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How to get the best seats on a plane

If you’re looking for some sneaky ways to get the best seats on the plane – like a row to yourself, the bulk head seats or most certainly how to avoid the dreaded middle seat without paying extra, here are my top tips:

I took this photo on a flight in the US. I mean reallllly??

How to nab a row of three seats for two of you:

Select your seats when you buy your tickets.
I fly Air New Zealand mostly, being Auckland based, and they allow you to select your seats when you book. This is essential for having the first chance at good Economy Class seats.

There are some seats you can select for a fee, which you may decide is worth it, but there are plenty of good ones you can get without paying anything extra.

Just yesterday my husband and I flew back from Los Angeles to Auckland and I was able to see a view of the plane seats on the Air NZ app and chose a window and an aisle leaving the middle seat between us empty. My hope, and it paid off, was that if the flight was not full no sensible person would choose to sit in the middle seat. They didn’t!

Air NZ 777
A great pic of the Air NZ 777 showing the 2-3-2 configuration at the back of the plane. Pic by PhillipC on Flickr

Tip: Check out the websiteSeat Guru which has every plane and model number loaded with a little map so you see which rows the bulk heads are in, whether it’s a nasty 4x4x4 configuration or whether the back row has less.

But knowledge is not power when it comes to getting the best seats on a flight, you need a few other tricks up your sleeve too. It helps if you can bandy around a Gold or Elite airpoints card – and in that case you can probably use that Seat Guru link above and then go and reserve those seats for no extra fee given your lofty status.

But here some more tips for getting a good seat on for the rest of us:

Check in online as soon as the window for online check in opens. I came up against this recently when I checked in at the airport 3 hours before my long haul flight on Singapore Airlines only to find that ALL the windows and aisles had been taken by the internet bookers.

Make sure you set an alert for yourself for the date and the MINUTE online check in opens for your flight so you don’t get a dreaded middle seat!

These days I even check in online on my way to the airport (which is particularly good for domestic flights when one is running late!) I figure the plane won’t take off without me as I have my boarding pass on my phone.

If I have no checked in luggage I can just arrive at the game at the time of boarding and flash the email on my phone or use the airline app which I might also have. Most airport boarding kiosks can read the barcodes straight off your phone.

This is why you want a window seat when you land on a beautiful New Zealand morning!

If you have not managed to score a good seat with the above methods, try this:

At the check-in counter, get there nice and early and in your sweetest voice (with a plastic smile) ask how full the flight is. If the reply is, “it’s chocka, we’re 10 people overbooked,” then go straight to Plan C. If the reply is, “not too bad,” then try this:

Plan B1: if there’s two of you travelling together, ask for the window and aisle (in a row of 3) like I did above online, and ask if they would block out the middle seat.

If the assistant is nice they will understand what you’re doing and be fine with it, or they may be like the check in assistant in LA and tell me I’d have to pay for it.

But the chances of a solo traveller booking the seat between you is remote. But if the worse case scenario happens and you wait, eagle-eyed watching the passengers inching down the aisle to see if they’re looking for your number and they say, “excuse me that’s my seat,” then you can always kindly offer them either the window or aisle if you want to sit next to your flying companion. If you don’t want to give up your seats, you can just spend the flight talking across the stranger.

Plan B2: This is a good one, especially if you’re travelling alone and a row is not a goer. Ask for a bulk head seats or exit row seat. This gives you ample leg room (on most planes*) although no magazine rack for your water bottle and “stuff”.

You can, of course, get your bag out of the overhead locker after take off and use it as a foot rest as well as delve in and out of it all flight. Usually you have to pay extra for these seats, but on a flight up to LA a couple of weeks ago we managed this row for no charge, just by being nice.

Singapore Airlines exit row
The coveted exit row on Singapore Airlines

Plan C: The last couple of rows on the 777 (the one that Air New Zealand flies to Los Angeles) is a 2-4-2 configuration (instead of the usual 3-4-3).

At check-in, ask whether the back of the plane has smaller rows and go back there to a 2 seat row where there is a little more room. Admittedly you’re right beside the toilets, but I’ve never found people to be terribly noisy here. (That might be because of my sleeping tablet and red wine routine).

Another upside to booking down the back is that if there is an overflow of empty seats you’ll find them down there and you may, if you’re as lucky as me on my Singapore Airlines flight to Istanbul, get a whole row to yourself to lie on.

And the tip for getting a whole row to yourself is to bolt out of your seat the SECOND the seatbelt sign goes off and grab it 😀

Let me know your tips in the comments!

You might like my post on the merits of using packing cells. They’ve been a game changer for me, and here are 7 reasons why >>

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Rebecca Phillips

Sunday 14th of July 2019

We were on an Airbus 380 on Qantas from London to Singapore in bulkhead seats that we got for free because we arrived early at the airport and we asked nicely so that was winner for us (hubbie is an experienced traveller so he knew how the game was played!) Upon boarding and taking our bulkhead seats, I was excited that there was also a free seat beside me. That was until they announced that boarding was complete and then a young man came briskly up the aisle and sat himself down in the free seat (prior to takeoff). He had obviously spied the free seat as he boarded and was keeping an eye on it. No-one made him go back to his allocated seat for takeoff so he had the seat for the entire flight. Worth being confident and a little cheeky obviously! So that's maybe another idea to try for a better seat as a Plan D.


Sunday 14th of July 2019

Ha! Love it. Sucks for you, but good job him :D

Heather Harrison

Saturday 29th of June 2019

Air NZ has stopped the app checkin and you have to check in at the kiosk now.


Sunday 30th of June 2019

But you can still do your seat select when you book your ticket, or even go into your booking and change it (to a free or paid seat) to try and get the window and aisle.


Saturday 29th of June 2019

I tried the booking window and aisle trick recently... quite random as we bumped into a cousin who was on the same flight and she scored the seat across the aisle. As we were watching passengers board a guy comes along and he had the ticket for the middle seat. Our cousin swapped with him. Trick didnt got plan but good result with cousin sitting between us....felt relieved I didnt have to sit next to the dude too...


Saturday 29th of June 2019

Ahahahaha, and I bet he was thrilled too :D

Wendy shaw

Friday 11th of January 2019

Hi , does the 2 seats at back of plane 58 a and b have windows please and leg rest , and power with tv , Thankyou


Friday 11th of January 2019

Hi Wendy, that's why I've posted the link to Seat Guru so you can check! You'll need to know the aircraft type.


Wednesday 26th of September 2018

Will try to get a better seat in future

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!