a much better chance of finding a window or aisle seat the longer ahead you book your flight.
But just how far ahead should you book your next flight?
I’d recommend as far ahead as possible – it really doesn’t take long for aisle and window seats to fill up.
If you think about it, economy seats usually comprise about 80% of the seats on a plane on the upper end. Of those, only about 60% are available at the fare classes that allow you to pick your seat. And furthermore, only 66% of those are not middle seats on the average airline jet. If you do the math, that leaves just about a third of seats left to select a good seat – or a 67% chance of getting a middle seat.
The best remedy? Book ahead. You can book as far as 330 days ahead.
An even greater benefit is that the fares are almost always cheapest far ahead.
Put more briefly;
- Book as far ahead as possible (up to 330 days) for best seat availability
- When you do the math, your chances of getting a window or aisle seat in economy are less than 33%
2) Pick an airline and airplane that has less middle seats
Did you know there are airline jets without middle seats, and some with less middle seats than others?
For example, Delta Air Lines is the only airline in the USA with (a large fleet of) the brand new Airbus A220 – the most comfortable narrow body passenger jet ever produced.
Because of its favorable 2-3 layout, the A220 has the widest economy seats you’ll find on any airplane. And of course, half the middle seats in economy of a typical airliner.
Regional jets, such as the Bombardier CRJ700/900 and Embraer 170/175 also feature a 2-2 layout in economy. However, these jets are smaller and don’t have as many creature comforts as larger mainline jets like the Airbus A220. These are flown by Delta, United, and American regional (subcontract) airlines.
Put more briefly;
- Book on an airline with less middle seats
- Delta Air Lines is the only major airline with the most comfortable airliner – the Airbus A220, with a 2-3 configuration in economy
- Regional Jets offer a 2-2 configuration but often with less creature comforts than mainline jets
3) Purchase your ticket directly from the airline
Why should you book your flight directly with the airline?
Often times, third party providers charge extra to allow you to choose your seat, whereas booking with the airline allows you to choose without a fee – or with a significantly smaller fee.
Additionally, it’s often advisable to buy with the airline as it will make your life much easier in the event you need to change or cancel your ticket.
I’ve bought enough tickets with third party providers to realize that it’s almost never worth the savings. When it comes to requesting a refund or flight change, you’ll be stuck in a never-ending coin toss with the airline and third party each stating that they cannot help you and you have to contact the other one.
You should book directly with the airline because:
- You may avoid seat selection costs
- It’s much easier to change your flight or request a refund
- You will likely have options to earn more miles
4) Avoid booking the cheapest ticket – basic economy, but if you do, keep reading for more steps to avoid the discomfort
Why shouldn’t you book basic economy?
Basic economy, the cheapest fare, doesn’t allow for seat selection ahead of time. This means you’ll be seated in whatever is left at the end; probably a middle seat.
Some airlines offer an extra paid option to select your seat, but this usually pushes the price closer to a normal economy ticket fare – which typically includes a checked in bag and additional miles accrual.
In the end, it’s often worth it to book one level up from basic economy.
You should avoid basic economy because:
- You can end up in a middle seat
- The fees for seat selection and checking in bags often outweigh the benefit
If you do decide to book basic economy, you definitely need to keep reading.
5) Check-in (online) as early as possible
When should you check in for a flight?
With few exceptions, as early as possible.
The first step is finding out how early you can check in for your flight online. Airlines usually offer check-in 24 hours ahead but some offer it as early as 72 hours prior.
Airlines typically “free up” additional previously locked seats at check-in. These may include bulkhead, emergency exit, and flight attendant rest seats. Make sure to grab one before anyone else does.
Note: You may have to click on “select seat” during the check-in process.
Checking in for your flight early is good because:
- You will have the most availability for seat selection, including upgrades if desired
- If flying in basic economy, this puts you first in line for the remaining seats
6) Spring for a cheap upgrade into an emergency exit row non-middle seat
Often times, an upgrade to a higher-class fare isn’t necessary. There are “premium” or more favorable seats at low cost available after check-in.
Sometimes the cost to upgrade is as cheap as $12. Definitely worth it for those longer flights.
You can also sometimes grab an upgrade using miles for as low as 500 miles with some airlines. I’d definitely do that to avoid a middle seat.
Reasons to bid for an upgrade include:
- Getting out of a middle seat
- The cost can be as low as 500 miles
- Additional mileage accrual and a much more comfortable flight
- Often times cheaper than buying the flight in the first place
7) Monitor your booking often for newly freed up seats, especially within 24 hours of departure
The last 24 hours before departure is usually the time when people make last-minute changes. This includes seat changes, flight changes, upgrades, and more. Seats frequently open up during this period.
If I’m desperate to get out of the middle seat, I’ll check periodically my booking the day before the flight.
To do this, you can either go to “My Booking” and “Select Seats”, which is the easier way, or you can restart the online check-in process.
This has probably been the best method I’ve used to get out of a middle seat.
In other words:
- If you are in a middle seat or a less desirable seat, make sure to check seat availability periodically in the 24 hours prior to the flight
8) Ask the ticket counter and/or gate agent to get out of a middle seat
You may have some luck with ticket counter agents as they have more flexibility during the check-in process than you do online. This is also the time when families and couples often ask to be seated together, freeing up some last minute aisle and window seats.
If this doesn’t amount to anything, the gate agent may be able to help – but make sure to ask as nicely and patiently as possible. Understand that they are extremely busy dealing with ground operations, wheelchairs, seats, gate keeping, pilots, flight attendants, and more. They have no requirement or need to help you out of a middle seat.
You can also head to the nearest airline service desk (for the airline you’re flying) as those workers tend to be less inundated.
So how can you change your seat last minute?
- Asking the ticket counter agent can work because of last-minute changes
- The gate agents can sometimes offer help, but they’re usually very busy. Ask nicely.
- Airline service desks are a great place to ask for help.
9) Be willing to wait until the end in case there are no-shows
Sometimes it pays to let the gate agent know that you are willing to wait and see if a non-middle seat frees up.
Often times there will be “misconnects” or “potential misconnections” – people arriving from connecting flights that are running late or delayed. Because they are likely to miss their flights, gate agents receive advance notice in order to improve flexibility with last minute changes.
Most boarding passes have a statement like “gate closes 10 minutes prior to boarding”. The amount of time may vary, but this is typically the time where seats are opened up due to misconnects and people running late.
This may require waiting patiently at the gate – and overhead bins may fill up. In this case, your bag would be gate-checked to your final destination.
If you are doing this, ask the gate agent first if it’s possible, and make sure to wait in the gate area.
- People missing their flight may free up more optimal seats
- Wait near the gate area and make sure to let the gate agent know you are willing to wait for a better seat
- Know that the overhead bins are likely to fill up, meaning you’ll have to check in your bag
10) Ask a flight attendant to switch seats
Towards the end of boarding, flight attendants may be able to help you find an open seat.
Their willingness to help obviously depends on how busy they are – and how nicely you ask them.
If you’re lucky, they may be able to seat you in an emergency exit row where you will have extra legroom – for free!
I would only use this as a last-ditch method. It pays to wait until cruise or at least when boarding is complete to check out if there are any non-middle seats before asking.
What to know before asking a flight attendant to change seats:
- They are likely very busy during the boarding process
- Don’t ask until everyone is boarded – and perhaps even until cruise
- They may be able to seat you in a better seat – such as an emergency exit row